Moot - update Dec10

Wednesday, 1 December, 2010

Norman Ivison chats with Vanessa Elston and Ian Mobsby from the Moot Community in London in December's podcast extra.

Duration: 16:46   | Download Download mp3


Interviewer: You're listening to a Fresh Expressions podcast extra with me, Norman Ivison. Four years ago I visited the Moot community in Westminster to film for one of our DVDs. Based in an Anglo-Catholic church, this community of mainly 20- and 30-year olds gathered around a regular but very contemporary techno-celebration of the eucharist. Their aim, to create a Christian community for city dwellers which drew on the ancient traditions of the church, but was set in the heart of busy 21st century London. And it was working well. The numbers were growing, the discipleship and fellowship spinning off from those weekly celebrations impressive. But I came away with a hesitation at the back of my mind. Was Moot, despite all the real signs there were of growth, still really stuck in attractional mode? Still expecting spiritual seekers to come to them and to cope with the inevitable religiosity of even this contemporary style of worship. And as a result I wondered if in the main it attracted those who had been turned off church in the past, rather than those who had never been in the first place. The de-churched, rather than the un-churched. So four years on I have visited Moot again. Now it's based in the City, just next to the Bank tube station, and it has changed. Vanessa Elston has been appointed to start Serum, a gathering which is intentionally reaching out to those who have no church background. And that's something Ian Mobsby, the priest-missioner, realised was vital when last Christmas, one spiritual seeker asked him what the baby in the manger had to do with God. Ian realises that many of the people they're engaging with now have big problems with traditional church.

Ian Mobsby: Many people have a very negative stereotype towards the church and church practices, and I think that's through lots of stuff that's been happening in the press, there is a very negative view. So what I think Moot has learnt is that we have to be very relational, start breaking down those negative perceptions and then open up the tradition as something that works. I think we've been quite inspired by the monastics and the friars, and their whole history of missional work which is about opening up the spiritual landscape of Christianity through life. So that's how we've changed the focus: this is about life now, this is about depth, this is about becoming more human and that Christianity has a lot to say, drawing on the contemplative as well as the sacramental. So then you open up then, you see, those signs of eucharist. Then eucharist… you know you need to enter into dialogue to explore the depths of the faith to then understand that that is a missional ordinance, that it's about love and it's about a desire for the restoration of the whole thing – is what goes on in eucharist. But you don't know that until you've had an opportunity to engage with Mooters about what they're about. So the new monastic thing in Moot's been really key. So we commit to it, our rhythm of life, before the Bishop of London every year and it says… we desire to be a missional community – that it's not just about us, that that call to love God, love ourselves and love others and the planet is something that hopefully will create a new type of Christian community.

Interviewer: It still seems to me Vanessa a big step isn't it – sorry to interrupt you – it still seems a big step to me for somebody who's totally un-churched, never-churched, to get to that situation that Ian's just talked about, where they begin to sort of take commitments and vows quite seriously. What are you doing with that kind of person, to slowly introduce them to the Christian faith?

Vanessa Elston: Well I think that we want to provide a space for people that wasn't in a church building, that was in neutral territory, so like a lot of people we chose a pub environment, just to give a safe space really for people to explore what do they think, what do they believe, what's been their experience of spirituality. I think a lot of people do have experience and that they can't quite name, because they haven't got a language with which to sort of express it. So I felt that it was very important to provide that space, where people aren't going to feel like they're being manipulated, they're genuinely… you know, we're not here to tell them what to think, but we are here to provide a space – it's almost like, I see it as a form of hospitality – to host a space for people to start to explore and open up.

Interviewer: Is that with no holds barred? I mean is there a… if I came along to something like that as a never-churched person, I might slightly suspect what you were up to, I might think you might have got some kind of ulterior motive…

Vanessa Elston: I think the motive is, is that as the church I feel called – as part of the church – I feel called to host that kind of space. So what we're saying is, as Christians we want to host these spaces, but they are genuinely spaces of mutual encounter. And actually Serum works when Christians are in the minority. So my ideal Serum is when there are two Christians and about seven people who wouldn't necessarily have a defined faith commitment. Because when the Christian voice is in the minority and it's no longer threatening, we're no longer in the dominant position, but actually in that place you can share actually very freely and you're part of the mix. We are a plural society, but I think that it's actually saying we have a voice in that society. And also we are hosting the space and I guess the bit of input – I mean we do a little warm up and then we do do a sort of three-, five-minute little intro or discussion starter, and so that will come from a Christian perspective. But after that it's no holds barred, this is an open space and people can really… people need to feel free to share what they think, otherwise what's the point.

Interviewer: So Serum sounds to me almost like a kind of pre-pre-Alpha?

Vanessa Elston: Yeah, that's what it is. Basically it's for people who might not at all be ready to kind of discuss Christianity or what Christians believe, but actually something is going on, there is a hunger. Lots of people are very hungry and they really are spiritually searching – and they're looking for tools and resources. And lots of other groups out there are offering tools and resources, so as the church we have got tremendous tools and resources I think. So it's almost like we need to get out there in that – it's a marketplace. But I think what's distinctive about us is that we don't charge for our resources, whereas lots of people it's now a business.

Interviewer: And based in the City as you are, Ian, only footsteps away from the Bank of England really, I mean is this sort of area of London a place where the pressures are so great that people grasp something like Serum?

Ian Mobsby: Yeah, so I think the importance then is almost like a menu approach to being church, in terms of mission, where we need to put on a variety of different things. So the meditation group that we run is a place for people to experience the Christian faith and find peace and explore the Christian faith through a silent meditation using the John Main technique. So that has come… people come very sceptical of the faith, is this just Christianity, really wrestled with it. But I think they've experienced it to work, so that's opened up the spiritual landscape. So that by having a menu to people in the City, this creates kind of an approach where there's an opportunity for people to grow in their questing, so it's a gift, it's an inspiration, it's something to enable people to grow through at different levels and at different stages, where they're not being pressurised at any point. I think there's a perception that the church in mission is trying to score up conversions, rather than for the welfare of the individuals. So we've spent a lot of time with that relational, loving approach. And I love it, because it's – the meditation group basically is some of the richest people in the country who are spiritually impoverished, receiving a meditation group often run by some of the poorest people with all sorts of complexities of addiction and mental health, isn't that something of the kingdom of God? So this isn't new I don't think, but what I think Moot is trying to do is to be much more open-ended.

Vanessa Elston: And there's creating access points, really accessible. So someone, you know, and I know that lots of groups are exploring this, but it is creating… I think we need to think about what kind of spaces can we create to enable people to start to access what the Christian tradition has. And a lot of people, they can't immediately access it through the institution and traditional forms, it's too scary, it's too foreign. So I think that's part of our mission, is how can we create spaces in which people can start to feel safe, and genuinely this is a space for you to explore, engage, interact.

Interviewer: And how do you avoid the temptation to become programmatic and set up programmes and courses and steps and all that kind of thing that people are expected to go through, when all the research tells us that certainly the upcoming generations don't like programmes?

Ian Mobsby: Totally. That's why I think the listening exercise and the loving service needs to be considered very carefully so that actually the vision then is about our faith being transformational. So it's not about imparting facts – programmes for me are about you've got ten weeks, you've got to get this information across and almost upload to people and then they become Christians – this is a different model. This is about sharing life together, through dialogue in Serum and through experience of meditation that brings transformation. And so the vision then is catching up with what God is doing. So when you go to these things it doesn't feel like a course, it actually is increasingly about trying to be soul-friends to people. And therefore it could go on for years.

Vanessa Elston: But also I think for me, I mean we just started Serum in September and I think the way Serum goes will very much come out of the way the group is. So it may be at some point we feel like the group – some people in the group are ready to do something that perhaps might be more explicitly looking at faith, or engaging with God… but it's almost a case of when that group is ready then we would like to develop perhaps a stage two approach that will combine something experiential – and we're looking at sort of twelve steps approach to almost a transformation and change – alongside exploring belief and faith. But I think it is that sense of getting to know people and almost following them. And very much being with people, rather than doing things for people and to people. You actually just need to get to know people, come alongside, spend time with them.

Interviewer: It sounds very demanding both in terms of time and energy and…

Vanessa Elston: But actually the thing about Serum is it's really enjoyable. It's the most enjoyable evangelism I've ever done. And I can genuinely say to people come to this, because actually… partly because there isn't that sense of pressure that sometimes we put on ourselves – we want certain results – if you take that off yourself then actually suddenly the whole process sort of becomes really enjoyable. Serum is really enjoyable to do. And also, I'm part of the process. I learn every time I do a Serum it changes me. So I don't see it… again I see it as part of my spiritual journey and my growth, it's not just about I'm doing something for other people and it's exhausting, it's actually I come away and I've gained so much.

Interviewer: And is the institutional church 'getting' this?

Ian Mobsby: Er, I'll maybe answer that in two parts. Just want to come back to what Vanessa said there. This has changed Moot. By having a meditation group aimed at spiritual seekers, means that Moot has actually become a contemplative community. I am completely different now than I was when we met last time. The contemplative tradition in terms of my own faith has opened up a whole new gamut of depth in me that now is part of my mission engagement.

So in terms of the institutional church, I think they're starting to see that things like Moot are resilient communities that are starting to deliver on that sort of engagement, we may be only just starting but have got a place to engage with these never-churched people. I think we've got a long way to go for it to be taken seriously, but I think we're starting now to show the distinctiveness of this type of community to be engaged with parts of society that traditional forms of church cannot engage with at the moment.

Interviewer: We're talking in a church vestry at the moment, so presumably this isn't the best place in a sense to engage with totally un-churched people? I mean what's your aspiration for Moot the community and the sort of places you might work in and be based in?

Ian Mobsby: Well we've been kind of experimenting with different spaces. I think you're right, if you have a place that's a very cold church space… but I think I'm quite passionate about using church buildings, of which there are some fantastic historic buildings in the City of London, and then actually opening them up for mission. Actually we realised when we were renting other spaces that we were spending a vast amount of money using neutral spaces, but our experience of the meditation group, if you really get the publicity right – so we put posters up there and fliers and we've redesigned our entire website particularly thinking about the needs of spiritual seekers to make it much more accessible – that actually that using a church space for the meditation group has worked really well. Why? Because it's right next to a tube station. It's more about communications and about what you do with these spaces than whether it's a church space.

Now our passion in Moot is that we want to open up an arts café lounge, to create a hub in the city to then have a forum where people – you know people are most comfortable when they're doing some form of consumption, even though what we're talking about is quite counter-consumptive – but that sort of would be a great hub for us to build relationships with people in the City. So then we'd love to get hold of a church space that we could then create a kind of a place, a hub for the arts and for relation engagement through tea and coffee and all the rest of it. And that then hopefully will hold us from getting too comfortable. For being held by the context into mission engagement.

Vanessa Elston: But we always need to do things beyond the church as well. So that's my heart, is that interface. It's going out beyond the church, you know, however you envisage that – the community, the building, whatever that is. I mean we need to do both, and we always need to do both. And if we're not going beyond the building or beyond our community then in a way that's the beginning of the slow ossification or whatever that happens.

Ian Mobsby: What I'm quite excited about new monasticism, is that we in our kind of spiritual practices now expect people within the community to be committed to missional living. So it is expected that people in their weekly flow of their life will be involved in something apostolic about going… that sense of being gathered and sent into the world, that all of us have a part to play in being missional. It's not something that just the enthusiasts do, this needs to be the 'laos', the whole people of God, being outside the boundaries of the church.

Vanessa Elston: And more and more, we need to be transformed so that when we go to work, to school, we become agents of transformation. But actually… I mean part of what Moot's exploring is 'Deeper', is a process of conversion whereby we recognise we need to be more transformed. And that's part of it, but actually recognising that actually the most important places are just in our daily lives, when we're out at work, meeting our friends, those are the places that transformation can happen.

Ian Mobsby: And I think the big challenge is that all the discipleship courses that exist at the moment are ok with people who have some sort of church experience, they do not work in a praxis whole of life way because they're based on facts. So when it comes to actually Christian formation, which is hopefully going to grow out of what we're doing, we have no idea at this point how to do it. So we're looking at things like twelve steps as a possible way of holding that accountability and the whole of life approach to open up the gospel into, but we've looked at… there isn't anything that exists that works with that group of people at the moment. So we're in the dark still and we're hopefully exploring possible ways forward with that but we have no idea.

Interviewer: I was going to say that in conclusion, that there's no cunning plan here is there. I mean we met four years ago, it was a very different community then to the one that you've got now, you're much more missional now, much more open now than perhaps you were. What am I going to discover when I come back in 2014?

Ian Mobsby: Well I might have even less hair. I'm hoping that… I'm really hoping that things like the Moot community and communities like that maybe have a stronger place within the church. I think at the moment still, though we've been really supported by the diocese and we're doing stuff here and we're planning with them how we take this forward, but it is still really hard – I think the people in Moot… it's incredible, it really shouldn't exist, it's like a bumble bee, it really shouldn't get off the ground but it does. And I think that's of God. But it is so hard to do missional stuff and I just hope that the Church of England can possibly be a little bit more resourcing and supportive of groups that want to be more missional, because I think it's really hard to do that still in the Church of england.

Interviewer: Vanessa, Ian, thanks very much indeed.

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