George Clooney, Francis of Assisi, clowns and storytellers – interview with Val Cuffe-Adams

Val, right, with fellow pioneer Fiona Mayne

This month I’ve been inspired by final year Diploma student and Licensed Lay Minister candidate, Val Cuffe-Adams…

HH: Val, can you tell us how you chose to study at CMS and how you have found it generally?

VC-A: I was introduced to the CMS pioneer course by an ordained pioneer trainee minister on the course already and decided that it was exactly what I should be doing, letting go of the more formal route of ordained deacon.

So, I studied alongside my work as a specialist study skills tutor with Higher Education students. I loved meeting my fellow students on a Monday at CMS and pre-Covid we gathered at lunch-time and before classes to catch up and exchange news and ideas. It made it easier when we had to go online as we knew each other. Now we keep in touch on an alumni WhatsApp and other groups too – the group is still so important to encourage each other or just say: “It would be nice to meet up.

I know you are now at the end of the Pioneer Ministry diploma course and you told me you were glad that through Covid itself, the course carried on online. Can you say a bit more about that and also about why you waited to do your recent creative placement in person for your last module?   

The fact that the course carried on online kept the momentum going – the modules all feed into each other and back each other up – focusing on different elements. However, some of the most significant times were actual weekends and weeks away – the Evangelism and Worship module with the experience in Winson Green, in Birmingham, helped me experience pioneering practically, relating to its context and the differing people; not favouring one above the other group and encouraging groups to creatively share with us.

I loved some refugees sharing their cooking and recipes with us. This meant that I preferred to wait to go on a creative placement retreat in person (with about 50 others, at varying stages of faith or on the edges).

I experienced prayer painting groups, calligraphy, making a fabric cloak installation of Jesus the King, seeing people experience healing in this activity; also, prophetic dancing with an international dance group who were acting out parts of the Bible or just including bystanders in the dance.

I also experienced storytelling for adults bringing alive the oral tradition of the Bible, photography walks and the use of cartoons to prompt discussion and reflection, and eating together.

There were many other activities but I felt excited how spaces, however small or difficult, could be used in the community, providing some simple visual arts to draw people in.

I know you are a wide reader of all kinds of books and belong to a book club at a local theatre. Can you tell us more about the theatre activities and also how the course has pointed you to stimulating, focused reading and practical ideas for pioneering?

Joining a book club held at a local well-known theatre has brought me into contact with a wide group of people from the community and we have been invited to other theatrical events with complimentary tickets – even one with George Clooney!

I love musicals and dancing (I do various dance classes myself for relaxation and I see this as a natural way of making friends). It has been my friends outside any church circle who I have asked to take part in some of the activities prompted by the course.

For instance, the Bible in Context module had a large practical element. Storytelling and the oral tradition of the Bible was a big theme for our current society instead of just making reading the Bible a literary exercise.

I stitched together a Bible story of Jesus meeting Peter on the beach from John 21, made into a modern dramatic reading alongside a true modern story.  I asked friends to take part and help with sound effects (of the sea, crackling fire etc on a laptop) – all of it wrapped round with a meal – either in my garden, a cafe or at their houses. One friend said that he had never heard about Peter before and we had a really good discussion as a group.

As for reading, I was hugely influenced in thinking about what kind of leader I might be and to become aware of pitfalls, what is a good style of leadership – to me servant leadership – through Simon Walker’s The Undefended Leader trilogy and Margaret J Wheatley’s book Who Do We Choose to Be? It struck me how the late Queen Elizabeth exemplified in her following of Christ this servant leadership.

I also enjoyed doing a presentation of a chosen pioneer in the Church History module. In my case, Francis of Assisi, having read about his leadership through a life of humility, prayerfulness and action in Adrian House’s Francis of Assisi, A Revolutionary Life (Pimlico, 2001). I could relate it to my context today in terms of our care of the environment. He was ahead of his time in his thinking with his holistic understanding of the gospel in relation to both personal salvation and restoration of the creation. He could not speak more into our modern crisis of climate change.

Other books which have just jumped out at me are Pete Ward’s Liquid Church – a revelation and I just kept thinking, yes, yes… He talks about how we need to move away from the gathered congregational church model to a more fluid style of church.

Then also Clowns, Storytellers and Disciples by Olive Fleming Drane, about her call to train to be a Clown for God; again, tapping into that oral and visual approach with the community – where you catch people’s attention immediately. So relevant for our media-orientated society today. Then I loved a pile of books around creativity – Born to Create by Theresa Dedmon, recognising the imagination from being made in God’s image, thus drama and art can be used to spark reflection and faith.

I understand that the course has had a big effect on you, can you say more?

I think that I now mutter ‘context, what is my context’ in my sleep and I am practically implementing more discipline in prayer and worship. I have tried out many practices mentioned on the course, feeling that this has centred me more in my faith.

In the Missional Ecclesiology module, I looked at New Monasticism and practices and themes which could be implemented in my own life and others. How graces round meals and themes such as fasting and feasting could be adapted to today’s society and their use as a simple explanation of Christ in bread and wine in the midst of us.

Also, introducing the idea of the rhythms of life for our wellbeing, perhaps around people’s interest in gardens and allotments and the seasons in a community.

The values of the power and presence of the Kingdom can be gently introduced and woven into the natural interests of a community. Thus, the place of hospitality, creativity and seeking a team environment has become ever more important as an outworking of my faith and with spiritual seekers. I realise there is a great strength in this, bringing friendship and accountability in a natural way.

During the Ethics module, I found how flexibility and sensitivity at times of great significance for people is vital, e.g. often how we engage and are present in our currently more secular society at funerals, for example, learning how to celebrate the lives of those families who might not acknowledge faith of any kind; also, pastoral care afterwards with grief cafes and visits. I explored how biblical principles can be applied to many human situations, without overturning respect for differing beliefs and situations.

That all sounds amazing, Val. You have clearly learnt so much, and put it into practice so well. Can I ask, where you are working and what the plan is for the future?

I have found an area in Somerset to move to; to join in with Fiona Mayne’s pioneering work at Hayward Village, but also to have some focus in Uphill Village nearby. There is a timing in this and the housing market has been difficult with Covid.

Before I came on the course at CMS, I had had a sense of a change of season which seemed to indicate a move and I had wondered about the area of Somerset somewhere between Taunton and Bristol.  Then I met two fellow pioneers from Somerset on the course and immediately spoke to Fiona on the first day.  Over the weeks, Fiona asked me if I would consider coming to Weston. This was a town I used to go on holiday to as a child, but knew nothing about it recently – so I went down there on a number of occasions to explore.

I have also contacted a number of people there – the chaplain at Weston College, the Uphill vicar and other denominations – just to get a feel of the area. I have been to a group which Fiona runs called ‘Rooted’ for spiritual seekers and she generously arranged for me to look round all the different areas of Weston as well. Gradually, I had a sense of Uphill, five minutes’ drive from Hayward Village as the place to live. I also want to keep a little work with students.

Fiona Mayne and myself (in August 2022) at the entrance to Weston Pier after lunch at Tiffany’s on the pier followed by experiencing the atmosphere!

How can we pray for you?

It has taken a while to get a sense of how to proceed with my move. However, I now have a plan. Please could you pray for the right house in Uphill at the right price – I will be seriously looking from 23 January!

Also, that I will sell my house and hope to keep a very small bolthole in Twyford for use of my family and friends.

I also want to say thank you for a wonderful life-changing course.

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ANVIL journal of theology and mission

Volume 38 issue 2 is out now, focused on sustainability in mission. With articles on African eco-theology, community organising and apophatic spirituality.

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