Saints and Souls

In the Church calendar, the first of November is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows. In the early church, when believers died for their faith, they were commemorated on the anniversary of their martyrdom. With an increasingly full calendar of saints’ days, and the possibility that there might be some Christian martyrs known to God but not to us, the Church added a celebration of all the saints, which at some point settled on 1 November. If ‘All Saints’ feels a bit like the Church’s ‘Hall of Fame’, what about those who have died whom we knew and loved, regardless of whether or not the Church might regard them as ‘saints’? For them, we follow All Saints’ with All Souls’ Day, a commemoration of the faithful departed. (In a more ‘catholic’ understanding, we might pray to the Saints and for the Souls!)

In practice, we will mark both All Saints’ and All Souls’ days on the nearest Sunday (3 November this year). In our morning services that day we will consider the example of the saints who have lived out their faith in their day – “lights of the world in their several generations” as the 1928 prayer book put it – and pray that we will have God’s grace to follow them in our lives. The day also reminds us that the Christian life is lived as “members of a company of saints whose mutual belonging transcends death”. In the evening, we remember and give thanks to God for “those we love but see no longer”, the ‘souls’ whose memory we treasure.

In my preaching on All Saints’, I often like to say that the ‘Hall of Fame’ view isn’t necessarily very helpful or biblical. Sometimes, the example set by saints in their own day doesn’t transfer well to our experience. Take Saint Simeon Stylites. He was born in about 390AD, the son of a shepherd in what is now Turkey. As a 13-year-old child, Simeon heard a sermon on the Beatitudes and “developed a zeal for Christianity”. At 16, he entered a monastery but his extreme austerity led his brothers to ask him to leave. He shut himself up in a hut for 18 months and apparently went through the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. He then moved to a mountain in what is now Syria; but even there he couldn’t escape from the crowds of pilgrims who came to ask for his counsel and his prayers.

So Simeon did what any of us might do. He spent the rest of his days out of reach on top of a pillar. There he could stand and pray, experiencing the scorching heat and numbing cold, kept alive by gifts of food sent up to him. He still couldn’t escape attention (some said he did it for attention!) and even emperors sought his counsel. Walls were built around his pillar to keep people away – especially women. (He wouldn’t even see his mother until after her death when her coffin was brought to him so he could say his goodbyes.) (See this article by Margaret Visser.)

As I said, sometimes the examples of the saints of history are not all that helpful. The second thing to note is that the New Testament doesn’t recognise a ‘Hall of Fame’ model of sainthood. In fact, we are all called to be saints (Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2). Many New Testament letters are addressed to “the saints” in a particular place (e.g. Ephesus, Philippi or Colossae) with no distinction between those who are doing a cracking job of it and those (the majority, I think) who were struggling. These ‘saints’ are not those who have died and passed on to glory. They are living out their calling in this world with an imperfect faith and the constant experience of ‘falling short of God’s glory’ (Romans 3.23). They will also catch glimpses of God’s grace and know that they have this “treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7). I also like to point out that the New Testament always uses the plural form – ‘saints’, never the singular, ‘saint’. In other words, being a saint isn’t something that we do on our own. It’s always something we do together. Which is why we have a church to belong to. God might occasionally call someone to live their Christian life atop a pillar, but I doubt that that would be true for many. No, we are called to be saints together, encouraging one another in the tricky business of living out our faith in a world that needs a demonstration of what love looks like. There are no solitary saints. Come to a church service near to you and get your encouragement to live out your calling to be a saint!

Alan Jewell

All Good Gifts Around Us…

In 1843, the Revd RS Hawker[1], a parish priest in Cornwall, decided to hold a service in church to give thanks to God for the harvest. Secular celebrations of ‘harvest home’ had long been held but Hawker is usually credited with beginning what we now know as the Harvest Festival – an annual service of thanksgiving in church. (Hawker, a poet, was also the author of the Cornish patriotic anthem, ‘The Song of the Western Men’, published anonymously in 1826.) He adapted the older tradition of Lammas or ‘Loaf Mass’, when, in thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest (at the start of August) a fresh baked loaf made from the harvest was presented as part of the eucharist. This had been a traditional celebration, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Hlafmaesse.

In the 1940s, there was an attempt to revive the old Saxon agricultural festivals, including Plough Sunday and Rogation Sunday. Plough Sunday is the first Sunday of Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas and a return to work – the plough and seeds would be blessed to ensure a good harvest. Rogation seems to have its origins in Graeco-Roman religion where processions were held to invoke divine favour and the protection of crops. (The Latin word rogare means to ask.) Christian processions around the parish boundaries were made with prayers for God to bless the land. Some parishes still ‘beat the bounds’ in the week before Ascension Day.

The Reformation tried to put an end to the more superstitious practices associated with the agricultural year, and to make a distinction between praying to God, the Creator, and pagan cults of fertility; but many local customs and festivals trace their origin back to some of these traditional commemorations, or at least to their revival in the Victorian and later eras (such as Walking Days and Bawming the Thorn). In 2006, the Church of England published resources for the agricultural year as part of Common Worship: Times and Seasons. This recognises that our scriptures (Jewish and Christian) “give eloquent expression to the creative power and wisdom of God.”

“It is therefore a natural instinct for worshipping communities to develop patterns of worship and prayer around the agricultural year.”

Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year

The cultures in which our scriptures were produced were ones in which people lived much closer to the land than most of us do today. The Jewish festivals with which Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar were closely tied to nature and the seasons. Our supermarket culture, in which we can buy strawberries at any time of the year, grown somewhere in the world and transported for us to pick off the shelves when we want, is a very modern phenomenon. We are very distant from the realities of seedtime and harvest. But in our day younger people, especially, are reminding us that human activity now endangers the very ecosystem that sustains our lives and that of the planet. Perhaps within our church year, we need to look more closely at our dependence on God our creator and the world we have been given to care for as stewards.

In October, we mark the harvest season with services in both churches. At St Cross, the harvest festival will be at 10.30am on Sunday 6 October, followed by a lunch in church. At St Matthew’s, there will be a harvest festival service at 10.30am on Sunday 13 October. In addition, we have a Church Family Harvest Extravaganza at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October.

Please come and join us for any of the above and let’s reconnect with the LORD our maker:

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

From Psalm 95

The Revd Alan Jewell


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hawker_(poet)


[i] Sources: Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year © The Archbishops’ Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing. The English Year, by Steve Roud © 2006, published by Penguin.

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