The Big Welcome

It’s five years since I became vicar in the Benefice of Stretton and Appleton Thorn. My institution took place in a service at St Matthew’s on 10 September 2014. Doesn’t time fly! If you have heard me speak about that occasion, you will know that my clearest memory is of getting whacked in the face with a bell rope. I was carrying out the new incumbent’s traditional job of tolling the bell to let the parish know that it had a vicar. I was determined to give it my best shot, as people say that the number of times the bell rings is the number of years that the vicar is planning to stay. To begin with, I couldn’t hear anything so I pulled a little harder until I knew that the bell was moving. I also knew, from watching Dave Allen on the tele, that church bells are capable of lifting you off the ground if you are not careful. What I didn’t realise is that, unless properly controlled, the rope can whip back and smack you about the face, which is what happened to me. The Archdeacon and Rural Dean were the closest witnesses: they saw the whole thing but were not injured in the process. To be honest, it was only my pride that took a blow, but it’s quite something to be welcomed with a slap in the face!

For someone whose youthful ambition was to be a rock guitarist, it’s also humbling to think that some of my favourite moments from my time here so far have involved not the guitar, but the ukulele. The guitar (especially the electric guitar) is a cool instrument. But no one ever looked cool playing the uke, and that’s part of its charm. It’s a fun instrument and it makes you smile. At Praise and Play in both churches, I enjoy sitting on the carpet at the front of church, and singing with the little ones and their carers. I have on one occasion played the uke at a wedding – at the Bride’s request – and once at a Baptism – at the child’s mother’s request.

The uke also features in another of my favourite regular activities, The Singing Kettle, where we meet once a month in the church hall and sing through some old favourites, mostly from the 1950s given the age of the audience and the musicians, but older and newer songs too.

You may also be aware that the past five years have not been without their struggles, both personally and professionally. I won’t dwell on that here, but I am happy to acknowledge the support that we have had, and I hope that the next five years will see progress and growth in the life of both churches.

At St Matthew’s, we have now launched the Big Welcome project. When I first made enquiries about the post here, I was interested to see that St Matthew’s had plans to develop the building, to make it more accessible and welcoming, not just for regular churchgoers but to the community we are called to serve. It is an ambitious undertaking and not everyone is persuaded, but the Chancellor of the Diocese issued the Faculty which gives us permission to do the work on the basis that the parish has

“demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed… (which) will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

With the permissions in place (from the Church and the Borough Council) it is up to us to raise the funds if the reordering is to go ahead – no easy feat, granted! At Walking Day, there was a presentation (by Eric and Kylie no less!) and display. We have had leaflets produced outlining what we hope to do and inviting people to show their support by returning a pledge card.

At its heart, I think this is a matter of what we believe the church to be and what we think we are here to do. I know that, like most churches in the country, we are struggling with numbers and with fabric and finance. (Both churches have had damage done to their churchyard walls within a matter of weeks!) But I don’t see any point in simply battening down the hatches waiting for the storm to blow over. We need to engage with our communities and I believe that the Big Welcome project is part of our vision to do that.

At the time of writing number of fundraising events and ideas are being planned – from mugs and pens, to a barbecue, quizzes and a band night. Please look out for details of these and support them if you are able.

I hope that you will return your pledge card, if you haven’t already done so, and commit yourself to pray, to work and to support the Big Welcome project.

Alan Jewell

Jesus Walks on the Water

(Mark 6.47-end)

Along with turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000, the idea of walking on water is one of the best-known stories about Jesus. Although, I suspect that football fans who claim that their hero ‘walks on water’ might not know where that idea comes from.

The story takes place in the evening and through the night. Immediately before this, Jesus has fed the five thousand. In Matthew, Mark and John, these two stories also go together. (Luke doesn’t include it.) John’s gospel (6.1-25) tells us that Jesus realised that, after feeding the crowd, they wanted to make him king, and that is why Jesus beats a hasty retreat. In Mark, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up on the mountain to pray (6.45, 46) The disciples – never mind the crowds – don’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is, so he needs to get away from their inappropriate expectations, and try to persuade them that his is the way of service and suffering, not of whipping up populist mob mentality.

While Jesus is alone, the disciples are out on the lake (the Sea of Galilee), crossing to the other side and struggling with the conditions, battling with the wind and the waves. It’s early in the morning (between 3 and 6am) and Jesus comes towards them, walking on the lake.

The idea of Jesus walking on water is a striking image. The disciples think they have seen a ghost. They are terrified! Jesus has to speak to reassure them:

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

In v48 we read that ‘He intended to pass them by’. It sounds as if Jesus did not mean to help them. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to them. Or maybe this is to remind us of the story of Moses (Exodus 33.12-23) who saw God’s glory pass by. (Jesus comes alongside them.)

We saw in last week’s gospel (Mark 4.35-end), Jesus calming the storm, that the sea in the Hebrew mind, represents chaos and danger. (The Hebrew word of water – mayim – comes from a root – mem – meaning chaos. So, creation and the flood…) Here, Jesus has sent his disciples into chaos! (“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) In the account of his stilling the storm, Jesus sleeps and castigates his disciples for their lack of faith. Here, he appears to be passing them by. But he gets into the boat and the wind ceased. Jesus brings order to the chaos.

I said last week that Jesus doesn’t promise to calm every storm in your life. But he does promise to calm you in the storms that surround you. We may say, with the disciples, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” We need to see Jesus walking towards us through the chaos, getting into the boat with us and saying:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

Breakfast on the beach

John 21.1-19

How do you know you’re in the right religion? For me, it’s when Jesus says,

“Come and have breakfast.”
(John 21.12)

That’s my kind of religion! (Grilled sardines on the beach: what could be nicer?)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus had often eaten with his disciples and with others. Often with the wrong sort of others – the tax-collectors and sinners. Unlike John the Baptist, who lived as an ascetic, surviving on locusts and wild honey, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34; cf. Matthew 11:18-19).

We know what Jesus said and taught about God; how he proclaimed God’s love in word and deed; but we also know that what he did – including eating and drinking with sinners – was a demonstration of the hospitality of God. Who is this man that eats and drinks with sinners? Well, if he’s God, that tells us something about who God is. God welcomes sinners. And that’s good news.

All of this comes together in the accounts of the Last Supper. In John, we read that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, acting as their servant; in Matthew, Mark and Luke (and in 1 Corinthians 11.23-34), we have the institution of the eucharist: Jesus takes bread and wine (food and drink) and shares it with his disciples saying, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. “Drink this…”

The risen Jesus is pictured eating with his disciples: on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple (Mrs Cleopas?) recognise him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24.13-34). That’s followed by an appearance to the disciples in which Jesus eats fish. Again, I know I’m in the right religion: in that story, the risen Jesus asks, “Do you have anything to eat?” (Luke 24.41)

And here, in John’s gospel, Jesus, by the sea of Tiberias, arranges a barbecue of fish and bread for his friends. (Tomorrow is a Bank Holiday, if you’re thinking of something similar!)

After breakfast, Jesus speaks with Simon Peter. Some resurrection appearances are to individuals (like Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and in Acts, to Saul), some to groups. This account goes from an encounter with seven disciples to a one-to-one with Simon Peter. Simon, the fisherman, had been called to discipleship after a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11). Jesus tells him “From now on you will be catching people” (v10). In this episode, Peter again recognises his Lord and responds to his call. The haul of fish probably represents the church that Peter and the others will establish. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, is given the opportunity, three times, to declare his love for Jesus. And he is given a job to do. He will feed and tend the Good Shepherd’s lambs and sheep. But he will also glorify God in his death.

Discipleship is a full-time commitment. It is not a hobby, an interest. It is a life lived as a follower of Jesus Christ. For Simon Peter, it was a literal call to give up his life. For us, we are to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12.1).

In our communion service, we hear the invitation of Jesus to come and eat and drink with him. We take bread and wine and remember him. We also hear again his call to discipleship. As a church we are to demonstrate the radical hospitality of God, to eat and drink with sinners. We are to feed and tend the sheep that the Good Shepherd calls to himself.

  • Do we today hear that call to be disciples of Jesus?
  • As a church, are we prepared to live the radical hospitality of God?
  • How do we best express our calling to tend and feed the Good Shepherd’s lambs and sheep?

How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place

I’m writing this having seen those terrible images of the fire which has ravaged the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Today there is aerial footage of the extent of the devastation but that doesn’t match the shock of watching video of the spire collapsing. Someone has commented that the last time the 850-year old building suffered major damage was during the French Revolution, and that it survived two world wars largely unscathed. 500 firefighters attended, risking their own lives in order to save what they could of the building. It was said to be within 15 to 30 minutes of complete destruction.

A priest, Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, entered the building while the fire was raging in order to rescue precious relics held there.

And, bizarrely, while I am writing this, I answer the phone to someone from Lymm Fire Brigade. They want to arrange a visit to St Cross to arrange a safety inspection – today. I explain that it’s not a great time for me (it’s Holy Week) but hope that a churchwarden might be free to meet them.

The world’s reaction to the fire at Notre Dame has been swift and heartfelt. Pope Francis said:

Today we unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron said that Notre Dame would be rebuilt “more beautiful than ever”, hopefully within five years. “We can do it and we will come together,” he said. Billionaires and ordinary people around the world have pledged more than 5 million euros to support the rebuilding project, recognising that the cathedral is not just a house of religion, but a symbol of Paris and of France, and an icon that belongs to the world.

Others have expressed conflicting views: given the crisis we face over climate change and poverty, and the fact that people are still living with the consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 which claimed over 70 lives, how can the world justify spending such a huge amount of money on a mere building?

In our own small way, we face similar questions with our churches. Like parishes up and down the country, we have buildings which are much loved and valued, but we find ourselves faced with having to fund repairs and maintenance from the pockets of small congregations of ageing worshippers. While we can’t claim anything to match Notre Dame’s history – Henry VI of England and Napoleon Bonaparte were crowned there, and its where Joan of Arc was beatified – we do have our own stories. St Cross and St Matthew’s are the places where people have been christened and married, and where loved ones are remembered. People come to us for a Christingle service or on Remembrance Sunday. They visit the churchyard on Mothering Sunday. They want us to be there for their grandchildren to have those experiences too. Our buildings are not essential: the early church met in people’s homes. But they do stand as a visible symbol of our commitment to be here for our community (not just the congregation).

At St Matthew’s we have just held our annual meeting. Questions were asked – rightly – about the gap between our income and expenditure, and the costs of repairs to the roof and stonework (amongst other things). We had just received the news that our faculty application – the permission to go ahead with the proposed development of the building – had been granted. But how can we go ahead with a building project when we don’t have the money to mend the roof or pay the bills without dipping into our ‘savings’?

The answer to that question lies in the vision we have for the church. Is it a building that merely needs to be kept open for diminishing numbers of the faithful? Or do we see ourselves as having something to offer our community? How does our building express our faith and the desire to be open to those who live locally but don’t often turn up for regular services? The proposed reordering is about making our building more inviting and accessible by improved access and better use of the space for welcome and hospitality. The Chancellor of the Diocese (His Honour Judge David Turner QC) had to look at our proposals and the objections that were made to them. His job is to consider the impact our plans will have on the building (given its listed status) and the possible benefits to the mission and worship of the church. In particular, he has to ensure that we do no harm to the building’s historical and architectural character.

The Chancellor concluded that

“the parish has, in my judgement, demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed which is more than sufficient here to outweigh any minor architectural detriment. In most cases the changes will represent improvement.

In short, I have found the arguments for change persuasive here. These changes, I have no doubt, will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

So, we have permission to do the work. We now need the money and the will to proceed. We will be seeking grants for the project and fundraising (as we will for repairs). We need people to come together in support of our vision and mission; not just our regular worshippers but also the wider community.

Unlike Notre Dame, we don’t have billionaires queuing up to give us money. But we do have you. And that’s a great start!


Alan Jewell

Ruth’s Ordination at Chester Cathedral

Ruth writes:

On Saturday 2nd June I was ordained priest in Chester Cathedral. The service was very moving and emotional and was the culmination of my year here in Stretton and Appleton Thorn serving as a deacon. It was lovely to have the support of so many family and friends as I made my promises before the Bishop.

So what happens next? Well I’m still a Curate licensed to serve at St Matthew’s and St Cross and will continue to work alongside Alan, who is definitely still the Vicar of both parishes! But I am now able to preside at Holy Communion and conduct Weddings and I look forward to continuing my ministry in the churches and wider community.

Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to reflect on the ministry God has called me to. The Ordination Service includes a detailed explanation of the role of a priest:

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love.
Common Worship: Ordination Services. The Archbishops’ Council 2007

This is a daunting list of responsibilities and there have been moments when I wondered if I was up to the task! However, there are two things that have comforted and consoled me as I prepared for Ordination.

Firstly, during the Ordination service in response to the Bishop’s questions, I replied, “By the help of God, I will.” An important reminder that this can’t be done alone, by anyone, however gifted. I need the grace and power of God each day, because without Him I can achieve nothing.

Secondly, I am comforted by the last line of the quote above:

“With all God’s people, priests are to tell the story of God’s love.”

Sharing the story of God’s love isn’t a task reserved for those who have been ordained; it’s the responsibility of all baptized Christians. I can’t do this alone – in my own strength without God. I can’t do this alone – without you. We are in this together. So I ask for your prayers for me – as this next stage of my ministry begins to unfold. But also I pray for you too– that God’s surpassing power may be shown in your lives as you tell the story of God’s love to the world around you.

Revd Ruth Mock

Experience Easter

On the day before Palm Sunday, a group of church people, directed by Ruth Mock, came into St Matthew’s to prepare for ‘Experience Easter‘. They went to work with fabric and greenery, pebbles and props to create a series of six displays which were to be used to tell the Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. And a fabulous job they did, too – the church looks great!

‘Experience Easter’ came (like a lot of good things) from the Diocese of Gloucester as an attempt to engage children and adults with the message of Easter. We live in a world where, increasingly, people are not familiar with even the basic elements of the Christian story. ‘Experience Easter’, as its name suggests, it not just about telling the Easter story: rather it aims to get participants to ‘experience’ the dynamic of Holy Week and Easter in a journey through six ‘stations’.

  • Hopes and Dreams

We start with the ‘Hopes and Dreams’ of Palm Sunday. Those who take part in ‘Experience Easter’ are asked what they hope for, what they dream of. Some talk about their career ambitions – especially if they want to be a pop star or professional footballer. Others share their hope that a family member will recover from illness.

We tell them that the inhabitants of Jerusalem dreamt of a day when God would send a saviour to rescue them from their oppressors, the Roman Empire. Riding into the city on the back of a donkey, Jesus looks like a saviour – albeit an unlikely one. He is greeted as a king by cheering crowds. Going against everything we usually say to children when they come into church (‘be quiet!’), we invite the children to wave palm leaves and shout as the crowds did: HOSANNA! They process around the church and are then invited to sit (near the font) to hear about ‘The Servant King’.

  • Servant King

What kind of king did Jesus know himself to be? And how can a king be a servant? Jesus kneels in humility, like a lowly slave, and washes the feet of his disciples. We explain to the children that, in Jesus’ day, when you arrived at someone’s home you would do so on foot. Having walked through the hot, dusty streets – trying your best to avoid the ‘messages’ left by donkeys and other creatures – your sandaled feet would be in quite a state. Your host might instruct a slave to wash your feet before dinner. But who would choose such a job? In this station, the leader offers to wash the feet of one of the children taking part. (It’s a moving experience to be the person doing the washing.) Drying the child’s feet with a towel, we explain that Jesus said he was giving an example: that those who follow the Servant King should also serve. We ask the children to think how they might serve others.

  • Remember Me

In the next station, we gather around a table set for a meal – the last supper at which Jesus explains to his disciples that he will die, giving his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out. The station is called ‘Remember Me’ and we ask the children if they have something at home that reminds them of someone special. Children talk about photographs of pets and grandparents that have died. Others have precious objects, like a teddy or necklace that belonged to a family member. Jesus takes bread and wine, gives thanks to God, and shares them with his friends. ‘Do this’, he says, ‘to remember me.’ We give the children a small piece of pitta bread and some blackcurrant squash (no, not real wine!) to eat and drink, and invite them to remember something about Jesus.

  • Alone

After the meal, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane. There he wrestles with the agony of what he must face. But his friends can’t even stay awake to support him and one of them will betray him. This station is called ‘Alone’. Children from Year 3 at the school had prepared poems about loneliness and they show a deep and moving appreciation of what it feels like to be lonely. In our Garden of Gethsemane, we read words of scripture that Jesus may have thought about: how God is always with us, even in our darkest hours and that, with God in our lives, we are never alone.

  • Sharing our Sorrows

Next, we move to the Cross. As you can imagine, this is a difficult subject for all of us, never mind primary school children. But even young children have the capacity to engage with difficult things. We ask them to sit in silence, holding a small cross, and looking at the wooden cross which stands in the pulpit, draped with red fabric. We ask them to share what the scene makes them think or feel. A number of them talk about the sadness, to think that Jesus died in pain. We explain that the station is called ‘Sharing Our Sorrows’ as we think of how God comes into our world with all its darkness and brokenness to share our lives, sorrows and all. We invite the children to bring their thoughts and prayers (and the crosses they have been holding), and to leave them at the foot of the cross before moving on.

  • Resurrection

     

If this was a Holy Week service for adults, we might end there and invite people to come back to church on Easter Sunday to hear the next part of the story. But we don’t do that with children; we don’t leave them with the sadness of the cross. The final station is, of course, ‘Resurrection’. We have a beautiful Easter garden with an empty tomb set up in the sanctuary of the church and invite the children, like those women on the first Easter day, to look into the tomb. What do you think those women felt? Afraid? Worried? Excited?

‘Experience Easter’ ends with the children being given time to ask questions and to look again at the six stations that tell the story. They are also given a small chocolate egg to take away and challenged to remember, when Easter comes and they open their Easter eggs, the story that they have shared through ‘Experience Easter’.

Many thanks to those who created the six stations and to those who have loaned items to decorate them. Everyone who comes into church will appreciate what has been achieved. ‘Experience Easter’ is a wonderful thing and I hope we will be able to repeat it in future years.

I’m writing this in Holy Week: for me, the full experience of Easter still lies ahead. But our prayer is that many visiting the church for an Easter service, or simply coming in to look around at the stations, will experience the Easter message for themselves: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world for good.

Happy Easter!

Alan Jewell

Love Is In The Air…

This year, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, falls on 14th February, otherwise known as St Valentine’s Day. This may cause problems for devout romantics as we try to reconcile our Lenten discipline with the extravagance of love… (Maybe transfer your Valentine’s celebration to the day before and take your beloved out for pancakes?)

We will be marking the start of Lent (on Valentine’s Day!) with a service of Holy Communion, with the imposition of Ashes, at St Matthew’s at 7:30 PM on Ash Wednesday. Then, on the following Wednesday evenings during Lent, we will have our usual service of night prayer (also known as ‘Compline’). If you have never been to one of these, I recommend them: it’s a short service (about 25 minutes) of quiet reflection and prayer.

I am also hoping that we will have enough takers for a Lent Course. This will probably be held on Tuesday evenings at the vicarage. If you are interested, let me know and I will confirm the details for you.

For the romantics, with thoughts of love around this time, we are again holding our Weddings Afternoon at St Matthew’s. It will be at 2:00 PM on Sunday 11th February – the nearest Sunday to St Valentine’s Day. As in previous years, we have invited couples who have booked weddings at St Matthew’s to attend but the occasion is open to anyone who would like to join us. I’m sorry to say that we have very few weddings currently booked – there are just 4 at St Matthew’s and 2 at St Cross for the whole of 2018.

The dearth of weddings being planned may make you wonder whether love is, actually, all around or not. Of course, people still fall in love and get married. But increasingly, they don’t make the connection between romance and family life, and what the church has to offer. The most recent statistics show that only a quarter of weddings (26%) include a religious ceremony. These days, the choice that couples have is greater than ever – from hotels to stately homes and other venues. The Christian Church needs to make more of the fact that the very heart of our message is love:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4.16).

Making that connection – between the love of God and people’s daily lives is our constant challenge – demonstrating that our faith in the God who is love makes a positive difference to the lives that we lead.

One of the problems with Lent is that it might look like we are not really good enough for God; that we have to improve our lives before God will find us acceptable. But that is not the message of the Gospel. Before his public ministry begins, Jesus is baptised by John in the river Jordan. As he comes out of the water, he hears a voice from heaven:

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

This is before Jesus has done anything! Before his public ministry of teaching and healing; before his miracles; before his death and resurrection. Before any of that, God affirms that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and that God is already pleased with him!

As we make our journey through Lent and as we celebrate the love that we have for one another, maybe we need to hear God’s affirming word to us:

You are my child. I love you. I’m pleased with you!

And on that basis, let’s get on with loving God and loving one another. Not in order to win God’s favour but in simple gratitude for knowing ourselves loved. We need to know that love is, actually, all around!

Alan Jewell