Michael Powell


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Stories & People - Paper 1


Michael Powell













This is my story of discovering connectedness between two hugely important and interesting 'zones of life'.

The first zone is BUILDING. Buildings are everywhere. They shelter us. They are essential for every kind of indoor activity we want to engage in. And they are one of the main languages in which we listen to the past and speak to the future. They say who we are, what we value, and what we hope for. As a building student, I first sensed that in relation to Coventry Cathedral being rebuilt after World War II.

Coventry Cathedral
linking past with future

The second zone is CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THEOLOGY, one of the most profound systems of ideas, energy, honesty, truth-fullness and above all action ever to sweep across the world, influencing everything from the way we make bricks to the way we discern our own spirituality and that of the universe.

Sydney Opera House is one of the most iconic of contemporary buildings, its sail-like shells being recognized everywhere. Although it contains two main auditoria of different sizes, the breath-taking shells are parts of one sphere, of one radius.

Sydney Opera House

I believe that BUILDING and CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THEOLOGY are parts of one sphere of life. My ministry project has been to endeavour to make that a reality. This website tells the story.

In the title I use the adjectives 'Reformed' because the United Reformed Church in the UK is my base and 'Ecumenical' because everything is done in partnership.

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Connection 1


My grandfather and my father were local builders at Brentwood , Essex . They owned their own small business. My grandmother and my father were fully committed members of the local Congregational Church. The building business gave the family a worthwhile task to carry out in the community, while their church membership gave them a sound moral base for their relationships with customers, employees, bankers and others. What I saw in them of faith-based morality and behaviour I also experienced at Brentwood School with its motto Virtue, Learning, Manners.

Brentwood School

For ten years I followed on, first with a Diploma in Building Management and then with jobs with firms in Ilford in East London , Felixstowe in Suffolk , and Norwich in Norfolk. These were larger firms than I had known at home but small enough for me to discern what made them tick - a mix of sound business sense, a commitment to good quality building work and an equal commitment to good ethics. It so happened that one of the directors of the Ilford firm and one of the Norwich firm were Methodist Local Preachers. There was no hypocrisy about them; they practised what they preached. They helped my continuing but largely passive church membership to make some sense in relation to building and business. I completed my membership of the Chartered Institute of Building and started to wonder what being a professional might mean.

My father's death brought me back to the family business and the Brentwood church for two years. I could probably have stayed for life but I needed to move on. I had my foundations; now I needed some structure and to make new kinds of connections and discover the nature of my own contributions.

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Connection 2


I found (or was found by) two appointments which opened up new worlds for me. The first was as a staff member of The Chartered Institute of Building in Bedford Square, London . There I met senior leading builders from all over the country, some of the younger and ambitious members of their firms, professors and leading academics in the fields of building technology and management, and colleagues from the professions of architecture, structural engineering and quantity surveying. My civil service-like task was to help prepare Institute views on topical matters and draft publications on professional practice activities. This was working for the good of the Chartered Institute, its members and their industry, and the society served.

I moved on to the National House-Building Council (NHBC) in Portland Place . This was much nearer the front line. NHBC was the statutorily-recognised registration, standards, inspection and warranty body for some 20 000 house-builders developing up to 150 000 houses per year for private sale throughout the UK. My main task was as Technical Secretary advising the Standards Committee of house-builders and customer interests on what the design and construction standards needed to be to get the right matches between technical performance and cost, always bearing in mind the needs of first time house-buyers. This was an unremitting search for 'the right way' for the buyers, builders and mortgagors, and society at large.

Because these weekday jobs were pressured, work for the church took the form of compensating relief. I qualified as a Nationally Accredited Lay Preacher in the United Reformed Church and enjoyed Sunday visits to lead worship in mostly small and ordinary places on the edge of London and out into the Essex coast and countryside. There was no responsibility except that of doing an interesting and creative task appropriately and well. This was a different form of service from the weekday one. It gave me a work/Sabbath model of life. The connectedness was in that contrasting and mutually enriching pattern. 

Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex
The United Reformed Church, as in most places, is round the back

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Connection 3


Ten years in house-building was enough . a great industry but very tightly focused. I was able to move on to the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) based in Westminster . CIRIA was basically a system by which firms of contractors, consultants and public bodies can combine to research issues of common concern and obtain government financial contributions if the outcome of the work was published. My task as a Research Manager was to work with members on identifying issues and then put in place an appropriate person or firm to carry out the detailed work. Projects varied from formulating procedural advice for clients to highly technical matters requiring original investigations or the evaluation of site experience.

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster

We watched its construction from our office windows!

Methodist Central Hall Westminster

Right next door to our office

At one stage my committee was particularly committed and enthusiastic. It discovered that it contained two Methodist Local Preachers (again!, see Connection 1), a very dynamic Roman Catholic 'Liverpudlian' who had started life as a bricklayer and become an innovative and realistic engineer, two delightful Anglicans and two motivated, ethical agnostics - plus me by then a candidate for the URC ministry! For the two or three years that this group was in existence I was conscious that here really was the 'church-at-work', the Body of Christ incarnate in the world.

My weekend focus had moved to the William Temple Foundation's scheme for the study of Christian Theology and Urban Industrial Life, an extra-mural activity of the University of Manchester . For three years I was able to work on a project digging out biblical and practical theological insights to issues thrown up in the various building jobs I had had.

My building and theological researches were tending to converge in the area of contracts, relationships, competencies, trust, ethics and integrity - integrity as both a moral quality and as wholeness, the whole thing or process, the good that is more than the sum of the parts. I took away with me into the university world a desire to do more in this area. 

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Connection 4


While I had, and ever increasingly have, great respect for the laos , the lay church, the people of God, it had long seemed to me that ordained Ministers in Secular Employment, Tentmaker ministers (after St Paul) and worker priests had a special contribution to make both theologically and pastorally. There are people who do this in the hard world of the building industry and they too deserve unlimited respect. However, I felt that for me ordained ministry would be best developed in a university context.

The moment came when I could join what is now Anglia Ruskin University as a lecturer and tutor in Building Management at the Chelmsford campus. After a long time working with the relatively good and great in the industry and professions I was placing myself in the hands of young and not so young students who were exceedingly down to earth and at the same time highly idealistic. One survives! I took people and communication issues as my main Management themes and was able to broaden out to wider built environment issues under a heading of Building and Society. Over time, colleagues asked me to develop programmes on Professionalism, Values and Ethics in Architecture and Town Planning, including John Ruskin's architectural values. My theological studies had given me a base from which to work. Somehow it seemed natural to agree to be a lead pastoral tutor helping students with personal issues, and a lead dissertation tutor, where students have an opportunity to explore particular interests and, if they wish, their own values, beliefs and motivations.

My university world was East Anglia . How did what I was doing there connect with the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church? As Church and Society committee secretary I believed we had to make it connect. Every six months we took a regional environment or development topic such as housing, water or roads, went to a specific place for a weekend, paid visits, discussed issues over dinner with people involved, integrated our findings into the local Sunday service and published a leaflet for the churches of the Synod. Some enthused over the connections, some thought ... I don't know what.

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Connection 5


Chaplaincy at Anglia Ruskin University Chelmsford Campus started in two places. The Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford was preparing to fund a full-time appointment while at the same time I and another ordained minister on the academic staff and colleagues who were Elders and Readers in their churches sensed that part at least of our ministries should be integral with our work in the university. Over time a .chaplaincy team., monitored by the Chaplaincy Council and led by our full-time colleague, became a reality. One of the core tasks of the team was to institute a pattern of daily worship including prayers for the university community and its life. Prior to the beginning of most semesters we have held a team 'awayday' with Cambridge campus chaplaincy colleagues and to which we have invited others who share our interests in spiritual and pastoral matters, including our chaplaincy colleagues from the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faiths. These have always been off-campus, sometimes at Pleshey, the diocesan retreat house and sometimes at Little Baddow URC where I am minister. After various moves, the home of chaplaincy is in a flat in the Student Village and is open 24/7 with food and a sitting room always available for any in need. Worship and spiritual life is very much a weekday, on the job activity.

The Cambridge Inter-faith group

On about half the Sundays in the year I visited local URC congregations to lead their worship. Experiences from teaching, student pastoral care and chaplaincy were the real life components of my preaching, prayers and liturgy. They had to be as there was no time to develop any other angles. Most congregations saw the point of this and some linked it up with the university experiences of their grandchildren and so on. As I shall show in Connection 6 there are enormously rich links between the Bible and buildings and builders so sermons were never short of an illustration.

One outstanding experience for me was that of leading the academic and worship parts of a residential weekend for the Regional Ministerial Training Course on the theme of building as part of all our lives and as profession and vocation for some us. Luckily an active building site was right next door to the conference centre at Ely where we were.  

Ely Cathedral Octogon
A building miricle!

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Connection 6


Particularly in the Reformed strand of Christian tradition, the Bible is the basis for everything. It seemed to me that if I was to justify my commitment to both the world of building and the Reformed tradition I had to make some hard-wired connections between the biblical text and story and the worlds of building, buildings and the built environment. I decided to do this in a disciplined way for MPhil and PhD degrees.

In the MPhil work I set up four pairs of scenarios for comparison and discussion. These were: (1) Solomon's building projects in Jerusalem and the then topical project for the restoration of parts of the Queen's Apartments at Windsor Castle following a major fire; (2) the strong prophetic teaching on social justice with building illustrations in Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the political and economic issues relating to housing in the UK; (3) Moses' approach to moral law in business-like activities and issues relating the moral and legal relationships affecting particularly sub-contractors in the building industry; and (4) details and nuances from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job and 'wisdom' in the building professions.

Solomon's Temple, Jerusalem

Windsor Castle after fire

For the PhD work I made detailed geographical and historical studies of the built environments of Chelmsford Borough in the UK , 1000 year story, and a part of northern Tasmania in Australia , a story of a mere 200 years in European terms but much longer in Aborigine terms. These stories were related to beginnings in early Genesis, wonder and beauty in relation to some of the Psalms, the significance of structures in relation to Nehemiah's wall of Jerusalem, cost and worth in relation to parts of John's Gospel and homes in relation to parts of Revelation.

Devonport, Tasmania

Shire Hall, Chelmsford

These studies convinced me that if work is done at depth it is possible to be both intellectually and faith-fully certain that the issues and experiences of building today have resonance with both biblical times and places, and biblically-based enduring values. That could possibly be looked upon as the defining work of a self-supporting Reformed minister in building. 

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Connection 7


For much of the time covered by Connections 2-6 above I was largely a wanderer in church terms. A time comes when wandering has to reduce and 'staying' and 'dwelling' and 'being' have to take greater prominence. Thus I was glad when the opportunity came to be Minister at Little Baddow URC to the east of Chelmsford . Like many UR churches its origins are in the controversies of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the case of Little Baddow the story firms up in the 1620's when Thomas Hooker and John Eliot, dissenting from Bishop Laud of London and others, set up house, school and a meeting place for dissenting ministers at Cuckoos Farm. In 1662 the incumbent of St Mary's Church, Thomas Gilson, broke away. Although he personally went back, a nonconformist congregation has continued. In 1707 land was given and a Chapel built, to be followed at a later time by a Manse. This is now one of the oldest operating chapels in Essex . With its grounds it is a place, quiet and beautiful, in the countryside yet within minutes of fast road and rail links to London . The Reformed are not much given to talk of 'holy places' but this I believe is such. It is spiritually close to St Peter's Chapel at Bradwell, the Saxon base of St Cedd, apostle to the East Saxons , and the home of Essex Christianity. A natural style of worship for use here is that of Iona Abbey.  

St Peter's-on-the-Wall,
Bradwell, Essex
Iona Abbey, Scotland
recently rebuilt cloister

Awareness of place and at Little Baddow a place to belong has made me increasingly think that builders, architects, town planners and their/our fellow professionals, are contributors to the making of places. Places are physical in terms of buildings and infrastructure, mental in terms of their activities and economies, and spiritual in what they come to be and mean. It is important for young and not so young but new professional in university to read and think about what was, is and will be really happening when bricks are laid, views from windows changed and people housed - or left un-housed. Over more than a decade Anglia Ruskin has been incrementally building and occupying a new campus on old factory sites alongside the River Chelmer. The initial hardware of place is nearly complete but the spiritual building of place has only just begun. The place of building, it seems to me, is to begin the building of place, a work to be completed long after the original builders have gone.

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Connection 8


This section is in the process of being to be lived.

Built environments are to a major extent about cities. One can visit cities physically. My most recent visits were to St Petersburg and Moscow, both entirely new to me. They made many impressions. One was of great space and spaciousness particularly in the squares. In England we are so used to feeling cramped. Russia is wide open. The second impression was the breathtaking beauty of white basilica church buildings crowned with gold. Intellectually I was stunned by how different places were from what I had imagined. The Kremlin with its great space, several cathedrals and churches as well as government offices was a good place to be for a morning.

St Petersburg

London is less than an hour away. Not only does it give us itself, it opens doors on other cities. An exhibition in the British Museum of pre-1960 etchings and litho-prints took one into the very heart of New York skyscrapers under construction, domestic life in high rise flats, the loneliness of a rooming house, evenings in parks and pubs, sunbathing on rooftops, art classes, Hell's Gate Bridge and much else. In a short visit something can be experienced of a city distant in time.

London Underground
Route to everywhere

New York 1960

There are no flights or trains to the City of God. Perhaps it's the place where St Petersburg, Moscow, London , New York and a thousand others come together as one City of Mankind. In Russia there are many churches of the Transfiguration, of the transformed Jesus. Perhaps the City of Mankind transfigured and transformed is and will be the City of God.

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In conclusion I am going to make four comments.

First, it has been neither wholly designed nor wholly fortuitous that this paper has fallen into eight sections each describing one type and phase of connection between building and Christian faith and theology. Frequently fonts and baptisteries are eight-sided. It seems to me that these eight types and phases are various aspects of what one is baptised to be and do. Sometimes churches that place a high value on preaching are octagonal in plan. These eight types and phases may be looked upon as ways in which we hear and live the Word of God.  

Octagonal Baptistery at Pisa

Octagonal Chapel at Norwich

Second, as the story has moved through the eight types and phases there has been a corresponding movement from the 'being' of connection 1, through the 'doing' of connections 2-5 towards the 'thinking' of connections 6 and 7 to, finally, the 'contemplating' of connection 8. Perhaps this is the way life unfolds.

Third, this sequence has included at least five of the categories of ministry that churches seem to like to sort people into. Connection 1 was straight forward Church Membership and connection 2 Accredited Lay Preaching. Connections 3-6 were a mixture of Ministry in Secular Employment and University Chaplaincy. Connection 7 is Local Church Ministry or Tentmaking and connection 8 may become Retired Ministry.

Lastly, the picture below of an octagonal window is a reminder that while it has eight sides, its mullions and transomes mean it has nine panes of glass! So there may be a ninth section yet to come apparent!


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