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Foundation Story, Part Five: The Emerging Church (2006-8), by Tim Summers

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

This is the fifth part of Foundation’s story. This instalment covers Foundation's first creative peak culminating in the Babel service at Greenbelt 2008, the emerging church scene and some cul-de-sacs and luminous moments.

The creative peak for Foundation in its first incarnation at Cotham was the period 2006 to 2008. This was also the peak time for the “emerging church” on both sides of the pond. Many books (and still more postgraduate theses) were being written about this phenomenon. Paul Roberts and I were interviewed a few times and every major city had one or more emerging church groups.

These groups were usually of a broadly similar character to Foundation, although with a different emphasis depending upon the background and expertise of those involved. They might be Celtic and storytelling flavoured, or aimed at families, or focused on multi media creativity. One group in Belfast, Ikon, set up by former evangelist and philosophy PhD Pete Rollins, made no claim to be church at all but rather was a sort of performance art collective.

In any case “emerging church” had, by 2006, become the umbrella category to describe the various Greenbelt, alt worship and post-evangelical groups and there was an extremely lively scene. The numbers in Foundation were swelled by talented new arrivals, often from London, and our (still three monthly) big services had had become very ambitious. Each summer during 2006, 2007 and 2008 we took one of our favourite services of the year and “performed” it in the New Forms Café at Greenbelt: Breathe, Unknowing God and Babel.

In fact the last of these, Babel from 2008, was tailor-made for the festival. This involved months of planning and ended up being our creative high water mark, deploying all the alt worship skills we had developed since 2004. There was original music composed, arranged and performed by our one-man-band Jez Nash, supplemented by punk and reggae from The Clash, The Adverts and others; the building and smashing of a jenga brick tower; a Soviet propaganda film and Koyaanisqatsi used as choreographed backdrop; a Bob Dylan parody film and matched live act from Brett Ellis; a ritual with Venetian eyemasks; a multilingual Lord's Prayer; obscure, Ikon-tinged theological musing from Iain McColl. (In fact, in the creative-competitive spirit of the time, Babel was our attempt to outdo Ikon and Pete Rollins. Alas only a couple of them, and not Pete, were there. But it was filmed and I have a DVD if anyone is curious. Steve Collins has also posted some short footage of his own on Small Fire.)

It is a little shameful to admit that Greenbelt had become even more fun than before, for those in the club, because with all the academic and other attention one felt oneself to be part of a definite “in crowd”. The emerging groups took over a large area of the beer tent every evening and we felt we were what Greenbelt was really all about. (Of course, no one else at the festival was aware of our elevated status.) There were also conferences every month or so, where all the familiar faces would be found. The one I attended in 2007 was in Belfast, hosted by members of Ikon, and it was again tremendous fun if a bit of a talking shop. (My most vivid memory of this is a day of discussions about postmodern mission in some large bar complex out on the coast, which opened its doors to the general public at six. Faced with an influx of people who probably didn’t know about Baudrillard, all of us postmodern missioners quickly scarpered.) However in fairness, while there was some affectation there was also genuine innovation and the wish to approach and "do" church in a new way. There was camaraderie and the sense of being on the cutting edge.

Sometimes the spirit of experiment could lead one down what turned out to be cul-de-sacs. Back in Bristol, the structure of Foundation had changed from its original simple form (a congregation of Cotham Parish Church) to a standalone entity. We spent a great deal of time writing and agreeing a constitution with a voting system and an elected committee, the Foundation Community Council (FCC). Then because we were no longer a church congregation we needed our own insurance policies, and all kinds of other policies, and the bureaucracy risked subsuming what had been started as a creative endeavour. Much of the administrative work was shouldered by me, given my legal background. Some may disagree, but in hindsight this does seem to have been a drain on energy and a waste of time, partly driven by a wish to be free of “the institution” (which was supportive). A couple of years later, when the prospect of going even further down this route beckoned with the application to become a “BMO” (Bishops Mission Order), we decided to throw in the towel and go back to congregation status. There were then fewer meetings and less paperwork.

But memory is selective and mine has edited out most of the frustrations and blind alleys. I now feel mostly nostalgia, mixed with awe at some of the events we put on and the community we established. During this period there were 30 people coming most Sundays, with a wider network for the big services. There were marriages and ordinations. Some luminous moments are etched in my memory, like Paul Roberts marrying Resonance veteran Bruce Stanley to his Foundation fiancée Sara, on a cliff in Devon, and calling her (during the vows) by the name of Bruce’s former Resonance girlfriend. Bruce was unimpressed. Or one particular late night with Iain in the New Forms Café, after all the evening’s worship had ended, lying on huge beanbags and listening to the ubiquitous Ulster eggheads discussing film. This brief vision of heaven was interrupted by a fire alarm and evacuation, but for me and Iain it became a defining mental image to reinforce the goal of “Greenbelt all year round”.

The above image is taken from Foundation's 2008 service, Babel. It shows the jenga brick keyrings distributed at the end of the service, bearing the motto "To confuse is to liberate". It is (once again) credited to Steve Collins. You can find more of his photos documenting UK alt worship on his Small Fire website.

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