Do you want to know a Secret?
One Sunday morning recently I found myself thinking that I'm sure a lot more people would love what the early Sunday morning Communion has to offer if they only knew and were prepared to give it a try.
We have an 8 o'clock service in each of the three churches once a month. Each one is a little different, but essentially they are gems that it would be sad to lose through lack of use.
I know that for some people the idea of getting up and out in time on a Sunday morning, especially when it is still dark, is a big no, no! If you have an early start every other day of the week, then a bit of a lie in once a week is great. For others getting up takes a lot longer now than it used to. I understand fully, and the last thing I want to do is to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to offer something that is profoundly good.
Peter Smith, who comes to the old Prayer Book service at Axbridge, writes:
'Do you want to know a Secret? No, not just the words to Billy J Kramer's 1960's hit, but once a month there is a service that has some of the greatest lines in the English language. You also get to sit in the best seats in the house, nothing in the way, (like one of those great big pillars), and you can even see the altar, even if you arrive a bit late.
It was about 35 years ago when I was confirmed in St Andrews in Cheddar and Rev Victor Daley suggested that as I had a busy life bringing up a family and running my business, that the 8am service on a Sunday would enable me to fit attending Church in as well as all the other things I had to do on my day off.
I have to admit that the first few services left me a bit bewildered. However, after a while I found the rhythm of the service which then enabled me to worship God within a familiar framework of words, sentences and paragraphs.
So, on the second Sunday, you will find me and a few others getting up early to attend the traditional Prayer Book version of the Holy Communion.
If you have never been, try it once in a while, and see what I mean, and then walk over to the Co-op, pick up the Sunday papers, slide off home to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and still have the rest of the morning to wash the car.
It is meet and right so to do.'
As for me, 8 o'clock Communion starts a Sunday well. There is a simplicity and a depth of stillness that I find very attractive. It's what some people might call mindfulness. I know I can sit still and quietly at home, but there is something very special about these ancient stones, where prayer has been offered for centuries, and to join others as we offer our prayers. It's where in part I rediscover a sense of the sacred, as I allow the love of God to wash around me.
I've always loved the Glory Be, which concludes various prayers and canticles. The words "...as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end" remind us of the big story. When faced with birth and death, and the dash between the two, people realize that we need to have a longer story. This is what Christianity offers, from the beginning to the end.
Contemporary society has lost its taste for seeking truth, Timothy Radcliffe argues, which is why he has devoted two books to inviting an increasingly secular world back to church, including ones called Why go to Church? and What is the point of being a Christian? "We are devouring our small planetary home because we are tempted to see everything in terms of its utility for us," he says. "Consumption is the dominant metaphor of our time." As a remedy he argues that we must learn to know and love what is around us "not for what it gives us but just because it is. You can delight in a flower without having to pluck and own it."
This idea of delighting in a beautiful flower is what in part 8 o'clock is for me.
Could this be something for you…?
with Love and Prayers
Thought for February 2018: Follow the Star - Part 2!
I have come to SatNav fairly late in life. When I changed my car a few months ago, it came with SatNav as a built in feature. Up to this point I have had a fairly healthy disrespect for what I regarded as distractions that were stuck on the dashboard or windscreen. My experience had not been good.
Once I spent a journey in the streets of Bristol arguing with the a SatNav device in my daughter's car. It was forever recalculating, and getting frustrated with the driver, who was apparently taking no notice of what it was trying to tell her. That was because I knew best which way to get to where we were going, from the days when I walked around that part of the city. I kept over-riding the advice. "No, you go up this street and then turn left," I insisted! It didn't give up on us….
On another occasion I met a young lady in a car outside Axbridge Church, having been brought there by her SatNav from High Street, up Horns Lane at the back of The Roxy. She was trying to get to a beauty salon in a nearby village and this was where her device had led her. She ended up stuck and in a bit of a state, with just the last flight of steps into the South Door of the church to conquer. I assured her that we didn't run a beauty salon! Although technically designated as 'public right of way', this is not a lane to drive even a small car round. Somehow I managed to bale her out by manoeuvring the car down the slope and safely back into St Mary's Street.
That was enough for me. I'd stick to good old maps, and avoid being led into a field or up a blind alley.
I have to say that my attitude changed the very first time I switched on my new SatNav. I was going to a place in deepest, darkest Somerset. Not only did it tell me which way it recommended and how long it would take to get there, it told me in no uncertain terms that with traffic conditions as they were, I should avoid the more direct motorway. I ignored it for a while, but in the end followed its instructions, and got there long before others, who were caught in traffic jams. All this is done with the help of a bank of satellites up in space beaming information about my position as well as what is happening on the roads ahead.
It has got me thinking about what we will use to guide us through the coming year. How do we cope with the twists and turns that as yet we have no idea are awaiting us? This holds good for us on our individual journeys and also as a nation as we wrestle with what our future relationship with Europe will be. (See page 23 for some ideas about how we might pray for our parliament and nation.)
We're just coming to the end of the Epiphany season, which begins with the wise men following a star. Somehow they ended up in the equivalent of a blind alley. Maybe the nearer they got to their goal, they started to follow their own sense of direction rather than the light of the star. Their assumption was that a new king would be born in a palace in the heart of the capital city. They soon found that not only was the baby king they were looking for not in the city, but they had to re-adjust their understanding of what this new king was like. They were, after all, wise men and open to the truth that God may not be quite as they expected.
Recalculating is part of the journey for most of us. The reassuring thing is that getting things wrong is pretty much par for the course. It's normal. More importantly, it won't stop God from leading us, quietly prompting, as long as we are ready to acknowledge our mistakes and be prepared to adjust our course.
May God bless us on the journey ahead.
Thought for December 2018: Deeply Known and Truly Loved
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby & John Sentamu, invite us this Advent and Christmas to join with them in following the star that led the wise men to Jesus.
"For many of us," they write, "Christmas brings up so many emotions, memories and expectations. We have one nativity story, but it can seem like we all have very different Christmases. For you it might be a time of joy and togetherness. Or perhaps it's all about planning and to-do lists.
Many others can find it a sad and lonely time - nagged by the feeling that your Christmas is not like those 'perfect' ones we see in the media. But just like the unexpected assortment of people who were invited to meet the baby Jesus, #FollowTheStar doesn't ask you to be perfect.
It says: come just as you are, to take the life-changing Christmas journey. Wherever you are this Christmas, you are invited to follow the star and to be with Jesus. You are welcome. You are deeply known and truly loved.
Mary and Joseph and all those caught up in the Christmas story were surprised by the astonishing way that God chose to live among us.
Each Christmas we are reminded of God's longing to surprise us with his gift of joy, love and new life. It's the greatest present we can receive and share with others!"
For each day there will be a picture, a short Bible passage, a simple prayer and an action to reflect on. These are available in a booklet, email or text. To find out more about #FollowTheStar look up the website: www.churchofengland.org/followthestar
How do you plan to make this Advent special? A few new ideas are being tried locally, which may help spark your imagination.
The idea of journey is picked up in a custom called Posada that comes from Mexico, which we will be using in Axbridge. Figures of Mary and Joseph are cared for overnight in different homes, travelling each day on to the next home, as we remember the journey they made to Bethlehem. It is a lovely opportunity to experience the meaning of Advent, as we make room for Jesus in our home. The journey comes to an end as Mary and Joseph arrive at the Christingle service on Christmas Eve.
In similar vein, the people of Wedmore have planned a 'Living Advent'. Just like in the Advent Calendar many of us have at home, a different window will be unveiled each day between 1 December and Christmas Eve. The difference is that these will be real windows in real homes across the village.
Householders will be lighting up a new window to all who gather at 6:30pm every day; and each window will then remain illuminated until Twelfth Night on 5 January. The aim is just to have fun and create a nice way of bringing the community together. A travelling crib will move between the houses to symbolise the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
Each of our churches will be decorated for the festival. From 16 to 22 December, Axbridge Church will have a Festival of Christmas trees. Some local groups, shops and businesses will be contributing a tree and giving it their own particular twist. The festival will be open between 9am and 5pm each day, and later on 22 Saturday with Father Christmas in The Square. There won't be a charge to go in and look, but donations are welcome for the Cheddar Foodbank.
There will, of course, be the regular tried and tested traditions in our three communities - the ever popular Christingles (this year The Children's Society are celebrating 50 years of Christingles, although the custom from Moravia goes a lot further back than that), and the candlelit carols on Christmas Eve at Rowberrow, and the rest.
We pray this month will offer a path for your journey closer to Jesus, and we wish you every blessing this Christmas.
Thought for November 2018: There but not There
One hundred years ago the guns of the Great War fell silent for the last time. It was the end of a conflict that deeply scarred our world.
How will you remember?
Four years ago we marked the war's beginning. Few will forget the effect of the installation in the moat of the Tower of London. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red consisted of a sweeping tide of 888,246 ceramic red poppies. Each poppy represented one of the British or Commonwealth servicemen who died in the conflict that was to follow. From all sides 17 million died in World War One, 7 million of whom were civilians.
These years of remembrance have helped new generations understand more of what their grandparents and great-grandparents went through. The hardships they faced, the courage they showed, and the faith they shared, have become more real.
Catch this this month has details of how we are marking this important anniversary. As well as the annual services of Remembrance at each of our war memorials and churches, Shipham will be having a shared lunch in the Village Hall. There will be a display with the stories of over 60 World War One servicemen from the Shipham, Rowberrow and Star parish. Rowberrow will have a display of personal memorabilia.
In Axbridge Church on the eve of the Centenary, Saturday 10 November, there will be an evening of readings, poems, music and images to reflect on what the world was like back in November 1918. It is called Prelude to Peace and will, I hope, help us to learn the lessons of history and also to pray for peace. This will begin at 7pm for 7:30pm
You may have spotted notices appearing in Shipham and Axbridge churchyards recently, to remind us that in each there is a Commonwealth war grave. The one in Shipham is particularly poignant. It is of Henry John Venn, a private in the Devonshire Regiment, a lad of 18, who died on 10 November 1918. He didn't live to see the Armistice that was signed the next day.
If four years ago ceramic poppies captured our imagination, this year silhouettes have appeared in all sorts of places. Some are of soldiers. Others are simply the outlines of figures and where they may have sat in church. There but not There calls us to remember the fallen of our community, the spaces they left behind, and reflect on what their stories teach us today.
Carol Ann Duffy wrote the poem Last Post to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the two longest surviving soldiers from the First World War. It speaks of how we rewind history.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud ...
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce - No - Decorum - No - Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too - Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent,
English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.
Thought for October 2018: With a Song in My Heart
Music is good for you and we have a number of opportunities to prove that in this month's magazine!
On page 23 you will find details of a concert in Axbridge Church when we host the Voskreseniye Choir from St Petersburg. They are a group of conservatoire trained professional singers who will entertain us with a mixture of sacred music in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and folk songs from Russia. When they came last year they proved a huge success and wowed us with their beautiful soaring music. Try not to miss this one if you can!
In the half-term holiday at the very beginning of November we have a group of young musicians from a school in South London, who will bring a completely different style of music, but which I'm sure will be full of energy and enjoyment. They are giving a series of concerts in the area and originally were exploring the possibility of performing for the residents of St Michael's Cheshire Home. With 90 performers there isn't an appropriate space there, so we have agreed for it to be in Axbridge Church. You are welcome to come and support these young people and there will be a retiring collection for St Michael's. More about this on page 15.
There is also the opportunity for us to make music on 14 October when the evening service at Axbridge will be a Songs of Praise. You can suggest a favourite hymn and then come and sing it (not on your own!). There will hopefully also be musical items in the service, all to lift the spirits.
The thing is that music does just that: lift the spirits. All sorts of studies have shown that singing is a natural anti-depressant. It releases endorphins that make us feel uplifted and happy. Singing can take your mind off the day's troubles. Just ask any of those in the Axbridge Singers that meet on a Thursday or the Benefice Choir on a Friday.
One of the joys of my job is hearing the children of both Shipham and Axbridge First Schools singing in their collective worship. It can often make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Singing has physical benefits too and even boosts the immune system (even more than just listening to other people making music). It's good for posture, exercise and stamina. It is known to improve outcomes for people with Alzheimer's. At the other end of the scale many a teenager has tried to persuade their parents that listening to music helps their revision. Well, research indicates that they are right!
It's also beneficial for babies. In an interesting study recently, a number of premature babies in intensive care in hospital neonatal units were exposed to different kinds of music - either lullabies sung by their parents or instruments played by music therapists while they were recovering from treatment. Though all forms of music improved the babies' functioning, the parents' singing had the greatest impact. It also lowered the stress of the parents at the same time.
Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers wrote a song in the 1930's that has been covered many times called, With a Song in My Heart, it has the words:
With a song in my heart I behold your adorable face
Just a song in my heart but it soon is a hymn to your grace
When the music swells I'm touching your hand
It tells me you are standing near and
At the sound of your voice heaven opens its portals to me...
It is, of course, a love song, but it is the same sentiment you find over and over in the Psalms in the Old Testament where we are encouraged to sing a new song to God.
Whether your preference is for Dizzee Rascal or Johann Sebastian Bach, make sure there's a song in your heart this month!
Thought for September 2018: Come, ye thankful people, come!
What a cracking summer we have had! It's a very long time since we have had week after week of uninterrupted sunshine. While many of us have been smiling, the gardens and fields were crying out for water as they got browner and the ground more cracked.
Farmers started harvesting two to three weeks early this season. One farmer said "It's the earliest I've cut a crop in many years". Some crops have fared better than others. Good levels of sunlight may have helped crops despite high temperatures and low to non-existent rainfall, but some seed has shriveled in the heat.
We are reminded of the delicate and sometimes precarious balance of nature. Thankfully it seems that a more normal balance has been established in our parts, at least for the time being.
As we give thanks, we remember in our prayers the people of Kerala in southern India, where monsoon rains of 120 inches have fallen since the beginning of June. This has caused massive flooding, with hundreds killed recently, and hundreds of thousands made homeless.
September sees the first of our Harvest Festivals, with the Civic Harvest at the Methodist Church in Axbridge on 9 September and Shipham's service and supper on 16 September. Axbridge and Rowberrow churches have theirs on 7 October, as we are encouraged to give thanks for things we often take for granted.
In local villages of East Brent, Mark, Allerton and Wedmore, traditional Harvest Homes have been celebrated in August, with marquees, and quantities of meat, cider and entertainment. East Brent claims the oldest surviving Harvest Home going back to 1857.
The Weston Mercury report of that day records, "The first annual festival took place at East Brent, commencing with divine service. The villagers and their friends, all dressed in their best, went to church, where they devoutly prayed, and listened to a sermon preached by Archdeacon Denison. Afterwards the rustic population sat down to a substantial dinner spread in a large tent, erected in the Vicarage meadows. Festooned and decorated at every point, the interior of the canvass erection looked exceedingly pretty. 'Temperance in all things', 'Old England for ever,' 'Long live the Vicar,' 'God Save the Queen,' 'Agriculture,' and similar mottoes met the eye at every point."
There was one year when a motto had everyone guessing, and scratching their heads. The inscription was in Greek, and apparently the proud local villagers, as if they had been Greek scholars all their lives, would explain that it meant "There's nothing like water". It was intended as a complement to the Vicar who succeeded in getting the village an unfailing supply of pure water. There's nothing like water! We might well echo that sentiment this summer.
It's not that Harvest festivals are a Victorian innovation. In one of the Harvest readings from Deuteronomy, from the early days of the Old Testament, a description is given of how the people of Israel should celebrate their harvest thanksgiving. These are instructions for a farming community, when the vast majority of the people lived off the land. So the command was not that you gave money as we might nowadays, but that you gave a share of the produce of your farm to God - the first part of the crop to be placed on a basket and offered to God.
The ancient Israelite harvest festival didn't just celebrate God's gift of the harvest. It was really to celebrate that God had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and had brought the people to this place flowing with milk and honey. So these instructions about harvest offerings end with the words: 'Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…'
Dean Alford, a Somerset man, who sometimes stayed in Weston-super-Mare, is said to have written the famous hymn, "Come ye thankful people, Come," especially for the East Brent Harvest Home. Hopefully we can do the same this month.
Thought for August 2018: Keeping The Faith
During the last few weeks a string of text messages flew backwards and forwards between my son-in-law and me. His messages contained some unusual language for someone in their thirties: Still believe…Keep the faith…
He, along with much of the rest of the country, was getting more and more excited at England's progress in the World Cup. All too often in the past hopes have been raised, only to be dashed through under-performance. Chris is ever the optimist, though, and he needs to be as a long standing season ticket holder at Swindon Town!
As the young England team negotiated their way through the group games to the knock out stages, winning a penalty shoot out in the process, and then comfortably beating Sweden, the dream was kindled. Then came the semi-final against Croatia, the first time 'we' had got that far in 28 years. A wonderful free kick in the first few minutes. Could it at last be coming home?! 'Still believe…'
Sadly, the series of texts ended with Chris ended 'Belief has gone'. The dream ended in extra time, and although France went on to win the Cup, Gareth Southgate and the team came out of the tournament with huge credit.
As the World Cup was taking its course, though, we were all gripped with the unfolding story of some other footballers. The 12 members of the Wild Boars children's team and their coach in Thailand had cycled to the Tham Luang cave complex after football practice as a fun activity because none of them had been inside before. The plan was to spend an hour in the caves but as they reached a junction on the way out, they saw the water rising.
The coach realised it would be too difficult for the team to leave, so he took the 12 boys deeper in to a place where they could rest for the night, hoping the water level would drop by the morning. Before they all bedded down in the damp cave on that first night, the coach said they all prayed together.
The team had no food with them and as the days passed with the water continuing to rise, the boys described feeling weaker. The team's youngest member, 11-year-old Chanin, said: "I had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn't get more hungry." They kept hydrated by drinking the water, which dripped from the cave walls.
I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for the parents and families as they waited for news.
After ten long days, when many had almost lost hope of finding them, two British divers finally came across the boys sheltered on a shelf deep in the cave. It was one thing to know where they were, but quite another to get them safely out along a route of several miles.
A group of Thai navy Seals joined the boys and stayed with them throughout the rescue operation, bringing them food and playing games with them, until the last boy was out of the cave. The boys described the Seals as like family, saying: "We ate together, slept together". One boy described a Seal as "like my dad". Several of the boys told the press conference after that they wanted to become navy Seals when they were older.
One of the brave Seals lost his life in the rescue, underlining just how difficult it would be. Thankfully all the boys and their coach emerged safely over three days.
None of us will have to face anything like that, I hope, but keeping the faith can sometimes be really tough. St Paul speaks about the harsh realities of life that he faced and the unbreakable faith that sustained him through difficult and dangerous times. He catalogues some of the difficulties he encountered: prison, floggings, stoning, shipwreck, and being robbed, starved, and abandoned. Paul was qualified to speak on the subject of hardship.
As if all that were not bad enough, some of Paul's critics in Corinth were kicking him while he was down by suggesting that that all the bad things that had happened to him were confirmation of God's judgment on him. In response to all that, Paul wrote that God's grace was sufficient. When I am weak, then I am strong.
May we…Still believe…keep the faith…!
Thought for July 2018: Ordinary Time?
I'm very aware, when making up the list of services for the back page of Catch this, that at this time of year, it might easily look like things are more than a bit dull. This month, apart from remembering the colourful figure of Mary Magdalene on the 22nd, we have now entered the long season of "Sundays after Trinity". This part of the annual cycle will see us through the summer and well into the autumn.
It could be worse. Some call it "ordinary time"! After the wonder of Christmas, the solemnity of Lent, the darkness of Good Friday, the joy of Easter, and the fire of Pentecost, it's now, just plain… ordinary. It does seem a little strange to have a dedicated period of ordinariness, a kind of default season with no particular theme.
But that's how life is. We have highs and lows, but a lot of the time, things just tick along. For many people living through suffering, stress or sorrow, ordinary is what they yearn for. I recently came across a traditional Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times". The unspoken flipside of that, which we can presume would be given as a blessing, "may you live in ordinary times". When we say Evensong at Rowberrow, the second collect prays that we "may pass our time in rest and quietness."
But ordinary time isn't about nothing happening. The liturgical colour for the season is green, a colour of life and growth and maturing. Although times of challenge and change in our lives do cause us to learn and grow, we also need times of rest, of quietness and ordinariness for the slow and steady rooting of our lives in God, and growth as followers of Jesus. Ordinary time isn't a time to stop and do nothing, but a time to pay attention to growing in faith.
Ordinary Time actually means ordered or numbered time, and is celebrated in two segments: from the Epiphany to Ash Wednesday; and from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent. This makes it the largest season of the Liturgical Year. Ordinary Time is this day, this moment. Now.
Last year Marcia Dumler decided that since so many things seemed to be going wrong in her life, she would concentrate on trying to see the good things God was doing. She did this in a tangible, practical manner, and made a special effort each day to email one of her friends and share something good that had happened. Sometimes it was a small thing, like finding a coin on the pavement. Other times it was larger, like being given a washing machine when hers broke. At times it was a simple act of kindness, like the time a neighbour cleared the leaves from her drive. As the days went by, it became obvious that God was continually showering good things on her, and before she hadn't really noticed.
What a difference it might make to become aware that God has a gift for us each new day!
Another way of making the ordinary extraordinary is to find ways to put our faith in action. Faith that is just head knowledge can easily become stale. This might mean volunteering at the Foodbank, or doing a shift at Lenny's café. You can act out your faith in smaller, more homely ways too. For instance, Jesus told us if we have two coats, we should share with those who have none. Most of us probably have a number of barely used coats or clothes in our cupboards, and so cutting down on them could be a great place to begin. Read about Somewhere To Go on page 5 for an idea of what to do with them.
During Ordinary Time, simplifying, eliminating and giving away those things that we no longer use can become a great act of faith... and a great faith-builder.
May we make the most of these ordinary, extraordinary times.
Thought for June 2018: The Princess and The Goat
On 18 May many of us gathered in Axbridge Church to celebrate the life of Sue Latimer, an amazing person who has left her indelible mark.
She also left plenty of instructions/requests about what kind of memorial service she wanted, including three hymns: The Pilgrim Song of John Bunyan "complete with hobgoblins and foul fiends - the lot"; a wonderful Easter hymn Now the Green Blade Rises, and People look East ("I don't care it's not Advent, the words are absolutely glorious"). She wanted Psalm 84 read in the Prayer Book version, and it was beautifully by Dan Richards. We were also told: No mourning. Bright colours, floral prints and frilly bits.
None of us will forget her love of animals. She was a keen vegetarian, and a member of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals. She also regularly took animal services at Pawlett, which she loved, and not long ago she told me that she had became godmother to a goat. Nothing much surprised me about her! We joked that she would be remembered by The Princess and the Goat. It sounds like a fairytale-but they were just two of those touched by her life. The princess is another tale.
Sue loved playing with words. She was proud to be a published author, and was a storyteller and poet. Not long ago a series of her Spoken Stories was published, and I well remember one Easter Eve in the candlelit church of Rowberrow as she vividly recreated the scene of the first Easter night.
She became a television celebrity when the BBC made a series of documentaries about life in cathedrals. She featured in the one about Wells, a place she loved, and was a chaplain. All sorts of conversations flowed from her dangly earrings. The photo on the back of the order of service had her in this role, dangerously with a microphone in her hand. She always had the potential of leaving it on by mistake and saying something untoward.
She had the ability and experience not to be shocked by anything. She'd been there herself, and was very up front about her past addictions to drugs and alcohol. The wisdom of the 12 Steps of AA was often woven into sermons. Her experience gave her rich reserves of understanding and empathy, which made her what Karl Jung called a Wounded Healer.
When the bar stool was out in church people knew that Sue was preaching. One couple would look at one another and say, "And now what?!" None of us were sure what to expect, sometimes it was brilliant, sometimes it was what we might politely call left field, but you could always expect something fresh and full of insights. Conventional or boring she definitely was not!
Perhaps one of the things that has impressed many of us most has been the way she has faced her illness and impending death. Death, she taught us, is not something to be hidden and whispered about, but a normal part of life. She wrote in Catch this back in August last year: 'This summer is fading, maybe next year's will be better. What is different this time is that I don't know if I or my little dog will be around to see it. We've both got serious illnesses. We're both medicated to the eyeballs to delay the inevitable outcome and we're both enjoying life, if somewhat slowly…
We need to remember that we simply can't imagine whatever lies ahead, which, like the concept of God, is really unimaginable. This is wonderful because my imagination may be vivid, but it is also limited. There's a lot more to life, eternity and everything else than I can manage to dream up….' She also said, 'I believe in Life before Life, during Life and after Life, all the same life only we don't remember it while we are here. But if we look or listen properly, we can see eternity in a big bowl of trifle. And angels.'
In that faith we commended Sue to God with love and thanksgiving for all she has shared with us as friend and colleague.
Thought for May 2018: Thy Kingdom Come
During ten days in May we are encouraged to join in a line from the Lord's Prayer 'Thy Kingdom Come'. The invitation is to pray between Ascension Day on 10 May and Pentecost on 20 May for friends and family to come to faith.
This annual global and ecumenical prayer movement is now in its third year. Year by year the number of those joining in has grown. In 2016, 100,000 Christians pledged to pray. By 2017, more than half a million had pledged to pray across the country and in more than 85 countries from Australia to Cuba, from Japan to the Falklands. It is exciting too that many branches of the Christian family are taking part.
The website that has been set up (www.thykingdomcome/global) has all you need to get you started if you want simply to pray quietly at home.
We are joining with our ecumenical partner churches of the Cheddar Valley, and there will be prayers across the valley each morning.
- In Axbridge Church we will have some prayer stations, with prompts for our imagination.
- The highlight this year locally promises to be a pilgrimage walk from Cheddar to the wells at the Bishop's Palace in Wells on Saturday 12th May. This is a stunning walk along the south side of the Mendip Hills, and is part of the West Mendip Way. It takes in views of Cheddar Gorge, the Somerset Levels and Ebbor Gorge, and passes by the Wookey Hole Caves, finishing at the Wells in the Bishop's Palace in Wells, a site of ancient Christian worship.
The day will begin at 8am with prayers at Cheddar Baptist Church.
The walkers will leave there at 8:45am, and aim to arrive at Priddy Church/Village Hall at about 12:15pm.
After lunch the group will leave Priddy and arrive in time for worship around the wells at about 4:30pm.
If you would like to do some, or all, of the walk, please let me know.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York write:
Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world. He brings us hope. Christian disciples are made alive by his saving grace in the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to this living hope. The difference that the love of Jesus brings to individuals and the world is eternally transformative. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he puts the cry, 'Thy Kingdom Come' on their lips. When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom we are praying for the difference Jesus makes. In the days between Ascension Day and Pentecost we pray each year for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit throughout the Church. We do this, so that, filled with the life-giving Spirit, we are enabled to proclaim and bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, so that families, friends, neighbours and colleagues discover and experience for themselves the difference Jesus makes.
Among the stories arising from the initiative last year - many of them deeply moving - is one from a couple who had not seen their son for 22 years. 'We pray every day obviously for him but during Thy Kingdom Come he was one of the people we prayed for as a group,' they say. 'We put his name on the altar before God and … yesterday he came home.'
Christian Aid Week (13-19 May) also falls within the ten days of 'Thy Kingdom Come'. This makes the vital connection between the coming of the Kingdom of God and Jesus' mission to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and announce the year of God's favour. Thank you to all who are involved in the house to house collection, and those who generously give for this valuable cause.
For those who followed Jesus, the time between Ascension and Pentecost was a time of waiting, a time to look back to when God had been real to them because of the electric presence of Jesus among them. It was also a time of wondering: what was going to happen next? What would the promised Holy Spirit be like? Those elements of waiting and wondering are at the heart of what we are doing too!
Thought for April 2018: What is their Legacy?
In recent weeks there seems to have been a spate of famous people that have died. We are left to read their obituaries and consider their legacy.
Roger Bannister was a childhood sporting hero of mine. His sub four minute mile at the Ifley Road track in Oxford back in the days of amateurism still stands as a milestone in athletics. He also made his mark as a distinguished neurologist.
Ken Dodd may be described as a king of comedy. His stage performances were legendary, often going on until midnight, as the laughter of the audience fuelled his adrenalin levels.
More influential, though, was the life and work of Professor Stephen Hawking, my near names' sake. (He got the brains and I got the extra 's'!) His Brief History of Time sold over 10 million copies and his goal was to describe gravity, space and time. He has given us some of our greatest understanding of life, the universe and everything, including black holes, and leaves behind a formidable scientific legacy. The way he coped with his debilitating illness has also been an inspiration to us all.
Professor Hawking thought science should be able to give the reason for the start of the universe. Professor David Wilkinson, a scientist and priest, said that in the process Hawking "demolished smaller Gods, and left us with the bigger, Biblical God". "He reminded us who are of faith of the weakness of any 'God in the gaps' or deistic view of God, and pointed theologians towards a God with the universe in the palm of his hand."
Stephen Hawking, though, did not share this view of a deity. In The Grand Design, he writes: "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."
As we celebrate the memories of these people, and consider the impact they have had, we are about to keep the Easter festival. We are reminded of the impact of the life and death of Jesus. As someone described it:
"Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself…. While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executors gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth - His coat. When He was dead, He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
"Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today He is the centrepiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life."
What a legacy!
Thought for March 2018: Getting Rid of the Rubbish
The natural history series Blue Planet II, which was televised just before Christmas, had a huge impact on those who saw it. Many of us were enthralled by the wonder of life in the oceans, but equally horrified by what mankind has done to spoil the marvels of the deep with rubbish. Not surprisingly the series won the National Television’s special Impact Award for its part in raising awareness of the deadly plastic pollution which is killing marine life and upsetting ecosystems in the world’s oceans.
We can’t now avoid the fact that our oceans and coastlines are choking. We’ve all seen plastic bottles, food wrappers and plastic bags messing up the beaches, and now been confronted by disturbing pictures of creatures like seabirds and whales starving when their stomachs become packed full of plastic. The sight of the sight of a pilot whale mother forlornly carrying her dead newborn calf, thought to have been poisoned by milk polluted with plastic caused an outcry.
We are told that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic is entering our oceans every year. That’s the equivalent of a fully loaded refuse lorry every minute. Single-use plastic packaging for food and drink is a particularly important element of this problem. Many people have also been horrified to discover that tiny pieces of plastic known as microbeads have been added to all sorts of personal care products that are simply washed down the drain – from shower gels to toothpaste. There have got to be ways of reducing how much rubbish we produce and what we do with it all…
For us Wednesday is bin day, or rather, bins day. We have made good progress in separating garden waste and food waste, paper, tins, glass and plastic into the various recycling bins, not to mention the kitchen peelings and things that can go straight onto the compost heap. But despite all this our country still lags behind in the amount of waste recycled, with a UK average figure of 18%, half the EU average of 36%. We also produce more waste per head of population that cannot be recycled than many of our European neighbours.
This month is traditionally time for doing something about our rubbish. I understand that there is even a Spring Cleaning Week from 5th – 11th March! The idea of de-cluttering the home is very attractive. But where do you start…?!
Lent, which runs through to the end of March, is about a different kind of spring cleaning, this time on the inside. Lent is the time of preparation before Easter when Christians think carefully about themselves. It’s the time to think about the things that need changing (cleaning) and to ask God’s help. It is relatively easy to clean up a room and make it look good, but how do you clean up the inside of a person? How do you clean up thoughts and actions? We cannot clean up on the inside without God’s help.
I recently came across a piece by the American writer Barbara Brown Taylor. In it she speaks of following Jesus into the wilderness experience:
“I sat in the desert once myself, just to see what it was like. The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was, so quiet that I could hear the racket my own body makes—gurgle, wheeze, thump. Did you know that when you get quiet enough you can actually hear the hum of your own electricity? It makes about as much noise as the motor on a small clock, only most of us don’t hear it because of all the other noises around us. In the desert you can. The second thing I noticed was how fast I got lonely. There is something about a desert that can suck all the self-confidence right out of you. It is so big, so quiet, so empty that you can’t help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Happy de-cluttering, and happy Easter when it comes!
Thought for February 2018: 40 Stories of Hope
I spotted some snowdrops by the roadside in Shipham this week. It's always an encouraging sign that spring is just around the corner. In February we begin our journey of Lent, which is sometimes called the springtime of our souls.
Pretty much all of us face tough times during our lives and difficult challenges. We need hope to keep us going. During Lent this year we are encouraging people to use a book called 40 Stories of Hope. It takes us on a journey through St Mark's Gospel. We travel with Jesus from the River Jordan where he was baptised, to the city of Jerusalem where he was crucified and buried, and where he rose from the dead. These events happened 2,000 years ago, but speak of a living faith for today.
Hopefully as we make this journey, we will be gain fresh insights by reading Jesus' life in the light of some extraordinary and contemporary stories. Each day there's a story by a prisoner, a prison chaplain or ex-offender, and the hope that they have found, and how faith has turned someone's life around. Almost all of them are people, who are alive today.
There are also other verses to read each day from the Bible, something to think about and a prayer. As you read the stories and verses, we are encouraged to ask God to speak to us about our life experience and expect to be moved through what we read. Daz, one of the contributors, says, 'If God can change me he can change anyone! He has helped me rebuild my life, and I have a love in my heart that is indescribable.'
There are some important themes that run through the stories: forgiveness, dealing with guilt, finding freedom, healing, and the overwhelming goodness of God.
"This is an extraordinary book," writes Justin Welby, "a book of hope and reconciliation, a book of transformation and journeys. These 40 stories are a vital reminder of the hope that Jesus gives. They show us how lives can be transformed, and forgiveness can be found in the most unlikely places. There is no one, no life, no story that is beyond God's power to love and transform. Reconciliation is at the heart of it: reconciliation with ourselves in the face of shame and guilt about the past; reconciliation within families, friends and relationships, and most importantly, reconciliation with a loving God in the person of Jesus Christ."
The book is particularly appropriate for Shipham. The patron saint of the parish Church is Leonard, who as an idealistic young man in sixth century France, became concerned at the conditions in which prisoners were kept and dedicated himself to visiting them and trying to improve their living conditions. The king, Clovis, was so impressed by his integrity that he granted him the privilege of deciding which of them could be safely released. According to legend, prisoners who invoked him from their cells saw their chains break before their eyes. For many years Shipham Church has supported chaplaincy work in prisons. Most recently we have supported an organisation called Changing Tunes, which uses music to give people a new sense of purpose and hope.
May we find that hope for ourselves this Lent.
Thought for December 2017: God with us
You may have seen the controversy about the High Street chain Greggs, and their Advent Calendar. Each day in the 'Merry Greggsmas' calendar there is a token to redeem at the shop. The bakers released a promotional image for its festive calendar that shows a part eaten sausage roll replacing the baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by the Three Wise Men. Not surprisingly they have had to apologise for the 'bad taste'. At least it makes a change from the usual chocolate Advent calendar.
But what is Advent all about? Is it just a countdown to the big day, reminding us how much time is left to get everything done, with little sweeteners on the way to keep us going?
I'd like to suggest a few ways that might help to make these next few weeks special.
The Church of England has produced a campaign called #GodWithUs - Your Christmas Journey. Archbishop Justin Welby says in his introduction to the reflective guide "The constant refrain of Christmas, in carols and readings, is that God is with us. In whatever situations you find yourself this Christmas, God is with you - you need only turn to him and ask to know his presence".
Your Christmas Journey is a series of short reflections throughout December and into early January 2018, which people can receive as texts, emails, on social media, or you can get a good old fashioned booklet! The reflections have been written as soul food for people who are new to faith, but also help us all grow in our love of God.
The Bible Society has also launched its #AdventChallenge. If you sign up through the Bible Society website, each day of Advent they will email you a choice of three challenges to help you bring the Bible to life in a practical way, alongside a short reflection following the characters of the Nativity story on their journey to Bethlehem. The challenges vary from giving flowers, encouraging someone, getting to know your neighbours better, making a donation to a foodbank, tidying a shared living space, to leaving a note for your refuse collector. You choose which challenges are appropriate for you to accept.
If you would benefit from meeting with others to discuss an aspect of Advent, we have a number of Advent study groups meeting in December.
In groups meeting on Monday and Wednesday evenings, we'll be looking at the classic Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life. Just as Christmas can promise so much and then deliver so little, our own lives can seem bittersweet when we consider dreams we may have had that never worked out. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, discovers that it is never too late to re-evaluate our lives, to find much to be thankful for, and to live again. It's a story of hope, of seeing the best in people, and how we can make the world a better place.
In a group, which is meeting on Monday mornings, people are reading Jane Williams' book Approaching Christmas. This is a beautiful and thoughtful companion to the season of Advent and Christmas, and encourages readers to explore the true meaning of the festive season through a combination of reflections, quotations and classic art. The chapters focus on objects and activities we all associate with Christmas - such as making lists, decorations, gifts, Christmas trees, music, food and family - as well as special days such as Christmas Eve and Epiphany. In each section, Jane Williams brings together her own personal experience, Christmas traditions, spiritual reflection and quotations from scripture and other writings through the ages. The result is an imaginative and stimulating exploration of the riches of this season - all laced with beautiful reproductions of Christmas-themed paintings.
If you would like more information about any of these, please let me know. I do wish you and your family a holy and joyful Christmas when it comes!
Thought for November 2017: A Dementia Friendly Community
More and more of us are learning first-hand what it is like to have someone we care for, who is suffering with dementia. There are currently around 850,000 living with the condition in the country. As we live longer this number is set to grow. There are a variety of forms the disease takes and it can slowly strip someone of their identity and anchors. It is a cruel illness, often hard to live with, and can easily lead to both sufferer and carer being ignored or isolated from community and family.
We recently held a workshop at Shipham to learn more. The evening was led for us by Revd Helena McKinnon, who works with St Monica's Trust in Bristol and, as we learned, has huge reserves of experience and understanding, love and care. St Monica's motto is "Tempus Fugit, Caritas Manet" - time may have flown, but the love will always remain.
Sadly it is all too easy to write people off as having 'lost it'. We were challenged and encouraged to see how a person travelling down the dementia road is no less valued or loved by God, and continues to bear and reflect the image of God. They deserve dignity and inclusion as much as anyone.
Helena gave us the picture of dementia as a bookcase. Every shelf represents a different time period of life, each holding memories for that time. The bottom shelf is childhood and possibly very young adulthood, gradually working upwards towards the present. As time moves on the bookcase gets moved and the shelves begin to weaken over time. It gets dusty and mixed up; things start to fall off the shelves and get put back in the wrong place. The shelves themselves lose their shape or fall altogether.
Often the only shelf to remain relatively intact is that bottom shelf, with emotional memories of the first period of life. This is why we often seem at odds with those we know suffering from dementia and why they may seem to not know who we are for the best part. She gave us bags of ideas about how we can engage emotional memories through familiar sights, sounds and smells, how we can improve a quality of life.
Helena finished the evening with this moving version of the Beatitudes by Esther Mary Walker:
Beatitudes for Friends of the Aged
Blessed are they who understand
My faltering steps and shaking hand.
Blessed are they who know that my ears today
Must strain to catch the words they say.
Blessed are they who seem to know
That my eyes are dim and my reactions slow.
Blessed are they that look away
When my coffee gets spilled during the day.
Blessed are they with a cheery smile
Who stop to chat with me for a while.
Blessed are they who never say
"You've told that story twice today."
Blessed are they who know the ways
To bring back lovely yesterdays.
Blessed are they who make it known
That I'm loved, respected and not alone.
Blessed are they who know the loss
Of strength I need to bear the cross.
Blessed are they who ease the days
Of my journey home in loving ways.
If you would like to discuss any of this further, please just ask.
Thought for October 2017: Revolution!
At Axbridge School we always love to sing with gusto and high spirits:
O Lord, all the world belongs to you
and you are always making all things new.
What is wrong, you forgive,
and the new life you give
is what's turning the world upside down.
The next few weeks will see two anniversaries of revolutions in European history that turned the world upside down.
In 1917 the war was going badly for the Russians. The army was on its knees. The previous winter had been severe and food was in short supply and prices were rising. The government was in disarray, and the ruling class remote. This catalogue of problems triggered riots on the streets of the capital Petrograd, with the crowds demanding bread and peace. The February and October Revolutions of that year were to have consequences that continue to shape Europe.
This month also marks another important anniversary. Five hundred years ago, on 31st October 1517, a different kind revolution was triggered by the protest of a monk, Martin Luther. Luther is said to have nailed a piece of paper to the door of his local church in Wittenberg, cataloguing his concerns about the church of his day, and inviting people to respond to his 95 theses.
He had become convinced that the church was corrupt and had lost sight of some of the central truths of Christianity. The most important for Luther was the idea of justification. His view was that salvation is a gift of God's grace, attainable only through faith; sola fide was his mantra. God's forgiveness was not for sale.
Reaction quickly gathered momentum and the Reformation had begun. Over the next few years the face of the church changed radically across many German states and other countries of Europe. In England a small group started to meet in Cambridge to study Luther's ideas, along with other writings, and the Church of England as we know it was emerging.
One of Martin Luther's key hopes was to place the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians. He translated it from Latin, the language of scholars and clergy, into a German which people could read and understand. His New Testament was published in 1522 and the whole Bible in 1534.
Luther also enthused about music as the greatest gift of God after religion itself. "Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world," he said. "Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us." He preserved much of the beautiful sound of Catholic worship, but he also inaugurated strong, simple melodies that could be sung by the entire congregation. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote much glorious music for the reformed church around this time. (The importance of Reformation music has been recognised in this year's Promenade concerts.)
Look out for two 500th anniversary events taking place locally this month, for which tickets are now available. St Cuthbert's, Wells, is hosting 'A Monk's Tale', which promises the 95 theses in 59 minutes on 5 October. It is a play that has been touring the country, including the Edinburgh Fringe, and is billed as light, accessible and funny, using sketches and songs to explain the theological disputes of the period. It promises to put the wit into Wittenberg. If you're not sure that this strikes the right tone, Luther himself said, "If I'm not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there".
Then the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, will be speaking at the Bishop's Palace as part of the Wells Festival of Literature on 20th October on his book 'Luther and his World'. Luther, he says, has all sorts of insights to offer into contemporary issues such as sex, freedom, prayer and evil.
I'll finish with a favourite Lutheran saying:
Even if I knew that the world were to collapse tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today
Thought for September 2017: Can you smell Heaven?
This was written at great speed, so forgive me if it is more incoherent than usual.
So, when you walk your dog in the early morning you often get a preview of the coming season well before it actually arrives. Later in the day this is lost, but early, there it is. Recently I've noticed the scent of autumn as we trudge through the sodden fields and sure enough the blackberries are ripening. At home the first Christmas catalogue arrived well before the geese are due to come honking over the reservoir.
This summer is fading, maybe next year's will be better. But what is different this time is that I don't know if I or my little dog will be around to see it.
We've both got serious illnesses. We're both medicated to the eyeballs to delay the inevitable outcome and we're both enjoying life, if somewhat slowly. But I do wonder when the swallows swoop overhead if I will see them when they return. And then it gets interesting. Where we're going, do they have swallows? Where will we be? (Please note the "we", a minor detail like death is not going to separate us. And the present Pope agrees, he's well named Francis.) And wherever it is, will it be very different?
I am not enamoured of the City of God, the New Jerusalem, as depicted in the Book of Revelation. I was relieved to learn it is not a preview of a post-retirement brochure, but based on the First Temple. Casting my crown (if I get one) before me across the glassy sea towards the Throne doesn't attract like throwing tennis balls for my dogs in a summer meadow. It used to worry me as a child that Heaven was said to be such a wonderful place but sounded far from it. So I was even more relieved to learn that all our ideas, however inspired, from however Divine the source, all of them are filtered through us to us. Even if you are a serious Saint.
What this means I think, is that we need to remember that we simply can't imagine whatever lies ahead, which, like the concept of God, is really unimaginable. This is wonderful because my imagination may be vivid, but it is also limited. I can't jump out of my skin. There is a lot more to life, eternity and everything else than I can manage to dream up. If I'm regularly astonished by the images that turn up on my computer, it's a safe bet that Heaven is going to knock me into a cocked hat.
Heaven has rather taken the place of sex as a subject for Christians (and others) to feel embarrassed about. Not to be talked about in case we're shown to be immature or gullible or uncaring about the many present day needs that must be met. Heaven is, I think a very mature subject when you think about it properly, not just walking about in nightshirts, clutching harps, up to our ankles in clouds. Gullible isn't likely for people who live in today's world and do care about the many present day needs. And try to meet them, which most churchgoers do, one way or another.
Dying likewise tends to get ignored in polite society - which is silly because it is the one thing all of us actually have in common. I'm not sure when I'm going to do it but it will be relatively soon and I fully expect the first person I see to be Mum. And not clutching a harp.
I don't know if you can smell Heaven before it arrives, as you can the seasons, but if I do I won't keep it a secret. I hope it smells of grass and also many other things that at present I simply can't imagine. I can't jump out of my skin. Yet.
with Love and Prayers
Thought for August 2017: One More Step
I’ve just finished my round of Leavers’ services for our First Schools with what seems like the obligatory rendition of Sydney Carter’s hymn “One more step along the world I go”. There were a number of tears in the services, mostly from parents, but in truth it is a big step on the journey, both for children, and their parents. My oldest grandson, in a different school system, is leaving his junior school to go on to senior school in September. It feels more like a big leap, exciting and a bit scary at the same time.
As I was preparing for the services, I was reminded of a moment, exactly 48 years before on 20 July 1969, when the world seemed to be glued to their television screens. It was a small, flickering, black and white picture back in those days. Together with the rest of the world, I was mesmerised by the Apollo 11 mission as the small space craft landed on the surface of the moon. For a while we held our breath and then heard Neil Armstrong say, “Houston, the Eagle has landed”.
Soon Armstrong climbed down the steps of the lunar module and uttered those immortal words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." It felt like science fiction coming to life.
Buzz Aldrin, who followed him on the moon walk, remembers the experience. “When Neil and I stood on the desolate, barren, yet beautiful, Sea of Tranquillity, looking back at our brilliant blue planet Earth suspended in the darkness of space, I realized that even though we were farther away from Earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us.”
Sydney Carter’s hymn reminds us of the Christian belief that God goes with us on the steps of our journeys, whether they are big or small. We are not alone. The hymn is also a prayer: keep me travelling along with you.
There was a third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins, who was a vital part of the mission. He remained in the command module Columbia and spent the day orbiting the moon. In his autobiography he wrote how during the 48 minutes of each orbit that he was out of radio contact with Earth, the feeling he reported was not loneliness, but rather "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.
Several thousand years before the space programme, the Psalmist, looking in the opposite direction from earth to the moon, wrote:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
Before Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out onto the moon, Aldrin asked, "I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way."
Hopefully August will give us chance to do the same; to stop and pause and reflect on our journey, and the steps that lie in front of us.
Thought for July 2017: A Contrast of Moods
Saturday 17 June was a day for basking in the glorious sunshine. There was a happy and record crowd at the garden of Rowberrow Manor, enjoying a traditional English village fête, together with a collection of magnificent cars. I’m in awe that such a tiny hamlet can put together an occasion like this. So too at the Axbridge Celebration Day, many people were enjoying themselves on one of those occasions when the Square comes alive in a very special way.
All of this was in sharp contrast to the overall feeling in much of the rest of the nation. In the Queen’s Birthday message, she described a very sombre national mood. In the past two or three weeks, the country has reeled from a succession of terrible events.
After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge and Borough Market, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered this reflection:
'The strongest power in the world is the love of Jesus Christ. It is more powerful than the evil of terror and all the profound wickedness of the terrorist. It is invisible to most rulers. It is unheard of by most communicators. It has no Twitter account. It does not show up on Facebook but has overcome more nations than the greatest of armies. It has changed more lives than the finest orators and communicators. It has drawn more people into true community than all the social media there is, has been, or ever could be. It breaks down barriers between races, it tears down the frontiers between nations, it overcomes the oppressions between genders, and classes, and capacity, and wealth, and education. It is this love which daily transforms my life, our lives, all those who follow Jesus Christ, and the lives of many millions around the world. And we need the difference that Jesus makes. We need the order brought out of chaos. We need the knowledge of an eternal purpose for each of us. We need to know that whatever other people do to us, God loves us forever.'
Sadly someone, though, did feel the need to retaliate from those acts of terror, and deliberately drove into a group of people coming out of late night prayers in the mosque in Finsbury Park, an act which can only perpetuate the terror. This tit-for-tat kind of action is fuel for further unrest in our community.
As if that wasn’t enough to cope with, we witnessed the dreadful pictures of the fire in Grenfell Tower in London. The immediate mood was of shock and horror. But the shock quickly turned to frustration as survivors and relatives tried to find information about loved ones, or what was going to happen next, and then to anger at why the fire spread so quickly. “There are an awful lot of angry people and it’s easy to understand why,” one person said.
There were also heart-warming stories coming out of West London. The extraordinary and courageous work of the emergency services was seen in sharp focus. There were also the spontaneous responses of the local community and beyond to people’s basic needs. Help came from all quarters, and from all creeds and none, including the local churches. At one Methodist Church, which was used as a collection point for practical support, a leader said, “the volume of items has been sensational.
"The community effort has been spellbinding. We are used to coming together once a year for the Notting Hill carnival, but no one wanted to do so under these circumstances.”
I wonder what July will bring…?
For me some of the very special July moments are the Leavers’ services at our two First schools, as children reflect on what they have learnt in their first five years of formal education, and the building blocks, which they have in place for their next stage and all that is to follow.
I pray that we may learn from the lessons of the past month’s events, good and bad, and invest our energies in building relationships, and in responding with love.
Thought for June 2017: Thy Kingdom Come
June is a big month, nationally, domestically and locally. We have the General Election on the 8th, my Dad’s 90th birthday on the 12th, and the Rowberrow Fête on the 17th! What a mixed bag?!
But before we get to any of these, we are challenged to pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. Between Ascension and Pentecost, (25 May - 4 June), Churches and Christians across England, including the Cheddar Valley, will be coming together to pray.
We will be remembering how the first disciples waited after Jesus’ Ascension and prayed together for God’s Spirit to come, not sure what would happen next. We pray for the same Holy Spirit that filled them on Pentecost to fill us today. As we wait we pray to be more open to receiving the Holy Spirit - and more capable of showing the grace of God in all that we are and do. Prayer is the place where change begins.
‘To pray Thy Kingdom Come is to pray for a shift in the world around us.
It is to yearn for things to be different.
To imagine transparency in a culture of fake news.
To find compassion in a society that resorts so readily to shame and blame.
To long for grace, mercy and peace in an anxious and fearful world.’ (Ian Adams)
During these days we will be offering a range of opportunities to join in prayer. Amongst other things, Shipham and Axbridge churches will be open for people to drop in during the day, as they are almost every day of the year. Prayer installations will give ideas of how to experience prayer using touch, sight, sound, silence, light and darkness. We can pray for particular people and situations, or we can just come and be still.
For the more energetic, the local Churches of all denominations are organising a pilgrimage, a prayer walk from Cheddar to the Wells at the Bishops Palace, the site of early worship in this area. This will be on Saturday 3 June, leaving Cheddar Baptist Church at 8:45am. It’s a glorious walk of about twelve and a half miles, and incorporates some of the West Mendip Way. Please ask if you would like more information about that – or if you would like to sign up for some or all of the walk.
“Some days I find that prayer comes easily. On others, it’s a struggle. But I’m always mindful that prayer is not just another thing we do. It’s the breath that sustains us.” These could be my words; in fact they are the words of Justin Welby.
In prayer we can talk with God, be silent with God - or just express our longing for him. I hope that during this time we might rediscover that our conversation, our attention, our praise, our company is a sheer delight to God.
Mark Wahlberg, star of a wide range of movies from Deepwater Horizon and the 2003 version of The Italian Job and Ted, is quoted as saying, ‘If I can start my day out by saying my prayers and getting myself focused, then I know I’m doing the right thing. That ten minutes helps me in every way throughout the day’.
So we pray for nothing less than the transformation of ourselves and our world as we say ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.
Thought for May 2017: Good Friday?
Coming out of Rowberrow Church after our meditation at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, someone posed the question I guess most of us have asked. “What makes it ‘Good’ Friday?” What is good about an event so dark and bleak, and so full of suffering?
The news had added a particularly sombre note to our journey through Holy Week. On Palm Sunday there had been brutal attacks on two Coptic churches in Egypt, there was rising tension with North Korea, the so-called ‘mother of all bombs’ had been dropped in Afghanistan, and many parts of the world seemed to be more unstable than ever. What was there to celebrate? What hope was there to offer to a world teetering on the brink of escalating conflict and division? We don’t exactly seem to have learnt much since that first Good Friday.
I was able to give the person a poem by Cheryl Lawrie, which I find helpful.
They call today Good Friday
But what could make this day good?
If you have ever believed that love inevitably leads to betrayal,
this day says it doesn’t.
If you have ever believed that some people are unlovable, irredeemable,
this day says they aren’t.
If you have ever believed that there is a limit to forgiveness,
this day says there isn’t.
If you have ever believed you aren’t worth saving,
this day says you are.
If you have ever believed that you don’t deserve freedom,
this day says you do.
If you have ever believed that fear, anger, hate and despair will always win,
this day says it won’t.
This day is good for you.
Good Friday and Easter Day go hand in hand as we celebrate what Christians believe to be the most momentous weekend, a turning point in human history. As Rowan Williams put it, ‘it is the calling of the church to testify to this event as the event of history, the second big bang.’ Or as someone else said, ‘to find the sun rising in the west would be less of a change than occurred in the resurrection’.
Jesus didn’t just happen to be in Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. He went to Jerusalem for a reason. To send a message that not even the titanic powers of death can stop the love of God. God’s self-offering love was demonstrated on the cross. On the first Easter morning, he rose from the dead, and proclaimed love wins. The words he gave his friends on that day come through the centuries to us afresh: ‘Do not be afraid’. The things that overshadow our lives with fear, whether they are our own domestic worries or the concerns we have over events across the world, do not have the last word. In the hard journeys we all face, the risen Lord comes alongside and, with love and gentleness, brings restoration and hope.
Over the next few weeks I’m looking forward to singing a hymn to the tune of Danny Boy, with words written by June Boyce-Tillman:
We shall go out with hope of resurrection,
We shall go out, from strength to strength go on,
We shall go out, and tell our stories boldly,
Tales of a love that will not let us go.
We'll sing our songs of wrongs that can be righted,
We'll dream our dream of hurts that can be healed,
We'll weave a cloth of all the world united,
Within the vision of a Christ who sets us free.
I’m hoping to start up a group which explores some of these fundamental Christian truths. If you are interested in finding out more, possibly with a view to being confirmed, please let me know.
In this Easter season, may we be people of the Resurrection, unashamed to love, and unashamed to follow Jesus.
Thought for April 2017: Living Water?
I was sitting next to someone from Rowberrow at the Men’s Breakfast yesterday and hearing that they had no water at their cottage that morning. Apparently there had been a burst main affecting parts of Rowberrow, Winscombe and Churchill. Hopefully that will soon be sorted, if it hasn’t already.
I guess that all of us over recent weeks have been watching the gradual march of the new blue pipeline that is being laid along the Axbridge bypass. This is part of a new £27 million water infrastructure project that will secure the supply to 280,000 people across Somerset as 30km of water main is being installed between Cheddar and Barrow Gurney. Bristol Water promise that we will have a much more secure water supply once the scheme is complete.
The disruption in traffic with the temporary lights hasn’t been quite as bad as some had feared, other than one spectacular day when everything ground to a halt. Perhaps, though, waiting for the lights to change has given us the opportunity to reflect on the significance of water.
While we complain about the minor blips in our supply, we hear of the devastating effect of the famine in large parts of central Africa. On one news report we were told that in part of Somalia there had been no rain for three years.
Pure, flowing water gushes from our taps, but in many parts water is a scarce commodity. People, particularly women, have to go and collect it from the nearest well. When it comes from a river it is often stagnant. Instead of being life-giving, it carries deadly water-borne diseases and needs to be boiled before use. Over one billion people in our world have no access to clean water.
In stark contrast, work is in progress at the moment in the Church Rooms at Axbridge, and one of the stipulations is that we have to fit no less than three sinks into the small kitchen for hygiene purposes.
The need for a good and clean water supply was part of daily life in Biblical times too. When the people of the Exodus were wandering in the desert, their leaders were faced with the reasonable question, ‘Why did you bring us here?’ The wilderness was a place of harsh extremes. They had been better off as slaves in Egypt. At least they had food and water; but in this desolated place they were parched, had no energy, and some had given up the will to live.
In John’s Gospel we read how Jesus met a woman from Samaria at a well. It was a hot day and Jesus was tired and thirsty from his travels. She had a bucket and he didn’t. “Please can I have a drink?” he asked. It was a straightforward request.
Laying aside the whole scandal of the conversation taking place at all, let alone him asking her for a drink and sharing her bucket, which is lost on us, the conversation quickly turned to the woman’s deepest needs. In John’s writing there are different layers. On the surface there was the thirst, the well and the bucket. Then there was the deeper issue of what lay underneath.
The Samaritan woman was no stranger to thirst. That’s why she was at the well, but it also turned out that she was living with a partner, and had been married five times before. Here was a person who was thirsty for a lasting, stable relationship.
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Communities, reflects on the incident, and how Jesus met and welcomed this fragile, broken woman. He didn’t judge or condemn her. He wasn’t condescending. Instead he approached her as a tired and thirsty beggar, asking her to do something for him. As they sat by the well, sipping the refreshing drink, Jesus told her about a spring of living water, and of a holy spirit that could quench her deepest needs, and ours. “Sir,” she said, “give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty.”
Thought for March 2017: An Inclusive Church?
At our last Deanery Synod we were exploring why churches are difficult to get into. Sometimes the reasons are obvious and visible. At Axbridge a group is beavering away at how we make our glorious medieval building more easily accessible to those who find steps a problem. Finding a way of achieving this and getting the appropriate planning permission from the local authority and diocese takes a lot of time and patience, but we are determined to get it done!
Churches have a legal responsibility to ensure that their buildings are safe and accessible – but inclusion for those living with disability is something that goes far beyond installing ramps and toilets. Many of the things that exclude people are not visible. Deafness, depression, dementia, or simply just by being different are just a few of the various ways which may exclude people. Sadly many have felt and been rejected by the church simply because of who they are.
One of the exercises we did at Deanery synod was to complete the statement ‘Inclusion is…’
Here are a few possible answers. Inclusion is… ‘believing that God loves everybody’
‘…valuing difference and seeing people as God does’
‘…taking time & thought to understand where others are coming from’
‘…the freedom to be yourself - who God made you to be’
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, said “our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
Tim Hind’s brief note from General Synod in February (also on page 15 of Catch this) reminds us that someone’s sexuality can also exclude. The Church continues to wrestle with this issue.
Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields, London, speaks of his cousin whose disability put him on the edge but who learned to make the edge his home. ‘When Tim was four years old his parents were told Tim was autistic. The consultant didn’t mince words. “You must bring him up like a dog”, he told my aunt, stressing the need for clear instructions and boundaries, the need to bridle the boy’s volatile frustration. The family understood that Tim was going to be a problem. His mother shaped his character carefully. For all the bleak prognostications, Tim found areas of life where he flourished. He played the piano. He sang, growing into a deep bass. He appreciated music so much that he could become ecstatic on hearing a Mozart concerto. He appreciated routine, and before she died, my aunt ensured that he would find a regular place volunteering at a local care home, doing odd jobs and gardening. He died suddenly, aged 46.
At his funeral there were the usual seats left for his brothers, their families, and for the extensive wider family. The seats for the wider family were mostly empty. They had always found Tim hard to relate to; they could not pretend they really knew him and they stayed away. But behind those rows of empty seats, the rest of the church was overflowing with people. And as the service proceeded, one story after another was told that explained why. One woman recalled how, new to faith, for her first six months she didn’t participate in the hymns but simply watched Tim’s face as he sang with the choir: he was so enraptured – she wanted to be like him. Everyone realised that, had it been their own funeral, the church would have been much less full. Tim’s life had begun with being thought of as a dog. But at his funeral it was abundantly clear how God had chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Tim’s life ended with him eating not just the scraps from the master’s table but sharing the whole banquet, for evermore.’
If the Deanery Synod taught me anything it was that we need to have our eyes and our hearts open if we are to become more of an inclusive church. Perhaps we should be looking to see that inclusion is celebration not mere acceptance.
Thought for February 2017: The Army of Volunteers
One of the things I am very conscious of as a vicar, (or Rector; call me what you will!), is the vast amount that is is done by all sorts of willing people. What seems like a whole army of people offer their skills to enrich our churches and communities and get on with making sure that jobs that need to be done are done. By and large I’m the only one who is paid for doing what I do. The rest of you do it voluntarily, out of love. Although paid, I hope that I do it at least with love too…!
As we begin a new year, I am more conscious of these voluntary contributions than ever. A number of people are retiring from jobs that they have done for years, and I would like to mark my appreciation of the part they have played in our Benefice.
In Shipham we see the retirement of Jill Lewis and Sally Herring, who in recent years have looked after Lenny’s Community Café, managing the staff rota and making sure it was ready to open for visitors from the village and beyond. It looks like a group of people have taken up the reins and will ‘give it a go’ starting up on 20 February, exactly 20 years after Lenny’s was first launched (see page 7 of the February Catch this).
Paul Ashmore has been Treasurer of St Leonard’s for fifteen years, and this is work that involves hours of careful management of church finances, painstakingly accounting for every last bean. He estimates that he has written something in the order of 1,500 cheques since he took over from John Griffin in 2002. He is currently sorting out his last set of annual accounts, and hands them on in a healthy state.
Roger Hughes has looked after the distribution of Catch this in Shipham for more than ten years, making sure that as far as possible people had their copy while the print was still drying! (That was in the days before some of you received it electronically!) For much of the time he was also involved in printing the magazines.
In Axbridge Janet Angle has been the Sacristan, looking after the setting up of the church for Communion services for the last eight years, which involves making sure the sanctuary is spotless, the altar colours are changed regularly, the linen is cared for immaculately, and supplies are ordered when needed. All this has been done with great devotion, and for this we are most grateful.
At Christmas we also expressed our gratitude to Martin Latham, who retired from his post as organist and choir master after 49 years. He certainly went out with some splendid music over the Christmas period (see page 5 of Catch this for Andy Goddard’s report). During that time he has maintained an extraordinary level of skill and enthusiasm, producing music of a very high standard, and deeply enriching the liturgical life of Axbridge Church. There are adverts out to invite someone to apply for this post, but in the meantime a number of very talented musicians from within the community have offered to hold the fort.
We are also very conscious that making music was just a part of what Martin has done. Behind the scenes he has been involved in caring for the church building, making sure the heating comes on when it’s needed, overseeing the church office and a hundred and one other things!
We mark our sincere thanks to each and every one of these people. You could be forgiven for barely noticing some of these contributions, so quietly and efficiently have they been made. You can be sure, though, that we will notice, because it will be a bit different. We each bring our own particular gifts to what we do, but these examples of service inspire me, and hopefully us all, to offer the very best we can. As the Good Book says, Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Thought for December 2016: What does Christmas mean to you?
The Archbishop of Canterbury tells of a Carol Service he was taking. Interspersed between the familiar carols, he had invited a number of people to say in a few words, “no more than 90 seconds”, what their faith meant to them. Most people, he said, were in tears at the stories they heard, but as they were leaving one couple complained to him, “We thought we were coming to a proper Carol Service, Archbishop, and instead it was all about Jesus”!
Well, the truth is that Christmas is, or should be, all about Jesus. If it isn’t, have we somehow lost the plot?
One newly ordained preacher wanted to show not just by words but by actions what the birth of Jesus means.
‘I went up into the pulpit with a cloak and a crown over my white cassock and chasuble and began to tell the story of how the King of heaven, the creator of the universe came down to earth so that he could be one with his people. He did not want to live far away in a distant land he wanted to be with his people. As I told the story I took off the crown, and then the cloak, I came down the steps from the pulpit and gave the crown to one of the children in the front row, and the cloak to another surprised member of the congregation. Then I took off my stole and white cassock so that I was now standing in the middle of the congregation in my shirt sleeves. I thought it was a dramatic demonstration of Christ’s self-emptying but I had not reckoned on one woman calling out: “Are you going to stop there? I thought you were going to take everything off. I thought you were going to go all the way for a moment.” I had no intention whatsoever of going all the way as she put it. But when I thought about it Jesus Christ did do just that; he went all the way, and more.’
As I look at the cover of this month’s Catch this I am reminded that the very heart of the Christian faith is a vulnerable God, who emptied himself to become one with us. Jesus, the child of Bethlehem, was like any other new born child in need of warmth, milk and love. He was without even a proper roof over his head, totally dependent, totally vulnerable. God had completely entrusted himself into human hands, what the theologians call Incarnation. He did it to welcome us in love.
I love the invitation that one church offers:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich or stony broke. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rake or could afford to lose a few pounds. We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or are like our vicar who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woke up, or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been in church since little Jack’s christening.
We welcome you if you are having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like organised religion – we’ve all been there too!
We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because your grandma is in town and wanted to go to church. We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could do with a prayer, had religion shoved down their throat as a child, or got lost in the local one-way system and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts…………and you!
But he didn’t just come to be alongside us, to welcome us in love and then leave us as we are. He came to make a difference. The very name Jesus means Rescuer. Jesus came to rescue us from the mess we have made and to restore the dream of how God intends for us to live.
Thought for November 2016: Rome and The Cross of Nails
Heather and I have just come back from a few days in Rome. All the major tourist sites were bursting with people in the October sunshine. It’s probably like that the rest of the year, come to that. The Colosseum, Sistine Chapel and Pantheon all have thousands of visitors a day. St Peter’s Church has more, and there were wave after wave of pilgrim groups arriving as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Jaw-dropping though these sites are, one of my favourite moments was to visit San Gregorio Magno al Celio, the church of St Gregory the Great, away from the bustling crowds. The church’s door, which is part of a monastery of Benedictine monks, is kept locked, and you have to ring a bell if you want to go in and look round. Inside there is a wonderful quiet air of reverence. It was from this spot that Pope Gregory commissioned Augustine in 595AD to go and evangelise the Anglo-Saxon people.
Just a few days before our visit, a service of Vespers took place as part of the 50th anniversary of the first official public meeting between the Pope, Paul VI, and Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in this special place. (1966 wasn’t just important as the year we won the World Cup!) Now their successors, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby, together with a host of other church dignitaries and the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, celebrated the growing relationship that has developed between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches of the Anglican Communion, overcoming centuries of mistrust and division.
During the service, 19 pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops from across the world were commissioned by the pope and the archbishop before being “sent out” in mission together. Pope Francis told them: “Fourteen centuries ago Pope Gregory sent the servant of God, Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his companions, from this holy place, to preach the joyful message of the Word of God. Today we send you, dear brothers, servants of God, with this same joyful message of his everlasting kingdom.”
Of course there are still “serious obstacles” to full unity between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but in a Common Declaration the two leaders affirmed that the differences “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions.”
Gifts were exchanged, and I gather this was a most moving moment. Archbishop Justin took the pectoral cross from around his neck and presented it to Pope Francis. It was a cross of nails from Coventry. The pope then pressed the cross into his hands, and put round his neck.
Coventry, and the Community of the Cross of Nails based there, is a centre for reconciliation. After the destruction of the Cathedral in November 1940, at the Christmas Day service from the cathedral ruins Provost Richard Howard declared that when the war was over he would break the cycle of vengeance and work with those who had been enemies “to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.”
Inspired by the cathedral’s stonemason, who made a wooden cross from the debris, the Provost made a cross from the nails that originally held the roof together. An altar was made from the rubble, the crosses were placed on it and the words ‘Father, Forgive’ were inscribed behind.
In a month when we keep Remembrance Sunday and memories of past wars, and think of the turbulence of our own day not least in Syria, we pray for the continuing work of peace makers and reconciliation.
Thought for October 2016: In Celebration of 150 years of Readers
Sue Latimer writes: Theology is much too good to be just for theologians. Too fascinating, too freeing, too much fun. My two favourite theologians are Professor Margaret Barker, who is the expert on First Temple theology, which makes Harry Potter read like the minutes of a very boring meeting. And Terry Pratchett, who was (still is in Heaven, I expect) the expert on and creator of Discworld.
Theology set me on the road that led to being a Reader, not that I knew it at the time. When I had to give up work because of arthritis, I decided to treat myself and do what I had wanted to do for years, study theology. Self-taught at first: I went to Wells Library, found the section marked Religion, started at the top left hand corner and worked my way down and across to the bottom right hand corner. I read the lot. Very interesting, some of it very odd. Now that illness is making me give up some more work, I am still studying, only now I’ve got my own library. Very interesting and yes, some of it very odd.
I went on from Wells Library to Christian Foundations – now Exploring Christianity – as suggested by our then Rector Julian Smith. I loved it, so when he advised me to train as a Reader, I applied, even though I had no idea what a Reader was. I remember being in a flat spin on my interview, and Richard Brown, head honcho of Readers, gave me priceless advice. He said “Once you’ve offered yourself to work for God, life will never be the same. If you don’t get this, there will be something else.” And he was absolutely right.
To become a Reader means years of good training and ongoing superb support. It also means that we are completely individual. We might all have blue scarves, but our vocations are different and personal. Each one of us called to do whatever needs done, of course, but above all to discover what our particular gifts are and then offer them.
This is a great comfort to me, because with 16 years under my cassock belt I can still get into amazing muddles. In one Church which seems to bring out the total muddle-maker in me, someone sits behind me and hisses into my ears what should happen next. Some others prefer to let me loose and see how we get on. I am of the Sir Thomas Beecham school of thought: he declared that when conducting orchestras he was content as long as they started together and finished together. The Vergers at Wells Cathedral where I work as Duty Chaplain, worry if I don’t forget to switch off my microphone after leading the prayers at least once; something must be the matter.
I had a cushion once bearing the words “God sees the heart, he judges by the will”. Not many people have a theology founded on a cushion. But it makes such sense.
In the meetings of the 12 Step Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous etc., the idea is to “share”. That’s share “your experience, strength and hope”, the things you find out, the things you get right and the things you get wrong; in order to help others on the same journey. It’s the same for me in Church. I’ve been lucky enough to discover a great many things: my will is to share with others what they might not have had the time or opportunity to find for themselves.
And if I says it as shouldn’t, I do tell a good story. Sometimes the best way to share a discovery is by writing a story about it.
Readers are many things to many Churches. To me the fact that we are Lay theologians is of greatest importance. We are laity, just people: people given more teaching than is usually available; given chances to use their gifts, to share with others. And to flap about in robes.
with Love and Prayers
Thought for September 2016: Act Your Age!
One of our members, Peggy Frost, is coming up to her 100th birthday at the end of September. What a wonderful achievement! She is a shining example of how to grow old, and we offer her our warm greetings and love.
The number of people in this country living into their 90’s has trebled in the last 30 years, with now over half a million. Those who go on to become centenarians has also quadrupled in that time span. We are in the middle of a revolution as our greying generation faces old age in ever increasing numbers. Better medical care and rising affluence, together with a growing awareness of the importance of diet and exercise have all played a part in this development.
George Holley-Moore, a researcher into longevity, has predicted that the trend will go on. “This increase of our ‘oldest old’ is looking like it will continue and while we need to be aware of concerns about regional inequality of life expectancy, as well as the increase in conditions such as dementia, the fact that more of us are enjoying a longer, more active old age is a cause for celebration.”
Yet for all this, we live in a culture that fights against the natural process. Between us we spend millions on masking the signs of age with anti-wrinkle cream and facelifts and the rest. The negative stereotypes of age as diminishment and decline need to be challenged. We need to stop viewing old age as a problem; as an incurable disease. We have to learn to see that every part of our lives has value; even the grey hairs!
Like it or not, we are all getting older! We all have a stake in this subject. Many older people in our community are also learning a new lifestyle as carers of spouses, or parents, or other elderly friends.
On Tuesday 13 September at 7.30pm the local churches have banded together to organise an evening at St Mary’s Church, Wedmore, to look at this important subject. Canon James Woodward of Sarum College in Salisbury will be leading the evening. He is a very engaging and interesting speaker, and has innovated significant developments in the thinking and practice in the area of ageing and spirituality both in the church and beyond. (For ‘spirituality’ read “a search for meaning”.) This is an evening all of us can get something from. Don’t miss it!
Through his writing and speaking, James encourages us to think more creatively about the nature of ageing. That means we shall have to become conscious of our own ageing and resist our fears and denials. “What we must try and do is to befriend the elderly stranger within ourselves.” We shall have to challenge the cultural obsession with youth and seek to replace it with a respect for our own and others’ process of ageing. We must face the fact that our churches are ageing churches, but that does not mean they are in decline or facing inevitable death.
If we’re honest most of us really don’t want to get older; we both fear and deny it. These fears are real, because old age brings many challenges and difficulties. I for one long for the churches to be part of a movement, which changes the way we look at and deals with old age.
How about investing in an approach to older people that sees them as a resource, and the ageing process as a time of integration, growth, space for wisdom, creativity and wholeness?
Thought for August 2016: Citius, Altius, Fortius!
Our cover for the August Catch this by the cartoonist Mesia reminds us of the awful atrocity that took place on the seafront of Nice. Crowds of people, including young families, were out celebrating Bastille Day when suddenly all turned to panic. Other chilling acts of violence in Bavaria and Baghdad have filled the news recently too as well as an attempted coup aimed at destabilising the leadership of Turkey.
Compassionate God and Father of all,
We are horrified at violence
in so many parts of the world.
It seems that none are safe, and some are terrified.
Hold back the hands that kill and maim;
turn around the hearts that hate.
Grant instead your strong Spirit of Peace:
peace that passes our understanding
but changes lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen
In our own country a whirlwind of change followed the result of the EU referendum. The leadership of the Labour Party has been challenged. We have a new Prime Minister (I got a text from one of our girls to say “A vicar’s daughter???!!!”) and a new Cabinet. We wonder what a post-Brexit Britain will be like. We live in unstable and troubling times indeed.
It seems a bit trivial and shallow, then, to write about the Olympic Games; but it could be worse. I did wonder about musing on the sudden rush of people to the streets, mostly a younger generation, complete with their smart phones. I understand that in the new craze that has hit the country, Pokemon Go, our three churches are of great interest as gyms, and places to do battle with pocket monsters…!
So the Olympics it is. August will undoubtedly be a feast of sport for many of us although some of the 2am and 2.45am times of finals may not go down well in every home. It’s no coincidence that I have a week’s holiday booked strategically to cover most of the important events from Rio. We also happen to be staying where there is a particularly good TV!
In readiness I marked out in church the distance Greg Rutherford travels in his long jump. His best jump is a jaw-dropping 8 metres 51cm, and he will need to come close to that if he’s to retain his gold. There is a huge appeal in seeing the pursuit of sporting excellence, whether it’s cycling, hockey, rowing, clay pigeon shooting, or, my favourite, athletics!
The aims of the Games are to achieve: citius, altius, fortius - faster, higher, stronger. This motto was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin. He borrowed it from a Dominican priest, who was an athletics enthusiast. Coubertin said "These three words represent a programme of moral beauty.” There is indeed a purity in sport.
It’s true that the allegations of doping do cast a shadow over the cleanness of the games. At the time of writing it is not clear whether the whole Russian team will be banned or not. But they are not alone in searching to get an edge over their competitors.
It is, though, not just about winning medals or being the best. A more informal but well known motto, also introduced by Coubertin, is "The most important thing is not to win but to take part!" Coubertin got this motto from a sermon by the Bishop of Pennsylvania during the 1908 London Games.
One of my abiding memories from London in 2012 was the wonderful atmosphere around the whole city, and of volunteers who added to the fun, offering not only advice about where to go but also cheerful banter. People from all kinds of nations were united in a joyful celebration that warmed the heart.
I had grown up with the thought that the intertwining rings of the Olympic flag represent the five main continents of the world. Apparently, though, the five colours, together with the white background, stand for every colour that appeared on the national flags that competed in the Olympic Games in 1912; all together under one flag.
May the Games of Rio provide us with a sign of hope for a world renewed and made one. Or, in a prayer, “Grant, Lord, that the world may be sustained in its journey towards tolerance, understanding and peace.”
Thought for July 2016: When I needed a neighbour ...
On 16 June, a normal Thursday afternoon in West Yorkshire was shattered when a Member of Parliament was attacked and killed as she prepared for her constituency surgery. Jo Cox was doing her public duty of listening to and representing the people she was elected to serve.
The week had begun badly with a mass shooting in a night club in Orlando, Florida, which, with 49 dead, was clearly an attack on the LGBT community. Days later in Paris, a policeman and his wife were stabbed in front of their young child by a man shouting “Allahu Akhbar”, Arabic for "God is great". What kind of God is that, I wonder.
These killings shocked the world. How do we make sense of news stories like these? It’s all too easy just to feel shaken up, and a little more vulnerable and afraid inside. Or perhaps we wait until another news story distracts our attention. I have been reminded, though, that there are other ways of responding.
Fred Rogers is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” In each of these three stories there were indeed people who bravely confronted the attackers, and put themselves on the line.
In the tributes to Jo Cox that followed her death, none have been more moving than her husband, who encouraged us all to fight against the hatred that killed her. (Her attacker was asked to confirm his name in court a few days later and replied with: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.) “Jo believed in a better world,” Brendan said, “and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.”
Sarah Brown, who worked with her, said, “Jo cared about everybody but she reserved a special place in her heart for the most vulnerable and the poorest citizens of the world. She was fearless, she was endlessly upbeat and she reached out to so many to join her cause.” Another said, "Jo didn't just believe in loving her neighbour, she believed in loving her neighbour's neighbour. She saw a whole world of neighbours." She was passionate in her humanitarian campaigning work.
John Bercow, in the memorial service at St Margaret’s, Westminster, read a passage from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, which urges people to "open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in our land".
The gospel reading for the Sunday after the three attacks also couldn’t have been more appropriate. It was of the disturbed and mentally deranged man from Gerasa, who lived outside the community in a cemetery, often ranting at passers-by, and at times having to be restrained by shackles. While some may have reacted by saying, “lock him up and throw away the key,” Jesus broke the chains that bound the man, and restored wholeness to his broken life.
May God bring his calm and peace to a troubled world.
Thought for June 2016: HQ Calls ...
Last week we had the delightful surprise of an invitation to a consecration service in Canterbury Cathedral at the end of June. The lovely and bubbly Jan, who was curate back in the day when we were part of the Stafford Team ministry, is now being made Bishop. She will be working in the Derby Diocese as Bishop of Repton. As well as being able to celebrate this special moment, and catch up with some of our old friends, it will be the first visit to Canterbury for Heather and me.
We nearly got there a few years ago, when en route to France. The plan was to spend the afternoon exploring the cathedral and then stay overnight before catching the ferry next morning. In the event the M4 and M25 were both closed because of accidents. It seemed like every road across the south of England had ground to a halt. We only got to the edge of Canterbury late in the evening, by which time we were frazzled and tired, and everything was shut.
In 597, Augustine and 40 monks were sent by Pope Gregory to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons (after he had seen the fair-haired slaves from Britain in the Roman slave market and taken them for angels). In Kent, Augustine was received by King Ethelbert, a pagan who was married to a Christian, Bertha. Ethelbert gave Augustine a small church in Canterbury. Within a year the king converted to Christianity. Augustine commissioned the construction of the Canterbury Cathedral, and in 602 he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. From those intrepid monks the Christian faith was carried across the country. The Cathedral was rebuilt completely by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire.
It was more than 500 years after Augustine that Canterbury became a great focus of pilgrimage. In 1170, Thomas Becket, who was the Archbishop in Canterbury at the time, was murdered inside the Cathedral walls. Becket quarrelled with King Henry II over the power of the church and the rights of the clergy. The king is said to have cried out in rage, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights, taking him at his word, entered the cathedral during vespers, confronted Becket and murdered him at the altar. Three days after his murder, there were accounts of several miracles, which were attributed to his martyrdom, and after Pope Alexander III canonized Becket in 1173, pilgrims flocked to Canterbury to visit Becket’s shrine and make prayers for miracles of their own.
Pilgrims and visitors have continued to make their way to Canterbury Cathedral since those times. It remains one of the most visited places in the country. Visitors have always been made welcome in the ancient tradition of Benedictine hospitality, where everyone is invited to share the beauty of one of the great holy places of Christendom. Me, I’m looking forward to looking up in the central tower!
Hopefully later in the year there will another first, when we get to Rome!
Thought for May 2016: Inside Out!
There may be two bank holiday Mondays in May to look forward to, but there’s so much more!
For Christians there are the two major festivals of Ascension (as pictured on this dramatic painting) and Pentecost (see page 5 of the May issue of Catch this), as we celebrate both the completion of Christ’s earthly ministry and the arrival of his Holy Spirit. We also have the somewhat quirky ancient custom of Beating the Bounds on Rogation Sunday (1st May): walking round the parish boundaries and praying for the community as we go. This is a healthy reminder that Christianity belongs more to the open air and to the world that God makes and loves, than it does to church buildings.
Close on its heels comes Christian Aid Week (15th – 21st May) with its red envelopes, reminding us of the practical responsibilities we have to neighbours beyond next door that we will probably never see or know. The quiet work of development that this important organisation supports, gives dignity and hope to some of the world’s poorest people.
We also have a village event in and around Shipham Village Hall on 14th May, which is to raise funds for the support of refugees. Just when you think it can’t get worse, we hear yet more harrowing news of over 400 migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in an overcrowded boat on its way from Libya to Italy. Our efforts might only be a scratch on the surface of a huge international crisis, but far better that than doing nothing.
May also brings the somewhat odd-sounding Archdeacon’s Visitation. In our case this means that Archdeacon Nicola will make her annual visit to swear in local churchwardens. After the annual parochial meetings in April in which we have elections, we are able to say thank you to three people coming to the end of their four year stint – Peter Smith (at Axbridge), Trish Ashmore (Shipham) and Sue Erasmus (Rowberrow). We are also grateful to those who continue in office, Judith Strange, Margaret Howell, and Adrian Adams respectively, and to those newly elected this time round: Margaret Pritchard (Rowberrow) and Liz Foster (Axbridge), with the Shipham Annual Meeting to come...!
The office of Churchwarden is one of the earliest forms of recognised lay ministry. As far back as the 13th century Churchwardens were custodians of the fabric and furniture of the Church. Even today, they are the legal guardians of the church’s moveable furniture, plates and ornaments of which they are required to keep an accurate and up-to-date inventory.
As Ursula Buchan, churchwarden in Peterborough Diocese and grand-daughter of the author John Buchan of The 39 Steps fame, put it, “Churchwardenship must be one of the strangest voluntary occupations you could imagine, since it is partly intensely practical and partly quietly spiritual. I inhabit a world of aumbries, risk assessments, blocked drains, corporals, coffee mornings, quinquennial architect’s reports, vestments, child protection policies, intercessions rotas, gluten-free wafers, ‘open gardens’ and altar frontals. In the course of a week I may telephone an undertaker, polish the paten and chalice, write a Statement of Need in preparation for a Faculty application, check the communion wine hasn’t gone off, and assist the vicar on Sunday to serve the bread and wine, with as much reverence and discretion as I can muster.” It’s important to remember that not all of these jobs are done by our valiant churchwardens, but it is their responsibility to make sure that these tasks are done by someone!
As Ursula Buchan remarked, “We are ordinary people, charged with looking after an extraordinary, irreplaceable building that is still a crucial centre of rural community life.”
Far from the church retreating behind closed doors, we are called to offer our best to God and neighbour both inside and out!
Thought for April 2016: Fasting and Feasting
After the fasting of Lent, which for some might have been from chocolate or meat or alcohol, I now look forward to the feasting of Easter!
I don’t know what your image of a feast might be. It might be a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, or a wedding reception, or some other big celebration with a large table groaning with goodies. I don’t so much think it’s what you eat that makes it a feast, but with whom the meal is shared. On Mothering Sunday we had four generations of the family around the table, which to my mind made it a feast.
Doris, a friend from Stafford, had lived over eighty years, the whole of her life, in the same house. The time came, though, for her to have to move to a warden controlled flat. She wondered what furniture would fit in, but was determined at all costs to get her big old dining table in. “I know it’s too big for the flat, really,” she said, “but it holds so many memories of family meals and celebrations, that there was no way it wasn’t coming with me!” That table and its memories sustained her through the move.
There has been a very interesting series on BBC2 recently called Back in Time for the Week-end. It took a family out of the 21st Century with all its technology, and travelled back in time to discover the radical transformation of our leisure time since 1950’s. As well as looking at what people spent their leisure time on over the decades, and how much they had to spend on it, and what there was to buy, it was fascinating to see what effect it had on the way the family interacted. There were two children in the family, and the 16 year old daughter said of the experience: “It gave us a real insight. I feel quite changed. We’ve done things we never thought we’d do. We’ve done things as a family together, which has been brilliant.” As technology and ability to buy more has developed and taken over, friends and family can easily sit in the same room but not interact because they are using their smartphones or tablets. We need to learn again the art of conversation and feasting!
One of my favourite places to visit, and I must try and get there this year, is Hilfield Friary. The Franciscan brothers offer hospitality to all sorts who find their way there. The twin heartbeats of the community are the chapel, a simple converted cowshed, and the farmhouse dining room, where on most days you can find gathered round the table ‘the rich soup of humanity’ as Brother Sam puts it. All are welcomed around the table of God.
In New Testament the first ‘sign’ of Jesus and his kingdom in John’s Gospel takes place when Jesus and his friends and mother are at a village wedding, which is due to last for days. All is apparently going well until the wine runs out. At first Jesus tells his mother, “Is that any of our business – yours or mine? Don’t push me.” She, though, is not put off and tells the caterers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Some 175 gallons of water are turned into the finest vintage wine and Jesus rescues and transforms the situation. Now Cana is on the map, and remembered in every wedding service. I believe that Jesus loved an opportunity for a party and a feast.
Thought for March 2016: The Kingdom of Aslan
Last month Shipham Players put on a production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The story was the first of C S Lewis’ tales of Narnia. It’s all about the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, after they had been evacuated from London during the wartime Blitz to the large, old country house of a professor in Dorset.
As the children explore their new home, Lucy manages to stumble her way into a wardrobe, which initially looks as though it simply contains some old fur coats, only to find that it doubles as a magic doorway to a forest in the land called Narnia. She returns and tries to tell the others what she has seen, but they do not believe her story about another world inside the wardrobe. It’s not surprising; when they inspect it, there is nothing unusual about the solid back panel.
During a game of hide-and-seek, Lucy again passes through the wardrobe into Narnia. This time her brother Edmund follows her. When Lucy and Edmund return from their adventures, Edmund denies to the others that he has been anywhere. So Peter and Susan are puzzled by Lucy's insistence, and consult the Professor, who surprises them by taking Lucy's side and is the first to believe that Lucy did indeed visit a land called Narnia. He tries to convince the others that she didn't make it up.
There is more than a hint that he knows more of this kingdom than he lets on. Before long, all four children hide in the wardrobe to avoid the professor's dour housekeeper, Mrs. Macready, and find that it is true. So a new world opens before them, outside the normal boundaries of time and space.
In the Shipham Players’ production in the Village Hall, on a very soggy Saturday afternoon, when the curtains drew back from the wardrobe to reveal the magical kingdom beyond, there was a gasp of delight from the audience.
But still some just cannot see—and it remains just a wardrobe. There is a growing number of people in our society for whom any talk of a spiritual dimension of life is nonsense and the wardrobe you see before you is the only reality. Undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing the Christian faith today is how to communicate that faith in a way that makes sense to a modern ear.
When The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1949, the initial critical response was less than enthusiastic. I understand that at that time it was fashionable for children's stories to be realistic. Fantasy and fairy tales were seen as appropriate only for very young readers and potentially damaging to older children, harming their ability to relate to everyday life.
By 2012, though, a survey showed that this was the second most common book that adults had read as children, after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So much for not wanting fantasies of other worlds – not to mention The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Harry Potter!
I don’t want to spoil the story for those of you who were not fortunate to go last month and haven’t yet read it, but this is first of the chronicles of Narnia. It can be understood to reflect a world that needs saving from evil, and of the supreme sacrifice made by the one who is the rightful King of Narnia.
It makes interesting reading as this month we remember the events of the first Easter. C S Lewis wrote that "The Narnian books are not as much allegory as supposal. Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption?”
Thought for February 2016: Taking a long hard look ...
In the last weekend of January I will join with over half a million or more others, who will be taking part in RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch. The idea is that you set aside an hour a sit and look closely at what birds there are in your garden and note them down. It will be a good discipline for me on a variety of levels.
Normally I just have a quick glance out of the kitchen window, to see if something is happening outside. My eye was caught by a flock of jackdaws a few days ago, which swooped on the remnants of last year’s apples. It was fascinating to watch the couple of look-out birds that were on guard to warn the rest if there was danger. Better still is when we have the occasional visit of a woodpecker and we reach for the binoculars on the window sill. It will be interesting to see just how many different kinds of birds do visit in the hour and to appreciate a bit more what is literally on my doorstep.
I was visiting a home recently in Shipham where the seat by the window in the kitchen is known as the ‘time waster’. It’s the place where the people who live there just gaze at the wildlife outside and enjoy what is going on.
More importantly the Big Garden Bird Watch will be a good discipline for me to sit still and properly concentrate. Am I alone when I think that our brains are being trained to become ever more like butterflies, moving quickly from one thing to another? Google has me darting from one piece of information/trivia to the next. Twitter, perhaps a classic example of our digital age, only allows 140 characters: just a couple of sentences; no more than a quick burst of birdsong and it is gone.
This should all be good preparation for three things taking place in February.
Ash Wednesday on the 10th sees us embarking on the adventure of Lent. It’s an important part of the year when we are encouraged to get a good book to take us through to Easter and quietly and prayerfully take stock of who we are, where we are going, and the God who is love. There will also be a number of weekly discussion groups around the benefice with other travellers to help us on the journey. Please ask if you would like details of what’s on near you.
Valentine’s Day, 14 February, falls on a Sunday this year, so we have decided to make our evening service at Axbridge that night a special Celebration of Marriage. It will be at 6.30pm and everyone is welcome. You may have been married six months or, like Brian and Joyce Winder, 60 years. There will be some cake and bubbly to help, and it will be a time to reflect on the important relationships of our lives and pray for them. I’m well aware that for some marriage hasn’t been easy, and for a variety of reasons this might be a hard service for others to come to, but please come if you can.
Then on 28 February we have a community celebration in Axbridge with civic awards for those who have made a significant contribution to the life of the town. The three communities of our benefice are indeed great places to live.
Let’s learn to look closely and carefully, and appreciate what is on our doorstep.
We ran out of space on this page so some of the earlier thoughts were moved to Old Thoughts... so you can still enjoy them.
Last Updated by AG 20 February 2019