Feedback from the two Round Table conferences in Derbyshire
What an amazing team of volunteer Regional Co-ordinators Jane Leadbetter has recruited and cared for over these last four years. All of them passionate about Messy Church but also thoughtful and creative as they wrestle with important questions, now that Messy Church is growing up. And what an international gathering we had as well at the two recent Round Table conferences in Derbyshire, with representatives from Canada to Sweden and from all four corners of the UK, from the top of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall, from the Celtic fringes of Ireland and Wales to the forgotten flatlands of Lincolnshire! Is there any other fresh expression of church that has seeded itself so widely and so internationally as Messy Church?!
The most important part of our time together over these four days was of course the conversations we had in between sessions, over meals and at coffee. This is the Messy Church ‘Avon Factor’, as Jane has christened it, working at its best and doing something that even the best social networking can never quite emulate. The challenge of course is, that as the Messy Church family grows there will be pressure to give up on these face to face conversations because of the distances and the costs involved. But there is no doubt that at the moment at least we have something very special; involvement in Messy Church gives people a sense of being valued and important in a way that sometimes the traditional structures of the church can sadly no longer offer.
People love telling their stories of Messy Church and we heard so many on these Round Tables as we made opportunities for sharing news and practical ideas for activities – and indeed some of those crafts are already up on our Messy Mag Facebook page and are being enjoyed by the wider messy family around the world. The stories ranged from the challenges of co-ordinating a scattered family of Messy Churches across five time zones in Canada to the amazing growth of Messy Churches across all denominations in south Wales; from ecumenical Messy Churches in the villages of Cornwall to the pioneering Messy Church prison work of Cumbria; from the encouraging engagement with mission that Messy Church is helping to promote across the diocese of Lincoln to heartening stories of how Messy Church can cut through centuries of distrust between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. With all this going on, it’s no wonder that the cry went up more than once at both conferences that there just isn’t enough time to do everything and that many Regional Co-ordinator lists have grown so big that in some areas we are now looking to appoint new people to join the existing 80-strong team.
One of two parallel highlights of our times together was Trish Hahn’s challenging and exciting story of her SEND Messy Church at Hemel Hempstead and her hopes for how this can be repeated in her new home of Clacton in Essex. Trish shared this at the first Round Table and she has kindly made herself available to the network to support others who either wish to start a Messy Church for those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities or who need some advice about how to make their own Messy Church more welcoming for families with special needs children. One interesting question that developed in our discussion following her presentation was, what does SEND discipleship look like? Is it something to do with service and an uncomplicated faith? Or was it, more challengingly, linked to the way those with special needs can disciple us?
The other highlight was the session led at Swanwick by James Pegg, our new messy Intern, when we addressed issues facing Messy Churches and teenagers, looking both at the barriers to welcoming teenagers into every aspect of Messy Church as well as gathering lots of good examples of where churches are being successful in befriending and welcoming this particular age group.
It was interesting to note that the questions suggested for discussions at both conferences represented a mixture of those which we have come to expect at Meet-ups (and following our presentations about Messy Church to new audiences), alongside new, challenging questions about just what’s so special about Messy Church and what questions it is asking of the whole church at this time. We will of course always need to address recurring issues such as how we engage with men and boys in Messy Church, how we keep it all-age and how we best support those Messy Churches that have lost their way with regard to the five key values; however at the same time there a new questions emerging about just where Messy Church sits in the present ecclesial scene both in the UK and overseas. Is Messy Church simply a successful way of re-imagining children and family work for the 21st century or is it in fact something more daring and adventurous that relates more to church planting and re-imagining worship, evangelism, discipleship, and training for our day and age? Lucy shared some of her recent thinking on this, particularly prompted by her visit to New Zealand, and her recent comments in the messy newsletter have stirred up thinking about these issues with some interesting reactions!
Maybe after 10 years we have grown to a point where we need to ask some tougher questions of ourselves, as well as the churches within which we work as Messy Churches. It would be true to say that it’s not just inherited church that so often doesn’t quite ‘get’ Messy Church but that also many Messy Churches themselves are only just realising what a revolutionary road they have embarked on. Messy Church is not just all age in different clothes but something quite dangerously both counter-cultural and counter-ecclesial for traditional church. Messy Church is allowing us to come at our most precious story and history with new insights. It is already beginning to prompt big questions about liturgy, the sacraments, issues of membership and what it means to live the life of faith both personally and in community. Messy Church is now too ubiquitous, too ecumenical and too unstoppable to be put back into a box. And just as we have begun seriously to think about teenagers in Messy Church, maybe we need to revisit the theology of Messy Church as it stumbles across the threshold of its teenage-hood with all the unavoidable stormy, exciting and important questions which that will bring.