Thermometer theology – Learning from the First Fourteen Years of Touchstone in Bradford

…a movement of faith expressing the good news of Christ through the words, deeds and lives of those who share a vision for the city.

When I had a spell in hospital earlier this year I discovered that they now take your temperature by sticking a pointed electronic device in your ear. I missed the glass thermometer popped into the mouth with its transparency and its capacity to silence the most garrulous patient for a few minutes.

Transparency and listening loom large in the self-understanding of Touchstone. The mercury in the old clinical thermometer, visibly reacting to its context, provides another image of our Bradford city centre agenda. The reservoir of mercury in the bulb at the bottom, equally visible, offers an image of deep spiritual resources which can be drawn upon for the task in hand. However I suspect that we are unlikely to adopt the thermometer image as a permanent Touchstone emblem. As it disappears from hospital practice, those Christians who still remember what it looks like will tend to associate it with notice boards indicating how the building fund is doing!

In September 1989 the West Yorkshire Methodist District appointed a presbyteral Minister and a Lay Worker to what is now Touchstone. They were told to take the City Centre and student chaplaincy seriously but beyond that they were told to approach their work with a blank sheet: “Start again in the city from the ground up.” This act of faith by the Methodist District has given rise to the “movement of faith” which is now recognised by both the Methodist Church and the City of Bradford as a significant force for change and a focus of hope both inside and outside the church.

We have come a long way in fourteen years. What follows is an attempt to spell out some of the lessons we have learned through this pioneering city centre project which “takes the temperature of the city.” There are messages here concerning the church’s mission as well as some guidelines for good practice in community work. Over the past fourteen years we have expanded the work of the Methodist Church in Bradford, gained a remarkable level of influence in the city and the local ecumenical scene, developed a distinctive training role, and come to a much deeper sense of self-awareness and purpose

This has happened with very heavy investment of money and personnel by the Methodist Church nationally, backed up by sustained contributions from the District and local Circuits. There has also been financial input from individuals and a number of trust funds. Touchstone enjoys significant investment income from funds inherited from Eastbrook Hall, a large city-centre church building which closed in the nineteen-eighties. The relinquishing of any residual claims on this money represents, in effect, an additional contribution by the Bradford Circuits.

Serious mission is always costly and the financial commitment of the wider church has been matched by the work of staff and volunteers over the period. However it is important not to lose sight of the faith and vision of those West Yorkshire Methodists who hoped and prayed that “something new” would appear in the city following the closure of Eastbrook. The freedom and open agenda which they gave to the original workers is still a key element of Touchstone’s way of working. We have come to realise that it is the Touchstone style and ethos which give the project its distinctive flavour, even more than the context or content of our work.

It is a way of being church which is risky, collaborative, flexible, innovative and pushing at boundaries. Thanks to our admin and volunteer base we can be very swift on our feet – if necessary turning out a substantial mailing within hours of the events which gave rise to it. Being at the heart of completely new patterns of ecumenical initiatives, on the streets of the city in the middle of a riot, doing theology in the local pub, or developing a multi-faith column in the local newspaper are all part of the “natural habitat” of Touchstone. And yet we are “kosher” – clearly owned by the wider church and providing one of the central planks of District Policy. We are also disciplined. Staff members sign up to a team discipline which involves weekly team meetings, Tuesday theological reflection, Thursday prayers, regular awaydays etc.

Touchstone has slowly gained in credibility along with a steady expansion of the work. A Faith to Faith Project and a Resources Centre came into Touchstone very soon after the original appointments were made. More recently the Inner Ring Group of the West Yorkshire Ecumenical Council has become enmeshed with our own work to such an extent that the outside observer can hardly see the join. Editing the “Faith Matters” column in the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, began shortly after I replaced David Moore as Team Leader in 1994. The Centenary to Millennium Project inspired by the Powerful Whispers Report dominated eight years of my work within the Metropolitan District. Its influence on Neighbourhood Renewal policy nationally and locally, allied to a sustained contribution by our Faith to Faith workers in inner Bradford has resulted in Touchstone becoming an “unavoidable” player in the life of the city. We are known beyond Bradford these days – our diverse range of visitors has included government advisors and foreign ambassadors!

Just as the original flexible approach to the city is still evident in our work, so the original base for ministry still enables us to do what we do. Touchstone was established: (i) without a conventional congregation (ii) without substantial capital resources (iii) a relatively modest wages bill (albeit substantial in Methodist terms) What we can deliver for less than £150,000 a year would be seen as an unbelievably efficient operation by the commercial and statutory sectors!

Touchstone has gained from a mixture of presbyteral, diaconal and lay ministries, both paid and voluntary. Because there is no conventional congregation we are free from the ill-defined and contradictory expectations of ministry with which many ministers struggle. We can therefore develop a robust ecclesiology in a community where everybody is there deliberately. Nobody just drifted in or came because of family links. Appointments are made on the basis of the best voluntary sector good practice we can muster. Volunteers are offered proper selection and training. Strong management structures provide good support and demand proper accountability. All these people come to give and receive – sharing the excitement and challenge of the work. There is a buzz about it all which was identified by a ninety year old in a wheelchair at the back of a South Bradford church following morning worship. She said she was “glad that we were doing summat that matters in the city” – and was clearly seeing herself within the “we”.

Because we are into high-risk activities in the city there is a risk attached to the internal life of Touchstone. We have agonised over personnel problems at certain times. We came through these thanks to strong and realistic management consisting of people who knew “the sort of team we need to do the work we have to do”. This is consistent with working to clear and transparent policies which reflect an understanding of shared values and which cherish our style of working. These policies are influenced by the city, which we in turn influence.

This is matched by an understanding of Jesus which could be described as “incarnational partnership”. Touchstone is intensely collaborative, working with people in other denominations, other faiths and other organisations within the city. Within that wide network we are constantly asking “Where is Jesus in all this? Where are the opportunities for identifying his vulnerability, servanthood and sacrifice? Where are the scenes and stories that would gladden, amuse, vindicate him?”

There is also a clear longing for social justice and a priority for the poor. Being trusted by some of the poorest communities in the city (and a fair number of oddbods!), while having access to the power structures, is in some ways a traditional role for city centre missions. However, having had to work from the ground up, we know that our reputation has been carefully built up over these fourteen years and owed little to inheritance from the past. We are seen as a credible alternative form of church and taken seriously in this city because of work we have done here.

Our flexibility is in part derived from being relatively resource light. The building is simply a base from which we work. While people appreciate the welcoming atmosphere and a threshold which is easy to cross, it imposes very few restrictions on our work. We are currently looking for alternative premises with better access provision but we are not engaged in an everlasting compromise with the premises as we develop our outreach. Whereas others modify their premises to get a bit more mission into the programme, we simply say that the building has to be subservient to the mission. Our aim is to move into premises that we do not own. We do not do property well at Touchstone – we are too busy with other things.

We have generated a huge amount of trust within the city, which has come from setting a high value on honesty and on listening. We are obsessional about telling people inside and outside the church what we do. This is not simply about good PR and accountability. It is about assuring people that what they see on the label is what is inside the jar. Nobody need fear any hidden agenda. We experiment with various forms of proclamation in the public arena but there is no hint of secret proselytising. People know that we are not after them to put bums on seats or to keep a church roof intact! Yet we will share what spiritual treasure we have with anybody. To paraphrase St Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: it is by being honest that we recommend ourselves to our fellow-citizens in the sight of God. Across our various networks there are hundreds of people who know what our mission statement says (top of this article) because they read it on our annual review publication or they have one of our mugs.

Trust takes time to build up. In the early years a lot of effort was devoted to worming our way into various groups, organisations and events. While we still find ways of breaking into new territory, we know that we have more people wanting us to do things with them than we can cope with. This is a position that many bits of the church would find unfamiliar. Meanwhile we see ourselves as a signposting organisation for both church and community. We can ensure that connections are made that help local churches in their mission.

While remaining a learning and flexible organisation, we want to play one the traditional church’s strongest cards, namely that, unlike some regeneration agencies, we are firmly rooted in our place and here to stay.

We are perhaps above all else a listening organisation, listening to people and to other groups of people. Thus we “take the temperature of the city” and respond to what is really there. We know what’s going on. Indeed at the welcome service for a new Catholic Bishop the Vicar-General introduced him to the Touchstone Team Leader and said “If you want to know anything about Bradford this is the man you talk to.” Such expertise is built up by patient teamwork over a long period. When people come with a strange request we may not be able to help them directly but the chances are that we know someone who can. We have nothing to lose by giving away information – or people! Yet when it comes to pieces of work that we do take on, people know that we deliver. This is partly because we choose to engage in very specific, usually time-limited, pieces of work which are practically attainable.

We do not have vague commitments to hospitality – we see it as an upfront missionary strategy. We know what this means in terms of the coffee machine, use of the telephone, style of lettings etc. Similarly we do not have vague commitments to collaborative styles of working. It is written into all job descriptions and there is a specific team discipline laid upon anyone who works here.

Support “from above” has gone hand in hand with our building from the ground up and it is still vital to the continuation of the project. We are still very dependent on central Methodist funds. There is no way that this kind of work can be financially self-supporting. Meanwhile we still continue to benefit from a heavy commitment from the District Chair, supporting us with time, strategic support and a shared understanding of Bradford issues. Prior to taking up my Touchstone appointment I asked his predecessor Kathleen Richardson (the future Baroness) “if it was going to work”. She replied “It’s got to work.” Prior to our current Chair taking up his appointment he asked me what I expected from him with regard to Touchstone. This was at a time when organisationally and financially things were looking very difficult. “Just support us”, I replied. It has worked and support from District leadership has been crucial.

In many other respects today’s Touchstone is very different from the project as it existed in the mid-nineties, which is as it should be if we are doing the job properly. Then there was more emphasis on “the Centre” and for many Methodists the Resource Room was almost the only public face of the project. Now the work in the city is much more visible and acknowledged. Then we had no Quiet Room in the basement. We simply said our Thursday lunchtime prayers in the main room on the ground floor. It was as if we had to reach a point when nobody but nobody could accuse us of running away from the city before we could create a dedicated worship space. The development of an on-the-edge experimental spirituality is now structured into our timetables.

Oddly enough the revitalisation of Touchstone spirituality flowed from a major evaluation that we held in the run-up to our tenth birthday. Indeed making something special of our tenth birthday was one the recommendations and this in some ways marked a turning point for the organisation. We spent £3,000 on that evaluation (£2,000 of which came from a Yorkshire trust fund) but we have no doubt whatsoever that it was worth every penny.

We are now one the Methodist Yorkshire Districts’ Theological Resource Centres, which reflects a growing training function, both formal and informal. In terms of formal programmes and courses we are key players in the creation of an ecumenical learning partnership – the Bradford Centre for Dialogue and Diversity. Meanwhile people continue to come from a variety of places in the United Kingdom and beyond seeking to learn from our expertise and experience. It is the combination of interfaith experience and a distinctive approach to city issues which encourages Christians from different parts of the world to visit Bradford as a means of developing their own practice and gaining some understanding of the future shape of multicultural cities.

We have gained a clearer understanding of the contribution of diaconal ministry to the project. This originally arose by accident when we secured some time from a Methodist Deacon from the local Circuit as a response to a lay chaplain’s maternity leave. In successive years we steadily moved towards the appointment of a full-time Deacon. The diaconal model of bridge-building ministry straddling church and community sits easily with our priorities. It is a model which can inform our internal team dynamics. Bishops and others occasionally try to turn me into a “Director” but we jealously retain my title as “Team Leader and City Centre Worker” – not even a Superintendent!

Deacon Sue Culver, who worked with us as Chaplain and more latterly as Executive Secretary of the Inner Ring Group suggests that this is a model which reflects the programme of Micah 4:8. We are called to “act justly, love loyalty and walk humbly with our God” – in Bradford. It is no accident that our Touchstone hymn begins with the invitation “Walk the streets and hear the voices.”

Another helpful model for us is John the Baptist as portrayed in John 1:19-34. The painter Grunewald gives him a finger which almost turns into a signpost, as the significant but self-effacing Baptist points to something much bigger than his own community-based project. We invite the wider institutional church to take on a role more akin to the voice crying in the wilderness which was John. Drawing on our own experience we know that it works and that God gives us the energy to make a difference to our city as we live out that kind of model.

We are a modest church presence, with deep loyalties, making our contribution to justice in today’s city. While we are happy to use good publicity in the service of the Kingdom of God (and Touchstone funding!), making a name for ourselves has not been a conscious priority. However at the very least we must have got something right since we are still here! This survey of our fourteen year journey has appeared because we were repeatedly asked for it – and we are happy to respond to voices in the wider church as well as in the wider city!

Meanwhile we offer the following ABC as a summary of our suggestions:

A Touchstone ABC

Accountability is strength – without it you are lost.

Be clear about what you are trying to do – even if you have to redefine it along the way.

Create a strong team – and avoid fancy titles.

Drink deep from the wells of a spirituality that is authentic to you – or you will disappear.

Explain what you are about – in language that does not assume that your hearers have a special Christian vocabulary.

Forget about empire building – the Kingdom of God is different.

Get out of jail – don’t be in thrall to the building.

Hospitality has to be structured in – it won’t “just happen”.

Invest in external evaluation – get it in the budget.

Join in what you perceive God to be already doing in your place – you are not taking God into the city or wherever.

Keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities – a basic principle of Christian mission.

Listen, and listen again – then give a reason for the faith that is in you.

Rev Geoff Reid is ‘Team-leader and city-centre worker’ at Touchstone, Bradford UK.
Original publication date of this article: August 2003.