Finding God Pitched Among Us

Added about 2 years ago by Benjamin Carter

GUEST BLOG: Benjamin Carter heads to the countryside (in spirit, at least) to explain the origins of God’s Tent, an exciting new pattern for rural church mission.

If I look out of my study window, I can see a small knot of tress on the skyline. If you squint, you can just about see the outline of a small church in those trees. This is Haydon Old Church. The last remaining building of the ancient township of Haydon which was abandoned with the growth of the settlement of Haydon Bridge, where I am Vicar, which stands in the valley floor on the banks of the River South Tyne.

Haydon Old Church is a wonderful place. When we can we worship in there monthly. It has no heating or lighting and so we gather by candlelight to experience the numinous power of that ancient place. By legend it is an ancient church of St Cuthbert, a site where Cuthbert’s relics rested for a time and the haliwerfolc—the people of the saint—came to worship and give thanks for Cuthbert’s protection of these northern hills as his community journeyed from Lindisfarne to his eventual resting place in Durham.

Living and worshiping in Northumberland, we live as part of the legacy of Cuthbert and the other great northern saints. We live as successors of the haliwerfolc and are part of that sacred geography defined not only by the great pillars of Lindisfarne and Durham, but also the smaller places, like Haydon Old Church or St Cuthbert’s, Beltingham (where I am also Vicar); places defined by their relationship to this ongoing story of faith.

Although we so often now seek the legacy of these northern saints in fixed places, like Durham Cathedral, or Lindisfarne, or even Haydon Old Church, what defined the ministry of Cuthbert and many of the other great Anglo-Saxon saints was not just these fixed places, but their restlessness, their constant movement outwards into creation, to seek and proclaim the gospel. Gorden Mursell in his work English Spirituality argues that the restless energy of Anglo-Saxon spirituality was born from the tension between the call of cynn, the mead-drinking camaraderie of the tight-knit group gathered around their Lord and his hall; and of wraecca: the desire, and even sacred calling, to exile and wilderness. God’s Tent, the new pattern of rural mission which my new book describes, is born almost literally out of the soil that defined the restless energy of the northern saints.

In its very form God’s Tent speaks of the yearning for wraecca, for the wilderness. God’s Tent began life, just under three years ago, not as an aspirational remembering of an Anglo-Saxon past, but as a pragmatic attempt to offer something to many of the older children we were encountering in our church life. As I describe in the book, very quickly God’s Tent moved from being “something for the children” to an experience and expression of church in its own right. Each month as we gather in God’s Tent, children and adults gather in our six-metre Bell Tent pitched in different places in the landscape to explore the stories of God’s love for us. The form of our gatherings, or “pitchings” as we describe them, draw deeply on the image of the tent which God pitched in the wilderness of the Exodus. In the tent, literally and figuratively, we invoke this idea of God coming close to us in the messiness and muddiness of the world we live in. In God’s Tent we encounter the God who in Jesus came close to us, who—as the prologue to John’s Gospel says—became flesh and “pitched his tent among us”.

This yearning for the wilderness, the desire to find our untamed and untameable God present for us in the breadth of creation, does not mean, however, that we are untethered from our inheritance. Reflecting deeply on the ongoing debates within the Church of England around the need to innovate in mission and protect the inheritance of our faith, God’s Tent Pitched Among Us seeks unashamedly to do both. God’s Tent draws on the ancient wisdom of the Church to find afresh in the glory of creation the story of God’s love for us. So in the sample “pitchings”, which make up the second part of the book, you will find: the encouragement to build dens as part of an extended lectio divina on the wise and foolish builders; scavenger hunts built around the deep stories told to us in the Stations of the Cross and Resurrection; and an opportunity to reflect on our own baptism through than ancient symbols of that foundational sacrament.

By drawing on the inherited wisdom of the Church, God’s Tent might draw us into the wilderness, but it also orientates towards cynn, the fellowship and abiding life of the Church. The power of God’s Tent is that is encourages us to move out with that restless energy of our Anglo-Saxon forbears, into the wonder of creation to find where God is already present and at work in our midst. But like the Anglo-Saxon spiritual poles of cynn and wraecca, it also calls us back. Back into the wisdom of the Church through the traditional spiritual patterns and practices that inform the worship of God’s Tent.

God’s Tent lives in the creative tension between cynn and wraecca, between wilderness and home, between innovation and inheritance. What we have found, and what you will encounter in the pages of the book, is the truth that it is these both/and places that we find most deeply the power of the God who, in Jesus, comes to pitch his tent among us.

Benjamin Carter is the Vicar of the Parishes by the Wall—which cover about 100 square-miles of the most famous stretches of Hadrian’s Wall. Benjamin’s new book, God’s Tent Pitched Among Us, tells the story of the conception, development and ongoing life of this Fresh Expression of Church. Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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