Monday, 29 July 2013

The mission imperative (an introvert's perspective)

I last wrote about the imperative for unity which lies at the heart of church life. Out of our unity comes the second great imperative: to be a missionary church. Mission is the work of God, and every disciple is called to join in with God in what He is doing in their place.

So often mission and evangelism are confused. Evangelism is part of mission - an essential part if the word of God is to be heard by those who aren't habitual churchgoers - but it is not the whole of it. Sometimes the idea of being evangelical seems difficult, and yet every Christian is called to be evangelical, in the sense that every Christian is called to share their story of the good news of the gospel impacting on their lives. The appropriation of the title evangelical by a particular sub-group of Christians with a particular worship style is perhaps unhelpful to all the ordinary Christians in ordinary places. They don't worship that way, perhaps don't agree with every viewpoint that is labelled 'evangelical' and so they understand that they are not evangelical and not called to speak out the gospel or do the evangelical thing. It's an easy opt out.

I recently heard myself tell a colleague that I am not an evangelical. After she left, I realised that I hadn't got it right. I am not a person who would easily fit into any of the sub-groups within the church, but at different times I am nurtured by most of them. I believe passionately in sharing the good news of Jesus with the world. That presumably does make me an evangelical, even if I'm not the sort of person who goes to Spring Harvest or New Wine. And, I reflected, the main factor in that difference between and the New Wine goers is not about belief necessarily, but about temperament. I am an introvert. Going to big gatherings, talking to strangers, all the things that are the hall mark of evangelical churchgoing, are the sort of thing I really find draining. So, I got it wrong when I talked to my friend. I am an evangelical, just too shy, too quiet, too introverted to fit into the sub-groups's general mould.

Middle of the road rural village churches sometimes need to give themselves permission, as I do myself, to be another kind of evangelical, speaking about our experiences quietly, gently, in ones and twos. What matters is not how we tell the gospel but THAT we tell it. For we are missionary churches and we must do God's work. And that means pointing people to Jesus by whatever means we are able.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The unity imperative

Sunday afternoon was one of those rare ones that will be remembered by a whole community. The occasion was a festival service celebrating the unity we are building in our new parish, only seven months old. The side chapel was rededicated, and is now dedicated to the patron saint of the church that closed in December. The altar and all the linen from the closed church are very much back in use, and it looks beautiful. Newly built toilet and servers facilities were dedicated too. The church was decorated with stunning flower arrangements, bunting made by our school, and embroidery displays. The school and church choirs sang, the school steel band played, and the church was full to capacity.

Bishop Donald of Peterborough presided, and was as delighted as I was that part of the service was led by my local Baptist colleague. She and her husband offered prayer for healing in the newly dedicated chapel after the service and brought peace to a number of people.

In his address, Bishop Donald spoke of the two great imperatives of the church: unity and mission. Amongst the congregation there were not only Baptist friends and partners in mission, but also Christians from other traditions worshipping around the area. Their support, friendship and prayer makes a difference to us, and I hope that we will be as supportive to them. In our parish area, mission can only really be effective if we do it together with our Baptist friends, who are called to the same mission field.

Unity isn't just about ecumenism, though. It starts with us. Our celebration was of two becoming one, and our choice of sparkling wine (or other fizz) and fruit cake for refreshments was quite deliberate. Two autonomous communities had to come together, which requires every member of both original communities to give up some of their hopes, responsibilities, power, status, plans, in order to be fully part of the new community that God is creating. It requires a great deal of effort, much listening and enormous, patient, forgiving love.

On Sunday I was wearing a white stole. I had brought this particular stole deliberately because it reminds me of the imperative for unity and my own all within it. The stole was made by the sisters at Turvey Abbey as a retirement gift for Canon Martin Reardon when he completed his work for Churches Together in England. Members of many denominations contributed to the cost of making it. It meant a lot to Martin. After he died, Martin's widow gave it to me. I am one of many whose lives and ministries were deeply affected by Martin, who was a mentor and encourager in my life in a big way. Wearing his stole reminds me that I too am called to work for unity. Like Martin, I can only work for unity if others will work with me. It is by its very nature a community call, not an individual hobby.

For Christians, as Martin taught in his lifetime, and Bishop Donald taught on Sunday, working for unity isn't optional. It can't be considered the domain of an interest group. Jesus prayed that we would be one so that the world might believe. The second imperative, mission, cannot be effective unless the first is in place. Being one within and between our churches is hugely important. We were one on Sunday. Now we must work to keep on being one. One in difficult PCC debates. One when we aren't sure about the style of the other congregation but love them anyway. One when we feel powerless and when we are hurting, not just when we are joyful. Let us pray with Jesus that we will be able to truly be one, that the world might believe.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Difficult jobs

Yesterday evening's Christianity Explored group ended with a conversation about how the Holy Spirit helps us to be followers of the risen Lord. It is so easy to allow ourselves to believe that following Jesus must mean doing certain kinds of job or being involved in certain activities. As  a priest, I don't think I'm a great example of the real challenge in following Jesus in society. I'm allowed and expected to talk about God and to do and say unusual things, counter cultural things.

The people who have the real challenge, and who need to know the presence and wisdom of the Holy Spirit as much as I do, are the followers who are called into secular work, and especially work that divides opinion, work that can be contentious. I have friends and parishioners involved in really challenging work. Scientists, for example, whose work might have to involve testing a drug on an animal. The results could save many lives, but the ethical maze is confusing, especially when other Christians are shouting with the animal rights protesters. It isn't black and white.

Politics isn't black and white either, local or national, and the constant juggling with ethical questions and decisions that affect lives is stressful for those who take it on.

I've been privileged to have more than one long conversation with people working in different parts of the defence industry as they considered the ethics of their work. They didn't give away any secrets! The mental pressure for defence workers of any kind is huge - none of them like the possibility that they may have had a hand in hurting or killing; the hope is always to save, to protect, to make things that will deter, not destroy. That is no secret.

It would be easy for a follower of Jesus to look at professions like these and to reject them as too difficult, too ethically challenging for a person whose rule of life is love. But I believe that these professions, and other difficult ones like them - law, policing, even the military - is exactly where followers of God need to be. Because when those difficult decisions have to be made, when the question is ethically difficult, that is precisely when the best answer will come from someone who isn't just deciding based on their own instincts or a personal moral code, but from someone whose decision is guided by the Holy Spirit of God.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013


When my daughters were very small we would create invisible boundaries to allow them to have a sense of freedom to run or explore while being close enough that we could protect them. They learned that boundaries might be smaller in a crowded place or near a road, and that a shout of 'boundary!' from me meant that they were to go no further. Every year at our regular holiday haunt we would walk around the site setting the boundary that there play had to stay within, and every year the area got bigger. Now they are grown up and boundaries around us have different meanings. There are new boundaries of privacy and independence that we may not cross, and the old understandings of how far apart we may be geographically are not only unnecessary but altered by new ways of crossing the boundaries using our smartphones or computers.

On Sunday members of Piddington church were treated to a thought provoking presentation on boundaries by two of the family service team. They found boundaries in many places, tracing ecclesial, civil, safety, temporal and spatial boundaries before considering the boundaries created by the human heart. God, they reminded us, both respects the boundaries between human and divine (we retain free will after all), and also breaks some of them down. God's love reaches beyond our stubbornness and our wilfulness. It reaches across the seemingly uncrossable boundary of sin and offers us the invitation to step over and into grace.

Monday, 29 April 2013

You shall anoint my head with oil

On Friday morning I listened to 'The reunion' on radio 4, which had the coronation as its theme. The interviewees were all maids of honour on the great day in 1953. I was struck that as they considered the service, it was the anointing of the Queen by the archbishop that they considered the most moving moment. That part was seen as being so holy that it was not included in the televising of the service.

Two days later I was doing some anointing of my own. Five beautiful children were brought for baptism in Hardingstone on Sunday morning, two of them old enough to have thought hard about it for themselves and worked hard with me over a number of sessions preparing for the day. For those five children the moment of anointing was not done in private, but it was every bit as holy and to my mind even more important than the moving moment in the cathedral.

While many think of anointing only in the context of illness or the approach of death, there is another anointing with roots back into the earliest days of scripture. Anointing with oil in this context is a symbol of God's calling. Use of it reminds the anointed that they are holy; in other words they are chosen and loved by God. More than that, as people chosen and loved by God, they have a work to do which is given to them by God, which he calls them to do on his behalf. For the Queen, anointing was a symbol of the very particular vocation  that she inherited when her father ascended the throne, to reign as monarch and be the uniting figure amongst the nations that call her Queen.

I have been anointed with oil in this way once in my life as well, when I was made a priest. Oil was applied liberally to my open hands as a reminder to me and to those watching that I had been set aside for a particular task, one that God had called me to do. It is simultaneously awe inspiring and comforting to remember that formal moment of declared holiness. Can I be called to something so special for God? Yes, but holiness comes from God, is available only when the Holy Spirit is present, and so the achievement of the given task is dependent not on my ability or strength but on the presence of the Holy Spirit. The oil reminds me that I only need to remain open to God for the task to be achievable.

Anointing with oil in baptism is not universally offered. It certainly wasn't available when I was baptised. When my daughters were baptised, the shared service was both Anglican and Roman Catholic, and the gift of that symbol came from the Catholic side. Anglicans draw on our Catholic inheritance when we choose to include anointing within our baptism services. I collected the oil of baptism, along with oils of chrism and healing when I attended the annual Maundy Thursday service at the diocesan cathedral. As we renewed our vows in the service, I was reminded of the call I have been anointed for. Central to that call is the calling of others into faith in and service of God.

In baptism the anointing shows everyone that this person is holy. This person is loved by God and chosen by God. And the anointing shows that the person, however young or old has a calling. The calling is to be a disciple of the God who makes them holy. To follow to the best of their ability; to pray and worship and try hard to learn more; to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and mind and soul, and to love their neighbour as they love themselves.

There can be no higher calling than to be a disciple of Christ. Those who are called to be ordained are first of all disciples, and they have this particular task given to them as part of their discipleship. Those who are called to reign are also first and foremost disciples. Their ability to reign well depends on the faithfulness of their discipleship. For me, being allowed to be the one who administers this anointing is a stunning privilege.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Another week of important and wonderful things

I read a blog by another vicar during the week listing the many things we are meant to be. Among them was 'endearingly disorganised'. I qualify for the second word, but infuriatingly might be a better word than endearingly. Of course there are all sorts of sensible strategies for being organised. Diarising time to do preparation, filing things immediately, all that sort of stuff. As it happens, I do diarise prep but that doesn't stop the phone ringing while I am doing it. My phone rings a lot. Occasionally the result of answering the phone or listening to a voicemail message is having to drop everything and go to that person immediately. It isn't often that a call needs such an instant response, but it did happen this week.

This week one of the wonderful things that happened was a lovely parishioner taking some admin away and making things happen for me. She left me free to concentrate on the things that must be done by the parish priest, and it was a great blessing in a busy week.

Another blessing was a lesson with year four at our church school. Teasing out what is distinctive about a Christian as opposed to any other human being via the formula Faith = Belief + Action led to some good thinking by the class.

Last week included a lot of time spent with bereaved people thinking about funerals that will happen over the next two weeks. Unusually, they are all to be church funerals, covering the whole Benefice, and seeing Benefice officers swinging into action to help make the funerals go well is another blessing. Some aspects have been troublesome, and my tendency to insecurity and self condemnation means that I wake up in the mornings full of anxiety about the difficult things, the problems and challenges. Today I want to remind myself that those moments, however much they affect my dreams, are tempered by so many good moments and good people. The warden and pastoral worker in one village who has attended every funeral visit with me and made numerous visits of her own. The warden who took on a large and unpalatable piece of research for the church, and the warden from a neighbouring church who offered to help her. The warden who spent a morning helping two inexperienced wardens sort out their logs from their terriers, and is willing to keep on helping. I could go on, and despite the last couple of sentences it isn't all church wardens who do marvellous things, though I am blessed with six great wardens.

To go through my diary in detail in a blog would be boring for you. For me everything in it is important. Everything I do, every concern of every person I see, is the most important thing to that person or group of people. I have to treat every meeting and visit and lesson as the most precious and important thing in my life, because for that period of time it is, and because that it is the most important thing for the people I am with. So whether I have mentioned the time I spent with you in this blog or not, you were and are important to me. You are hugely important to God.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The second week of Easter 2013

This time last week I was enjoying a few days away with my dearly beloved and refilling the physical jug after the intensity of Holy Week and Easter. I confess that it feels much longer ago! Every week, so much happens in Living Brook that somehow the illusive thing that is time has to stretch to accommodate it all, while somehow feeling that it has passed at such speed that I must have missed a day or two.

I returned to work on Sunday (having prepared everything I needed for the services over a week before). The usual Low Sunday effect prevailed at two of the churches, with turnout a little lower than usual; unfortunately some of the missing people were suffering unpleasant colds and bugs rather than enjoying their own post Easter breaks. I was pretty sniffy myself, but a pocket full of tissues was all I needed, thankfully. We were still able to celebrate the fabulous fundraising done in Lent. Our hope to raise enough money to twin one toilet in Burundi became a reality of having raised enough for four and being well on the way to five, with other private sponsorships within the parishes as well. Fantastic! At Quinton we enjoyed a church full to bulging as seven month old Ralf was brought for baptism. His big brothers did a fine job with the reading and lighting the paschal candle, and the many children in church deserved the chocolate eggs I gave out at the end, having answered a lot of questions very well in the course of the service.

Monday was when I had to start tackling the massive admin backlog and before long I knew that it was going to be impossible. Because Monday also had to include baptism preparation for two lovely primary aged children and a visit to the grieving widower of a lady whose funeral was on Wednesday. On Tuesday I began to put in place arrangements for two more funerals, and heard about a fourth, which began to be put in place today. Visits, phone calls, form filling and prayer for the funerals dominate the week, but there was also time for an excellent working meeting of the good people in Hardingstone who manage the care of the churchyard of the church, for a meeting for prayer and sharing with my nearby Baptist colleague, for a meeting with a parish councillor and parish clerk to catch up with village priorities, and to attend an annual parish meeting for the same village.

Tuesday evening was the Quinton APCM, with a turnout that was double that of the previous year. Two new members were welcomed to the PCC, which is a great delight. Quinton will soon host a daytime house group too, open to all the Benefice, a development which will bring many blessings. Somehow I couldn't manage to write the Priest in charge's letter for Hardingstone APCM until after the Quinton APCM was over, so it wasn't done until Wednesday, which must have been really maddening for poor Sally, the hero who is secretary to two of the PCC's in the Benefice.

Tonight the lovely parish next door will see a new priest in charge licensed, and so I'll be surrendering my place as the new girl on the block to another. Her arrival is exciting - she'll be an excellent successor to her excellent predecessor and I look forward to working with her and bringing our parishes closer together as partners in God's work on the southern side of Northampton.

Somehow I've managed to fill my diary for Saturday with meetings to prepare for the APCM, to work with a friend on his M Th dissertation (done with less guilt as my draft proposal is at last ready to be looked at today, having missed two deadlines) and to receive a curate bringing me a portfolio which I am looking forward to reading next week. Somehow a sermon will write itself, my daughter's clothes will be washed and packed before her return to university on Sunday and maybe, if I'm very focused, an email or two might be answered.

God's had a busy week round here, even busier in the rest of the world. What a privilege to be part of it.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The empty days

At the last session of the Benefice Lent course on Wednesday day evening, I spoke about 'refilling the jug'. We were considering the importance of rest and leisure alongside rest in making a good life balance. Without a good balance, the jug empties and the work can't be done.

I sometimes wonder about using this blog as a diary, or publishing diary highlights in the church notice sheet, to share with people glimpses of what I do on weekdays. So often people comment on my Sundays, and yet that is far from all that I do. I can't decide whether sharing in this way would be helpful to others or merely an exercise in preening my own ego. Sharing the variety might be interesting though.

One of the dangers of refilling the jug in a public blog is of how the blog reads when the level of the jug is low. Right now, with passiontide started and Holy Week just ahead, my jug is definitely feeling half empty. I have, I am told, a reputation for positive attitude and energy. A jug half full person. A jug brimming over and splashing those around person. Taking Barnabus as my personal patron saint, I'm always glad when I hear that people feel positive when I work with them. On my own at home, though, the effort of being a Barnabus for others empties me. This is perhaps partly because I'm not naturally a confident, self assured person. I live in fear of being found out for the failing, weak person I really  am. Anything good that happens in my ministry can only be attributed to God, because it certainly isn't me.

So when I sense any kind of unhappiness with what I do, even if it might not be justified, that affects me deeply. Critical voices always drown out any praise I might have received. I emerge from PCC meetings and other similar evenings feeling that I can't ever be good enough to do the job, that I can't possibly meet the expectations of the others around the table. It doesn't matter that the meeting might have involved many good decisions and made good progress. I can still emerge feeling miserable, because the one critical person in the room has had a powerful effect, and the others, working hard but being neither positive or negative, do nothing to counter or balance the trickle of negativity. I just want to curl up and hide. The jug empties very quickly some days, and a lifestyle based on a six day working week and regular 12 or 14 hour working days does not give enough space to refill when the jug is suddenly and quickly poured out.

Why am I writing this today? Because my day off so far isn't one. I just haven't been able to set aside the mental and spiritual burden laid on me at a PCC yesterday. The sense of being not good enough because I haven't yet brought in lots of young people and lots of money, because I have brought a change of culture that one person doesn't like, is powerful. It pervades my thoughts, disturbs sleep, dominates waking thoughts. And of course the phone keeps ringing. I don't answer it, but that doesn't matter, the fact that it rang is enough to ensure that I am reminded of work. It is ever present, and today its presence brings me lower all the time. I'm on my own in a vicarage, not standing a chance of  refilling the jug before the huge busyness of Holy Week sets in on Sunday.

Psalm 88 is the only psalm that doesn't manage at any point to be positive and offer some praise to God. The choir will be singing it on Thursday evening. In a way it is a psalm of the empty jug. Choir practice points to the bigger truth though. Singing psalm 88 and then turning to the Easter anthem and    praising God holds together the big Godly picture. Resurrection follows death. God refills the empty vessel with His living water. And in a day or two I'll get over the post PCC misery. School Easter services and an Easter bonnet parade will hopefully remind me why this is ok really. So I'm not in a psalm 88 place yet. More psalm 42.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Lead us not into temptation

On Tuesday I presided at a Eucharist for the chapter I have recently joined. Preparing, I looked at the gospel set for the day and decided firmly that a time for silent reflection would be much more appropriate than exegesis from me. For the passage was from Matthew 23, Jesus' thorough warning about the failings of the religious leaders of his day. The dangers that come with being called to serve  as a member of the clergy are as real today as they were then. Reading a warning about the love of fancy garments (at the time large phylacteries and long fringes on prayer shawls) while wearing alb and stole (at least the host church wasn't the one with the gorgeously embroidered chasubles)... Well. Jesus warned his disciples to do as their leads said but not as they did. He add that they create heavy loads for the people, loads they had no intention of helping with or trying to carry themselves.

All those dangers are still there, and I am sure every one of my colleagues is as aware of it as I am. However hard we try, our parishioners want to put us on pedestals, assume that our words are true and valuable (as indeed they should be) and look to us to give instruction and leadership. Many of us work in traditions where the trappings of buildings or dress are deliberately beautiful, to give glory to God. It is only too easy to allow the human sinner to enjoy the attention and the power and the potential glory too much, only too narrow a divide between speaking and working to God's glory and diverting the attention to ourselves, especially if we have parishioners who enjoy what we do and are kind enough to say so. We walk a tightrope. One slip and we inhabit the same territory as the scribes and priests that Jesus so rightly condemned.

And we have seen others fall. Every week it seems that the papers are triumphing over the fall of a priest who has given into the temptations which the power we have over others make so easy. Sexual sin or financial dishonesty make good news story. Knocking people off the pedestal and proving that no one is above others, no one is that good, that is the stock in trade of the press, and it makes our battle against our own human frailty all the more risky. If we fall, everyone will know about it, and enjoy the entertainment.

Jesus words in this chapter of Matthew are very challenging for the clergy. Jesus tells his followers not to call anyone father, or teacher or rabbi, because those titles belong to him and to his Father. All the rest of us are followers. And yet here we are, called by God to lead his people. And many of my colleagues do use the title father, and all of us set out to teach and instruct. It's in the job description. How can we reconcile our Lord's instructions then with his call to us as his servants now? How can we ensure that we work with adequate humility, always pointing to Jesus and never allowing ourselves to become the focus of attention or adoration. If we do our jobs well, the risk that some people might want to praise us for our work is always there. And being human. To a certain extent we do need to hear some of that praise to motivate us to keep going and to assure us that we are doing the job well. Back on the tightrope then.

For a group of clergy listening to that gospel reading, silent reflection on our own work seemed the only possible response. In Lent, silent prayer that the particular temptations that lay in wait for the clergy may be resisted by each of us. Time to quietly grasp the balancing pole that gives us a chance of making it across the tightrope walk without falling.

Lord Jesus, keep us balanced and focused on you, keeping us from falling now, and bringing us safely to your kingdom; that those we seek to lead will also look to you only and come safely to your kingdom.