A history of Grace
Why did we start? ...
A few members of the church were just desperately waiting for something new to happen! I was bored, bored, bored with standard evangelical stuff. I had been leading young peoples' groups merely as an excuse to get out of church services.
The catalyst came with a curate, Mike Starkey. Someone with enough clout to get things done and a bit of time but also in a hurry. The fact that curates have such short times in a post was an important factor because it stopped both of us Mikes deciding to wait and enter into long and meaningful dialogue with the PCC etc etc. We just had to do it.
I was interested anyway. I had been to the Nine O'clock Service and their previous incarnations and had read with interest some of the stuff written by Graham Cray. As young peoples’ work co-ordinator I had had to analyse 'All God’s Children' from the Church of England's General Synod, and I was becoming increasingly concerned at the huge drop off in church attendance by young people.
But perhaps more than that it was a self-centered act. I knew that if things didn’t change for me there was a good chance that the reality chasm between my life and my church would become so big that one side would win (and I didn’t reckon it would be 'Songs of Fellowship').
Grace 1.0 A small experiment 1993-95 ...
Mike Starkey approached me initially in the summer of 1993. Perhaps because of discussions we'd had about St. Mary's being a bit too straight, perhaps because he knew I’d been to NOS and was interested in what they did, or because I had a large record collection, or perhaps just because I insisted in wearing hats in church and was a pain in the ass.
He had already broached the idea of trying an ‘alternative worship’ event with the then vicar and had received a great deal of support. I was dead keen and together we talked about other possible people. One guy because he understood PAs and sound, a woman who played the flute well and another guy who was unconventional and had interesting opinions on most things. My wife Jill was also recruited to play keyboard.
We decided not to hang about but to plan a series of services, two each month, and see if anyone came. We had no budget and decided this was generally a good thing. A day conference with Graham Cray at the Greenhouse in 1992 and another with Paul Roberts in 1993 had convinced us that big plans and big budgets were not the way to go - a better approach might be to keep it small and manageable and produce services that you’d like to take your friends to. A few planning meetings, some exceedingly poor music rehearsals (we had decided to write our own music and had a guitar, a flute, a keyboard and a £60 drum machine) and a lot of excitement later and we were ready to go.
On Sunday 7 November 1993 the first Grace service took place. It started when everyone who had promised to come had arrived - about 35 people in total! Dave Tomlinson was guest speaker, on the subject of 'Grace'. The service contained many elements still used by Grace today - ‘homemade’ music, visuals and liturgy; plenty of ambient and chilled out music to accompany readings and prayers and a sense of freedom and space to explore God in different ways.
It was brilliant. The room was crap, poor lights, terrible sound and total lack of musical genius but I knew something had been born. Church was no longer something that happened to me but something I could take responsibility for. There didn’t need to be a conflict between the rest of the week and Sunday. I was proud of my church for the first time since I had been a child watching my dad preach!!! The second service had a comic, Milton Jones, as its star turn and we arranged the Polygon as a comedy club (and tried to write worship songs about humour). When Elaine Storkey came as guest speaker we created a 'love grotto'.
Planning these services opened our eyes to some truths about God which we’d forgotten or ignored over the years. God accepts us because he’s decided to, it’s got nothing to do with ‘deserving’ his love. He knows what we’re like and what we will be like. There is nothing that can keep God from accepting us. The grace of God, this unconditional love, frees us from the fear of failure as we try to express our belief in a loving God in ways that we find relevant and real.
In the summer of 1995 Mike Starkey left for a new job. At one of the last services that ‘term’ (an outdoor service that we held inside because of the crap weather) I had been introduced to Jonny Baker by the vicar. In fact we had embraced as part of the service, something which I know Jonny thoroughly enjoyed and still thinks about. By this time I was suffering from total burn out. From the five original members, three had left the church or were just about to and one more wanted to step down from being involved. We had a break. We’d run out of energy and ideas and Grace had a holiday.
Grace 2.0 Getting noticed 1996-97 ...
Grace returned in January 1996, in a monthly format which was easier to manage. A new group of people had emerged to help Mike. Jonny and Jenny Baker brought creative worship talents honed through years of youthwork experience. Jonny's high profile and wide connections in British youthwork, and his access to a recording studio and publishing outlet, would have a huge impact on Grace's visibility in the years to come. Photography teacher Dave Holme brought his slide collection, artistic talents, knowledge of Catholic and Celtic liturgies, his wife, four children, and an old VW bus to carry things around in. Mark Waddington brought video and creative skills from his work as a creative producer for the BBC. James Quartley produced proper flyers featuring a new Grace logo by Abundant designer Nic Hughes.
Abundant was a Christian nightclub organisation in London co-run by Jonny's brother Steve, and many of the Abundant crowd came to Grace, especially when the two shared a weekend. Numbers were averaging over 60 at services, occasionally hitting 100. Grace was now part of a vibrant young Christian scene at that time in London, which ranged from other alternative worship groups such as Epicentre and Holy Joes through to the creative parts of evangelical churches and organisations, all seeking engagement with contemporary culture, with many of the connections running through Abundant.
Grace began to be noticed. It appeared in Arena magazine ["echoes of chill-out ambience"], and on TV at Christmas 1996, as one programme in Channel 4's 'God in the House' contemporary worship series. This provoked the following piece, in Mixmag January 1997 issue:
TV to screen 'rave style' christmas services
Channel 4 are broadcasting a series of Christian rave services over the festive period, seemingly aimed at clubbers. Entitled 'God in the House', the programmes feature worshippers getting down to a range of dance music including techno and ambient, and claim "funky Christian services did not end with the Chris Brain Nine O'clock Service scandal. in fact, Chris Brain's services marked the beginning of a vibrant new movement." The programmes run at 12.30pm from December 24th to the 30th.
Unbelievably, the final programme, subtitled 'Grace', describes itself as a 'chill-out after-hours service, and ideal way to end a hectic weekend,' and compares itself to Café del Mar in Ibiza.
In March 1997 the album 'Grace' was released, featuring songs written or adapted by Jonny Baker and Jon Birch for Grace, along with "Images for Worship', a video of Grace visuals and featuring a brief clip of Grace itself.
So here we are in February 1997. Grace services take place regularly in Ealing and we are releasing an album of our tunes and a video of our visuals. We offer them as a resource. Grace really is homespun, not slick. It doesn't happen because of technology [the PA, projectors and TVs are all borrowed!]. Like lots of similar services around the country, it happens because a group have found a space to reimagine worship and want to make it happen. Anyone can do it... our hope is that these tunes and visuals will be a help to new groups and to those already doing stuff, and that they may spark more new music, visuals and liturgies.
We are pleased that we are still part of St. Mary's church and form one of its congregations. Grace has meant that the dissatisfaction has ben replaced by hope, hope that wins through when it gets really tough and it seems that no-one has any time, energy or ideas for the next service.
[Jonny Baker, from the sleevenotes of the 'Grace' album]
As part of this mission to resource the wider church, Grace began to do 'guest appearances' at youthwork conferences and in other churches, hoping to spark people's imaginations about reimagining worship. At Greenbelt 1997 [the year of the mud] Grace staged five services, complete with all electrical devices, in a marquee, which was an experience not to be lightly repeated. For the next few years there would be a recurring joke about buying a tour bus and going on the road permanently.
Meanwhile in Ealing, Adam Baxter turned up in the second half of 1996, liked what he saw and wondered how to get involved. This resulted in him turning up at a service and saying "I've made Grace a website...". The first site mimicked the new logo flyer for the services that started 1997.
And in November Live On Planet Earth introduced Grace to their Labyrinth service - which was to become a regular feature and bear surprising fruit three years hence.
High profile, small numbers 1998-2002 ...
In 1998 we began to explore the Eucharist, as a missing part of our liturgical menu and a vital Christian tradition that we hadn't yet engaged with. After an inaugural café-style version we held a eucharist service on the fourth Sunday of every month, called firstname.lastname@example.org. This lasted for a couple of years until lack of heating in the church and a development in our understanding caused us to relocate it to people's homes as a ritual meal called Gracelet. As a spin-off from our explorations we created the mainstage eucharist for Greenbelt 1999, also available as the 'Eucharist' album.
In May 1999 we ran a service for 500 young people in Southwark Cathedral, as part of the then-Archbishop of Canterbury's 'Time Of Our Lives' Millennium youth event. During the afternoon soundcheck we were told we should be "thrown in the river and drowned" by an irate tourist who considered our music sacrilegious. Fortunately our final offering was better received.
From 1998 to 2000 Steve Collins produced a termly Grace zine, rounding up interesting bits of service material for republication.
During 1998-99 an attempt was made to create a series of alternative worship events for the Millennium, involving all the London groups. As part of this series Ana Draper of Live On Planet Earth and Clara Swinson of Epicentre wanted to stage a labyrinth service in St. Paul's Cathedral. The rest of the series failed to materialise, but their persistence with St. Paul's was rewarded by the offer of the south transept, for a week in March 2000! An organising committee was formed that included Steve Collins and Jonny Baker of Grace, and other Grace members were involved in the production and running of the labyrinth along with people from other alt worship groups. The unexpected success of the event led to a cathedral tour with Youth for Christ in 2001-02, big-selling publishing spin-offs and events in America, Australia and various other countries, and a memorable staging at Greenbelt 2000 when we had to lock the doors on the final afternoon to control the numbers.
All these activities were creating a high profile for Grace. We were discovering the power of the internet, which allows small fringe groups to have as big a voice as large institutions, and which allows individuals to have as big a voice as groups. We had always wanted to share our resources and discoveries with the wider church, as others had shared with us, and the internet opened up new ways of sharing without some of the constraints of permissions, finances and contracts. The zine material and other liturgical pieces appeared on the Grace website. Steve Collins started the smallfire.org website in 2000 to publish his photos of alt worship events, not least Grace, followed by his personal site smallritual.org. The labyrinth website labyrinth.org.uk appeared in 2001, and the [now defunct] alt worship directory site alternativeworship.org in 2002. Jonny Baker began his blog in 2002, followed by Steve in 2003. Proost began to sell only through the website. The Grace website and emailing list became our chief means of publicity.
However, behind all this the numbers of people coming to Grace collapsed from mid-98 onwards, for no particular reason that we could ever discern. It seems likely that some of our regulars moved on in life, the novelty wore off for others, and some had been inspired to make their own church projects. It was sometimes disheartening, when only a handful came to a service we had worked hard on for a month. We never knew how much or how little to provide. We did a Passover service for 60, and 10 turned up so we all had to eat a lot of boiled eggs. One one occasion in 2000 only one person came. As it happened, the thing we were doing turned out not to work, so perhaps it was as well.
But Grace had become an object of curiosity around the world to those interested in [what was now being called] the emerging church, through the photos on smallfire.org, through the labyrinth, and the blogosphere. The people who did turn up to Grace were from anywhere and everywhere. We began to joke about who had come furthest to a Grace service - often people from Australia and New Zealand, many of whom had met members of Grace through discussions online and were now travelling the world researching the emerging church. There was the phenomenon of the Danish youthworkers, who would turn up twenty at a time until we were sure we had met every young Christian in Denmark! And then there were visitors from other places in Britain, lay and clergy, wanting to experience alternative worship, wondering if they could do it themselves.
We embraced our unexpected global mission as a blessing - but it created strains. At times there were more 'tourists' than locals. Grace members could find it disturbing, when their worship was subject to semi-detached scrutiny rather than genuine participation. There was no continuity of congregation from one service to the next. The service was effectively a showcase, put on by the team for whoever else might turn up on the night. The planning group was often just two or three people, risking burnout or banality.
We knew we had to build our community. One of the first steps was to move the main service to Saturday night from September 2001, so that people could hang out longer, without feeling that they had to rush off because of work/school in the morning. To facilitate the hanging-out we added a cafe after the service, building on some experiments we'd done with cafe-format worship. And after all, some of our visitors had come a long way and needed food and drink before they went back! The prevalence of red wine as the cafe drink is a deliberate nod to the eucharist.
Community and curation 2003-2010 ...
The move to Saturday was a success. Congregational numbers recovered to average 30 to 40 from 2003 onwards, even passing 50 on occasions. In some senses Grace's tenth anniversary in November 2003 marks a new start. After 18 months in the church halls we were back in a spectacularly restored church - a beautiful environment with sophisticated lighting, a new sound system, and movable seating to make new possibilities. There was no need to hide the building in darkness behind muslin screens any more. The restored church had neither carpet nor kneelers, so we bought giant floorcushions for informal seating. The technology had moved on too, the slide projectors, TVs and Minidiscs of old replaced by video projectors, laptops and ipods.
We had always considered Grace to be fragile and vulnerable to closure at short notice for whatever reason. Having reached our tenth birthday, and with our name and logo now enamelled permanently on the new church signboards, we began to revise our assumptions and think about some longer-term planning. Our inclusion in the Church of England's 'Mission-Shaped Church' report of 2004 marked the official acceptance and encouragement of church experiments like Grace. We had been challenged by Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost to think about becoming more missional in the local community. Many groups in the emerging church are exploring monasticism in a search for ways to sustain Christian community in an unbelieving society. The idea of the monastic 'rule' by which a community lives, prompted us to explore our own core values to see what kind of 'rule' might work for Grace. We came up with an 'ethos', a short and long list of Grace values - maybe aspirational in part, but stating them openly helps us to take conscious steps towards realising them. The headlines of the short list became our new guiding slogan for the next few years - engage [outward/missional action], participate [openness to new inputs to Grace], create - and a fourth word, risk, which kept surfacing in our discussions.
In thinking about community and mission, we realised that up to now the only way for newcomers to get involved with Grace was through planning the service. Our weekly planning meetings were also doing the job of community and social gatherings, which meant the actual planning process was inefficient. We knew that if we wanted to be more missional and grow new things we had to free up some time and energy. So from autumn 2005 we restructured. The planning meeting became monthly, concerned with the overall direction of the community rather than the next service. Individual services were now 'curated' by a volunteer who brings together a team, organises planning meetings, ensures things happen, gives feedback and publishes any resulting resources. A curator can also pull in one-off contributions from outside the core community, or from people who don't want to get involved in worship planning on a regular basis.
Gracelet came back into the church as a small quiet service, deliberately short and simple, so that we could spend the rest of the evening in the pub across the road building community. We tried to ensure an open social event or meal every month. Members were encouraged to seek involvement in outside groups, such as local photography or art societies, charitable and sporting organisations, or to consider what they already did as an extension of the Grace community.
Tougher times 2010-19 ...
During the 2010s many of us faced major stage-of-life issues - ailing parents, new children, demanding jobs - which made it hard to find the time and energy for Grace. Ironically, our deepening personal commitments to mission also had an impact. With core members struggling to be available, or unwilling to commit, and a decline in the congregational numbers [probably for similar reasons] the structures we had set up proved hard to sustain. Gracelet ran out of steam in 2012 so we ended it and shifted focus to community meals. Our 19th year found us at a low ebb, barely able to make the monthly services happen. We openly discussed the possibility of giving up.
In the circumstances it didn't seem right to make a big fuss over our 20th anniversary in 2013. We had a fairly low key celebration for the actual anniversary, and filled the rest of our 20th year by revisiting favourite services from the archives. The intention was to take them 'ready-made' to make things easy, but our creative instincts revived and most of the services were significantly reinvented.
Nevertheless we had to be honest about the available resources of energy and people. The facilitation group had increasingly to take over curation, rather than just being an occasional back-stop as intended. Services were often put together by only two or three, often the same two or three month after month. Organisation came to depend on a core group of around ten people who were almost always involved in everything, like a return to the 90s.
However, we are all part of the community, even when we are unable to participate much - in fact that’s when we need the support of Grace more. We discovered that most members are involved as individuals in missional activities outside of Grace, from simple presence and witness in the workplace to voluntary commitments to high profile work with major charities and NGOs. It became less surprising that people lacked time and energy for worship planning!
For Grace to be a resource and support for our missional lives in the world, we needed to put more energy into the relational side, into simply being a community. The services bring us together, energise us and enable our growth, but they had to become a sustainable support space for the community without the pressure to impress visitors.
Sometimes the most far-reaching effects come from seemingly small things. After struggling for years with unreliable email lists and Facebook, we began to use WhatsApp groups in 2017. They proved invaluable for community and sharing - from personal news to liturgies to Zoom invites. It was easy to start sub-groups for meals or gigs or admin or prayer. It became our chief internal forum.
We looked for service formats that required less planning or could be run by one or two people. ‘Grace TV’ was an idea for St Mary’s Festival 2015 - to run Grace visuals and music in the church while there was nothing else going on, a continuous liturgy in segments for people to drop in and out of. This became a service format called ‘Space’ - a meditative service of visuals, music and prayer with little other action, maybe just lighting candles. Relax, watch, listen and pray. We realised that just making a quiet space is sometimes enough, for busy and stressed people.
In 2019 we made our own labyrinth cloth at last, to a new design by Adam Baxter. It's simple to use when we have no time or energy for anything else. It has become the usual January service, because we only get a week to plan anything after New Year.
Some of our monthly events became more about community, such as:
- Ignatian retreat days at the London Jesuit Centre
- Day visits to Prospect Wood in Sussex
- Collaborations with Ealing London Independent Photography group, such as exhibitions in the church which were used for services.
- Collaborations with other groups, in Southall and Earlsfield.
We tried to maintain a regular programme of community meals - alongside the 'unofficial' socialising, meals, gigs, allotment maintenance etc that also happens.
For our 25th anniversary in 2018, we felt like having a big celebration. We invited all the former members of Grace that we could track down, to a meal in the church. We made a commemorative book. And our 1996 episode of ‘God In The House’ finally made it onto YouTube for general amusement.
The pandemic and after 2020-present ...
When the lockdowns began in 2020 we were determined to handle the situation as creatively as possible. We ran our services on Zoom as interactive meetings, with group-created slideshows, things to make and do at home, prayers and responses in the chat. We lit candles, broke bread and drank wine together on camera. We hung out in breakout rooms afterwards for an hour or two. We turned the cameras off, hid our identities and only spoke. We wrote and drew on interactive Google Jamboards. We made a labyrinth and cafe space in Gather.town and walked around as little avatars. The services became quite complex. We revived Gracelet as a mid-week service of prayer and community, based on the 2012 liturgy. This became a valued weekly gathering.
One great blessing of being forced online was reconnecting with distant and former members, who could now rejoin us as though time and space had not happened. We were also joined by new people (local and international) who had found us somehow. This was a pleasure.
Whenever the lockdowns lifted, we did whatever we could to be together - communal meals outdoors in all weathers when it was not allowed to meet indoors, picnics on Ealing Common sitting two metres apart and not sharing food (much!), outdoor open evenings at the local brewery, long conversational walks around the park.
During lockdown Grace was invited to work with St John’s Church Southall and environmental charity A Rocha UK to help build a labyrinth in Wolf Fields community garden. So in the summer of 2021 while we were not yet able to meet indoors, we had work parties to clear the ground for the labyrinth. In the autumn and spring we had the exhausting tasks of setting it out, hammering 2000 wooden stakes into the ground to make the pattern, and laying woodchip in the paths. It opened in June 2022.
We delayed returning to services in the church until we were sure that people felt comfortable with it, and until we didn’t have to all wear masks or have an onerous hygiene regime. Our first few services were ‘hybrid’, ie we had participants on Zoom as well as in the church, but not all services were suitable for this and we soon lost the habit. Having been productive and energised by the constraints of Covid-19, we had a sense of weariness as ’normality’ turned into more crises. But we had made it to our 30th year, 10 years after thinking about giving up!
As part of our 30th birthday celebrations we reconsidered our ethos. In 2005 we had focussed on how we make church differently, but since then we have developed a greater emphasis on community and a wider sense of engagement with the world. Issues such as inclusivity and the environment were always part of our values, but had not been stated explicitly. So we revised the ethos to better reflect who we are now and how we address changed times.
It seems to be part of the DNA of Grace, even through all the changes in personnel over the years, that we have to reinvent things, we're reluctant to do the same thing twice, even when it costs us or risks failure. We constantly re-use parts of previous material, or other people's material, but the sum totals don't repeat. Life, technology, circumstances, who's in the room, all move on.
We're in the fortunate position of being able to give ourselves permission to change if it suits us - so, for instance, when Gracelet ran out of steam in 2012 we ended it and shifted our focus to community meals. All of our structures are self-imposed, so the questions as we look forward are: What do we want to do now? What are we capable of doing now? What do we need to do, to continue as a missional and worshipping community?
For Grace the secret of longevity seems to be in having a mix of new people but also people who have been there for most or all of the community's life. The former stop it growing stale, repetitive or inward-looking, the latter carry the historical memory of the community, the wisdom and fortitude that comes from having been there and done that before. Don't have the new people, and you settle into a routine that offers nothing new for others or yourselves. Don't have the long-term people and you fight your first battles over and over again and never get past the beginners' stages.
For those just starting on this path, we offer two lessons from our experience: persistence, and publicity. Persistence is essential if you are to last long enough to grow into community and to develop your own mission. It turns failures into experience and success into a foundation. Publicity brings outsiders to inspire you and stop you becoming a clique. It allows you to share your wisdom and receive wisdom from others. It lets you be part of a bigger picture.