Updated: Sep 7
This is the fourth part of Foundation’s story. This instalment includes the relaunch of alt worship at Cotham Parish Church in Easter 2004, the growth of the community, the establishment of a pattern of quarterly big services and weekly "littleservices" and the adoption of the name Foundation in 2005.
I can’t remember the camel’s back straw that led to me quitting my evangelical church in 2004. I recall going over it endlessly in conversation, on holidays with a friend and with my brother. Both got bored and told me to get on with it. So clearly it felt like a big step at the time. Now it does not, and in hindsight it’s odd that it seemed so significant when I had mentally made the shift long before.
I decided to throw in my lot with the remnant of Resonance which met every Sunday for a quiet Compline at Cotham Parish Church, and which I had been visiting every month or so. There were only five or six regulars, but I liked the vicar Paul Roberts and the atmosphere of the building (“shabby catholic” as Paul called it). Plus I had built up a large email list among Bristol Christians through my arts group Lightship, developed over the last two years in my effort to build a network of kindred spirits in the evangelical scene. I suggested to Paul that we should have a full scale Easter creative service at Cotham, in the ambitious alt worship style of Resonance which had not been operative since 2002. We could use my email list to advertise it to my 500 or so contacts.
Paul and his curate Simon Taylor were both keen and we pulled together a team of around 10 Resonance veterans and newcomers to plan the service over several weeks. I trailed it on my Lightship email list. We opted not to use the name Resonance, as there were several newbies (including me) alongside the veterans and many key Resonance people were no longer involved. So there was no defined group and no name, but there was a flurry of publicity.
In the event, the service was fabulously well attended with around 100 people and it went off without any hitches. The quality was high given the combination of prior experience and new energy, and the conscious wish to make our mark. Such was the response that it was agreed that big services like this should now happen every three months. In between times there would be the low key “littleservices” every Sunday night, as a heartbeat of regular worship for the teams planning the quarterly big services and newcomers finding us through them (who might then in turn join planning teams). So initially the group was strongly task-oriented, aiming to produce ambitious alt worship every three months – instead of monthly, as had happened in the past with the concomitant exhaustion. My email list became increasingly a vehicle for this latest incarnation of Bristol alt worship.
On this pragmatic model the community started to grow, with numbers rising to around 20 most Sundays and more for the big services. The weekly services also began to depart from the Compline service sheet, with a rota of leaders producing their own content and the service sheet becoming again more of a backstop as it had been in Resonance days. The second half of the Sunday gathering was drinks at The Highbury Vaults – usually in the small front room, which we took over and filled up with animated conversation, some of it theological and much of it post-evangelical snark. (Sometimes a lone non-church drinker would weirdly continue to sit at the bar while all this happened around him. I always found the presence of such people utterly inhibiting when Christian things were being discussed – which doubtless was their intention.)
In 2005 Iain and Anna McColl arrived in Bristol and became significant contributors. That year there was also a debate and a vote about what name the group should have. “Foundation” was chosen because of its New Testament connotations and atmosphere of solidity. Many of us had left behind more conservative churches but most wanted the group to be unambiguously Christian. Some post-evangelical type groups had names suggesting only questioning and debating, or else wispy vagueness of the scented candles kind, both of which we wanted to avoid (thus “Essence” was one rejected name). Questioning was encouraged but the group was not just about that – it was intended ultimately to provide a foundation of Christian faith and community for its sometimes doubting or troubled members and visitors.
Like Dave Tomlinson with his book The Post-Evangelical, and in his work at Holy Joes and St Luke’s Holloway, we saw our role more as “guarding the back door” of the church than evangelising those coming in off the street. The latter task was, after all, already well covered by the Alpha course and the evangelicals – but as told in Dave's book, and as found in my own experience, for some people that environment could come to feel intellectually and spiritually limiting after a few years. Early Foundation had a quite theological and academic flavour, with two PhDs (Paul and Simon) in the leadership and a lot of ordinands passing through. People told us that the group was a lifeline and without it they would have nowhere to go. The tone could be jaded and cynical, as is often the way with such groups, but for many this was simply a release of tension. They were still attending a church – coming back every Sunday, taking part in worship and getting creatively involved. In time there were also home groups, monthly meals, film nights and weekends away. We were bringing lost sheep back into the fold without heavy shepherding!
The above image is taken from an alternative worship service in the New Forms Cafe at Greenbelt in 2005, from the Belfast group Echoes. It is credited to Steve Collins, whose Small Fire website includes an extensive photographic chronicle of UK alt worship during the late nineties and early noughties.