One evening when I was about twenty one and working for a Church in York, my friend Luke appeared after the evening service with a huge bag of cooked sausages from a barbecue he had been having it must have been quite a party, or he had massively over-catered! He had brought rolls and ketchup and his idea was to give them out to the homeless of the city (York has a lot of homeless people). I joined him with a couple of others people. We chatted to the homeless people, and had opportunities to pray with some of them, they asked questions about Jesus and enjoyed eating hot (well warmish) dogs with them.
This was the first time I had done any work with the homeless and it felt like we were actually living out our faith, and for me I glimpsed a tiny bit of the “more” I was looking, believing that there was more of God than I had currently experienced (indeed, there is always more of God), but this was part of my own personal spiritual/theological revolution/reformation.
Just under two years before that my spiritual world had been transformed when I had not only rededicated my life to God, but also had an encounter with the Holy Spirit that had literally put me to the floor (ironic as a very ‘reformed evangelical’ I didn’t think God still did things like that!). As a Vicar’s kid I could speak Church fluently, but I had the heart of a new believer hungry for truth and transformation.
In that simple act of giving out hot-dogs something ‘clicked’ in my mind as I began to discover that proclaiming good news was a calling to be good news, I began to grasp something of a better understanding about the Kingdom of God which was the main theme of Jesus preaching on earth –up until then I always thought of the Kingdom of God as another way of saying heaven- and my understanding of salvation was a bit like getting a ticket to go there; as I began to re-think Salvation and the Kingdom of God I came to see them more as the Jewish word “Shalom,” which means “wholeness”: the good news is both holy and holistic, speaking into every area and element of life, good news for both now and for eternity. Discipleship was not just about avoiding sin but actively doing God’s will which meant discovering what is on God’s heart.
Whilst I was still journeying with these questions I had moved to Poole, Dorset, working as a schools worker, so lots of chances for proclamation of the good news of Jesus, but alongside this, I made a number of friends who were in a similar place to me, hungry for God, asking questions and wanting to go deeper, and feeling a bit dissatisfied with inherited Church. It was at that time that one of my friends,
Chris, who at that time wanted to be a worship leader, had a friend die tragically having had an incredibly tough and painful life, and his question was: “what did God think about all the abuse and exploitation she had been through?” in my friends wresting he ended up being mentored by a Prison Chaplain called Colin Harley, who helped Chris see how much is written in scripture about God’s heart for justice, anger at oppression and exploitation and his journey had a ripple effect through the entire group.
Another friend, Martin, grasped the importance of prayer being at the center of all we did, and a group of us used to meet every Saturday morning to eat croissants and pray for the young people of Poole; alongside this a few of us met to pray together every week. There was real accountability here –sometimes uncomfortably so- and brave vulnerability too.
Around this time many of us were reading books such as Red Moon Rising by Pete Greig or Punk Monk by Andy Freeman, talking about houses of prayer, modern monasteries and prayer rooms. We did several prayer rooms including on one occasion a whole week of prayer –and the most unlikely people just wandered in and prayed with us. These prayer rooms use things like posit notes, maps, candles, art installations to help inspire and motivate our prayer times –we all signed up for an hour, that felt a long time at the start of the session and by the end felt not nearly enough. Over that week we spotted lots of answers to prayer, that I think in the busyness of normal life many of us may have missed.
One day the phone rang, and it was a friend who was Vicar of a Church on the other-side of town in one of the most deprived areas, and he said “The Church has just been left a bungalow, I have heard that this guy Chris Harwood is wanting to live in an area like ours, wondered if God is doing something?” From that phone call, Chris and a friend called Alex (who had recently become a Christian) lived there as an intentional community, praying and working there as a detached youth worker. They called the bungalow ironically ‘Rose Cottage’ as it was far from picturesque! It also became a hub for others to come and join with them to pray, and support Chris’ detached work on the streets, parks and bus shelters of the parish.
Intentional communities can sustain long-term mission to an area, and offer something beautiful that the world is longing for.
I remember Chris being worried about looking like a posh middle-class boy coming to an estate to ‘do God’ to the people there, and so he was very respectful and wise about how he lived, talked and acted. Sadly, many Christians with a heart for mission work in deprived areas turn up with an unintentionally colonial or patronising attitude which, unsurprisingly, is not missionally fruitful!
After this, another friend Jon, became the chaplain to the nightclubs in Bournemouth, and was given a Vicarage to live in, which became another intentional community known as “Jesus Street”.
Very few of us were in the same Sunday Morning Congregation together, but in a very real way I think we were “being Church Together” and although we never quite saw Acts 2 and 4 fully realised it was one of the times in my life where I believe I have come the closet to seeing the dream becoming a reality.
At this time there was much discussion in the Christian world about “Fresh Expressions of Church” and this began to birth in us the idea of Church that could look different from that which we had inherited and had been passed on to us we began to dream again.
Yet, I believe the reason this was so fruitful was the depth of community, relationship, love that existed between us as friends travelling together, sometimes stumbling, but mainly Christward, and alongside us were a good number of friends who would not call themselves Christians, and a few who had been Christians but for whatever reason were not currently following Jesus.
I arrived at college which was for me a struggle as much of what I thought was really important, the lessons I learned, were not where many people were at, although there were two lecturers there who really inspired me; Mike Moynagh who had written extensively about Fresh Expressions and constantly challenged us to have the bravery to dare to dream and imagine a very different future –asking what could and should a community of people missionally living out the Kingdom of God look like in this context – the other was our director of studies called Howard Worsley. Howard was a Third Order Franciscan, who had served in some challenging parishes, and was committed to seeing Christians living amongst the most marginalized and broken often quoting “remember the poor” (Gal.2.10). It was Howard who oversaw Simon Cartwrights PHD and later Howard became Vice Principal of Trinity College Bristol and was an influence on Chris Harwood too.
When I started my curacy in Salisbury, I found some comfort in regular times of prayer with both the daily office and also the Trussell Trust who shared our Church hall used to have rhythms of prayer and reading scripture. It is crazy that as a Vicar it is amazing how hard it can be to maintain ones discipline of prayer and Bible reading, and having other Christians meeting together where I could join them really helped. Indeed, later when I was in Kingswood, I remember feeling really burned out and just sat with people praying even though I was struggling too, felt like I was somehow being held in prayer, other Christians praying when I simply struggled and just being there helped me and encouraged me.
I remember feeling really spiritually dry in Kingswood, I was meant to be preaching in another Church the following day, and I thought “I have nothing left to give” –I felt completely rung out. Somehow I ended up on youtube and listened to a talk by a guy called Shane Claiborne; and felt inspired again as he spoke about “the world needing to see a Church looking more like Jesus” another thing he said is we often ask “why doesn’t God do something about…” to that God replies “I did I made/sent you!” One of the thing Shane, this Holy Maverick does, is protests against things like exploitation of workers, the arms trade, the death penalty believing that “another world is possible” this would can look different and more as God intended us to be. One image that really struck me from this youtube clip was where their community hired a blacksmith, and took guns and knives and turned them into gardening tools echoing the words of:
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore”.
Somewhere amid all of this I began to use the term new monastic finding echoes with scriptures such as: “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and tear off every yoke is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your home, to clothe the naked when you see them”. Wanting to both pray and offer practical help, engage in evangelism by word and deed, and wanting deeply to be part of a community that understands and shares this crazy dream of the Kingdom of God becoming more of a tangible reality in our context, that helps keeps one another going in a life that outsiders probably think is a bit bonkers.
My search for this, did lead me to one Church community that I thought got my heart, but sadly appointed someone else with a different vision, and left us feeling deeply confused. We ended up back in Poole, I still had lots of dreams and longings within my heart, but the challenge was finding where fitting in with a new community, who else would understand my crazy vision. Fortunately for my first year back in Poole, Chris who had been travelling this journey with me (over the last twenty years) and I overlapped for a year before God called in to Carlisle.
One day we were having a beer and he said “Mase, I was thinking, do you know a guy called Mark Phillips?”