Thursday, 23 February 2012

Going Back


Malvern Baptist Church

Last weekend we journeyed up the M5 for a three day visit to an old haunt of ours, our former home and church, Malvern in Worcestershire.  It was a joy to meet up with friends and exchange news and compare the height of our children!

I suppose such a visit begs the question of whether or not one should ‘go back’?  I’ve never had any problem with the idea of paying occasional visits to places and people we used to know.  I suspect to ask the question is to raise the idea that such return visits might be unsettling.  However, the reality is that ministers only ever have temporary tenure of the pastorates we occupy – we are here for a season, we move on and then someone new, with different gifts, takes our place for the next stage of the journey.

Last weekend as I sat in the pew (yes they still have them in Malvern) I couldn’t stop smiling – I think I looked like a Cheshire cat at one stage of the Communion Service.  Smiling because ‘little’ people I’d known, and perhaps even dedicated years ago, were now ‘big’ people – but still in church, still part of the family of God in that place – and as I saw that group of young people my heart rejoiced.  It also thrilled me to see people who were only ever at the margins during my time now firmly in the centre as the ministry of my successor unfolds.  All of it felt so good and right.

So I’m grateful for the reminder that the work is God’s and we are just a part of it; we are never its source but simply its channel.

This weekend sees the first Sunday in Lent and it’s great to be using the booklet of reflections drawn up by our Town Centre Churches.  On Sunday evening a series of ecumenical lectures starts at South Street – I’m down for the first one, the theme is Queen and Country (in recognition of our Sovereign’s Diamond Jubilee) and Sunday’s topic is Queen and Citizenship – I wrote it this afternoon!
With best wishes,
Ian

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Reflecting on Bideford

Some of my congregation suggested I should keel over and fake my demise on Tuesday.  That’s because a group of us from South Street were on a fascinating tour of the Houses of Parliament and just at the end our guide told us of the odd (and as far as I can recall never practiced) rule that if a person dies in Parliament they are automatically granted a state funeral!  That prospect became even more remote when he said if any of us did actually keel over we would be rushed round to St Thomas’ hospital and be pronounced dead there rather than in the hallowed walls of Westminster!

Well Tuesday was a great day.  We had an early start and late finish but a great day never the less.

On the way up some folks were reading the paper on the coach and it had a headline about the militant secularisation of Britain.  This is in response to the court ruling last week that the practice of saying prayers before the Bideford council meetings has been deemed unlawful.  Interesting to note as we went through the House of Lords lobby there was a notice to say their Lordship’s session at 2.30pm that afternoon would commence with prayers offered by the Bishop of Litchfield – for how long, I wonder, will that be considered ‘lawful’?

As we gathered at the foot of Big Ben to board the coach back to Somerset I picked up one of those wonderfully free copies of the London Evening Standard and read an article by the cabinet minister Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, entitled We must put religion back into public life. Of course such sentiments follow on from the Prime Minister’s assertion that we are still a Christian country...discuss!
There is no doubt that a debate about the place of faith in society is going on.  On the one hand the current movers and shakers (often around my age) seem to be pressing ahead with a certain militant secularisation, whilst others – especially those used to the privileges of establishment – are fearful of where it will end if God is left out of our national equation.

I wonder if any of this should surprise us.  Isn’t it just a natural consequence of the plain fact that most people under fifty have never, even nominally, bought into the Christian story – they have neither been regular members of a church congregation or readers of the bible and now, as ‘powerful’ people in politics, education or the workplace, they see no necessity for ‘doing God’.  None of this means our liberty in free assembly, debate or conscience is in danger but what it might mean is that all the privileges of establishment such as council prayers, armed forces chaplaincies, school assemblies (not to mention Songs of Praise!) may indeed be up for grabs. 

As Baptists we have known, perhaps too far back in our history, what it is like to be at ‘the margins’ of society.  There is little doubt that we are beginning to experience that once more for we are a minority (Baptists) within a minority (Christian).  Our young people know that especially for within their peer groups admitting you even go to church is felt to be beyond the pale. 

I don’t think we should complain too loudly about losing our so called ‘privileges’.  Although we would want to celebrate, and own, our nation’s Christian tradition, our future doesn’t depend upon council prayers or bishops remaining in the Lords but in the church fearlessly proclaiming a counter-cultural message in which Christ’s values will often challenge those which are thought of as fundamental to the 21st century.  It strikes me we have much to say and contribute – we just need to find alternative routes into society to say it.

Personally I don’t want a privileged slot in this market place of ideas, For I believe the integrity and authenticity of the Gospel is such that – put us alongside any other faith (or as Maureen Lipmann used to say ‘ology’) – we have a message, based on the cross and resurrection, which can touch any individual’s heart with grace and bring about a spirit of love and justice in both church and society.

This weekend The Revd Dr Ivor Hughes will be leading morning worship at South Street and Mrs Linda Lovell will be leading Holy Communion at 6.30pm
With best wishes,
Ian

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

On 'Seeing' God

On Sunday we held a ‘Question Time’ evening in the Chapel Lounge.  It was a coming together of our evening congregation and members of our Solid Rock youth group; a real and beneficial blending of the age spectrum within our church community. 

The youngsters had spent the previous Sunday night cooking up some fascinating questions for our panel of wise ‘elders’!  Kate, Jackie, Roger and Keith did a splendid job in answering the light hearted enquiries such as ‘What is your favourite sweet?’, or, ‘Are you any good with modern technology?’  And they also offered helpful and thoughtful answers to more profound questions such as, ‘When did you willingly start going to Church?’ or ‘Why did you become a deacon?’ 

One question that made an impact on me was the one that went: ‘How do you see God?’

Kate kicked off and told us she liked to think of him as the loving and supportive ‘hands’ that carry us through life.  Other members of the panel talked of ‘seeing’ him hazily in the present yet more clearly in the story of the past, or as a friend who would always be there.

Sunday evening was terrific and if you came along I hope you feel as positive about it as me!

Christians have always ‘seen’ God in very unique and personal ways.  To some he is a loving heavenly father yet others might shy away from that imagery and find the picture of a shepherd more helpful. 

I myself, if I’m honest, rarely think in terms of ‘God’ but more readily view the divine through the prism of The Lord Jesus Christ – the Man for others.  Christ’s teaching and example in the gospels is what fires my faith most of all – it’s that gospel image of him encountering, confronting, inspiring and comforting the individuals and crowds around him that gives me a picture of God I can understand.

So...I wonder...how do you ‘see’ God?

This weekend we look forward to welcoming The Oddments Theatre Company to morning worship.  Oddments have a ministry of drama which they take into schools, churches and prisons.
With best wishes,

Ian

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Eve of Jubilee

Next Monday the Queen will begin her Diamond Jubilee year and this week the BBC are everywhere, it seems, trailing Andrew Marr’s three part documentary about her life.

In the congregations in which I’ve served there have always been ardent royalists, fierce republicans and a lot of indifferent people in-between. 

Although I recognise monarchy wouldn’t be the obvious choice for any new democracy, I myself believe what we have inherited from the past has, in recent years, served us well.  The Queen, along with her parents and grandparents, has been an example of duty and service done with a certain grace and style. 

The Old Testament concept of Jubilee is all about a 49th or 50th year, in the Sabbatical Year cycle, being celebrated as a time for slaves to be freed and debts forgiven.  It was announced, not by the trumpeters of the Household Cavalry but by the priests blowing their Shofars, or rams horns.  A year when mercy was shown and God’s character of grace celebrated.

Today I received a magazine from one of my former churches with an article in it reflecting on last year’s Queen’s broadcast on Christmas Day.  The writer said he was thrilled and surprised by the Christian content of the message with phrases such as: God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with power to forgive.  Even with droopy eyelids after too much turkey, I too noticed how Christ-centred that speech was.

So on Monday – as the gun salutes are made in Hyde Park and the Tower of London, as the BBC begin their landmark documentary series and as a year of celebration begins – I think we can all give thanks for the Queen’s example of service and duty, much of it, I suspect, founded on her genuine Christian faith and discipleship of the King of Kings.

This weekend I’m particularly looking forward to Sunday evening when members of our youth group, Solid Rock, will be asking questions of four church members about the life of faith.  This Question Time event will be held at 6.30pm in the Chapel Lounge and everyone is welcome – do join us if you can!
With best wishes,

Ian

Who is up there?!

We were in Lisbon over half term and enjoyed glorious sunny days throughout our visit. The city has many squares, almost all with statue...