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Saturday, 9 January 2016

Past Life - Present Mission (5)

Chapter 3: Christian life and mission in the light of Celtic Christianity (continued)

Spirituality: a target for growth in UPA Churches

Celtic Spirituality is filled with a great sense of spiritual presence, of Christ being present in all things, of an awareness of His immanence, of a spirituality rooted in a poor world where oppression, illness and danger were linked to fear and a poverty of spirit. In Christ the reality could be faced and the natural world was affirmed. There was a command to redeem the whole world. Joy and celebration in the Holy Spirit abounded, together with means through prayer for protection. This was the substance of the Celtic Spirituality provided through the ‘Woven Cord’ programme and the backcloth to the ‘Woven Cord’ programme supported that overall spiritual content.

The evaluation of key themes that resonated or did not resonate showed that Category 1 participants had absorbed the Celtic sense of spirituality. Such spirituality involves both body and soul, but is of a nature that links to all the realities, problems and joys of the real world of people, including that of Tyseley as an UPA.

Mission in UPAs: the Celtic Christian background

Patrick and Columba’s ministry was characterised by mission to established Christians and missionary evangelism to others, leading to conversion and Christian commitment. Their approach became a model for the wider work of Celtic Saints and countless monks who, within the practice of peregrinatio, integrated mission and evangelism. Hillgarth established that evangelisation in Ireland was carried on after Patrick’s death by ‘holy men’ who lived a life alternating between living as hermits or wandering preachers, teaching and evangelising. Patrick’s approach also involved a willingness to engage in open debate and opposition to Druidism. Thus, the Celtic Saints practised both mission and evangelism.

Nora Chadwick discusses this within the 4th-6th century context. She refers to the fact that Celtic monks, as part of their commitment to Peregrinatio, engaged either in missionary work or mission. Columba illustrates the difference between the two concepts. When Columba visited King Brude of the Picts, or when his monks subsequently worked among them, this was regarded as missionary work. It involved, in Chadwick’s view, a primary evangelistic introduction to them of the Christian faith. Whereas when Columba and fellow monks ministered to the Scotti, i.e. the Irish invaders who were colonising what is now Argyll in Scotland, they were engaging in mission. In Chadwick’s view the Scotti were already within the embrace of Christianity. Peregrinatio was the ascetic discipline behind such mission and missionary evangelism. In practice any distinction between Celtic mission and evangelistic mission as meaning missionary work is really quite tenuous.

In the context of this study, I have used an applied definition of mission and evangelism. The definition is closely based on Nora Chadwick’s explanation about Celtic mission and missionary evangelism during the 4th-7th centuries AD. The setting of this applied definition was strictly within Tyseley as a ‘deprived’ neighbourhood, defined nationally as an ‘Urban Priority Area:
  • Mission: Contemporary Christian work amongst established believers to encourage them in the growth of spirituality as expressed in daily Christian living within their UPA. This I regarded as a pre-requisite for the second aim to occur. 
  • Evangelism: To prepare and send out Christians into their neighbourhood and among those they ‘rub shoulders with day by day’, sharing the good news about the Gospel of Jesus. 
A contemporary definition of mission by Andrew Kirk is, “Christian believers being sent out into the world to witness in word and deed to Jesus Christ.” In many ways Nora Chadwick’s discussion of Celtic mission and missionary evangelistic activity in contrast, seemed more relevant to Tyseley and its people. The definition and approach to ‘mission’ in this study linked input to established Christians with the hope it would eventually lead to evangelistic/missionary outreach into the local area.

Mission and pre-Evangelism

While the ‘Woven Cord’ programme did not, within its time scale, prove to be a major pre-requisite for evangelism in Tyseley two new actions that involved direct outreach into the local neighbourhood were achieved.

The first involved undertaking a community survey to find out how local people saw the neighbourhood’s main ‘needs’. Members of the congregation took out a questionnaire to be completed at three key places within the streets of Tyseley: outside the Primary School; outside Tyseley Post Office; and outside St. Edmund’s Church. Members of the congregation who shared in this task in small groups, came back thrilled at the interest and response. The survey meant Church people were actively consulting Tyseley residents and publicising the work and future hopes about Stedicare and its wide ranging Christian outreach into the parish. This was a clear example of a move into pre-evangelism.

The second related to ‘The Tyseley Prayer Vigil’. This linked regular group prayer with direct outreach into the locality. During the ‘Woven Cord’ programme the Vigil group started praying specifically for each street in Tyseley, and any known situation that needed prayer and for its residents. This pattern continued and subsequently led to ‘Prayer Walks’ in a few streets.

Mission and Evangelism in UPAs

The Church of England, due to its commitment to a parish system, has always had direct involvement in disadvantaged urban areas. At times, some of its approaches have been particularly successful, as with the Anglo-Catholic ‘Slum Ministry’ early last century. Other Christian denominations at times have successfully maintained active ministry in UPAs’ such as the Salvation Army, built upon the challenge of General Booth’s 1899 book In Darkest England and the Way Out. The 1985 Faith in the City report compares with Booth’s book but updated to urban realities in the mid 1980’s. Following that report I surveyed UPA clergy in Birmingham and published a book illustrating the multi-facetted ways that front-line clergy in Birmingham were using creative ideas and initiatives to effectively minister in UPA parishes. Yet, it also brought to light that there was much despair and absence of hope in many UPA parishes. This piece of action research provides one example of a programme that addresses absence of hope in UPA parishes.

Whilst the Fieldwork Programme at St. Edmund’s was not epoch making, it did result in building up in the faith a small group of the Lord’s people who live in a UPA, with its marginalisation from affluent society around. Christian believers from the lower social classes were thereby helped to reflect and be strengthened in the living out of their faith using the Celtic Christian model of spirituality. Their perception and awareness of the possibilities of Christian living as something distinctive, in which they were no longer pushed into the mould of the world around them, was strengthened. It is my view, that for such programmes within this type of urban context, “small is beautiful”.

The Tyseley study as a starter programme needs to be further assessed, built upon and remoulded into the type of mission programme that would resonate with other UPA Christians. I feel confident that there is a place in deprived urban areas for such small, intimate, mission programmes built around blueprints of spirituality, of which the Celtic is an excellent example. There may be others worth identifying and considering. Whatever is chosen would need to be grounded upon prayer, in association with a group of committed believers ready to commit eighteen months or so of their lives to such a programme and to such a UPA area.

A significant but unheralded happening at the end of the ‘Woven Cord’ programme that related to the transfer of Celtic Christian principles to the practice of Christian living at St. Edmund’s was the ending of a concentration, within the fellowship’s worshipping life, on ‘thing’s Celtic’! The Celtic resource material and the ways in which individuals had been strengthened through an in-depth sharing of the Celtic Biblical themes had been effectively applied into the context of the participants’ own urban world. The individuals who had gained through the mission programme and the Church’s own growth in spirituality had been transposed into being a spirituality for believers living in Tyseley. It was now part of their shared experience, and in a holistic manner they owned ‘it’. We no longer referred to these matters as ‘Celtic’.


Wynton Marsalis, an American musician made a moving statement that I will use as an ending to this study, with the hope it may encourage others ministering in UPAs:

“I say to the kids in the schools, make sure you play a solo, all of you, and whatever you play, do it like it’s the last thing you’re ever going to play. Even if its sad, play it. But just don’t play too long! That’s my belief and the music is a reflection of that. Being in the process, that’s what counts. You might not be there at the end of what’s being worked out. Look at the cats who built those big cathedrals, put down the first stones. They weren’t going to see the thing finished, but they were putting those stones down with a certain vibration.”

Perhaps this study could become a tune for some sad and lonely UPA Church to re-discover ‘hope’ in Christ, and become established like a Celtic island ‘Inis’, an island base of Christian warmth, belonging and service to others, created within the hope of a new beginning. A place where believers could be sent out to re-establish a people for the forgotten God from among the dusty, noisy, stressful streets.


Wynton Marsalis, Taj Mahal & Eric Clapton - Just A Closer Walk With Thee.

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