Harehills Lane Baptist Church, Leeds

In the Winter 2010 newsletter Ali Phelps and Graeme Dodds introduced Harehills Lane Baptist Church:

Where is the church and what is its history?

As the name suggests, the church is situated in Harehills Lane, in an inner-city area of Leeds comprised mainly of terraced and back-to-back housing. This is a very mixed and multicultural area, with an extensive Asian community, many asylum seekers, some students and some long-term incomer residents. It has a beautiful local park and some areas could now be described as ‘up-and-coming’.

The church was planted in 1907 – one of three Baptist churches in Leeds to be planted when a city-centre church decided to sell its premises and fund these mission initiatives. The initial congregation was made up of a mix of middle-class and working-class people; this presented various challenges. The church has never had more than 250 members – mostly nearer 100, the current number.

Like many other churches of this age, it has been greatly affected by both the World Wars, by changes in local residents, by differing theological emphases and a couple of splits. But it has been involved in church planting too, establishing Moortown Baptist Church, which has itself planted other churches.

What is the church like? What would visitors notice about it?

Many would describe us as ‘welcoming’ and ‘hospitable’. Food is very important to us – sharing this in homes and as a congregation. The building we use is generally regarded as much better on the inside than the rather drab outside suggests. The congregation and those who use the building during the week are very diverse in terms of language and culture – this is both delicious and something of a nightmare!

Our main worship gathering is not slick; indeed, words such as ‘impromptu’ and ‘disorganised’ might apply, but this is actually welcoming and hopeful for those who come from contexts of chaos. But there are also some quite traditional elements, such as the geography of the building and sitting in front-facing rows.

What are the church’s current concerns and priorities?

We are currently in the middle of discussions about the budget! Our expenditure on staff and buildings is unsustainable. The congregation is responding well to this challenge and is thinking creatively about future options.

We’re exploring fresh ways to engage with our neighbours. The long-running weekly cafe is still popular, as are English classes. In July we held a first-ever Sunday-lunchtime garden party with stalls run by local groups, including artists and those working with asylum seekers. There was also an invitation to go for a short motorbike ride, which several people accepted, including a woman in her early 80s!

Graeme enjoys the support of the church as he spends time with outlaw motorcyclists. He is running a monthly ‘Saints and Sinners’ group in a local pub, which involves engaging with the teaching of Jesus in a pretty raw way. There are requests for similar groups in Harrogate and Halifax.

In what ways has the church drawn on the Anabaptist tradition?

Back in the 1980s, Alan and Eleanor Kreider made the first of several visits to the church, and these visits have made quite an impact on our thinking and practices. Several leaders and others have also done the Workshop course.

Perhaps the major outworking of Anabaptist values has been in the area of community, with shared housing initiatives, plenty of eating together, engaging with issues of justice, car pooling and such like. These activities have been patchy and we wrestle with the question of whether to try to encourage the whole church into these kinds of initiatives or whether small groups should be experimenting with them.
We have also been drawn to a Jesus-centred approach to Scripture, which has meant looking at the Bible in fresh ways. And we have been through a (rather painful) transition from a men-only view of ministry to affirming the role of women in leadership.

What are your hopes for the ANC?

We will be interested to discover how other communities work towards implementing Anabaptist values. In our church only a few have much real grasp of Anabaptism, so we want to learn how to explore these values together. In a transitional phase we value the chance to learn from others, not least about how to incarnate the gospel in local contexts.