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European Pioneer Gathering!

Tina Hodgett reports back from Switzerland (Main photo Kappel Kloster Roland Zumbuehl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tina Hodgett is just back from a gathering of pioneers from across Europe. Here’s what she experienced, noticed and learned.

Last winter I had an email from a pioneer friend in the United Reformed Church asking if I’d like to attend the European Pioneer Gathering this June. Naturally I said yes. I spent my teens falling in love with the German language and culture, before I met Russian and decided she was a more entrancing life partner. I more or less gave up modern foreign languages on becoming ordained, so this felt like an invitation from the Spirit of God to allow eras of my unfolding life to wind back in together in a delightful way.

Connecting with the European Pioneer Network felt a bit like entering a secret society. The group has no web presence and no standing committee. It’s met three times over the past six years in different European countries, once purely on Zoom owing to the pandemic. Each time it’s been generously organised by a small ecumenical team of volunteers from the host country reaching out through existing home networks to people who are leaders in their denomination in their own country.

Our gathering took place at Kappel am Albis in Switzerland. It was well organised by a group based in Zurich and we stayed in a monastery with a history that boasts a role in the Great Reformation.

Representatives attended from the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Finland and the Czech Republic. It had the atmosphere of an intergenerational community not just because there were some younger men and women there but also a suggestion some countries were ‘elders’ of the Fresh Expressions and pioneering movement, and others were still infants.

I learnt a lot. Here are a few random things I thought I’d share:

  1. If I was ever in any doubt that pioneering is a global movement, I now have the evidence of my own eyes: it stretches across generations, denominations, countries, continents, cultures.
  2. When people come together with a call to experiment, innovate or pioneer for the sake of the gospel, a bond forms very quickly from shared vocation and values, even across language barriers. I felt immediately at home (specially as most people spoke English).
  3. My spoken German is very rusty. I can still ask for a beer.
  4. The shape of experimentation, innovation and pioneering is influenced by national culture, but some of the themes of what emerges are similar across borders: connecting disparate people, growing community cohesion, re-neighbouring, going to and serving people who are excluded or at the edges. 
  5. We can be encouraged in the English churches that we are considered as one of the ‘elders’. Perhaps we have travelled further than we think.
  6. The central idea of Pioneering Parishes is that pioneering can become integral to parish life. Other ‘elder’ countries are just coming into this awareness and wondering how to work with the church to shape this consciousness further and make it real in practice.
  7. Northern European countries shaped by a Protestant work ethic tend not to prioritise play.
  8. ‘Endineering’ is the process of engineering an end to something that is no longer fit for purpose. It is related to ‘exnovation’: what you do with an innovation that needs to be shown the exit. Both processes evoke strong emotions and require skilful management.
  9. The Cistercian Abbot at Kappel am Albis in the pre-Reformation years hired a young Reformed theologian called Heinrich Bullinger to teach the monks. He taught them in Swiss-German (not the standard Latin) and they were convinced by his exegesis to follow a more Reformed way. People hear and understand better when we speak their language.
  10. I still love European culture (even if the Swiss are frightening in their religious commitment to being on time). I have missed it and am excited about returning to present the Pioneer Spectrum to a southern German audience in October. Must get practising if I’m going to do it in the language they most easily understand.

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