Numerous congregations meet in school buildings, but it is much rarer to find the kind of deep relationship that has blossomed in Thatcham as churches there participated in Partnership for Missional Church.
“The school I went into seven years ago might have had an occasional visit from the vicar – now there are real relationships,” says the Rev Pat Jones, former team vicar at St Barnabas’ Thatcham Park, which along with sister church St Mary’s Thatcham, took part in the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC) journey between 2015 and 2018.
St Barnabas’ congregation actually meets in Thatcham Park C of E Primary School but had struggled to make connections.
On a PMC awayday, Pat explains, the team – led by lay members of the church – was exploring the idea of looking for “partners of peace” in the community. “We realised we already had people who were parents – they had an inside role at the school, so we empowered them to be the main people.”
“PMC gave us language and permission to change imagining we might do something into actually doing it,” says the Rev Mark Bennet, Thatcham’s team rector.
Noticing what God is doing
One of the themes that emerges from churches engaging in PMC is realising how much they – or God – had already been doing, how much was already in place for the next steps God was calling them into.
The key spiritual practices involved, such as “Dwelling the World” and “Announcing the Kingdom” offer ways of spotting what God is already doing in the community.
Mark Bennet again: “Dwelling in the World opens your eyes to things that are on your doorstep but hadn’t noticed before.”
The seeds of the new relationships had been sown: church members already ran the barbecue at school fetes; Pat Jones had a background in youth and families work; a highly supportive new head teacher, Alison Webster, had arrived in 2014.
With growing confidence in the congregation at St Barnabas’, the church–school relationship started to flourish, as associate priest the Rev Brenda Harland explains.
“One of the main things was we had started to find partners of peace without realising what we were doing – it was a big confidence boost to realise something had already started with the PTA.
“Our culture was changing. Now, more people say ‘Ooh, I think that was God!’ – or there’s a light in their eyes that wasn’t there before!”
The church is not shy
The church has partnered with the PTA and the school pastoral team, which looks out for vulnerable families.
“We found relationships easy to grow somehow because we were noticing what was important to other people not just to ourselves,” says Mark Bennet.
The supportive community around the school is praised in its latest Ofsted report.
“Read the section about ‘personal development, behaviour and welfare’ because that is the biggest area that we work on together for the good of the children,” says Mrs Webster. The rating of “outstanding” speaks for itself.
While Pat has moved on to a new role, a strong network of relationships remains, as part of the PMC journey is about allowing lay people to take a lead.
“It feels now that the church is not shy,” says Leanne Baker, one of several parents at the school who found their own faith journeys revived thanks to the new connectedness of church and school community.
“I was brought up in lots of different churches but I rebelled as a teen,” Leanne continues. “As I got older, I always had a faith but never went to church – I thought the Church of England was terribly stuck up and I was never going to venture in one!” Then a fellow mum invited her along.
“It was like coming home,” she says of her first visit to St Barnabas’ two years ago.
The symbiotic relationship of church and school is clear from talking to Leanne.
“I’m co-chair of the PTA – we couldn’t run a fete without them!” But it’s no longer just running the barbecue – church folk run prayer stations at the school fetes and clergy sit and have a cup of tea in the PTA building.
“The parents and children really embrace them – they have become so much part of the school community – that’s been lovely to watch.”
Head teacher Alison Webster agrees: “There is not a school community, there’s not a home community, not a parish community. We are one community. And when things arise we support each other.”
Changing the way you think
“PMC changes the way you think about where you are,” says team rector the Rev Mark Bennet.
For example, Leanne – who is now exploring a call to ordained ministry – is part of a new pastoral team, formed as a result of the PMC process, which is aiming to take discipleship out into the community.
“One of the big things now at St Mary’s is our response to dementia,” says Mark Bennet. “We host a memory cafe and are thinking more widely – in our community a number of residential homes for people with dementia are being built.
“PMC helped us to listen and respond – just the spiritual practices equip you to see what’s going on in the world and respond. Embedding those is what’s changed us most.”