Foundation Story, Part Seven: Blowing on the Embers (2015-18), by Tim Summers
This is the seventh part of Foundation’s story, describing the group's rebirth in 2015 with the return of Iain and the arrival of fresh talent in Ruth and James, the new vision for "action" and "contemplation," our move to St Peter's, Henleaze and the projects we launched to return the group to vigour.
Experience shows that the success of an alt worship group (or “emerging church,” “fresh expression,” etc) depends on a handful of individuals with a shared vision and some chemistry. From this seed everything can grow, as others are attracted to join something which is exciting. Later comes the concern with regulation and structure. But without the visionary seed and chemical reaction at the heart of things, there is nothing to regulate.
Thus with Foundation in 2014, ten years after the initial spark and in spite of the group’s long history of creativity and community, and administrative work around the edges, none of the original main players were still involved in a committed way and activity was minimal. There was merely the quiet steady pulse of the Sunday night Compline. The Sunday regulars did not have the drive to build the group up again. New energy and new blood were needed.
This came, not a moment too soon, first with the return from ministry training of Iain McColl in 2015, coinciding with the end of my long London trips; and then, later that year, the appearance of Ruth Edmonds and James Harper. Iain and I had started some moves to reanimate Foundation at Cotham, as had long been our intention, but it was not enough and there were some cul-de-sacs. But with the arrival of Ruth and James came that old feeling of energy and chemistry, the irresistible seed from which everything else could grow.
It also led to an updated vision for Foundation, for such a group’s direction is shaped by the skills and obsessions of its most energetic contributors. Resonance had been aesthetic and cool, owing to a preponderance of visual artists and designers. Earlier Foundation had a strongly theological focus and a performative style influenced by Ikon. The Foundation of 2015 onward, known to some of us old lags as “mark 2,” would be shaped by two complementary strands: contemplation, increasingly an interest of mine and Iain’s, and action (i.e. justice), which was and is a burning passion for Ruth and James. These two strands being, in a favoured Gospel image from Luke chapter 10, that of Mary and that of Martha. Although no doubt all four of us were a bit of both.
It was clear from early meetings with Ruth and James (most memorably a walk through the contemplative landscape of Arnos Vale Cemetary, and a pizza with the Godfather Paul Roberts) that this was going to work. Ruth was a radical intending vicar and James a radical intending lawyer. Both had an abundance of creativity and the wish to reignite the group; plus the personal chemistry was there. On the newly souped up Foundation website Iain included the Greenbelt slogan “faith, arts and justice” as a unifying theme. We were back in action!
The next significant development was a relocation of the group to St Peter's, Henleaze in 2016. One reason was that Iain’s curacy was to be there, and it made more sense for his work with Foundation to form a part of this role than to be a side project in another location. But it also seemed likely to be a good base, with a supportive kindred spirit vicar Mark Pilgrim (dedicated to both action and contemplation) and a lively congregation. So the now-once-again-promising “seed” group moved out of BS6 into BS9, some way from the fuss in central Bristol but determined to bring Foundation alive in its new home.
To this end, several strategies were adopted. A steering group was established with Iain as the curate with oversight, Ruth in a hands-on implementation role, and me in a less clearly defined capacity – a sort of veteran and “backer”. Ruth at once started to do what Ruth does and perhaps cannot help doing (in spite of her periodically professed intention to do less): a tireless, inclusive hospitality and welcome. Ruth seems to have more hours in the day than the rest of us and the person she is with is always the absolute focus of her concern.
A music group was assembled by James and, in the absence of a large team to plan alt worship services, Iain and I decided to appoint a budding and well networked Christian creative, James Fox Robinson, to run the services for us on the “Last Sunday” of each month (partly a nod to the original “Third Sunday Service” of the 90s predecessor of Resonance). Now this approach is certainly unusual from an emerging church perspective, given the latter's emphasis on teams and collaboration; but since launching my own business and coming to appreciate the ease of “outsourcing,” I felt it made sense at least for this rebuilding phase. In getting the energy levels up again and helping to recruit new members, it certainly worked. James produced a brilliant service each month, initially in partnership with Iain to get a feel for our style and priorities, and later under his own steam, while also documenting each service with his professional-standard photos (some of which now appear on our website).
There were once again ambitious profile-raising events such as the extraordinary Metal Mass, organised in partnership with the B&A Church of St Andrews Park, where our friend Janey Hiller sang vocals worthy of Siouxsie Sioux howling in a hurricane. The “Friendly Stage” brand was dusted off and there were again open floor performance nights, now in St Peter's and its hall. This church setting proved an unexpectedly good choice as the Foundation events were combined with the main congregation’s real ale night, ensuring good attendance and a helpfully “relaxed” atmosphere. There was also a new regular “Friendly Forum” evening organised by Ruth, involving three talks and a discussion on a chosen theme, and more live performance, all taking place in an intimate, hip bohemian cellar on Stokes Croft. There was regular team participation, led by our subsequent steering group colleague and handsome hipster Matt Parsons, in the Wild Goose Café drop-in centre in Easton.
In parallel with such “action” oriented ventures we resumed retreat days and weekends, but now with a more consciously “contemplative” atmosphere than before, reflected in our choices of venue: the 15th century cottage Elsie Briggs House, Westbury-on-Trym for day events and Ammerdown House, Somerset for weekends. There was the renewed sense of community and purpose and numbers started to swell, demonstrating that a successful startup is possible, regardless of geography, with an inspiring vision and the right chemistry at the core. Special thanks are due to the vicar of St Peter's, Mark, who also joined the steering group, was an active contributor to many projects and provided indispensable wisdom and steadiness to underpin all our renewed activity.
Thus Foundation was brought back to health and vigour during its three years at St Peter's, and it was an important chapter in the life of the group. We had blown on those glowing embers and at last a fire was burning again.
The above image is a picture taken at a Foundation Last Sunday service at St Peter's, Henleaze, led by James Fox Robinson.