Whilst I was at theological college I was part of a prayer triplet where two other students, Adam an Irish guy from the Church in Wales who (like me) was under thirty and because of some weird rules we both had to serve three years at theological college, the other guy was called Simon Cartwright who was a brainy fella and was trying to work towards starting a PHD and so did an extra (third) year at college too, these two guys and I f would meet, catch, eat together and pray each week at college.
Having a couple of friends where you commit to holding one another in prayer, encouragement and accountability helped me though my time at college.
Yet in the years after college we continued to meet up three or four times a years and followed each-others journeys.
Adam went off to work at a Church in Swansea called St. Peter’s Cockett (and was rather annoyed that kids kept nicking the ‘ett’ from the Church banner at Soul Survivor) before leading a group of rural Churches in Ireland and now Chairs the Church of Ireland committee on mission (and became my daughters Godfather).
Simon was a very gifted academic writing a PHD which had these verses from Jeremiah (a letter to a people in exile) at its heart: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” –a challenge to the Jews who wanted to be in Jerusalem rather than Babylon; yet God is calling his people to make themselves at home, become established and be a blessing in a land and a context they would not have chosen.
I had visited Simon’s a couple of times, he had a heart is to live and serve in deprived multi-racial urban contexts, serving first in Ward End in Birmingham before moving to Normanton in Derby, areas people might not ordinarily have chosen to live.
Whilst at college I did a placement in a deprived part of Derby called “New Zealand” but they would say: “At least we don’t live in Normanton!”
Within both these cities many people feel something of an exile experience having fled their homes as refugees. Also within the Church we often feel like we are in exile, we are not yet ‘at home’ in heaven and are trying to live on the tight-rope of being ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world knowing that in the words of St. Paul we are aliens that do not belong here, yet we are also called to be ambassadors of a different Kingdom and like Christ to pitch our tents, tabernacle, amongst those God has called us to. We are not called to live amongst people with a superior isolationist attitude, but ‘live deeply’, love and serve the people around us, with the promise that as we bless God will also bless us.
I had seen Simon work in Birmingham restoring an old redundant Church, St. Margaret’s, into a community building with a prayer boiler room at its heart; and here in Normanton in Derby they are seeking to develop another Church that was formerly declared redundant. Simon and his team are converting the Church into something that feels a little like a modern monastery, it is very much a work in progress with screens painted by local children covering the unfinished bits of the development.
A Church that physically looked like a work in progress but in the midst of the building work were still giving out school uniforms, feeding hungry children and involved in all sorts of community action –how many Churches use the excuse of building work to take their foot of the mission accelerator?
At the heart of the Church a large dining room table with chairs around it, to eat, share, do life and receive the sacraments together, and is developing a new community that is sacramental, prayerful and practical –committed to finding ways to love and serve Christ through their service in the local area.
The developing community is called, the society of St Thomas –the doubting disciple who went on and saw many people finding faith through his faithful ministry in India- which I thought again was another great picture of maybe we do not have all our questions answered and understand everything before we can be used by God to bless and impact his world.
This little Church is rather like Simon deeply relational, buzzing with prayer and social action. Simon’s post here in Derby is called “a community missioner” but he has found his own unique style and flavour (I find it odd that we talk of pioneer ministers and use phrases like “fitting in is over-rated” but sadly too often these too can feel like cookie-cutter-clones of one another) yet Simon manages to do ministry in a way that is uniquely him, Archbishop Williams spoke of Ordination as “Gods way of us being fully us” and for Simon he has found his way of faithfully living out his calling.
Simon’s gift is strategy and his intellect, before ordination he was involved in town-planning with a degree in social science, and he manages to serve on a vast number of committees and groups, from the crime prevention team, to some interfaith community group, to a local school governors and his ability to accurately identify problems and develop creative solutions to transform the situation causes something of the Kingdom to break in. Many of us would struggle if we spent lots of time in committee rooms with councillors and probably would not be productive, yet it is here Simon is in his element and most fruitful –thriving on connections and networks linking up in creative ways. Simon’s Church too are involved in a number of projects and opportunities, often collaborating with all sorts of diverse groups to be a catalyst of blessing. Simon is a mentor to many, an encourager, often behind the scenes –or quietly texting on his smart phone! I have often thought Simon’s ministry style is like a conductor, artist or chef –instinctively bringing together harmonies from unlikely places. In order to do this well, Simon spends chunks of time ‘hanging around’, listening and chatting –praying- getting to know and understand the people and the place of his parish, wandering the streets in his collar and chatting to anyone and everyone, all the while the cogs are going in his brain.
Simon in many ways looks like a middle class academic, with a touch of quirkiness, but that is his charm and the secret I believe of his fruitfulness, he’s not trying to impress people by being hip, cool or with a ton of witty banter, just being himself, authentic, a caring local vicar who everyone knows cares passionately about the area he has devoted the last seven years of his life too.
Simon took me around the back of the building to some halls in disrepair and told me of their vision to see these halls renovated to become a homeless hostel, a place where people can receive hospitality as part of the work and life of this Church community.
Simon had asked me to talk to his community about two things; “How to move from talking about Church (which Christians do a lot) to how to talk about Jesus?” and to tell the story of Ekklesia –the New Monastic project we are seeking to do here in Poole.
Yet as I hung out with Simon Cartwright and his family here in Normanton in Derby I thought it feels like I am learning more from them than I could possible teach them.