Updated: Aug 27, 2020
This is the third part of Foundation’s story (told in “autobiographical” form). This instalment covers the London vs Bristol church scenes, the Resonance group which would provide the seed for Foundation, and a short digression on NOS.
Life can sometimes be read (in hindsight) “dialectically”: divided up into eras where each is a reaction to the previous one. My first experience of Greenbelt, in 2001 at Cheltenham Racecourse, book-ended a nightmare period in London (at work and especially with my flat, prey to cowboy builders). It suggested not just new possibilities in church life but also a new kind of life in general: green space, clear sky, coffee and cake. It got me seriously thinking about leaving London after ten years. Perhaps there was a better life to be had elsewhere.
Over the months that followed, this deliberation turned into a conviction and finally, action. In summer 2002 I arrived in Bristol, excited by the idea of regional church. I had become a Christian in London and the idea of doing Christian things in "the provinces" seemed quaintly unusual. The main contenders for a regular church were evangelical, like the big London ones - for outside the capital there seemed to be no hybrid category like St Stephen’s (edgy, Greenbelt charismatic). However I also visited Resonance, the post-evangelical, Greenbelt group that I had encountered at the festival. This was hosted at Cotham Parish Church and led by the then vicar Paul Roberts, who was a well known and respected figure in alt worship circles and knew my London friends. The service was excellent, as expected – but alas, this was to be the last big Resonance service. The group seemed to be winding down.
With no alt worship or hybrid options on the menu, therefore, I decided it was time to knuckle down as a proper evangelical, a return to the stalwart outlook of an earlier time. I became an Alpha group leader. But one cannot put toothpaste back in the tube and I had now done a fair bit of naughty theological reading, not to mention discovering alt worship and Greenbelt. I found myself in ding dongs with my own team on the Alpha leadership. The scene was already starting to chafe again, just as it had in London in the days before St Stephen’s. My twofold solution, this time, was to start a Christian arts group, Lightship, amounting to an ever-growing email list and open floor performance events, and occasionally to attend what remained of Resonance – basically a weekly Sunday evening Compline service at Cotham, led by Paul, with a few of the battle-scarred alt worship veterans sitting round a candle reading a liturgy.
There was a kind of fascination for me about the battle-scarred veterans. I was aware that Resonance had been quite something in the UK scene (a 1999-2001 photo journal from Steve Collins is here), and it was a mystery to me why such a group would descend from such dizzy heights to this minimal affair. I questioned Paul endlessly about who the key players had been and where they were now. (Paul, as geekily fascinated by his own group’s history as I am now about Foundation’s, was happy to indulge me.) What I didn’t realise then, but understand now, is that such groups wax and wane and may go into long fallow periods or – in my preferred image – become “glowing embers”. The glowing embers of Resonance would in the near future catch fire again as Foundation.
In fact, Resonance had itself been the continuation of an earlier group – the Third Sunday Service (TSS) which had been led by Paul and others, down the road at St Matthew’s Kingsdown, for most of the nineties. At the very start, before even TSS, there had been yet another Cotham-based group, The Late Service. Much of this activity, in Bristol as in London and elsewhere, had been inspired in part by the notorious Nine O’Clock Service (NOS) in Sheffield – a formidably innovative group which, over a fifteen year lifespan, moved from club culture to creation spirituality and finally imploded in 1995 amid allegations of abuse by its leader Chris Brain. (With the maddeningly enigmatic story of NOS it seems hard to separate the good from the bad. It is unlikely that the work ethic and perfectionism that produced the group’s groundbreaking and unsurpassed creative worship could have existed without its destructive, cult-like qualities. The online records have diminished in recent years but footage and a documentary can still be found on YouTube and there is a good book.)
Bristol alt worship, by contrast, had none of this dysfunction and was more in line with what I had started to experience in my final couple of years in London. It seemed that the Third Sunday and Resonance community was tantalisingly still around, for the most part, but had dispersed back into ordinary lives and ordinary congregations in the city. Once again – how could all this energy have dissipated and why was there nothing like this now? By this time, around 2003, alt worship and its quarter century history were becoming an obsession for me. Here was an art form with a ready-made framework of meaning, in Christian theology and tradition, combining elements of electronic music, projections, live performance, art installation and writing; you could repurpose others’ art or make your own; there was a ready “audience”; there was a community of the likeminded up and down the land; and most importantly it was all part of being Christian, growing the church and building Christian community, but without the poor aesthetics, weird jargon and rigid theology of big conservative churches.
It was inevitably just a matter of time before I would get properly involved.
The above image shows the Resonance service at Cotham Parish Church from June 2001, just before the time of the above story. Again I credit Steve Collins, on whose Small Fire website you can find a photographic chronicle of alternative worship from a range of UK groups.