Foundation Story, Part Eight: Contemplative Fire (2019-20), by Tim Summers
This is the eighth and final part of this series, bringing us up to the present. It describes: the mature vision for Foundation (as a community both active and contemplative) informing the decision to return to Cotham; some gentle "signs and wonders" surrounding that decision; and events since the move.
On 17th December 2018 I was driving through Cotham looking for a parking space. I had not been into Cotham Parish Church for almost three years, but felt sure I could blag/charm if challenged ("historic Foundation prerogative") when parking in my old favourite spot by the door. So this is where I parked.
At just that moment, from within, appeared the lithe figure of David Stephenson wearing his dog collar. I had heard on the grapevine that there was a new vicar at Cotham and I asked if it was him. It was. I introduced myself as Foundation Tim and suggested we have a chat. We went inside and instantly hit it off.
For some time I had been wondering about the best home for Foundation for the long term. Since the group’s 2015 rebirth we had undergone quite a transformation. A familiar trope is that there is a pipeline from charismatic evangelical, to post-evangelical, to some sort of contemplative or mystical destination. This trajectory is sometimes linked with the Alan Jamieson "stages of faith" idea, unfavourable though it is to more conservative Christians. No doubt it is an oversimplification. However, there had been at least something of this pattern in the journey of Foundation. What had started as a post-evangelical bolthole had evolved, through a process of ebb and flow over 15 years, in a quite different direction. For although "anger can be power" and "anger is an energy" (to quote Joe Strummer and John Lydon respectively), you cannot stay annoyed by evangelical subculture, debating biblical inerrancy, forever. You cannot stay liminal. Eventually you have to knuckle down and swallow the good medicine, or leave the church – or discover the mystics.
So my and Iain McColl’s idea, before his departure for ministry in Cambridge in 2017, was that the mature Foundation – or at least Foundation “mark 3” as we envisaged it – should aspire to be what we called a "Contemplative Woodies": a group with the energy, entrepreneurialism and justice concerns of Woodlands Church in Cotham, which we admired, but underpinned by a mystical-contemplative (rather than charismatic evangelical) theology and spirituality.
We felt that there was a gap in the market here. Of course there are many Anglican liturgical churches, usually liberal, influenced by contemplation and with an interest in justice – but few of them hum with the life and energy of a charismatic church. But really why shouldn’t they? For it must be admitted by any honest observer, whatever their theology, that the most interesting and creative strands in European Christian tradition are not from the Calvinists and apologists, whom the evangelical “Christian arts” scene gamely tries to bring alive, but are the mystical and Catholic elements beloved of liberals. It is these that overlap most with the artists of our mainstream culture such as the Romantics, and of course the mystics of other traditions. It is really these elements in C.S. Lewis (such as his numinous, mystical concept of Joy) that make him both relatable, and at times slightly questionable, to evangelicals.
So why can't we have a vigorous, alive and kicking church community like Woodlands, but with a theology and spirituality informed by mystics, with their vision of action and contemplation? Meaning here figures such as Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams, to name three modern examples. If a church group has as its charter the insights of mystics, it may even be able to get past polarities such as “conservative” and “liberal” altogether – for the mystical tradition, and individual mystics, embody aspects of both and would prefer to transcend these categories. Such a group can be a home to all.
So to return to the situation for Foundation late in 2018. The projects of the past three years at St Peter’s, Henleaze – such as the Friendly Stage and Friendly Forum, the Last Sunday alt worship services led by James Fox Robinson, and inter-group collaborations such as the Metal Mass – had all been ways of introducing a Woodies-style dynamism into an Anglican context that was already friendly to the contemplative. It was working. But if we were to take this Contemplative Woodies vision to the next level, it seemed to me, a change of location would be needed. After all, there were good reasons why Bristol alt worship had always happened in Cotham: it is central and close to the big churches, the university, the business district and so on. Moreover the original main reason for Foundation being in Henleaze – Iain’s curacy – had ended a year earlier. Hence why I was so interested to encounter David in the car park at Cotham Parish Church. I knew that the building and everything else there worked well. If the new boss were sympathetic, it could be perfect.
As for David's perspective: here is a journal entry he has since shared with me. "I’d been vicar of Cotham for a few months and was beginning to sense the need for some ‘windows of renewal’ and began praying on 17th December 2018 that some such windows would become evident and begin to open. Later that day by chance I met Tim for the first time in the car park at Cotham and we got talking… 17th December also happens to be the day when the church begins to pray the Advent 'O Come O Come Emmanuel' Prayers."
It's well known that evangelicals pray for a parking space. It seems that mystics just go ahead and park where they shouldn't. But in so doing, they may answer a fellow mystic's prayers. The Lord works even through our transgressions!
At our meeting David and I discussed a possible return of Foundation to Cotham and he was enthusiastic. So far as I was concerned, David's taste and his passion for the contemplative tradition – as evidenced by the artworks and the "lovely books" in his study – were guarantees of credibility and the personal chemistry, a prerequisite of any successful venture, was there in abundance. I raised the matter with Mark Pilgrim at St Peter’s who had no objection. After wider discussion it was resolved that those wishing to continue meeting at St Peter’s would do so under a new name, Magdala. Foundation relaunched at Cotham in May 2019, with the Contemplative Woodies idea enshrined in our initial proposal to the PCC. The group was subject to oversight by a steering group comprising David himself and Alice Chapman, our extremely dynamic churchwarden, plus me and then Ruth from the historic Foundation side.
In the early days of the steering group, before the May 2019 launch, I kept running into Alice in unlikely places: first in the seat next to mine on a train to London, Alice having missed her scheduled earlier departure; then a few days later crossing the street in Hay-on-Wye, a mutual favourite spot. We felt that these meetings were further signs that a plan was at work. Or better, "in play."
Many of you reading this become part of the story from this point, which brings us almost up to date. However life is never predictable. Just as we were approaching the first anniversary of the return to Cotham, with increasingly solid numbers on Sundays and a large menu of other events, some carried on from the St Peter’s era and others wholly new, the world went into lockdown and all our meetings moved to Zoom. Ruth and James took the opportunity to roll out even more initiatives virtually, including discussion groups, open mic (surprisingly good value on Zoom) and daily Taizé chants. My impression is that the energy and cohesion of the group has only grown during the pandemic. Lately we have moved to a hybrid of virtual and IRL (in real life) meetings. It seems likely that the use of technology enabling virtual participation will continue beyond the end of this crisis, meaning that Foundation can host gatherings which are potentially global in reach. So if the pandemic has been a test of our mettle at a crucial point, so far we have come through it (God willing) in good shape, with an even tighter community and some lasting innovation.
In January 2020 I had received a message on Facebook from Steve Taylor, the author of First Expressions, a book about the emerging church movement developed from Steve’s postgraduate dissertation. Steve had originally interviewed Paul Roberts back in 2001 (at the tail end of Resonance), as one of a dozen or so UK alternative worship group leaders. He had returned to the same individuals and groups in 2012, seeking to pick up the story again, to find that only five of the groups had survived. Among these was Foundation (in Steve’s view and ours the continuation of Resonance) and he interviewed me and Paul that year. Steve’s book was published in 2019 and he was contacting me to thank me for Foundation’s contribution and to offer me a free copy. The book is therefore partly a reflection on the disappearance of most of the original groups after a decade, which focuses on questions of sustainability.
I have referred in this series to the cyclical nature of alternative worship groups. When Steve interviewed us in 2012, Foundation was in fact entering one of its quiet periods, of "glowing embers" in my phrase. But we were still going, and fully eight years later we are going stronger than ever, despite changes of location and leadership and even a pandemic. Indeed we are entering what I believe could be a new golden age for the group. The fire is burning again.
We have God to thank for that. For I feel that, even after the 16 years of my involvement and an equal period before my arrival, when the project ran under different names with Paul Roberts at the helm, Foundation continues to fill a vital niche in the spiritual life of Bristol. It belongs. It was an answer to David’s prayer of December 2018 and has been an answer to prayer for many others, over three decades. I am sure there will be many more fruitful transformations of the group itself and, more importantly, of the individuals within it.
For in the end, that is what all this is about.
The above image is David leading virtual/IRL worship by firelight, Easter 2020.