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The revitalisation of St Mary’s Bearwood

Revd Ben Baker shares the story of the revitalisation of St Mary's Bearwood in the Church of England Birmingham, unpacking its journey to form a new mission for the region that embraces the old and the new.

“It can all sound a bit diplomatic,” says Revd Ben Baker. “But I think there’s a deeply positive motive for that, to find a dual integrity.” 

Ben is reflecting on the joyous events of the recent revitalisation launch services of St Mary’s Bearwood, the latest chapter in the story of a West Midlands church whose history stretches back over 130 years. 

When joining a church with such a storied history to help with the process of revitalisation, language – particularly the words declared by the congregation – isn’t selected for diplomacy, but to communicate a deeper truth. 

“There’s a word-action play at work,” Ben explains. “It parallels what happens during a wedding – when the vows are said, something happens when you step into that moment and make a declaration. We weren’t using ‘launch’ language. It was a ‘recommissioning’ – language that was sensitive to the history of the church.”

On Saturday 10 September 2022, St Mary’s celebrated what Ben describes as a “journey of revitalisation”. They hosted a community fun day, with several hundred people, young and old, coming to the grounds of the church to enjoy barbeque food and live music, take part in crafts and games, grab a drink, browse a book stall and meet someone new. It was the embodiment of the church’s vision, to be a place where people could come and find life, life in all its fullness. 

Two weeks later, on Sunday 25 September, St Mary’s took another step on this journey with a new pattern of services, reflecting what had gone before and what it was stepping into.

Sundays now start with an informal family service at 9:30am, filled with young families and children’s groups, alongside long-standing older members of the congregation. There’s then a traditional communion service at 11:30am, more representative of the liturgical traditions that many of St Mary’s have maintained before this new chapter. 

These services are bridged by a new space of overlap, a gathering for cake and drinks at 10:30am, where the whole community of the church comes together to meet and do life. 

On Sunday 25 September, Ben used a ‘revitalisation liturgy’ (which you can read at the conclusion of this article), which saw the congregation of St Mary’s declaring together, ‘We continue to…’ rather than ‘We will…’. It was the celebration of all that St Mary’s is and was – a place of life, of young families and long-serving couples, of buzzing conversation and reflective stillness, of children’s action songs and organ-led hymns. 

“This is about Bearwood – it’s not just about St Mary’s starting a new service,” says Ben. “We want to use our highstreet location, which is very visible, and have the life of the church spill out into the area.”

St Mary’s prominent Victorian red brick building is situated in the midst of a bustling commercial highstreet in the south of Smethwick – a West Midlands town that neighbours the north-western edge of the city of Birmingham. St Mary’s sits within the Church of England Birmingham, but it belongs to the Black Country, with Bearwood itself marked as a region with a beautiful independent spirit, made up of hundreds of different nationalities and histories, with an increasingly young population of families and professionals. 

The journey of Ben, his wife Johanna and their two daughters into St Mary’s Bearwood started many years before when Ben once worked as a children’s and youth worker at the nearby church of St John’s Harborne, also in the Church of England Birmingham. It was during his time at St John’s that Ben felt a call to church leadership, which eventually led him to a curacy in Oxford. Here, working on an outer city estate as it engaged with a new population moving into a neighbouring housing development, Ben recognised his passion for reimagining church for new people groups.

At a similar time, St Mary’s Bearwood was faced with hard decisions about its future, and took the brave step of welcoming a new journey of revitalisation for the church. A partnership between St Mary’s and St John’s Harborne was established, to seek new life and missional vitality in St Mary’s and the wider community.

The opportunity to return to a known area, to take on a missional project to reach out to new people in Bearwood who weren’t currently engaged with church, felt like a gift for Ben and his family. They moved back to the Birmingham area, with Ben licenced at St John’s Harborne in September 2021.

“At that point my priority was team recruitment, to see who had a sense of call to join us in this thing. We had a lot of coffees, dinners, conversations with people – but I wasn’t chasing them.”

Ben hosted an event at St John’s, an Explore Evening, to outline the way ahead. Alongside this, he was meeting with the existing congregation of St Mary’s Bearwood, to hear their heart for their church and talk to them about what he’d been appointed to do, of what revitalisation might look like. 

Those members of St John’s who felt that God was calling them to this partnered project were invited to start attending St Mary’s, to see what love they had for the church and its members – to arrive out of love rather than carrying an agenda. 

Over time, a team of around 30 adults and children emerged, seeking to become part of St Mary’s and join in this new chapter. A core group of these members took part in the Plant Course with Ben, helping to focus minds on the purpose of what they were doing.

“It really gave us something to rally around and discuss as a team,” says Ben. “It provided some great content. It was great for me to be able to share the input – I had been leading and communicating on the vision for so long, it was great to have other voices join me in this.”

As this new group integrated into the existing congregation, an image emerged, of two parents coming together to bring forth a new life, a new St Mary’s that would represent the characteristics and essential DNA of both its ‘parent’ churches in what the future looks like.

“What has been so encouraging,” says Ben, “is that everybody who has come from St John’s to St Mary’s has a personal testimony of how they sensed God’s call on this journey.”

Revitalisations can be long, sensitive processes – requiring that ‘diplomatic’ heart Ben spoke of when finding the right language for the launch services. He speaks warmly of the gifts he feels he’s been able to exercise throughout this journey, of being able to hold tension and seek integrity, of not turning to a compromise that robs members of what they feel called to in their churchmanship. There have been many gatherings with PCC members, opportunities to talk about hopes and fears, of aspirations and common ground.

“We spoke about what change would look like, uniting around a vision for Bearwood. We knew we would not be united by our style of worship, or all aspects of our theology, or our churchmanship necessarily, but what we want to be united around is our mission to our parish and to the community.”

St Mary’s Bearwood has now settled into its new pattern of services. Both the 9:30am and 11:30am services have around 40 members attending each of them – a significant growth from the 30 regular attendees of St Mary’s main service some 12 months ago. 

But it’s not a case of ‘bums on seats’ that Ben is pursuing, but rather, how to get ‘bums off the seats’, to engage with the local area. 

“Part of that is about inviting people in for events,” says Ben. “Christmas is the next big thing on the horizon, we’re well into thinking how we might do something for that. But we’re also looking at more of a dispersed missional communities model. We recognise it’s a case of more than just inviting groups come to us, we need to go to them. We need to work out how we can reimagine church to not just engage those already in the church or lapsed attendees, but about how to engage new people in the church who are completely unchurched. 

“We’re asking how we can be missional, incarnational, how we can be fully connected to this community – how do we serve its needs and contribute to its life.” 

Ideas for missional communities are starting to form and emerge as the members of St Mary’s Bearwood take up this new chapter in its long journey – of old and new seeking to reach new people with the love of Christ. 

Click here to find out more about St Mary’s Bearwood

Click here to find out more about the Plant Course

Revitalisation Liturgy