Monday, 16 January, 2012

GraceSpace in Bradford is 'a church for people who don't go to church'. Pioneer minister Colin Blake explains how the community has developed and why eating together is so important to them.

GraceSpace started life in 2007 when the then-minister Andy Bowerman was appointed as a Pioneer Minister, by the Bishop of Bradford. Eventually he and his wife Ali set up the Vicars Café in Saltaire as part of the vision to create a community in the Aire Valley.

The Café, which continues to operate today, provides a safe 'third space' where people can enjoy its hospitality and atmosphere while building relationships and sharing God with those who are interested in knowing more.

GraceSpace - groupWhen Andy and Ali moved to Dorset, the Café became a social enterprise with a board of management and a project manager running it day by day. My wife Katy and I moved here two years ago. I have been in ministry for 27 years and, at 59, I am probably one of the oldest 'pioneer ministers' in CofE history!

It was an interesting start because we arrived having no idea what the project was for or how to take it forward. It was actually very difficult to get hold on it because it meant different things to different people. It was also difficult because there was a four month gap between Andy leaving in July and me arriving in November. The community dissipated to the extent that only about six or seven people turned up at the licensing service to represent GraceSpace.

Many people associated with the community travelled from all over the place in those early years because they related to Andy and Ali very strongly. That was wonderful but it was clear from the time we came on the scene that those people weren't actually relating to each other in the same sort of way. As a result we decided to draw our horns in and not get involved in lots of missional activities initially; instead we wanted to help people to get to know each other.

GraceSpace - girlsMine is a five year appointment and we knew it was vital to get those strong building blocks of community in place right from the start. As a result we moved a lot of events away from Vicars Café and hosted them in our own home. We are fortunate in having a large dining room, kitchen and living room so we began to meet together as a group around meals. Food and drink became the staple of what we were doing and when people eat together, somehow there is a little heaven in the ordinary.

The number has now grown to 25 with many people coming who have either been bruised by church in the past or with no past experience of church at all. They range from families with teenage or adult children through to people in their 50s and 60s. We also have about 10 younger children, aged from two to 12, coming along with their parents. Some came as a result of personal invitation from a friend though many have turned up as a result of the information and publicity we put out through our website.

We believe in operating with a light touch. We don't have an 'official' structure, such as a PCC, but we all meet together every three months for a Summit meeting at which we decide the priorities for the next quarter.

GraceSpace - full englishA real turning point came when GraceSpace came up with the idea of having a different meal theme for each Sunday in the month. On the first Sunday we have Breakfast when people turn up at 10am to help us cook breakfast together; we will then organise a spiritual thought or reflection at some stage while we're eating. The whole thing can run for about three hours as people often want to stick around and discuss things.

The second Sunday is Lunch. This starts at 12.30 and people bring different foods around a theme so we might have a Chinese meal or what we call 'Yorkshire food' which means three types of curry! Everyone takes part; we don't offer separate things for different ages. The children particularly like it when there's a fifth Sunday in the month because that's when they choose what the adults have to do on that day and tell us what the spiritual element is going to be.

The third Sunday is Tea or 'Creativitea' at which we bring along cakes and biscuits and make big crafts together from 3pm. I'm a regional co-ordinator for Messy Church but we don't have enough space to run a Messy Church. However, Creativitea is a variation on the theme because we do have a celebration, activity and food as part of the mix. The adults are keen to join and they are happy to join in with cut and paste but generally they want to make things that will last, something with a purpose.

GraceSpace - ideasThe fourth Sunday is based around supper time at about 6pm. It is called Ikon; this is more reflective and allows people to share what comes out of that time together. Typically they will have bread, soup, pate and cheese at that one.

We also offer Explore sessions during the week on either Tuesday or Wednesday nights. These are cell-church-like in structure but are really about Bible application rather than Bible study, giving the opportunity for a much more interactive approach. Coming from a charismatic, evangelical background myself this has been quite a learning curve for me too because it's all about giving people the freedom to have different opinions. It's no good saying, 'this is the only answer to this passage'. Instead I approach it as, 'I know what I think this passage is about but tell me, what do you think?' It's about trying to step back, not telling people what to think but allowing them to grow.

At the end of November 2011 I was diagnosed with temporal arteritis which meant that all the arteries in my body were inflamed. I have been having treatment for that and hope to be back at work in January but I have been very encouraged to see what has happened at GraceSpace while I've been out of action. The people have been brilliant, offering their homes and their skills to keep things moving along.

GraceSpace - teaThis illness has prompted the devolving, training, encouraging and mentoring of new people into leadership. For this fresh expression to develop we want to create another network of community, a second GraceSpace. For that, we need leaders, though we have also taken a long, hard look at our purpose in all of this. It can't just be to build community. How do we look outside and make a difference?

We have started to look at how we might do that by volunteering elsewhere. Perhaps we could give our support to a community or local Christian project rather than start one ourselves? We are just working out how that might be done because we are a fairly eclectic bunch and people travel from all over Bradford to come to us.

GraceSpace - logo

I have a line manager who offers me pastoral care while the Archdeacon of Bradford provides practical oversight of the project. I work alongside all the other local churches and I believe that my age has greatly helped me in building links with them; I'm clearly not a whizzkid and people seemed to have responded to that because I don't come over as threatening in any way. I'm also not seen as suggesting that GraceSpace has got it right and they've got it wrong. Far from it. We all need each other. Part of my time is spent as adviser on fresh expressions of church to the Bishop and I am a regular at wider diocesan meetings as well as being very much involved with the local churches in our area. Indeed I lead the marriage preparation course team for the local URC.

It's all part and parcel of trying to serve other churches in what we do here at GraceSpace. If we can let them know of the things that have gone well - and our failures too – we are helping them in their own mission. All we can do is be honest that we are working out our faith in fear and trembling and trust God for the rest.

Updates to, and learning points from, this story

Friday, 27 January, 2012

Graham Cray, Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team, reflects on the story of GraceSpace.