By Fr David Long
Early in the new millennium a group of parishioners at Our Lady and St Christopher's in Romiley, Cheshire organised a very successful Alpha programme in the parish. This was offered as an opportunity for people to gather and reflect more deeply on their Christian faith. Well over sixty people attended the meetings on a regular basis and spoke eloquently afterwards of the sense of mutual support that had characterised the gathering together to share a meal and then prayer and reflection together. All felt renewed and strengthened in faith and wanted to find ways to continue such mutual up-building.
At the same time the Shrewsbury Diocese had launched a Pastoral and Property Review to respond to the challenge of declining numbers of parishioners and clergy. After widespread consultation, the recommendations of the Trustees were published in a White Paper. They included the amalgamating or clustering of many parishes within the diocese. As a parish priest I had a sense that our parishes are often rather anonymous institutions where people come to church rather than experience the sense of “being church” themselves. If we started amalgamating and clustering parishes the danger was that we would create ever larger and more anonymous institutions. If this was the way forward then we would have to find new ways within the new structures of gathering people in smaller groups so that they could experience more easily that they are themselves the Church.
At the same time I began a Masters Degree Programme with the Loyola Institute for Ministry in New Orleans in Pastoral Studies. As part of the degree my focus area was to look at the growth and development of Small Christian/ Church Communities. These had their origin in the Base Christian Community experience of Latin America and were an attempt to translate this to a first World context. My studies taught me that if a group was to be a Small Christian Community then it must have an element of belonging and mutual support amongst the members but also a sense of mission - of outreach to the needs of the wider community and world.
When I returned from America I shared my sense of the value of Small Christian Communities amongst my parishioners. I felt that they would provide a way of building on the experience of those who had participated in the Alpha Programme and also be a valuable example to the diocese of ways of being Church within the new larger structures that would be required. Initially I spoke in homilies and wrote in the Parish Magazine about the concept of Small Christian Communities. They would be groups of about 12 people who would gather regularly in each others homes under the guidance/leadership of two pastoral facilitators. In the gatherings people would gather and chat about what has been happening in their lives since they last met. They would then read the Gospel for the coming Sunday and spend time in quiet reflection on it. People would then be invited to share their immediate response to the Gospel – words or phrases that struck them or challenged them. The facilitator/s would then provide some brief commentary on the passage so that people would have a clearer sense of the intention of the writer and the context in which he was writing. The group would then be led through a series of questions which would seek to help them relate the passage to their own life and how it challenges them as individuals or a community to make the message of the passage a reality in our world. There would then be a time for intercessory prayers and then a time of socialising and relaxation.
At this time I also identified six pairs of parishioners (either a husband and wife or two friends) to act as facilitators for the Communities. I set about a programme of formation with them in the art of collaborative leadership and facilitation. I also invited any person in the parish who would like to join a Small Christian Community to fill in a slip with their name and telephone number. Over seventy people asked to join. I then divided these people into groups under the leadership of the Pastoral Facilitators.
Six Small Christian Communities were formed nearly two years ago now and have been meeting fortnightly ever since. Initially a small number of people dropped out but also a few others have joined as the Communities have become more established. Recently when we gathered all the members together to share what they had experienced as members of Small Christian Communities, many spoke of the great sense of belonging, support and friendship that exists within the groups. Others spoke of a time of peace in very busy lives which they could not now manage without. Gradually people are becoming more aware of the need to support and sustain each other as Christians as we seek to respond to the challenge of the Gospel to help make the Kingdom a reality in our world today.
If you would like information on resources to help launch Small Christian Communities or simply to chat about our experiences in Small Christian Communities please feel free to contact me on 0161 430 2704 or write to me at Our Lady & St Christopher's, 52 Barrack Hill, Romiley, Cheshire, SK6 3BA or Email [email protected]