Foundation Story, Part Six: Evolution/Devolution (2009-14), by Tim Summers
This is the sixth part of Foundation’s story, describing the group's evolution from big alt worship services to a more level pattern of activity, followed by a more minimal period – with reflections on the cyclical nature of such groups.
The Babel service at Greenbelt 2008 turned out to be the peak for Foundation in its first period at Cotham Parish Church, in both creativity and levels of participation. But just as there had been several years of ascent, there were also several years of significant activity on the other side involving new people and new projects. There is much to say about 2009-12, but less to say about 2013-14 – so I will treat the entire five year period in this single instalment.
Paul Roberts had not been involved in the Babel service, being on sabbatical from his ministry role at Cotham. He was preparing for a return to his academic career (at Trinity, where he is still). Starting in 2010, I would apply some of the skills I had developed in organising and growing Foundation to building my own business. So the energy of some key leaders was starting to be focused elsewhere. There was also a more widespread feeling in the group that we had done enough “big services” requiring weeks of planning by a large team. A dauntingly high bar had been set and there was also a fair question about the ratio of effort to reward. Babel and some of the other big services of 2006-8 – like Breathe, Frozen and Unknowing God – had been spectacular, but who (apart from us) would still be talking about them, just a few weeks on?
The quarterly big services, carried on since Easter 2004, had served many purposes: passing on skills from Resonance veterans to newcomers like me; profile raising and recruitment; building friendships through collaboration. But some contributors were getting tired, not only by the services but also by the bureaucracy arising from our “independent” structure. So around this time the standalone model was quietly dropped as we became a congregation again, and our focus shifted to community-building by less labour intensive methods than quarterly services. There was more of a level pattern of less demanding activity. Nevertheless, it is during this period that many of us first got on social media and my early Facebook photos show the group alive and kicking.
As to worship, it was agreed that a more sustainable model was the “medium service” (quite simply, pitched between the “big” and “little” that we had been running to date). This generally involved a team of two to four people and no more than a couple of sessions of planning. Because of this lighter burden, such services could take place at least monthly, interspersed with the continuing littleservices which either relied on the Compline service book or were put together by the leader for the week. This approach didn’t hook in the large crowds that we had been seeking in the early days, but it was far easier to maintain (and is in effect the model that Foundation operates to this day, with the monthly Create and Last Sunday services). Notable medium services from 2009-12 include Babette’s Feast and Love is Just a Four Letter Word.
In parallel with this, a more spontaneous creative forum was adopted in the “Friendly Stage” evenings hosted in the basement of Anna and Dylan Kissell’s house in Montpelier. These were open floor performance evenings in front of an audience of friends, from Foundation and beyond. There was poetry, music and storytelling, as well as more esoteric acts like juggling and fire dancing.
This was also the period when we started to go on retreat weekends, initially at Lee Abbey in Devon. Positive memories include quality guest speakers like Si Johnston from London's Headspace group, film screenings and discussion, the library, walks in the wild and getting ourselves locked in the tower on the cliff edge, where we’d gone to be naughty (drink alcohol) after dinner. Lee Abbey is evangelical-ish, but open to all and large enough for a group of 25 to blend into the background; thus one of the few venues where a bunch of slightly less evangelical Christians could play at being rebellious while not causing offence. But by now we were self-aware enough to make fun of our own “Greenbelt” culture too – as was exemplified by Iain MacColl’s pitch perfect Pete Rollins impression, fronting our own theodrama group Mikon (“mic on” – or “my con”?) at the Lee Abbey Friendly Stage. Iain-as-Pete discoursed on "the negation of negation of negation of negation." Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Thus Foundation went on happily for three more years, despite (or perhaps because of) the reduced intensity. However, in 2012-13 there was a further removal of personnel, as Iain left for ministry training in Cambridge and I left for London to launch an office for our legal business there. During my initial London period in 2013 I would only be back in Bristol on a Sunday every three or four weeks, and had no time or energy left over for developing Foundation. With other formerly active contributors quitting or fading out for the usual kind of reasons (such as having children, moving town or simply changing priorities), there was no one with the passion to drive things forward. So during the period of 2013 to 2014 Foundation returned to the condition of late stage Resonance in 2002 to 2004: a small group of people meeting around a candle for Compline on a Sunday night. What I would call “glowing embers”. When the right time and people eventually came, in 2015, we would blow on the embers.
For me the lesson is that groups like this, like so much in the natural world, follow a cyclical pattern. The group is infused with energy by particular individuals but those people eventually move on. I had been intrigued by the "battle scarred veterans" of Resonance that I first met in 2002 and the question of why many of them had left behind something so creative and were now back in the evangelical church, or warming a pew in some Anglican congregation, or not going to church at all. More than a decade later, I had my answer. Lives change, energy dissipates. Church is littered with stories, and a certain amount of hand-wringing, about people “burning out” and it’s a good enough image (given that burnout leads to embers!) if one does not treat "burnout" as always and everywhere a bad thing, and necessarily avoidable. For a meteor also burns out as it lights the sky. There may be measures that one can (and should) take in mitigation, such as those we took in 2009 to 2012 – but these didn’t halt the natural downward part of the cycle. So I think the embers stage is just a feature of these things and shouldn't trigger too much soul-searching.
The best strategy in the quieter periods is to keep the embers glowing with a low key, regular meeting. Then when things finally catch fire again there is a feeling of continuity. The cycle has occurred several times with Bristol alt worship in its successive forms. Each has led into the next with some continuity of personnel. Since 2005 we have kept the name the same because, to use a business concept, there is value in a brand. “Foundation” is a good name which has also, over a decade and a half, become a solid brand. We have done much worthwhile work over the years and the name carries its accrued value.
Who knows: perhaps for some future, younger geek out there the history of Foundation will carry the same fascination as the history of Resonance, and the Third Sunday Service before it – and somewhere behind both of them, the vast and mysterious spectre of Sheffield’s NOS – still does for me. I hope so.
The above image is a photo of the group at Foundation's October 2009 retreat at Lee Abbey.