My first experience of UTU was not in Sheffield but at the Gladstone Library in Hawarden, North Wales in the early 2000s. I was invited by a colleague to a week of sharing and reflection called ‘The Urban Theology Collective’. There I met John Vincent (and was quickly sold a book – the first of many) and Ian Duffield and a number of others who shared my calling to inner-city mission and ministry, if not necessarily my theology. And in exactly that was the beginning of a process of deepening, questioning and generally learning how to think about and engage more critically with my faith and my context in inner-city Manchester. This became an annual welcome few days away just before Christmas for a number of years.
In 2006 I gave a paper reflecting on some time I had recently spent on a sabbatical and a concept I was tinkering with to describe what I was doing in my community in terms of mission and ministry: in particular a grassroots response I had co-founded to a gang violence issue. Afterwards, over a coffee, Ian suggested I had the beginnings of an MPhil. After some months of dithering I duly signed up and in Autumn 2007 set out on ‘Mission With’ as a part-time MPhil degree.
Along the subsequent journey of reading, reflecting and listening alongside other students and guided by the staff at UTU, I discovered names for what I had already been doing in trying to generate shalom ‘with’, rather than ‘for’ or ‘to’, my neighbours. Through a mixture of instinct and (hopefully) inspiration, I learned I was practicing Liberation Theology and Community Organising, working from a Missio Dei theology of mission, and now researching it all as an ‘Observing Participant’ – a term I had to invent as no other methodological categories seemed to fit!
Being able, through the wise input and nudging (usually gentle) of John, Ian and the others at UTU, to name and learn about these concepts and much more has deepened my understanding and refreshed my ongoing commitment to my context, fellow-residents and calling to serve and learn from them and Jesus in this place.
Throughout what was a ‘steep learning curve’ the staff and fellow-students at UTU gave encouragement and support, not just academically, but also pastorally when we suffered a horrific sudden family bereavement in 2010 which led to my taking a Leave of Absence. I eventually graduated in 2013 and a revised version of my ‘Mission With’ thesis has since been published as a book. I am grateful to you all. Here’s to the next 50 years of UTU.