A journey to Birmingham today, to meet at Carr's Lane United Reform Church in the city centre with others active and interested in city centre mission. The second follow up meeting to the conference organised in Cardiff some 18 months ago.
The train journey was a real pleasure, in bright sunny weather, running up the Severn Estuary as far as Gloucester, then north to Cheltenham and on to Birmingham, with signs of early spring flowers in the embankments along the way.
Carr's Lane is only a five minute walk from New Street Station, on theother side of the new Bullring shopping centre, which I last visited with a bus load of Cardiff retailers shortly after it was opened over two and a half years ago.
There were seven of us at the meeting. Three of us from Cardiff, our host the Minister of Carr's Lane, a priest from Oxford, and a town planner from Sheffield who is a long standing member of the Urban Theology Unit. Also present was Eric Dunmow who is a national co-ordinator for an ecumenical Urban Mission research project.
It was a valuable and encouraging time of reflection and sharing. We heard about the further re-development of Birmingham's city centre, about to begin - well in a sense it's already begun. The famous cylindrical Rotunda tower, adjacent to New Street Station is being converted from offices to 300 apartments, as happened to Admiral House next to St James' on Newport Road. Heaven help those fitting furnishing and carpets there! More new apartment buildings are to follow in the new five years.
Carrs Lane Church is also due for a makeover, although only forty years old. It has a worship sanctuary, and hosts a large main congregation and several newer Christian worshipping communities as well. The church centre is large and active, hosting a wide range of social groups and activities, numbering in their hundreds across the year. The pastor doesn't have to run this, it's managed separately. The plan is now to adapt some of their church plant to residential use to provide free accomomdation to Christian community workers in the heart of the city.... things you can do when you have a budget of £400k, and relatively low maintenance buildings! For the most part we Anglicans have to learn to do more with less, with restricted ways in which we can use our buildings, and diminishing personnel and funds with which to work. Carrs Lane is an example of a successful gathered congregation with a clear sense of mission and radical Christian values. The present is the third, possible fourth building on this site in 200 years. All power to them.
Our meeting was only three hours, plus lunchtime, spent in the marvellous Arts Café restaurant of St Martin's in the Bullring, five minutes walk away, the other side of the Selfridge's end of the shopping centre. We had live piano music from an elderly gent who knew all the 20th century favourites. We could have finished the afternoon with thé dansant very nicely. St Martin's also had an makeover, as a result of the Bullring redevelopment. The west end of the church was remodelled to welcome visitors better, include a bookshop and a new 'sculptural' font with a living stream of water was installed.
The only thing that grates is the apparent permanent suspension of two screens for video projection either side of the arch at the tower crossing, cutting up the lines of an elegant Victorian gothic arch in a most intrusive way. They were there last time I visited, although they look as if they've become permanent. I wish their Archdeacon would insist they are taken down when not in use.
After the meeting, with two hours to wait for my reserved train seat, I wandered the crowded streets and shopping malls, observing how busy and thriving it all seemed to be for an average Monday. What will it be like when the centre is re-populated as well?