TOMORROW, a diverse group of nine people will present themselves for confirmation by the Bishop of Huddersfield, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs. They range from a Wiccan witch, and a couple in their forties who are returning to faith, to two single-parent fathers and a young woman who admits to being addicted to lying. The venue is a council building once used as a Free Church Sunday school.
The candidates are the latest in a number brought to faith by Saturday Gathering, an ecumenical outreach group in Halifax, based on a Fresh Expressions model of new styles of congregations formed alongside more traditional churches.
It works with some of the town’s most marginalised and vulnerable people. Since it launched, three years ago, it has grown from six to nearly 100 worshippers. Some drop in for company and a meal. So far this year, 86 of them have been baptised — several of whom have moved on to confirmation.
One of its founders is the Revd Linda Maslen, who was ordained priest this summer, after leaving a career as a senior civil servant. She is a Pioneer Curate at Christ Church and St Augustine’s, in Halifax, and describes Saturday Gathering as “a church that is dependent and interdependent with other churches. “We say: ‘Come in, and learn about Jesus, be discipled with us’ — which we do very simply — ‘but, when you are ready, go and join another church, we will celebrate that with you. You will still be part of us, but go and explore what our brothers and sisters do.’ . . . About 30 of our people are now out with others, mostly Free Churches.”
The group’s genesis was in 2008, when the Christians Together group in the area, which is supported by 20 churches, opened a foodbank. They soon realised that they could do more than give food away. “We wanted to offer support to people, and to share our hearts for the gospel with people, so we introduced a prayer team.
“We started to see people who thought their prayers had been answered, and wanted to know more about the God who had answered them. To me, God seemed to answer prayers much more easily there than at church; he is so much closer to the broken-hearted.”
Although people were coming to faith, efforts to consolidate this aspect of the group’s ministry did not work. The sometimes unconventional behaviour of the new Christians was not always welcomed at established churches; a Bible-study group faltered; and Sunday-morning services in a hired hall also failed.
At the same time, Mrs Maslen was running a group for homeless men, and, three years ago, started a scheme that offered them food and hospitality on a Saturday night.
“After six weeks, we were getting up to 50 people. People just come and really enjoy the community and the sense of being part of a family that is Saturday Gathering, which is just beautiful.”
Soon afterwards, West Yorkshire Police offered the group cash, as it was keeping troublemakers off the streets; and Calderdale Council donated £60,000 to support two part-time staff because the Gathering was successful in building relationships with the marginalised.
Last year, the Council also gave them a building for a peppercorn rent, which includes space for worship as well as a homelessness shelter.
“Now we have a lot of other work,” Mrs Maslen said. “We run the Banqueting Table, a pay-as-you-are-able café with food that would otherwise go into landfill. Two volunteer-support workers help people deal with bureaucracy — basically helping them to live; and in September we started doing art, music, and creative writing. . . “It blows my mind that we have achieved all this. If I had any idea that this is where we would be when we started, I would have run a million miles. But God just does it step by step.”