Archbishops’ Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team, Bishop Graham Cray, says there is often a reality gap between the language of pilgrimage and the experience of sitting in the same place doing the same things inside a church building each Sunday. ‘The Church is intended to be a pilgrim people,’ he adds, ‘continually on the move in response to the call of Jesus to deeper discipleship and missionary engagement. The Church of Scotland report Church Without Walls described it as people with Jesus at the centre travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’
Now Wood Green Mennonite Church, London, is giving this theological language new meaning by piloting a ‘walking’ fresh expression. Phil Wood, a member of Wood Green, explains how the monthly church is a mixture of walking, talking, prayer, liturgy and meditation.
‘We’ve had to take a close look at what we understand by the term, Walking Church. There are plenty of organisations for Christian walkers and many churches have walking groups but we are not looking at an ecumenical “fellowship” made up of Christians who walk in their spare time but a church that walks! Imagine a congregation where the essential elements of church – mission, sacraments, worship and the Word – primarily take place on the move or in the context of hospitality along the way.
‘The idea is to create a community of faith where the heartlands of “church” happen in the course of walking.
‘My congregation at Wood Green caught the vision and, following an Epping Forest taster last autumn, we pulled on our backpacks for a full-blown 2012 pilot. We’re walking four London locations this year with walks arranged for the final Sunday morning of the month, changing location every quarter. Every walk has a leader responsible for a theme and three or four reflections. We walk, eat, listen, meditate, pray and sometimes sing – though the latter is a topic of discussion. It also involves hospitality – whether in homes, pubs or cafes. Each time we learn a little more.
‘In February, I joined others on a walk between Highgate and Alexandra Palace. Wayne Hostetler led it on the theme of ‘perspective’ and there were some splendid views of north London to illustrate the point. We talked about the panorama from Alexandra Palace with the City skyscrapers to inner-city Tottenham and the ‘smudge’ of Epping Forest — all that poverty and power cheek by jowl.
Since then, we have also tackled the 4.5 miles Parkland Walk in London’s largest nature reserve following the old railway line from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace.
‘Where do we go next with this idea? We are trying to get our priorities right and inclusiveness is a challenge. How do we accommodate ‘serious’ ramblers, not-so-serious amblers, exponents of ‘walking meditation’ and pilgrimage and those walking for health and ecological awareness? Also, how do we go about youth and children’s work and what provision are we making for those with limited mobility?
‘I see Walking Churches as having enormous mission potential. According to the Mission-Shaped Church report, 20 per cent of the UK population is involved in walking as a leisure activity — a figure just slightly lower than that of the entire British churchgoing constituency. There are 139,000 members in the Ramblers (formerly the Ramblers Association) alone. In large areas of Britain there are more people out walking on a Sunday than going to worship.
‘Of course, there are a number of potential pitfalls for Walking Church – with one of the most obvious being the weather! Although the main activity would obviously be walking there is clearly a need for some time indoors as well as outdoors – as long as this doesn’t undermine the nature of the church.
‘Hospitality is the bridge to providing this support, especially where a Walking Church is linked to an existing congregation. However, there’s nothing to say that hospitality needs to be in a church building; it could be in a pub, a home, a youth hostel or any number of other locations. I believe the cell church model – with some adaptation – offers the best insights for structuring walking churches.
‘I have been thinking too as what might be possible as Walking Church develops. Here are some of the early thoughts:
* A link with a Tourist Information Centre
* Launching Walking Church via a long-distance path such as the Pennine Way or the Ridgeway, perhaps involving people from different churches along the route
* Offers a natural window into powerful expressions of social justice in identification with the stranger, the homeless and the refugee
* Walking Church ‘guidebooks’ could be an exercise both in devotional and travel writing
* Play a significant role in extremely rural communities
* Could walk ‘home or away’ (ie near or far away from where most members live) or it might draw members from a wide area based on a network connection. So, a Walking Church might have a close association with one locality or much more of a network focus.
‘We’re learning something about evangelism in the values driving this particular fresh expression. One of our walkers likes us because we don’t “proselytise”, instead we “reflect”. Are we too peaceable to share faith? I hope not — but our message isn’t “become like us and you will be saved”. We are “peace church”. Yes, words are important, but mostly peace is in the pace. It’s easier to listen at three miles per hour…’
Fresh Expressions: www.freshexpressions.org.uk
London Walking Church: http://www.menno.org.uk/walkingchurch