This is the first interview in a series talking with members of the Root and Branch network in the United Kingdom with Noel Moules, founder of Workshop, a course in Applied Christian Studies. My wife Charletta and I participated in Workshop in 2005-2006 and were deeply inspired by the Shalom centered vision that Noel and the other workshop teachers challenged us with as well as the lively community that develops among students over the year together. I believe that many Mennonites in North America could benefit as much as we did from participating in Workshop and I would love to bring Workshop across the Atlantic. I could say much more about Workshop, but I’ll let Noel describe it himself:
Tim: When, where and how did Workshop begin?
Noel Moules: Workshop was launched in September 1983, running in three centers across England: London, Birmingham and Teeside (in the north of England). However, the idea was born several years earlier. At that time I was actively part of a local church in the north of England. This church was part of a wider network of some 50 different churches spread across the UK. Many of the leaders and active participants in these churches were looking around for a training and learning programme that they could attend to study their faith in more depth, but also be able to fit around their busy lives of work, home and local church commitments. At that time no such course existed.
One dark, wet winter’s night I was driving north on the motorway praying about the whole thing and felt I had a clear vision from God as to how to do it. One weekend a month, at three national centers from September to July. The idea was not accepted at first, some people thought it would be superficial, but in the absence of any alternatives it was decided to support me. Within the first month we knew we had a winner! Now, nearly 25 years down the road it is just astonishing what has happened.
As Workshop has continued over the years, how have people responded to Workshop? How has it affected peoples lives? How has it affected the way they view church?More than 4,000 people have done the Workshop program since it started. People have responded in many different ways. The most common response is that it is just what they have been looking for and engage with it fully. I need to emphasize that Workshop is deliberately not aligned to any particular Christian denomination, and as such it draws people from all quarters of the Christian community. From Catholics to Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals and people struggling with personal faith and the church. Every years I get people saying, “I’m giving God one last chance—if Workshop can’t help me sort out my faith I’m going to walk away from Christianity!” – No pressure! I think I can say that in pretty well every case with those kinds of struggles find peace and resolve. It is very exciting. Workshop works to create an environment in which anyone at any stage on their spiritual journey can come and reflect and learn.
I have described Workshop for years as, ‘A safe place where terrible things happen!’ What I mean by that is that people can come and be safe knowing that there is not topic or question that they cannot ask and area they cannot explore, yet in doing that the transformation that almost always happens as a result is usually not what they were expecting. There is no ‘party-line’ on Workshop. We have a very clear vision and central core values (which I will mention below) but you are free and encouraged to work with their implications for yourself. We celebrate difference and diversity! For so many people this is just a breath of fresh air. Sadly so few local churches encourage people to question or can see even doubt as an essential spiritual creative process. So lives are changed at every level. Some learners who may have been Christians for many years find inspiration and whole new ways of thinking. On the other extreme we see people sorting out deep long-standing issues or even making the decision to become a Christian for the first time. This has happened several times in recent years. How this affects how people view church is varied.
We work from the premise that there is only one church with many expressions. For many people the creative dynamic to thinking and understanding in faith enables them to work out their commitment to local church in whole new way, they go on to take more responsibility at all levels of their faith community life and really prosper. Others, who have particularly struggled with local church may not resolve this but work out their faith in different creative ways with sometimes startling results in terms of their activities and the impact these have into their local secular community.
How did Anabaptist values interact with/influence/inform Workshop?
Workshop is not directly an Anabaptist course but its ethos, character and links find it at the heart of the Anabaptist network in Britain. Workshop had been going for a number of years before I encountered any Anabaptists in Britain. The main reason why Workshop was Anabaptist before I discovered Anabaptism is is that in 1967, quite alone, I discovered the biblical concept of ‘shalom’. It totally changed my life then and has continued to do so ever since! It would be 18 years before I met anyone else who had come across this central biblical idea.
The vision and understanding of ‘shalom’ is the very foundation of everything that we do on Workshop, as are the values that flow from it. We see this rooted in the character of God and incarnated in Jesus. Workshop is totally Christocentric – Jesus centered in everything. We also take the Bible very seriously but by no means literalistically, rather we read it as the book of life. These facts lead us to be totally committed to what I call ‘assertive meekness’ (commonly referred to as ‘nonviolence’) and justice and a thoroughgoing ‘creation spirituality’ which recognizes everything as being sacred and the call to live in this sacred world gently and with wisdom. All of this fits perfectly with Anabaptism.
In the years since Workshop has been actively linked with Anabaptism (I am a founder member and Trustee of the Anabaptist Network in the UK) the relationship has deeply informed us and widened the common ground between us. Learners on the course often tell us it is the first place they have come across Anabaptism and many find it life-changing. Over the years I think the Workshop understanding of biblical values has influenced and informed many Anabaptists as well as vice versa!
What has the Root and Branch network meant for Workshop? How has it benefited from connections with other Root and Branch organizations?
The ‘Root & Branch’ network is a joy and a Godsend. Being a founder member we have had the privilege of being involved from the start and seeing disparate groups doing quite different things drawn together on the basis of shared values. Almost all the groups have quite independent and different origins and yet our shared values are astonishing! Vic Thiesen (Director of the London Mennonite Center and originator of the Network) said early on that there were more immediately shared values within the R&B network than between Mennonite groups submitting a list of their values to an international Mennonite commission that was set up for the purpose of identifying and harmonizing values!!
R&B is the ‘radical vision network’ , which accurately suggests a dynamic enthusiastic community! Most of the 12 or more groups involved are quite small and together there is the sense of energizing and supporting each other. Most of us have quite different focuses, but there is the knowledge that each group is supporting the other in whatever way is possible. This summer we are all going to be involved in the huge Greenbelt Festival where we will have a whole area of the exhibition space dedicated to what each R&B member is doing and a clear statement that we are committed to each other.
We pool expertise, pray for each other, share experiences and advice, and where possible look at projects we might do together (probably in small clusters – Greenbelt is the only project we are all involved in). So as far as Workshop is concerned, we are directly involved in supporting Crucible, an urban church planting training project, and the Peace School, a project for training Christian ‘shalom activists’ in peace and justice. Both projects are actually featured in our literature. We advertise books available for sale through Metanoia Books, the radical Christian book service, and so much more. Also this is just beginning!
What hopes and dreams do you have for Workshop? For the Root and Branch network? What challenges?
We are right in the middle of a process of fundamentally changing the way we have done Workshop over the last 24 years. Rather than teaching an 11-weekend programme from September to July each year we are developing 12 ‘themed’ weekends that will run regionally every other month on a cycle of two years. These an be booked up and done as a whole or you can choose to do one-offs or clusters of them. We will also have national weekends done in a central venue. We want to make the programme more accessible to more people and get the radical message out there. My dream is that we will see the Workshop programme running in many more places across Britain and also internationally. We have hoped this will happen in Nigeria for some years but not yet. We are currently beginning negotiations with a large church in Holland, Who knows, maybe one day in the US of A and Canada! We will be waiting when you are ready!
With the Root and Branch network we are at the early stages of developing relationships and working out the possibilities of sharing common ground. There are so many variables with R&B that in the future many exceptional things could come out of it, it has huge potential. But it will all depend on living shared relationships. The experience already is great and the promise is huge!
The challenges are enormous as well. In a deeply secular environment many Christian struggle with their sense of identity and the nature of the gospel today. This is actually an exciting environment to work in, but being able to engage with so many dynamics in a creative way is a challenge. Finance is always a challenge—working on a ‘shoe-string’ certainly sharpens faith. It pushes us to work powerfully and creatively within tight limits. But it is good. We are committed to changing the world and with Gods’ help we will not rest until we have!