A Way of Life in a Local Church
by Simon Reed,
The Parish of the Ascension, Hanger Hill, with St Mary’s, West Twyford
We have a widely scattered Parish. The Church of the Ascension in Ealing serves two wealthy and ethnically diverse residential estates, bounded on one side by the North Circular road and on the other by the A40. North of the A40 is our second church, St Mary’s West Twyford. Most of the members of St Mary’s walk to church, but over half the members of the Ascension are spread over Ealing and beyond. We describe our purpose as helping people to connect more deeply with God and to connect God with the whole of life. But how do you build a wider sense of connection in such a scattered congregation?
A Shared Way of Life
Alongside my parish ministry I am in the leadership of a dispersed and interdenominational new monastic community, the Community of Aidan and Hilda. Many of us only meet face to face once or twice a year, and yet there is a very deep sense of connection and belonging. I realised that what connected us so deeply was a shared Way of Life, the practice of Soul Friendship, and our rhythms of prayer. What if you tried to do that in a church? For more than ten years this is what we have been trying to do here in Ealing.
The full thinking behind this, and some of the processes, are set out in my book Creating Community: Ancient Ways For Modern Churches, including the ten ‘waymarks’ of our Way of Life starting from lifelong learning, through keeping a rhythm of prayer, work and recreation, to sharing Jesus and justice.
Over the years we have probably never had more than ten people following the Way of Life but in a church the size of ours that could be a quarter of the congregation. It has helped people in different ways. Some have been encouraged in their praying, others have learned to discern when God is speaking, and some have become more confident about their faith in the workplace and speaking about Jesus to non-believers. The most common influence I have seen in those who follow this Way of Life is that they have all become more outward looking.
Strength for Difficult Days
One of the early adopters was Shirley. Looking back over more than ten years of following our Way of Life she says, “It’s turned my life around and I cannot imagine living in any other way…It’s given me the strength to get through my difficult days.” When Shirley says that, she does not speak lightly. Everyone who knows her notices her smiling, friendly joyfulness. Yet over the years she has coped with caring for her husband with dementia until he became too ill to live at home, and went on supporting other carers after his death. She also experienced serious loneliness and anxiety during lockdown. These things are never hidden but they are eclipsed by her faith, hope and joy. She sums it up like this: “Living my Way of Life brings structure, companionship and quiet enjoyment into the whole of my life, connecting me deeply and completely with God.” Once Shirley felt she could barely speak in a group of people. Now she shares her faith naturally and easily wherever she goes. “I just can’t stop,” she says.
Connection through Soul Friendship
An important part of our Way of Life is the Celtic practice of Soul Friendship. A Soul Friend is someone who will listen to us, help us discern what God is doing in our lives, encourage us, and pray with us. As I frequently say, Christianity is irreducibly something we do together, and none of us are meant to walk alone. Research indicates that even in churches with strong group structures, only about half the members will ever belong to a group. Soul Friendship means that church members are connected to at least one other person and have the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves as they follow their personal application of the Way of Life.
Soul Friendship is caught not taught, so when we started I offered anyone who wanted it an hour of my time every two months. Since then one of my Pastoral Assistants has learned simple Soul Friending skills, and another church member (who follows the Franciscan Tertiary Way of Life) has trained as a spiritual director. For clergy, Soul Friendship requires an investment of time, but it is one of the most important things I do. It gives me a privileged insight into how people are doing spiritually. Often I’m able to tell them they are doing better than they think they are! Other times I am able to engage with their problems there and then. I believe Soul Friendship, as part of a Way of Life, gives us the positive ministry of spiritual formation and pastoral care which many of us first came into ministry to do.
London Diocese is currently developing resources to enable churches to discern their Shared Way of Life as tool for deepened discipleship. You can read more about the Quiet Days we have been running as part of this discernment process. If you have a story to share about how your church uses a Rule or Way of Life, we would love to hear from you. To find out more, contact our Discipleship Enabler Mirjam Ngoy-Verhage, Mirjam.firstname.lastname@example.org