Transforming Cullompton with a Hug

Pioneer Minister, the Revd Janet Sutton Webb tells how an emerging community’s discipleship has proved transformative in a mid-Devon market town.


‘Can we, in the United Reformed Church, do Church differently, in ways which are true to our Reformed tradition and appropriate for today’s context?’ That was the question I was tasked with answering when I first came to Cullompton in mid-Devon.

I had been appointed as the United Reformed Church’s first Pioneer Minister in September 2009 to work in the South Western synod and I moved to Cullompton in July the following year.

Hug Cullompton came about through a group which began to meet in 2011. Since then it has grown and developed its own set of spiritual practices, as well as demonstrating a high level of commitment to serving the community. Each member contributes what they can and, in return, is equally valued for their skills and talents – whatever they may be.

Each participant’s call to discipleship is outworked through their own service, supported by the other members. For example, one sings with the community choir and serves as a volunteer at the community centre. Another has amazing ideas for events which the participants organise together; a recent initiative saw £1,300 raised at a local country estate for two Cullompton Charities, Cullompton Arts House and Cullompton Swimming Pool Campaign.

As the Minister of Word and Sacraments, my contribution to Hug Cullompton includes helping people to explore the Bible, leading services – such as the annual pub carol service – and presiding at the sacraments. I feel truly valued in that calling but my position invites no more authority than any other in the group.

TRIO HUGS 554x415One member had a strong desire to offer Christ’s love and healing power to anyone who needs it. The result of this vision is Wellbeing Wednesdays when Hug Cullompton’s room is thrown open for anyone who wants a chat, cuppa, hug, or free treatment. Most members volunteer or pop in at some point each Wednesday. Rather than a concentrated act of worship, it is during that period every week when the members gather, demonstrate God’s love to others, and explore what it means to live as people of faith in today’s world.

Hug Cullompton works in partnership with a number of organisations. Initiatives tend be one-offs: a fair showcasing local talents and businesses, a community art exhibition, providing a venue for the town’s first Food and Drink Festival. Hug Cullompton organises them, shares them and blesses them, then – as one member put it – “lets them grow wings and fly”, developing or not as the Holy Spirit guides.

One Hug Cullompton member likens Hug’s way of working to metamorphosis. A caterpillar is compelled to enter a pupa to be transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The term used to describe activities relating to this entomological process is ‘imaginal’ – which seems appropriate to use in relation to Hug Cullompton. It has been transformational – not just for those directly involved, but also for the town as a whole.

When asked what Hug Cullompton is all about, another participant said without hesitation: “Four things: practical spirituality, personal empowerment, making connections and growing community.” What better definition could there be of an emerging church?’

Why inherited and new forms of church need each other

The writer of Ecclesiastes, observing the way of the world, states that…

there is nothing new under the sun, and that all is vanity.

It might be an accusation levelled at the Fresh Expressions initiative and other associated movements which have emerged over the past twenty years or so. Martyn Percy describes many of the attempts at new forms of church as ‘old tricks for new dogs’

While this might be justified in some cases, it is certainly not true of the myriad communities springing up across the United Kingdom, both within larger denominations and outside them. Their aim is to worship God, follow Jesus faithfully, and carry out mission appropriate to their current context. Whether or not what they do is ‘new’ is, to them, rather irrelevant.

In their book Emerging Churches: creating christian community in postmodern cultures (2006, pp. 44-45), Gibbs and Bolger list nine defining features of these new communities, the first three of which are outworked in the second six. Over a decade later, they still remain broadly true or have developed even further:

  1. Identifying with the life of Jesus. This might contrast with, or be additional to, self-identifying as a member of a particular church or denomination.
  2. Transforming the secular realm. Reflective of a theology which sees the work of God in all things is a desire to see an end to the distinction between the sacred and profane in all aspects of culture.
  3. Living highly communal lives. Emerging church participants tend to understand worship as a way of life rather than once-a-week service.
  4. Welcoming the stranger. This is offered without any anticipation that any new person will be expected to sign up to a doctrinal creed.
  5. Serving with generosity. Acts of kindness are viewed as foretastes of the Kingdom of God.
  6. Participating as producers. All members of the community take corporate responsibility for worship, mission and ministry.
  7. Creating as created beings. Revelling in creative acts of worship, generosity and community service, there is a strong sense among members that they are participating in God’s mission to the world.
  8. Leading as a body. Many emerging churches aim to have a flat structure and full equality among participants.
  9. Taking part in spiritual activities. Often ancient and contemporary spiritualities from a variety of different church traditions are adapted for corporate and personal use.

Continue reading “Why inherited and new forms of church need each other”

Tug boat or cruise liner?

... or why inherited and new forms of church need each other

Cruise Liner

While I was in the process of being introduced to a church as their prospective minister,  I awoke one morning with an image of a tug boat floating alongside a cruise liner.

The prospective church was a large, traditional one in a wealthy area. The people were lovely and the job interesting, but I really wasn’t sure why on earth God might want me to go there. I was used to being part of a small, innovative community, where traditional forms of worship and structured management patterns were a misnomer. What did I have to offer a flagship church, and why on earth would they want me?

During my prayer time later that morning God spoke:

“You are currently captain of something that is equivalent to a tug boat. You know your waters, you have control of the tiller, and you can choose exactly where you go and the route you will take. The prospective church is like a cruise liner. It is large, unwieldy, and will take ages to change direction. All the passengers and crew already know where they want to go and how they expect to get there. You have the ability to be captain of either vessel – it is your choice – but be under no illusions as to the nature of the job you are considering, and choose wisely.”

As it turned out, the introduction went no further. It was the right decision on both sides. But it gave me food for thought.  At present I am content being the captain of a tug boat. I know my context, I love my job and I can be of real value in the place where I am.

But the picture stays with me – possibly because in my image the two vessels are attached to each other, and necessarily so. The purpose of the tug boat is defined by its association with the cruise liner, while the cruise liner would struggle to leave harbour without the tug boat’s help. In the same way the church needs both flagship congregations and small, experimental ecclesial communities. One without the other would lead to an impoverished church.

But let’s face it, not everyone wants to navigate the oceans in a tug boat…

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