Being Messy, Being Church a resource for schools


First posted 27 April, 2017. Reposted 23 February, 2019

Bigger Church, Bigger Difference, is the strapline of the Diocese of Liverpool where I have been Director of Education for eight months. No doubt, like all straplines, it causes a little eyeball rolling. The reason I felt called to this post was precisely the openness to the diocesan schools contributing to the diocesan growth strategy; a real belief that our schools can help bring more people to know Jesus, and create more justice in the world.

I am glad to say that expectation has been matched by reality. Our schools are already involved in growing new congregations, providing spaces to meet, natural communities that become worshipping communities and contributing to more justice in myriad ways. We already have an excellent church-school partnership award scheme and can see how we can further develop that so that the ‘top’ level of that might include Local Missional Leaders and new worshipping communities.

It is important for me, therefore, to understand what the growth agenda might look like, if I am going to be enable to enable schools to participate in it. But more than that, this is both a personal concern and a concern for me as a priest. My own family’s faith history interests me. I was brought up in a fairly pious Catholic family. There were priests in the previous generation and a desire for priests in my own. We went to church at least three times most weekends, Mass on Sunday morning, Benediction on Sunday afternoon and, usually, confession on Saturday morning. If mum was doing the flowers we might be there Saturday afternoon as well. Family life was woven through with church life. And yet, of my twelve first cousins I am the only regular church-goer in adult life. In the next generation no one, as far as I know, is a regular church goer. My own relationship with Jesus is the heart of my life and none of my life makes sense without him. I want other people to know Jesus and to love him.

I like the Zen tradition of koans, “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.”

Well, I am still seeking enlightenment on the evangelisation-koan. What is the key that will unlock the mission potential of our church in this nation, at this time; even among my family and friends?


In the autumn I read David Male’s book, How to Pioneer. It is excellent. I have just read Being Messy, Being Church (ed Ian Paul) (Bible Reading Fellowship, 2017) and found it equally brilliant.

Being Messy, Being Church is a collection of essays by twelve authors involved in developing what Ian Paul calls this ‘brand’ and Stephen Kuhrt refers to as “just one of a number of inventive and pioneering approaches to Christian mission”. Messy Church has its origins in the work and writing of Lucy Moore in her Messy Church: Fresh ideas for building a Christ-centred community (BRG, 2006) so is now at least a decade old. It is in the last four or five years, however, that it has really taken off in the wider church.

Ian Paul writes, in his characteristically succinct way, a good introduction to the volume. He points out – as do other contributors, that what unites expressions of Messy Church is not a set of branded materials but a range of values. He particularly draws attention to the essay by Tim Dakin (Bishop of Winchester) on the changes needed in episcopal leadership in this new missional situation. He wisely also points out the challenge in moving children from childhood to adolescence still within the faith community. But like all the authors he is keen to remind the reader that messy church is for everyone, it is not children’s church which adults attend, or even run.

It is refreshing to see a whole chapter devoted (by Irene Smale) to safeguarding and the pastoral implications. It is a sign of the journey that the church (and society) has been on and that this aspect of any church work is something that needs to be deeply embedded in our activities. I especially like the bulleted list (p.136) of basic principles which makes safeguarding fundamental and theological as part of our Christian lives. This chapter alone should be required reading for anyone working in our churches.

In many ways, the chapter by Tim Dakin is one of the most interesting. My professional experience has taught me that structures have to match purpose. That is very much what is being tried in this diocese in the Transforming Wigan project. It can sometimes seem that episcopacy is the ultimate untouchable structure. It is encouraging, therefore, to see ways in which a bishop might re-imagine episcopal ministry for mission. It would be good to read more about this and more from other bishops. My own belief that leadership at its best, (and I am well aware of my own inadequacies here) is always permission giving and allows others to achieve more than they had thought possible, underlies a sense in which what works well in Liverpool is a freedom to try different things.

One of the strongest chapters is Karen Rooms’ in which she describes the journey over five years of introducing Messy Church in an inner city urban parish. She, as other authors throughout the book, stresses that Messy Church is for everyone. It is not ‘children’s church’. She is also good at acknowledging not just the existence of failure but the need for it. I especially like the use her church made of texting – something schools now do on a daily basis. She also addresses the difference between ‘Sunday Church’ and ‘Messy Church’. Her quoting of Stephen Kuhrt’s ‘Sssh-free church’ is a model that needs to be followed universally.

For many years I have been saying that Holman’s Hunt’s painting Light of the World looks as if Jesus is hopelessly knocking at a church door and not receiving entrance. Rooms also draws attention to this and is strongly ‘Jesus centred’ using the simple language of ‘Jesus is my friend’ and ‘Jesus is with me’. As Isabelle Hamley puts it in her chapter on the effect of Messy Church on the team members “Messy Church … helps attenders young and old, to draw closer to Jesus – enabling discipleship rather than entertainment.”

I am less convinced by the chapter on post-modernity by Sabrina Muller. With its origins in doctoral research, perhaps this chapter is just too theoretical for me. It is good to see Muller addressing the particular issues of a state church (she is a minister in the Reformed State Church of Switzerland) but I would have been more interested in specific examples from that church. I remain unconvinced by the phenomenon of post-modernity. It is a sexy meta-narrative but when I was a Head in Lewisham I used to say that we had not reached post-modernity yet because we had still to reach modernity. This was a reference particularly to the world-view of many of the Pentecostal churches which most of the pupils at my school attended. I have to say that now I am working across schools and parishes in north-west England the narrative of post-modernity doesn’t seem to fit any better. The shock of the Brexit vote (strong in many areas here) suggests an alternative meta-narrative is needed.

As a Catholic Anglican sacred space is of crucial importance in my own life. Jean Pienaar’s chapter on this from a South African context is very powerful. I especially appreciate the reference to monastic models for defining space and think this is a strong application of the spirit of ‘new monasticism’. Again, my experience, as a Head, of building a new school along sacred models and using the aesthetic of the ecumenical monastic community at Taize would suggest that this is an application that could be extended further. I am convinced that we haven’t yet discovered a vernacular architectural language for churches that is down scaled from the triumphalism of the past, provides all the appropriate resources for community use and can also be sacred space. For Catholic Anglicans, in particular, the nineteenth century aesthetic and love for the Gothic that partly fuelled the ritual revival in the church has yet to find a contemporary parallel that speaks to people. The most successful model I can find is at Taize with its simplicity, use of icons and the powerful use of the colour orange. I would also suggest that the Richard Giles’ model – as described in his Re-Pitching the Tent, has not been applied or investigated as widely as I would have liked to see.

My only disappointment in Piennaar’s otherwise excellent contribution is her reference to ‘learning styles’. This is a much discredited fad in education whose day is well passed. Research is quite clear that human brains are not so easily divided or categorised and that memory and knowledge are the fundamental building blocks of learning.

For Catholic Anglicans there is a tendency to defensiveness where movements that originate outside the club are concerned. There is much to encourage Catholics here. Karen Rooms chapter is strong on symbols and repetition (p.25) and the practice of lectio divina (p.34) as ‘uninterrupted listening’ – a wonderful phrase. This reminded me of the use of lectio with teenagers by the Manquehue movement originating in Chile and now used in this country. It was lectio, says Rooms, that “caused a subtle but significant shift, as suggestions for change stemmed from spiritual discernment and not just pragmatic problem solving”. She describes this process as ‘dwelling in the word’ in a way that echoes the experience of base communities in the liberation theology movement in South America (see for example, Cardenal’s The Gospel in Solentiname) “We began to learn to stop controlling the story, the gospel, and to trust others and God to do his work. We were all changed by listening to God in this way.” (p.34).

Greg Ross, a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia, asks the question ‘Is it sacramental?’ and hints at an affirmative answer to that with possibilities for baptism and use of the ‘reserved Sacrament’. His reference to lay people administering sacraments is significant for me as I reflect on what it would mean to have a Local Missional Leader in each school.

Philip North’s chapter fully engages with Messy Church and the sacraments, he provides practical ways in which the Eucharist may be celebrated in a Messy Church context. He is very good on the Church as the biblical community as bride, new Israel, new Temple, and holy people of God. He shows how, from a Catholic perspective, “Messy Church is implicitly sacramental”. Mark Rylands (now Bishop of Shrewsbury) also addresses the use of sacraments within Messy Church. Again he draws resources from deep within the Catholic tradition: Daily Office, lectio divina and the Examen of Ignatius of Loyola.

There is a fundamental danger in Messy Church around the area of entertainment and this is another place where current developments in education might well have something to offer. Greg Ross is clear that Messy Church must not fall into the trap of focusing on young children and equally clear that most crafts and activities offered in church fail to address the needs of males over the age of 12. He suggests that giving the opportunity to provide real wood, real tools and create something that has an explosive outcome or food that tastes good might be more successful – with girls, I would suggest, as much as boys in that age range.

Every teacher when planning lessons knows the danger of edu-tainment; providing time filling activities but few opportunities for learning. Clearly Messy Church does not have learning as its primary aim, but worship and learning are not far apart. Just as activities can be fun without providing learning, they can be fun without engaging the participant in worship. I know that as I preside or preach at worship in multiple churches I am appalled at the poor quality of work accepted from children and teenagers in their various break-out activities. The tasks set are universally low level – colouring in and sticking, occasionally some cutting out – and, not surprisingly, the outcomes shoddily done – work that would be sent back or put in the bin by most teachers. I have studied source criticism of the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story with 10 and 11 year olds. We will never keep adolescents unless we challenge them intellectually. Teachers know that making posters and colouring in are activities given by supply staff. Having said that, Ross provides his own challenge to Christian educators for failing to provide adequate education for discipleship.

Ross refers to the language of Godly Play and Judyth Roberts (also in Australia) in her chapter reflects more deeply on Messy Church and Play. I suspect this is the key to avoiding entertainment activities. Roberts draws on the, I think, important writing of Csikszentmihalyi on ‘flow’ as the engagement of the whole person in an activity, she recognises the danger of standing behind children not sitting down with them and she quotes a phrase from Jerome Berryman that I will be using again “playful orthodoxy”.

I will be buying copies of Being Messy, Being Church for all my colleagues in the education team in Liverpool and recommending it to everyone who is committed to our schools contributing to Bigger Church, Bigger Difference. It is – in that over used phrase – essential reading if we are to grow as a church.

I would like to reflect further with colleagues on what some of the latest development in education might offer to Messy Church. These developments are an emerging new paradigm that is only just beginning to make an impact on many in schools, but which is already reflected in public exams and assessment of pupils. It is content, knowledge-based and reflects the cultural heritage, the canon, into which children are being educated. It recognises that memory is the fundamental activity of learning and that drill and practice, memorisation and repetition are key. The Church of England has produced a superb resource (Understanding Christianity) which takes this approach seriously and reflects the whole sweep of biblical revelation – anyone involved in children’s work needs to be familiar with it and with what expectations of children are. But we are only just beginning. We should expect far more of children and young people, and, dare I say it, of adults. Human beings need a serious and demanding spirituality if we are to deepen our discipleship. We need ‘playful orthodoxy’. Thank you to Ian Paul and all the contributors to this book for stimulating my thinking and reflection, I am grateful.




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