Comfort and Joy

In a normal year, my December magazine article would contain a message about the importance of Christmas, and express the hope that all our readers would be able to attend one or more of our Christmas services, and perhaps invite family and friends to join us. We would be looking forward to Carol Services, Crib Services and ‘Midnight Mass’. That’s what would happen in a normal year. But 2020 has not been a normal year and who knows where we will be by Christmas, or how 2021 will look?

I’m writing this in November, during national Lockdown 2. Places of worship are again closed and we are waiting to hear when they are likely to re-open, making planning all but impossible. Archbishops have joined other faith leaders in asking for an exemption for places of worship, given all the work we have put into making our buildings and services as COVID19-safe as we can. That exemption has not been granted and we are urged to follow the regulations and guidance that are in place.

In most years, along with other clergy, I put some effort into reminding people that Advent is an important season in the Church’s year – and encouraging people to resist rushing headlong into Christmas celebration without spending some time in Advent reflection. This year, I feel different. The pandemic, which led to churches being closed for Mothering Sunday and Easter, has felt like an awfully long Advent. We have been unable to meet in church for worship or to share in holy communion. We have been looking forward to better things. Even in Lent, you’re not supposed to abstain from bread and wine at communion! But we have all been keeping an enforced abstinence from the things that are given to sustain us. Perhaps we’ll learn to value what really matters, having had so much taken away from us in this awful year. Enough Advent already!

So, bring it on! Put up your Christmas tree in November, if you want! Put lights on the outside of your house to combat the darkness and spread a little, much-needed cheer! Make mince pies and eat chocolate! Watch Christmas movies and listen to Christmas music![1]

And, in the midst of all the self-indulgence, the Christmas message invites us to think of others. The pandemic has seen many examples of people caring for others, including the extraordinary response to Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk for the NHS, and the little acts of kindness that were stirred up in people seeing their neighbours in need.

At the heart of so many communities, lies the church. It has been estimated that the Church of England alone is worth £12.4bn a year to the country through the events and activities it provides and supports. But what will our church look like next year? Will we still be here for Christmas 2021? We need to plan for recovery and growth if we are to continue serving our communities. Recent research suggests that churches which are engaged with their communities (not hiding away inside their buildings) are more likely to grow. Churches should be marked by:

  • A strong sense of connection with their local area (not just with their own congregations)
  • Perseverance – years of engaging with their communities
  • Hospitality and Generosity
  • Participation in social action, working with other people of goodwill, regardless of whether they are people of faith or not[2]

How will our churches in Stretton and Appleton Thorn continue to engage with our communities in the coming years? How can you be a part of that?

My December message usually ends with me wishing you and yours a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. I’m pleased to repeat that here, while, at the same time acknowledging that this is likely to be a very different Christmas from any that we have known.

But, even if everything else is different, I take comfort in this:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. (Hebrews 13.8)


[1] My favourite Christmas movie, if you’re interested, is Scrooged (1988, starring Bill Murray) and my favourite Christmas music includes folky stuff by Kate Rusby and the Albion Christmas Band.

[2] https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/13-november/news/uk/the-c-of-e-must-evolve-for-growth-says-cottrell

Learning from Lockdown

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="10" max-font-size="72" height="80">Back in July, Bishop Keith (acting as diocesan bishop) wrote to clergy about a ‘Think Tank’ that he had set up, under the tag “<em>Learning and Leading out of Lockdown</em>”. The idea came from a meeting of rural deans (via Zoom, of course) asking the question, “What is God saying to us through this pandemic?”Back in July, Bishop Keith (acting as diocesan bishop) wrote to clergy about a ‘Think Tank’ that he had set up, under the tag “Learning and Leading out of Lockdown”. The idea came from a meeting of rural deans (via Zoom, of course) asking the question, “What is God saying to us through this pandemic?”

The Think Tank produced some resources for reflection and discussion which have been circulated. Bishop Keith, commending the resources to us, was very keen to emphasise that, given the exhaustion and weariness that many were feeling, this might not be the most productive time for reflection. “It’s not just something to add to your ‘to do’ list,” he said. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that that was exactly what it was!

Given that the resources were sent out in July – and we now find ourselves in November still facing huge uncertainties about what the future holds – it seemed too soon. It still does. How can we reflect on something while we are still in the middle of it?

Even earlier (13 May), I had joined an online training session, organised by CPAS, called “Leadership in Lockdown” as I thought it might help me to think through what we were facing. Webinars via Zoom were fairly new to me, but I was able to get the technology to work. I had expected to sit looking at my screen, perhaps making a few notes, but I was quickly introduced to a new horror: the ‘breakout room’! If you have ever attended any kind of training session, you’ll know that the scariest part is when the leader says, “Just turn to the person next to you and say what you feel about this…” I didn’t know they could do that on Zoom! But there I was, face-to-face (on-screen at least) with someone I had never met before – a vicar from somewhere else in the country – expected to talk about what I was learning from the pandemic. I have to admit, I can’t really remember what my Zoom partner said. But I remember what I said. I said, “Well my wife was ill… and I was ill… and my mum died from COVID19…” My poor Zoom partner!

The following day we went to Gloucester for mum’s funeral. It was one of those restricted coronavirus funerals where only a very few mourners were allowed to attend. Sadly, even my dad wasn’t there because he too had been taken ill and was in hospital where he tested positive for COVID19. As some of you will know, when we returned from the funeral later that day, Rose (my wife) took a call from the home where her father was, saying that he was now quite poorly and that they were concerned about him. Restricted visiting meant that Rose agonised about going to see him (meaning that her brother and sister would not be allowed to) but she did, the following day. She set up a video call with her siblings, and he died while she was there. We attended another very limited funeral.

So, remind me: what was I supposed to be doing? Oh yes, reflecting and learning from lockdown; asking, “What is God saying to us through this pandemic?”

On 17 March, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to all Church of England clergy, following Government guidance, to advise that:

Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold.

I’m told that this was the first time since 1208 that Church worship in England had been suspended! (In 1208, Pope Innocent III put England under an interdict when King John rejected his choice for Archbishop of Canterbury.)

It wasn’t that the church was to “shut up shop” but that we were to find ‘new ways of being church’ without being able to access our buildings. Now that sounds quite interesting to me: I have always felt that our buildings were as much a drain on our resources as they were an asset. So, what ‘new ways of being church’ would we find?

One thing we found was that we could live-stream services using Zoom and Facebook. Each week we learned something new. And each week something new went wrong! There was one Sunday morning when so many churches tried to log on to Zoom at the same time that Zoom gave up the ghost and refused to play. Imagine that: the church shutting down an online video service! On another occasion, we had no problem connecting to Zoom, but then Facebook refused to talk to Zoom and we were unable to go live.

During these weeks, a small group of us met (virtually, of course) on a Saturday to go through the following day’s service, allocating prayers and readings to different voices. This was something I really enjoyed and hope we might be able to incorporate in future services that are being live-streamed from church. We built up a camaraderie between us (forged in the heat of never knowing whether it was going to work or not!) and learned a little about leading worship remotely. One of my favourite moments came when one of our contributors came to read a prayer, but couldn’t see the words on her screen because it was behind the image of another contributor. I won’t reveal names, but it’s the first time I have ever heard a prayer introduced with the words, “I can’t see the prayer because x is in the way!”

 We are slowly re-introducing services in church, but, as I write, Warrington is about to go into the highest tier for COVID19 restrictions. It’s so difficult to plan ahead as we are constantly being given new guidance and new regulations. We have had to scale down so many of our activities. This month, November, is the month for remembrance – for the church, for families and for nations, as we mark All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance days. We will be doing those things but very differently from previous years. And who knows what Christmas will look like? I can hardly bear to think about it!

In order to give myself some space to think and reflect, I have spent a quiet day at Foxhill. The day was advertised as a time to ‘Refresh, Restore, Renew’. We began and ended with prayer in the chapel. Apart from that, it was mostly silent – even over lunch where we sat at socially distanced tables – so I managed to read most of a book called “Punk Monk”[1]. I won’t summarise the book here, but it begins with something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazi regime in 1945. He was thinking about what it would mean to follow Christ in the modern world. He called for a new form of monasticism, aware that in the past, the church and the world have been transformed by monastic communities. He wrote:

Bonhoeffer’s death in a concentration camp means that we only have the start of his thinking of what that would look like, but it’s a good start for our own thinking and prayer. What would church look like if, instead of buildings, ritual and liturgy, we were a community governed by Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount?

“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”

So, you see, I have been reflecting and learning from lockdown. I’m just not at all sure what I have learned! Perhaps you are doing better than me? What is God saying to us?

Every blessing,

Alan


[1] Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing, 2007 by Andy Freeman and Pete Greig

William and Margaret Owen

An article by Roger Bingham

Stretton Church has a silver memorial plaque to them on the 3rd pillar on the north side from the entrance to the church.  I periodically polish this as part of my church cleaning duty rota. I looked into who the Owens were, my interest being sparked by memories of Halsall Owen, grandson of William and son of Geoffrey.

All were architects in Warrington and William FRIBA (1846-1910} was the founder of the architects practice William and Segar Owen, who had premises in Cairo Street, and later in Museum Street, where I practiced dentistry from 1960 to1996.

William was born in Latchford in 1846 and died in Appleton in1910. He trained as an architect in Manchester and travelled in Europe, visiting Belgium and Holland as well as France and Switzerland.

He set up practice in Warrington in 1869.In 1896 he took his elder son Segar into partnership and their practice in 1896 was in No 4, Cairo Street Chambers and later in Museum Street.

They designed 28 houses and a factory in Port Sunlight for William’s close friend W H Lever. He accompanied Lever ( later Lord Leverhulme) in his search to find land to build a new soap factory and a Garden Village for the staff. He was the first architect employed by Lever and also designed buildings in Warrington such as  St. Barnabas’s Church ,Bank Quay in 1879,Warrington School of Art in Museum Street in 1883,the Parr Hall in 1895 and Warrington Technical School in 1900-1902  ( now San Lorenzo restaurant), the Mulberry Tree ,Stockton Heath (1907) and other pubs for Greenall Whitley and  various banks for Parr’s Bank (now part of Nat West.}

William married Margaret and had children Segar (1874-1929 ) and Geoffrey (1887-1965) Segar lived at Kelmscott, Firs Lane, Appleton(1906-1914); an Arts and Crafts style house now rebuilt and named “The Foxes”. I surmise that they also designed Stonecroft, Firs Lane and maybe William lived there. Other houses include Garnett House, Penketh (Garnett had a large furniture factory in Warrington) and Birchdale (for Robert Davies, a Warrington solicitor). in Appleton (later the hotel and now demolished and replaced by a block of apartments.)

William died suddenly in Warrington in 1910;He and Margaret are buried in the NE corner of St Matthews Churchyard together with Samuel, ( died 1884) and Halsall (died 1915 aged 34 )

 Segar continued the practice, being joined by Geoffrey and then Halsall, his son. Halsall did some work for me in 1972, including alterations to Hill Cliffe in Windmill Lane and I was always impressed as their practice was described as in “Warrington and London” which no doubt it was at one time .He and a Mr Welsby arranged for the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments to be engraved on the east wall behind the altar in the church.

Geoffrey was educated at Liverpool College and lived in Windmill Lane from 1912 to 1914. I knew him in 1961 as a tall ,elderly (! ) gentleman who had the next garage to mine in Museum Street; he always wiped his Morris Minor down if it was wet before putting it in the garage.

I gathered some of this information from the internet and from David and Margaret Hart, and there are images there of some of their designs, including a house, High Cliffe, Appleton. Where was this very large property? Does anyone know ?

Roger H Bingham 

How are you? #100daysoflockdown

So, how are you?

In normal times, that’s a question we ask without really expecting an answer. Or, without expecting a real answer.

I ask, ‘How are you?’ and your reply is ‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ I’m fine thanks.

But we’re not in normal times. We’ve passed 100 days of lockdown. #100daysoflockdown And the question, ‘How are you?’ has taken on a new significance. It has a new resonance.

Out for our daily walk, we see someone we haven’t seen for weeks or months and ask, ‘So, how are you?’ The question sounds different and the answer may take a lot longer than just, ‘Fine thanks, how are you?’  There’s more to say. Have we been ill, or have we managed to stay well? Have those close to us been well or have they struggled? Have we lost a friend or family member?

Again, we might end a conversation, or an email with the words ‘Take care’. It used to be a formula, it’s become something else, something deeper. We might replace it with ‘Stay safe’.

Lockdown is not a sprint but a marathon. You may know that many years ago I did the London Marathon. I’m no athlete, but it was something I wanted to do, so I put my mind to it. As part of the preparation, I completed the Great North Run, which is a half-marathon. Just 13 miles. When I got to the end of that, I felt good. But if you had asked me to jog back to the start, I couldn’t have done it.

In the picture our marathon runner is passing the 13-mile marker, the halfway point. One of the problems with lockdown, is we don’t know how are far through it we are. Near the end? In the middle? Or is this something we are going to return to, perhaps even live with for a long time? It’s not a sprint but a marathon, and marathons are exhausting.

What does Jesus say?

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11.28

In normal times, when I preach on this, I sometime say, “What else do you need to know?” You don’t need a sermon; you just need to hear Jesus saying these words to you.

Jesus talks about religious leaders whose religion is a burden on others. They themselves don’t lift a finger, but they place a burden on others (Matthew 23.4). If the demands of your religion are a burden to you, you didn’t get it from Jesus. Why do we allow others to weigh us down with burdens? Jesus says:

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11.30

Which is not to say that it’s all fun and games following Jesus! As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7.15-25), it’s often a struggle. But the struggle is between knowing we are loved and that what God wants for us is absolutely the best for us, and putting ourselves back at the centre of the universe because we think we know better. From Adam and Eve to St Paul and to us, that struggle continues. Because life is not a sprint but a marathon.

That’s why we need to hear the voice of Jesus saying to us today

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11.28

How are you?

Back in Time?

You may have seen some of this BBC 2 series in which a family is transported back in time to discover what life was like in previous decades. In the first programme of this series (Back in Time for the Weekend), the family home is transformed into a 1950s house. Deprived of all their 21st century technology, what will the family do for a whole weekend? How will the children entertain themselves without their smart phones and computer games? How will mum and dad cope with spending their leisure time learning how to ‘make do and mend’?

As well as learning to sew, ballroom dance and cook spam fritters in the open air, the family is exposed to one particular shock: on Sunday morning, they had to go to church! Why? Because that’s what families did in the 1950s and, to be honest, there wasn’t really anything else to do. The children attended Sunday school, where they learned the lesson of the Good Samaritan (from former Sunday School teacher, Anne Widdicombe, no less). In 1951, we learned, over half of children in the UK went to Sunday school each week, compared with 5% today. The experience seemed most difficult for mum, Steph. She couldn’t stay for the whole church service but had to walk out. She wasn’t against religion, she said, if that’s what people wanted to do with their time, but she struggled with the idea of having to do something she wasn’t comfortable with, in order to appear ‘respectable’. Sadly, in many ways, church culture hasn’t changed that much since the 1950s, even though the world around us has changed massively.

Each year in September, there is an initiative called ‘Back to Church Sunday’, aimed at encouraging people who have fallen away from church to attend a service. On Facebook, I jokingly put the question: “Does anyone know when ‘Back to Church Sunday is this year?’ Church attendance is something we have all had to give up and none of us yet knows when we will be able to go back to church.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on all of us, not least the church. Who knows what the long-term effect will be or what church will look like in the future?

Here’s the challenge: how will we encourage members of our communities to come back to church without requiring them to go back in time?

Why is the Dutch flag flying at St Cross, Appleton Thorn?

‘Dodenherdenking’

The Flag of the Netherlands on our church flagpole (May 2020)

In the Netherlands, the Remembrance of the Dead (Dodenherdening) is held annually on 4 May, the eve of the anniversary the liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945. It now commemorates all civilians and members of the armed forces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands who have died in wars or peacekeeping missions since the beginning of the Second World War.[1]

In the churchyard at St Cross, Appleton Thorn, are buried two Dutch airmen, flying officer (Officier-vlieger) Petrus Johannes HUIJER and Sergeant Aviator (Sergeant Vlieger) Alexander Joseph SMITH[2]. They were young Free Dutch[3] Naval Officers serving in the Fleet Air Arm, who trained at HMS Blackcap. They were killed when their planes collided over Budworth Mere on 15 March 1944[4], whilst practicing for the D Day Landings[5].

HMS Blackcap, or the Royal Naval Air Station, Stretton, was originally planned as a Royal Air Force night-fighter station to protect Liverpool and Manchester from Luftwaffe air raids during the Second World War. But changes in German tactics (to focus attention on Russia) meant that the airfield was not required, so it was transferred to the Admiralty on completion.

HMS Blackcap was commissioned on 1 June 1942 and forty-one Fleet Air Arm Squadrons were based there for varying periods, some aircraft being flown directly to and from aircraft carriers operating in the Irish Sea and other nearby waters.[6]

After the war, HMS Blackcap was home to the Fleet Air Arm’s Northern Air Division. The last operational Squadron based at Blackcap was 728B Squadron (FAA) who were formed in January 1958 and flew out of Blackcap on the 15th February 1958 en route to RNAS Hal Far, Malta.

HMS Blackcap was decommissioned on the 4th November 1958[7].

As well as the two Dutch airmen, St Cross churchyard also holds the graves of:

Wren Annie Elizabeth McCORMICK, of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, who was killed on 31 May 1943, along with two other Wrens and three naval air mechanics, when the truck they were travelling home in after a dance, crashed and overturned at Wrights Green. Annie’s funeral was held at St Cross, but the church wasn’t big enough to hold all the mourners who attended, and so the service was conducted at the war memorial[8];

Sub-Lieutenant James Watt BYRES, of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, died in July 1946, aged 20[9]; and

Flight Sergeant Thomas JONES, of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, who died in November 1943, aged 23[10].

Until very recently, the Manchester Branch of the Fleet Air Arm Association held a yearly remembrance service at St Cross for all those who served in HMS Blackcap. My predecessor, the Revd Canon Elaine Chegwin-Hall, is their chaplain. Sadly, numbers attending dropped year by year as the association said goodbye to shipmates, but on the first Sunday in June we continue to remember HMS Blackcap in our service at St Cross.

As well as the two Dutch Airmen, we also remember Paul Bosman. Paul, originally from Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, spotted the distinctive Dutch war graves at St Cross and asked if the church could hold an act of remembrance on 4 May. He and his son, David, adopted the two graves in 2013 – a custom in the Netherlands. Sadly, Paul died in 2019. His son, David, has asked us to continue the act of remembrance, which we are happy to do, and to remember Paul, and pray for his wife, Lyndy, and David.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remembrance_of_the_Dead

[2] https://www.cwgc.org/find/find-war-dead/results/?cemetery=APPLETON%20THORN%20(ST.%20CROSS)%20CHURCHYARD

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Dutch_Forces

[4] https://www.tracesofwar.com/sights/20161/Dutch-War-Graves-Appleton-Thorn.htm

[5] http://www.rafburtonwood.org/blackcap.html

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RNAS_Stretton_(HMS_Blackcap)

[7] http://www.rafburtonwood.org/blackcap.html

[8] http://www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk/WRNS_McCormick.htm#.XrAvTKhKiM8

[9] http://aircrewremembered.com/byers-james-watt.html

[10] http://www.rafcommands.com/database/wardead/details.php?qnum=85840

The grave-markers for the two Dutch airmen
St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn

Time Capsule

This year, February had an extra day – a Leap Day. It happened to be a Saturday, so what to do with an extra day? Some of us arrived at St Matthew’s dressed for action. After a safety briefing, we set about cleaning and clearing the place. Cobwebs and dust were dispatched. Hymnbooks and bibles were boxed. Paperbacks and surplus vases were taken to charity shops. Hassocks and cassocks were bagged. Henry the hoover worked harder than he has ever done in his life and Charlie the eagle was covered like a parrot in a cage. (Admittedly, he has always been quiet.)

Our work party – average age estimated to be between 70 and 72, incidentally – fortified by tea and biscuits, was getting the building ready for the next phase of its life. On Monday, the reclamation people came in. They removed the pews from the back of church (from the cross-aisle, westward), apart from a couple of smaller ones which were bought by individuals, and took up the floor in that area. Work on the first phase of our Big Welcome project had begun! We are creating a space that will be used for serving refreshments after services and during the week, and for Praise & Play and other groups and activities to use. In the longer term, we hope to have kitchen facilities, level access from the car-park, and a toilet, assuming that the funds are available. The plan is to use our beautiful building to give a big welcome to all.

The following Saturday, a similar group (with a similar age profile) came and, once again, got everything ready for the work that was to come. While we were there, someone looked at the void where the pews and floorboards had been and asked, ‘Have we thought about putting a time capsule in, before the work is finished?’ Being a resourceful sort of chap, I got on with it and ordered a waterproof stainless-steel canister, big enough to take some A4 pages, rolled up. And then I asked people what they would like to be put inside for future generations to discover.

The Time Capsule: my hand for scale!

Suggestions included

  • Photographs of the church before and during the work, of the area, and of people
  • A copy of the current church magazine and this week’s newsletter
  • The church history booklet, written by David and Margaret Hart (which includes a list of clergy up to and including yours truly)
  • A leaflet about the Big Welcome project
  • An aerial view of the parish
  • Children’s writing and pictures of what church means to them
  • A copy of my sermon (!)
  • An audio recording of the latest news.
  • A newspaper article about the current world (and the coronavirus being declared a pandemic)

I’m not sure we’ll have space for all of that, but I would like to include a letter from me to whoever finds it. I could say something about myself, the church and the parish. Who knows what they will make of it?

The work has been made possible by generous donations and fundraising. But we need to continue if we are to realise the vision we have for our building. I know people hate being asked to give money – it’s always the same people who get asked, and the same ones who usually respond! – but the reality is that we need to reach out to our community and to coming generations, or, sadly, our building will be little more than a museum piece. And we are not in the museum business.

 I am encouraged today by support from folk at St Cross, who are inviting donations from those who visit their art and craft exhibition, and by the 5th Appleton Brownies who raised money with a cake sale. The St Matthew’s Praise & Play families held a sponsored treasure hunt and are planning a disco. My thanks to all who have supported the project so far, and all who are planning to do so.

What do you think will happen to the church in our two parishes, and in the nation, in the time between the capsule being buried and it being discovered? (The manufacturers say its good for 200 years, so if it fails, I’m going to ask for my money back!) It’s easy to be pessimistic about the church’s future. Recent surveys suggest that 68 percent of Anglican churches in this country have five children or fewer on a Sunday. 38% of churches have no children at all. A small number of churches are doing really well, but attendance by under-16-year-olds is dropping faster than adult attendance (20% decline in the last 5 years for children, compared with a 12% decline for adults). What future is there for the church if we lose contact with children and their families?

Our time capsule at St Matthew’s is a little gift from us to the future. But we have something greater to give: a church that is alive and well, and in the business of welcoming all.

Alan Jewell