I grew up in a Christian family. My childhood and early teens experience of the church was of a Pentecostal church until I was 12 and then a small brethren chapel ran by my uncle. Both of these churches were evangelical, they were led by men and believed that women’s role was to be caregivers and homemakers. The awkwardness in both these churches was that my family didn’t neatly fit. My mum had Bipolar and a lot of the time she was unable to care for us. My Dad was a policeman and juggled a stressful job with looking after the home, his wife and two young daughters. From a young age I realised that men were caring, loving, and perfectly capable of running a home. The other challenge for both these churches was they believed my mum’s Bi-Polar was either due to demon-possession (Pentecostal church) or as a result of her sin (both churches) and that she wasn’t healed due to her lack of faith. As a child and young teen, I believed that I needed to pray for mum’s healing every night, and when she became ill again I thought this was due to me not praying enough.
At 17 I went along to a friend’s church called St Matthews in Bath, which was Church of England. The first service I went to, the vicar’s wife was preaching about Christian feminism. She was an artist with dyed hair talking about women in leadership, she discussed how Jesus was radical in the way he treated women with respect, she also challenged the patriarchal sexist church environment. I felt so excited and stunned to hear this. Over the weeks and months of attending the church, I realised the church was full of artists, poets, writers, philosophers, musicians, teachers and social workers. The firm belief was that we all had unique skills and gifts from God and we needed to figure out what they were and get on and use them. Nobody was concerned about your age or gender being a hindrance, the expectation was that you would get on and use your skills in the world. Another view of the church was that the idea of certain jobs being more important (e.g. the preacher or missionary) was total rubbish. All skills and gifts were unique. The underlying theology of the church was a Reformation theology characterised by a belief that the whole of life belongs to God. What this meant in practice was we didn’t have to only do ‘God’ things, ‘God art”, sing ‘God songs’, write about God. God was interested in how we teach, how we sweep the roads, how we make a pot, how we figure science theories, how we are fully creative.
I look back and I am so grateful for this experience at St Matthew’s. I met my husband Iain there, and made many wonderful friends, most of whom we are still in contact with. Of course, there were difficulties along the way in the church, not everything was brilliant. However, the experience at St Matt’s showed me that God was interested in me as a woman, that I have a voice, I am beautifully and wonderfully made and my skills are God-given and I need to nurture them and help them to flourish. It also helped me to understand that my mum’s Bipolar had nothing to do with demons, sin, or lack of faith.
Because creativity and questioning and try things out were big emphases at St Matthews, a few of us wanted to experiment with how we ran services. With the vicar’s blessing, in 1998 Iain and I and two friends started an alternative worship service called Sanctuary We were interested in stripping back church services, as we felt the common model of worship, preach and prayer didn’t work. We started with a monthly worship service. We wanted to challenge the idea that worship was singing led by a band/worship leader. We wanted to create a worship space that invited reflection, participation, thinking and questioning. Space where people could be curious, engage and discover, rather than space where people were told what to think. Initially the four of us coordinated and curated the services. Three of the team were artists (I was the one who was not!). The services were very experimental and creative but they were always participative, this was key, enabling everyone attending to actively take part. Over time Sanctuary grew to around 40 people of all ages. After a few years others became regularly involved in curating and planning services. We tried to set it up in a way that encouraged and enabled anyone in Sanctuary to be involved in curating and planning the service if they wanted. The other key part to Sanctuary was that it was all age. I strongly felt that church should be a community/family and I wanted children to be fully part of the community. The way we managed this was to mostly have stations in the services, spaces where there were things to do, things to think about. We would organise these so they were layered, like a good Pixar film, things that worked across the ages and abilities. Over time (we ran for 16 years ) Sanctuary services increasingly explored more contemplative spaces in the services and contemplative practice became an increasingly key part of mine and Iain’s practice.
Sanctuary closed around 5 years ago. It came to a natural end. This felt like the right decision. Contemplative practice has became my main way of connecting with God. Along with this I felt increasingly drawn to experiencing God through nature. Two years ago a friend started a forest church, which we supported. She moved away and we ended up curating and coordinating this. It’s a stripped-back experience of church, it is loosely planned, with a simple participative, spacious invitation to try something, for example making prayer out of the things we find in the woods. It is about community, experiencing God whilst being in the woods, sharing food, having a fire, playing, talking, being creative, having times of silence. It’s a small group, mostly families, a number of the children are on the autistic spectrum and find being inside hard.
I have learned over the last few years that the sensory experiences of being outside are where I encounter God the most. There are certain experiences where I have a deep sense of God, some of these are whilst barefoot walking, being in the woods and cold water swimming. This winter Iain and I have kept up a practice of wild swimming without wet suits. There is something about the shock of the cold that forces you to be totally in the moment, totally aware of how you feel and what is around you. For me, that is where I meet God.
– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton