Creating a culture of blessing – interview with Christine Cattenach

Christine Cattenach

This time I talk to Christine Cattanach, a year 2 undergraduate certificate student, about her many and varied roles as a parish-based pioneer.

HH: You currently work as an intergenerational missioner for Hereford Diocese. Can you say a bit about the role and how you came to be doing this?

CC: I am almost at the end of a five-year project that was funded by the church commissioners and imagined and inspired by some of the senior leadership mission enablers in Hereford Diocese. We are employed by the diocese to work within specific parishes. Initially, these were predominantly market towns. The idea behind the project was that we were to use a tool called the ‘growth cycle’ based on the now Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell’s work, to look at what churches were already offering and where there was weakness in the process of evangelism.

In market towns as in villages, predominantly congregations are very elderly. I was initially sent to a town where the congregation was somewhere near 100 with an average age of over 80. There were no children in the congregation at all. By the time I left that particular role three years into the project (during the pandemic) there were more than 60 families who had an association with this church.

To create this volume of families we looked at ways of engaging people who had never been inside this iconic building in the town. We intentionally created a ‘culture of blessing’ where we invited people into the church to use it, for example as a toddler group called Toast, creating a youth group called LEAF, and eventually planting a Messy Church. Much of my work also involved working with the existing congregation, creating Alpha courses that had never been done in the church before and experimenting with all-age services and family services that were very different from the very traditional services the church offered.

Many of the congregation were highly delighted and willing to go on a journey of mission and this is what helped me to create and sustain the many things that I started, that are still continuing today. Growing leaders is an important part of this kind of pioneering, that I particularly enjoy.

In the past two years I have been redeployed in a cross-benefice, rural setting, involving three villages overseen by two incumbents. We have worked as a team to reimagine mission in these tiny churches where the congregations are around a dozen. We have created three new congregations for families, run Alpha courses, created community events and open church days. By spending time building relationships with individuals who have gone on to join PCC. Changing the culture of the PCC makes it much easier to change the culture of the church. Resistance to change, even when it is claimed to be wanted, is a continual challenge. “We want things to be different, but we don’t want anything to change” is often the narrative we hear.

Wow, Christine, that is amazing, what you have achieved is incredible. I believe you are relatively new to the Church of England, can you tell us how you came to be part of the CofE and currently on the lay pioneer route with CMS?

I joined the Church of England to take on this role of intergenerational missioner. Before that I have been part of independent, much more evangelical charismatic type churches where I have been involved in leading worship and creating new types of services, running Alpha and our own home group for many years.

I grew up in a Methodist church and was married there. So, I have quite a background in different types of churches and denominations and styles of leadership.

We left the charismatic evangelical free church, because women were not allowed to preach in this church, which in itself was not a huge problem, but it did rather permeate the narrative of the leadership of the church – that women were somehow not as good as men. My husband and I felt uncomfortable with this and realised we needed to take a break from church and all the many activities we were involved with.

Having a year out from going to any church helped us to grow relationships with other Christians and others in our community and helped us to realise that we could do church in many different ways. I had been teaching on a temporary contract and after my contract was not renewed I found myself unemployed and without a church.

I wondered if perhaps God was retiring me aged 49. However, it seems he was just resting me, because this role appeared at just the right moment when I was ready to get involved in such a challenging role. Initially, I didn’t know anything at all about being an Anglican, and on my first day I had to google what the word Eucharist meant. However, thanks to the great team there, I did rather fall in love with all that was Anglican, including traditional services. However, I knew that these would not engage families and people on the edge of church or of society. God has taken me on an incredible journey and I have gone from my daily prayer of “What am I doing here?” to accepting that God is somehow able to use me to create something from nothing.

Having been used in several different contexts to create something from nothing has led me to believe that there is a specific call upon my life to do this – and to support others to do this to redress the balance of parishes whose congregation does not reflect the demographic of the village or town. Applying to study at CMS seemed like a very natural way to marry theological knowledge with the context I find myself in. I have met several people who had already studied there and one thing they said was that you will be joining a community of pioneers. It can be pretty lonely being a pioneer, especially when you’re surrounded by people who are resistant to change. This is one of the things that attracted me to CMS and I have to say has been a huge bonus to meet other like-minded people and hear their stories and their encouragement.

In your application you said, “Pioneering feels like a tough vocation and I feel my own ministry would benefit hugely from a deeper and wider understanding to pioneering the CMS approach offers because of its context-based approach.” How is it going so far?

As I write this I have just completed my first year of study. I love the flexibility of how you can study at CMS. For example, I will be studying for the certificate over two years because I already work full-time, so trying to create space for study was going to be a challenge. I have really enjoyed meeting other pioneers, reading widely about other points of view and hearing inspiring stories. I have even enjoyed writing essays, even though I’ve had to settle to aspire to ‘just good enough’, which I found challenging, but realistic due to the constraints on my time and energy. I definitely have a pile of books I want to read properly when I finish this course.

Can you tell us about your time in Hong Kong in the 1990s?

I went to live in Hong Kong in 1995 with my husband to take up a role as a teacher. I did have some Christian background having grown up in a Methodist Church and my mum was a local preacher. But while we were in Hong Kong we met some other Christians who just had something very genuine about them. I started to become a bit more involved with the church and one night we went out onto the streets to give out some blankets to homeless people, because it was unseasonably cold and a few people had died on the streets of Hong Kong. Although I do not really have any recollection of it, we met Jackie Pullinger that night, whom I’d never heard of. However, I would say that was the night that my own faith became real as I encountered God in a very dramatic way.

A few months later something similar happened to my husband and between us we knew that we were supposed to stay in Hong Kong and help to build the church plant there. Today, this plant, that started with just a handful of Westerners, is now fully bilingual and multicultural and has a strong and diverse congregation. We left Hong Kong to join in another church plant in West London which, again, is really thriving 20 years later with its own building and several churches having been planted from it.

That’s amazing, I loved visiting Hong Kong many years ago. It was incredible you got to have that experience, and shared it with your husband. Companions on the journey are very important! How does being part of a community of pioneers feel beneficial to you?

I am quite fortunate because there are a few other people who do the same job as me in my diocese and they have been hugely supportive over the last five years. However, as the project has come toward the end of the five years we were initially funded for, it is harder to keep in touch with those people as lives in our parishes have become so busy. Having time out to be able to go and study on Monday has been amazing and life-giving for me.

Unfortunately, the start of our journey was in Covid times so much of the study initially was online, which was not really my favourite way to interact with people. However, I have hugely enjoyed the face-to-face study and in particular the week-long residential for spirituality and discipleship in Sheffield: it was particularly wonderful to be with this amazing cohort in real life for a whole week. Having people who just ‘get you’ and understand some of the difficulties you are facing is hugely beneficial.

Also, study after quite a few years of not writing essays was a challenge. Having others in a similar boat where we all encourage one another and occasionally tear our hair out leads to a lot of camaraderie. A sense that others were with you on this journey, even if you didn’t really know where you were going. I think also the diversity of other pioneers that you come across on modules, in the reading, and among the lecturers is really interesting and helpful.

How can we pray for you, Christine?

At this moment I am nearing the end of a five-year project. I have been working with two incumbents over the past two years in the second phase of the project in three villages. One of the incumbents has now left us to take on a new role, so two of the churches are in interregnum. This is quite challenging as although people now look to me for leadership in a slightly different way. It is hard not having someone to talk everything through with in quite the same way. However, the other incumbent has really stepped up and is very good at this role; and has also agreed to be an advocate for me in PCC meetings and where there are other difficulties.

We have created a bid to extend my role across the interregnum period. At the moment we are awaiting the outcome of several grant applications. Prayers for these would be hugely appreciated as these little parishes have very little money to pay their part of my wages.

Lastly, I am trying to discern whether I stay and apply to be a licensed lay pioneer, or whether God is calling me to be an ordained pioneer priest.

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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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