Between us, we have worked out, that Clare and I have no fewer than 20 years of university education - the vast majority of it in theology. And yet, as we sat in the car park at Mersey Street, waiting for the final skip to arrive, we couldn't help but muse upon the fact that nothing in our academic backgrounds had prepared us for the events of closing the church. On my first Sunday at Mersey Street - when still a student - St Ida, the then church treasurer - accosted me and told me that I was going to break into one of the congregation's house and help to break up her marriage! There was a back story of violence and abuse, but I prefer to leave the story as it is for dramatic effect. A couple of weeks later, I was sent up onto the church roof to try and waterproof the neon cross which was showing signs of leaking. Narrowly avoiding electrocution, I mused on the fact that ministry in Openshaw was not something that Northern Baptist College had really prepared me for. Fifteen years on, I think I was right. Incidentally, in the photo, Clare is reading the papers for her NHS board meeting this week.
I doubt many congregations ever get to live out the words of the much loved children's song, "I am the church, you are the church" (with actions) and actually leave their building and worldly possessions behind but that is what we did symbolically and publicly on Sunday afternoon when we had the closing service for our building on Mersey Street. At the end of the month we will have a smaller gathering in the car park in which we will actually hand over the keys to the city council's regeneration team so that they can knock the building down and turn it into housing.
A week earlier we had asked the church including our children what they wanted to do as a closing service - so much for our plans of something a little more formal and dignified for our many guests. What the church wanted was a typical Sunday service complete with a play story, craft activities, pictures and pop music and everyone participating!
So our many guests, many of whom could remember back far further into our congregation's history that we could, were treated to a looking back and looking forward service in which Beth and Imogen (7 and 8 years) enthusiastically walked the congregation along our church's timeline which they had drawn as a long winding road and marked on the significant moments in the story complete with lots of photographs from different eras which they had added to the display. At the end of the road leading into the future, was plenty of space which the congregation were invited to fill with post-it note roadsigns expressing their hopes and dreams for us as a community as we continue our life together and our ministry in this community without a building for the foreseeable future.
Joel (age 10) treated us all to The Beatles, "The Long and Winding Road" complete with a slide show of pictures of the church's life past and present. We reflected on the Biblical story of Ruth's promise to Naomi through a play story using various objects such as shoes and tents to remind us of our promise to journey together. But for me the most moving part was the liturgy "Where you go I will go" which Tim wrote and Andrew (our Baptist Regional Minister) led where each member of the local congregation expressed their fears and doubts about the journey ahead and Andrew responded "Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live, your people shall be my people and your God, my God." The whole congregation were then invited to join us on our intercessory journey with the people of our community the words "Where you go, I will go..."
So, here we embark on a time of journeying and pilgrimage with no real idea of where we are going but a sense that it will be the journey itself which will be important - a journey deeper into our own community - a journey which God shares with us.