In the Summer 2011 newsletter Andy Bevan and Trisha Dale introduced Littlemore Baptist Church:
Where are you based?
Littlemore is an urban village (c. 6,000) on the edge of Oxford. The community is very mixed. It grew up around the 19th-century asylum for the city, and expanded with the growth of the motor industry (William Morris, Lord Nuffield). It has quite a lot of social housing, some of which is very new, as well as owner-occupied houses of all kinds.
How and why did you begin?
At the very beginning of the 19th century, some men rode on horseback from New Road Baptist Church to a ‘preaching station’ in a Littlemore orchard. When Littlemore Baptist Chapel was built there, it was the first church in this historic village. Traditionally, its ministry was to children and young people. The church had no minister for its first 200 years, relying on moderators, lay preachers and more recently also students from Regent's Park College, the Baptist college in Oxford. The Sunday school reached its peak in the 1950s with the expansion of nearby council housing, but then it declined and the people running it died of old age. The membership of the church got down to five and denominational representatives urged closure.
But the five stubbornly refused to close. James Grote, the moderator, challenged them: If you're going to stay open, what are you going to do? They decided to demolish their building and replace it with social housing and somewhere for the church to meet.
At that point they called Sian Murray Williams to be their first-ever pastor. The building project took 15 years of prayer and struggle, and was eventually publicly funded, but finally reached fruition in 2010.
What are your main values, priorities and activities?
Our main values, as set out in our 2011 mission document, are: following Jesus, practical discipleship, and the importance of every person. Our activities and priorities grow out of these values – we are not programme-driven. Developments tend to emerge organically, from the bottom up; for example, a Good Neighbour scheme, and a monthly coffee morning for the local community.
Among our membership we have a family from Burma, and the church has helped to provide a water supply to a school there, and piglets for families – a pump-priming exercise to help people in Burma to have both better nutrition and some measure of economic security. We also used half of the monetary gifts our church received from the local Baptist Association to support community development in Burma after the cyclone in Rangoon.
In what ways do you draw on the Anabaptist tradition?
This is instinctive rather than explicit. English Baptists usually seem rather more willing to acknowledge their debt to English Separatists than to their European Anabaptist forebears. We practise corporate theological reflection, and corporate leadership; although we have deacons, everyone is involved in all the major discussion and decision-taking.
Gathering around food, welcoming people, and hospitality are important to us. We eat together before all church meetings. We have a weekly bread, grape juice and soup lunch, at which we remember Jesus; this was taken over from a weekly service of Holy Communion that used to be held at the local mental health centre, which is what the asylum has become. The most obvious aspect of our Jesus-centredness is that Communion is very important to us, and is incorporated into our services at least twice a month; children take part too, from toddlerhood.
We value a view of life that sees everything as important, and we look for giftedness, rather than gender, when addressing tasks – but there is no hierarchy of gifting. Everything that we are involved in, individually and corporately, is considered to be worship and ministry, and we affirm and celebrate one another's diverse work and contributions, in Littlemore itself and further afield.
What are your hopes for the ANC?
ANC is both a resource for us and a challenging and congenial place for reflection. We value the focus on discipleship rather than institutional church. In particular, the ANC helps us to offer a counter-cultural critique, especially on peace and justice, which seems more and more relevant and necessary. We enjoy learning about the kingdom of God in practical and social terms, not just as a personal or pietistic concept.