Mothering

In a Strange Land

In a pub quiz at some point in the future, the host will ask, ‘in what year did the Tokyo 2020 Olympics take place?’ At the time of writing, the answer looks like it might be 2021, but that’s still uncertain. In a future church quiz, the host will ask, ‘in 2020, which was the first church service to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?’ The answer to that is the one that was planned for Mothering Sunday on 22 March 2020.

In other words, it’s been nearly a year since the Prime Minister took the remarkable step of announcing that churches would have to close. The Church of England followed this by confirming that church buildings would be closed for services, including weddings and baptisms, and that funerals would only be able to take place at crematoria or at the graveside, not in church buildings.

A lot of legislation, guidance, and instructions, followed. At times it seemed as though the advice changed daily, and we got used to waiting for the next announcement from the Prime Minister and his advisors, followed by statements from the Church about how to put all this into practice. At first, the new rules were in place for a period of three weeks, and here we are, a year later, having been through various levels of lockdown and restrictions. We might think of this experience as one of ‘exile’. Like the psalmist, lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, who asks

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137.4

We have been living in a strange land. It’s difficult to get this past year into perspective. We very quickly got used to describing things as ‘unprecedented’ (although, as I have noted elsewhere, humanity has lived through many existential threats in its history. It’s just that we modern folk in the developed world had got used to a relatively secure existence.) We took to online worship and discovered new ways of doing things. No one had heard of Zoom, and now here we are, Zooming away to our hearts’ content. (Recently, during a streamed service of Compline for Lent, my Zoom crashed and had to be restarted in the middle of the prayers. Sadly, I missed the opportunity to announce that ‘normal service will be re-zoomed as soon as possible’.)

We’ve got used to hand-washing, face-covering, and social distancing. We stay at home unless we have to go out, and we go out for walks in every kind of weather, if we are able. Over on social media there are still people arguing that COVID19 is a hoax, or manmade, and that government rules are designed to limit our freedom in order to implement some diabolical global plan (funded by Bill Gates, apparently). (These are the same people arguing that the moon landings were faked and that the earth is flat.)

In the mainstream media, there are arguments about how the pandemic should be handled and about how and when we are going to recover. There are also arguments about what the church should have done and what it should do now.

Mother Church

The pandemic has clearly had a massive impact on the church. Not least because so many of our most faithful supporters and generous givers are in the age group which has been most affected. The pandemic has brought into the light some trends that were well underway before the coronavirus struck. You may have seen in the media that the Diocese of Chelmsford is planning to cut clergy posts and is appealing for more funds to support clergy numbers. The pandemic may have accelerated that process, but I understand that the Chelmsford diocesan board of finance was saying back in 2017 that the shortfall in parish share (the money that parishes give to the diocese to support mission and ministry) would “consume all the diocesan reserves by 2020”. Similar situations exist in other dioceses. As far as I know, there are no plans in Chester diocese to make clergy redundant or to close churches, but it does seem likely that, when clergy retire, or move on, their replacement will take longer to arrive, if at all.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have responded to media speculation with an article in The Spectator magazine which was headed ‘A defence of the Church of England’. (Some will be quick to point out that Stephen Cottrell, who became Archbishop of York in July 2020, was, before that, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the diocese referred to above.) The Archbishops note that, in media coverage of the pandemic, you might have seen the question, ‘Where is the C of E?’. They offer an answer:

We have been burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry and praying for our nation. We have been doing this not as superheroes, but as human beings living through the same crisis as everyone else: grieving, home-schooling, worrying, getting sick, shielding, isolating, weeping.

My own experience of the pandemic has included bereavement – my mother died from COVID19 very early on. My father was hospitalised and unable to attend her funeral. (I have written about this in my personal blog.) I have also had anxiety over loved ones who have been ill. I have had the frustration of not being able to visit family in this country and abroad; of children and grandchildren that I can see on a screen but not hold or hug.

In my ministry there have been so many things that I have not been able to do, or have had to do differently, from livestreaming worship to conducting funerals at the graveside, having only spoken to the families by phone or video call.

The Archbishops talk about their shock at reading what the media say is happening to the Church and they try to set the record straight:

There are no plans to dismantle the parish network. We are committed to our calling to be a Christian presence in every community.

They point out that, while some churches have closed, over 100 new congregations and churches have been planted in recent years. The Church is committed to maintaining its presence in the poorest parts of the country and in rural areas. Although there are large numbers of clergy retiring, this year has seen “the biggest rise in ordained and lay vocations for a quarter of a century.”

Of course, the Church faces huge challenges – as it did before the pandemic – including the maintenance of its buildings and the financial cost of sustaining mission and ministry across the whole country. The most recent financial report for the Church of England is from 2019 (pre-COVID). This shows that, in nearly half of the parishes in the country, annual income is not enough to cover annual expenditure. Only a quarter of parishes have enough annual income to cover five extra weeks of expenditure. The biggest item of expenditure is, of course, parish share.

A piece in the Church Times points out that we find ourselves in a new place:

there has never been a time in the Church’s history when either the organisation or the buildings were funded on a democratic basis by the people in the pews.

In other words, in the past the Church of England was funded in part by rich benefactors and in part by tithes imposed on the less wealthy. The situation now is that, if we want to continue as a national, parochial, church, the funding has to come from “purely voluntary, deliberate giving by ordinary parishioners”. And that is a shock to the system!

In our two churches, we face huge issues, but we are not alone.

Mothering Sunday

I began by saying that our current experience of ‘exile’ started with Mothering Sunday in 2020, and here we find ourselves approaching that occasion again. In my sermons for Mothering Sunday, I usually point out that the Christian festival has all but been overtaken by the secular celebration of Mothers’ Day. But in church our thoughts are not just with mums but also with our ‘mother church’. Traditionally, people would visit the church where they were baptised (their ‘mother church’) or the cathedral (the ‘mother church’ of the diocese). Young girls in service would be given the day off and this would mean they were able to visit family, including their mothers.

Mothering Sunday falls mid-Lent on a day also called Laetare Sunday. ‘Laetare’ is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ and is taken from the traditional texts set for the fourth Sunday of Lent. Isaiah 66.10, 11 tells God’s people to ‘Rejoice with Jerusalem’ and pictures Jerusalem as a nursing mother to her children. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul takes up the story of Abraham and his descendants. We are Abraham’s spiritual children, and our ‘mother’ is the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4.21-31).

The traditional gospel reading for Laetare Sunday is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This became associated with a relaxation of strict Lenten fasting and the day was also called ‘Refreshment Sunday’. Gifts of cakes and buns were made for Mothering Sunday to be given to parents. Simnel cake became particularly associated with this tradition.

At the time of writing, we are starting to hear of the proposed roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions. The success of the UK’s vaccination programme provides a glimmer of hope, but we are all warned that the road ahead must be travelled slowly and cautiously.

The twin focuses of Mothering Sunday – family and church – are both going to be affected by restrictions, this year at least. We live in hope that next year we will be in a better place. But as things stand, both family and church could do with a bit of love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

February sees us marking Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: both ultimately to do with love and both affected by the current pandemic. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, which would have been perfect for the weddings afternoon that we have held at St Matthew’s for a number of years. We should have been inviting couples who have booked weddings with us to a meeting in church with the prospect of a glass of fizz and the opportunity to talk about the plans for their big day. It has always been an enjoyable occasion as we have welcomed couples, and their guests, and shared their excitement.

25 people attended last year’s event – brides and grooms, bridesmaids and best men, mums and dads. We offered them a cup of tea and a piece of cake, showed photographs of weddings from previous years, played the bridal march, and interviewed some returning couples who said – without being bribed and with very little prompting – what a fabulous wedding ceremony they had had at St Matthew’s. ‘Perfect’, was the word they used.

We also had bellringers, flower arrangers, a musician, a warden, and a verger, to talk about what they could offer to make each wedding personal and special.

In the end, of the six weddings booked at St Matthew’s for 2020, only one actually took place – a much-reduced ceremony postponed to Christmas Eve for a couple determined to get married whatever the circumstances! The wedding was very different from what they had originally envisaged, but it was nonetheless a very special and memorable occasion.

At the start of 2021, we have a number of couples looking anxiously at the restrictions in place and wondering if, by the time their wedding day comes around, they will be able to celebrate as they hoped, or if they will have to postpone yet again.

Lent, Holy Week and Easter

The Church of England has also published advice on how to mark Lent, Holy Week and Easter in a COVID-secure way. Ash Wednesday – which falls on 17 February this year – has traditionally been marked by a service including the Imposition of Ashes. This is usually done by the priest making the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead in a mixture of ash (made from last year’s Palm crosses) and oil. But how do you do that safely in a pandemic where social distancing is prescribed? The guidance suggests sprinkling the ash on the forehead; but I don’t see that going well: worshippers will be getting it in their eyes, on their clothes, up their noses and everywhere. I’m not sure it’s something we can do in a dignified manner. So, maybe the imposition of ashes is one of the things we’ll have to give up for Lent this year?

What’s Love got to Do with it?

I started by saying that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were both ultimately to do with love. Valentine’s Day celebrates romantic love. It was originally a Christian festival honouring a martyr (or two) of that name who possibly performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Of course, the saints’ feast day falls in Spring when, according to the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. The romantic associations of Valentine’s Day ensure the sales of cards, chocolates and flowers, and make it hard to get a table in a restaurant, at least in a normal year.

But turning to Ash Wednesday, and paraphrasing Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” Most churchgoers associate Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and being tempted by Satan. Lent, however, has varied in length through its history and was associated with solemn preparation for Easter, particularly by those who were to be baptised and those seeking to be reconciled to the church. The practice of abstinence, prayer, and study recommended itself to other Christians and became a part of the Church’s year. If you do decide to follow some Lenten observance, starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Eve (or Holy Saturday), then have a look at your calendar: you’ll see that it adds up to 46 days. How do we reckon the 40 days of Lent? Well, obviously, as I am fond of pointing out, Sundays don’t count! Why? Because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, a little Easter. It’s a day for feasting (in moderation, of course), not fasting.

But what’s love got to do with it? The bible tells us that

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life

John 3.16

This self-giving of God shows us what love looks like. Our loved-up wedding couples are just one example of what love can do. It changes lives. Jesus shows us what love looks like taken to the infinite degree. He holds nothing back but gives his all for the world he loves. The story of Good Friday is the story of love without limit. The Easter gospel of resurrection shows us that a love like that knows no bounds. It is eternal.

Love in the time of coronavirus may feel in short supply, particularly for those who live alone; or for those who share a home with someone they don’t love, or who doesn’t love them. But we hold on. We hold on to our conviction that, at the end of the day, love wins.

Perhaps the saint for our times is Julian of Norwich (1342 to 1416). Mother Julian lived in the wake of the Black Death and was – as we would say today – self-isolating in a small cell linked to St Julian’s church in Norwich. She experienced a world devastated by plague, and her own sickness led her to believe that she was on her deathbed. Into this darkness came the light of Christ, in the form of visions (‘shewings’ or revelations) of God’s love, demonstrated particularly in the passion of Christ.

In one vision, Julian sees something no bigger than a hazelnut, sitting in the palm of her hand. What is it?, she asks. She is told that this everything that God has made. She is amazed and concerned by its littleness and fragility. How can something so tiny and so vulnerable survive? The answer?

It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

Mother Julian sees God’s creation as loved and sustained by God.

How shall we see our world? The world glimpsed only through windows if we are shielding. The world we encounter on our daily walk (if we are able to get out). The world seen through fogged-up glasses (if we wear them with a mask). The pandemic reminds us just how fragile our world is.

Before AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and now covid-19, it was tuberculosis, the plague, cholera, typhoid, and influenza that cut swathes through the populations of the world. Perching like puffins on the cliff edge is the historically normal situation for humanity, but we had forgotten.

The precariousness of our existence is an uncomfortable thing to dwell on. But we have come through a year in which there were tens of thousands of excess deaths in the UK, and we are not through yet. Julian believed that our fragile world was created and is sustained by divine love. So I will give the last word to her, finding light in the darkness:

but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well

Alan Jewell

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

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

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

Pressing On

Some years ago, I had a phone call from a parishioner. He worked for one of the utility companies and wanted to know if I could help him with the date of Easter. He was preparing for a meeting and needed to know when Easter would fall over a number of years as it has a bearing on the demand for electricity. There was no Google in those days, so I took down my copy of the Alternative Service Book (1980) and was able to find the information he was looking for. It’s not often that I am able to provide such a useful service!

The calculation which gives us the date of Easter each year is beyond my simple brain, but it has something to do with full moons and the vernal equinox. (Not the actual full moon or equinox, of course, but ecclesiastical ones… Don’t ask me!) I gather that Easter can fall on any date between 22 March and 25 April. This year, Easter Day is 21 April, which is fairly late.

It’s slightly easier to calculate the date of the Annual Parochial Church Meeting: it has to be held not later than 30 April each year. At St Matthew’s, this year’s meeting will be held in church after the morning service on Sunday 14 April. At St Cross, the meeting follows the service on 28 April. Anyone whose name is on the church’s electoral roll is entitled to attend the meeting and take part in its proceedings. It’s worth saying here that, if you wish to have your name entered on the roll for either church, you must fill in an application form. If you have been on the roll before, that doesn’t count as this is one of the years when a new roll is prepared, and your details will not be carried over. Application forms are available from either church and each church has an Electoral Roll officer: at St Matthew’s, it’s Richard Johnson and at St Cross it’s Sandra Bates. If you want further information, please ask.

You may wonder why you would want to have your name on the church electoral roll. There aren’t many benefits, it has to be said! But it is one way of declaring your faith. You are identifying yourself as a Christian who belongs to a particular Anglican church – St Matthew’s or St Cross in our case.

But the Church of England is not really a ‘membership’ organisation. Anyone who lives in the parish is a parishioner – not just those who go to church. Of course, baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the life of the Christian Church. If you are baptised, you become a member of the Church (the catholic – or worldwide – church, not just the Church of England). In Anglicanism, confirmation is usually seen as an opportunity to confirm your baptismal faith – particularly if you were baptised as an infant – and to have your faith confirmed by the Bishop. But, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said:

“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Having your name on the church electoral roll, taking part in its annual meeting, perhaps even putting your name forward to serve as a member of the Parochial Church Council or as a Churchwarden, are all ways in which we can serve our parish – including those who are not church members. At a time when church attendance is declining, and many organisations find their membership numbers falling, the importance of us identifying ourselves as Christians is crucial. I’m writing this before Lent, a time when many Christians look again at what it means to identify themselves with Jesus Christ, to walk in his footsteps in preparation for our celebration of the resurrection.

At our annual meetings – either side of Easter, this year – we long to see signs that our churches are alive, made of people who identify with Jesus, in his death and resurrection, knowing the power of his love. As we read in the letter to the Philippians:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

Philippians 3:10-12

At your baptism, you were baptised into Christ Jesus, his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). In confirmation, you made a public commitment to the faith into which you were baptised. By joining the electoral roll, you identify yourself as an active, worshipping member of a particular congregation. And in all of this, we “press on” because Christ Jesus has made us his own.

I wish you well as you press on in your journey through Lent towards Easter!

Alan Jewell

‘Mystery Worshipper’

Back in the late 1970s, there was a quirky Christian magazine called Ship of Fools. It didn’t last long in print form but resurfaced as a website on April Fools’ day 1998. One of its regular features is a report from a ‘Mystery Worshipper’. Like the ‘mystery shoppers’ who go into department stores and report back on the service they experience, the Mystery Worshipper attends a church and writes about what they find. The Mystery Worshipper records everything from the welcome they got on arrival, the style of worship, and the length and quality of the sermon, to the coffee served afterwards.

It’s quite difficult to be a Mystery Worshipper when you’re wearing a clerical collar and there’s a seat at the front that’s reserved for you, but occasionally I get the opportunity to attend a service as a regular punter. We were able to do this after Easter, when we were on holiday in Australia. Now to be fair, when I’m on holiday, I don’t always go to church. Shocking, I know, but sometimes it’s nice to luxuriate on a Sunday morning with coffee and pastries. On this occasion, however, we managed to stir ourselves in time to catch the train into Melbourne city centre and arrive for the main morning service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.

St Paul’s is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and the Province of Victoria, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Melbourne, who is Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia. (Fun fact: the word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra which means a ‘seat’. The cathedral is where the bishop’s seat is located, from which the bishop teaches and presides over the diocese.) From its service sheet, we learn that St Paul’s is “home for worshippers from more than two dozen nations” and is situated on the traditional lands of the Aboriginal Kulin nation. On the sheet and verbally in the service, respect was paid to “the traditional owners of the land”.

The service we attended was 10:30 AM Choral Eucharist. As we were there on the Sunday after Easter, the cathedral choir was on holiday. The music, however, was ably lead by the Cathedral Consort – which I guess is the ‘B Team’, but very good they were. The music ranged from a 16th century anthem by Orlandus Lassus, and pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis (1959) to hymns by Charles Wesley and John Bell, a good catholic mix.

The service was led by the Precentor, the Revd Canon Heather Patacca. The preacher should have been the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, but, we were told, he was off sick. Instead, we were to hear one of the assistant clergy, whose regular responsibility was for the 9:00 AM ‘Family Friendly’ Eucharist. I was looking forward to the sermon because I wanted to see how a ‘family friendly’ priest would address the Choral Eucharist congregation, but I was disappointed that, instead of speaking her own words, she simply read the text of the Dean’s prepared sermon. The sermon ended dryly with, “the Dean would like to invite you to consider…” In their defence, the Dean had prepared a series of addresses on the Gospel of John for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and this was presumably a follow-up to that, as the gospel reading was from John (20:19-31 – Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and then to Thomas). In my humble opinion, a sermon is not a text that can be read, but something that happens when the preacher and the congregation work together, and, as they say in certain circles, “God shows up”. I’m happy to elaborate on this if requested!

When we turned to the Lord’s Prayer, we were each invited to say it in our own language. As we were in Australia, most of the worshippers spoke English, but the service sheet gave the opening words to the prayer in French, Spanish, German, and, what I later learned were Malay, Maori, Chinese and Japanese. This was an interesting expression of the cathedral’s emphasis on the diversity of its congregation. It was also good to share the Peace with those around us.

The invitation to communion was inclusive (“all baptised Christians”) and came with a word to the wise: “Please keep your valuables with you”.

I’m afraid we didn’t stay for coffee – or ‘Morning Tea’ as the Australians call it – not because we didn’t feel welcome, but because the sun was shining, and we wanted to be outside. We enjoyed brunch at a riverside café instead.

One of the things that caught my attention at the cathedral was their use of ‘Tap and Go’ technology: their collection plates are fitted with a device that reads credit cards and automatically takes a donation of $20, which, they say, is the average weekly contribution made by their worshippers. As well as on the collection plates, ‘Tap and Go’ devices were located in various places around the cathedral. It’s a thought! (But if we install those in our churches, what amount should they be set to ask for?)

In the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper reports, there are a few questions which must always be answered:

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me, as so often, it was the music, particularly the Benjamin Britten and the anthem.

And which part was like being in… er… the other place?

Nothing really, although, as I said, listening to someone reading a sermon they haven’t written, doesn’t do a lot for me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, it was good to feel at home so far from our actual home.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?

Probably the ‘Tap and Go’ technology.

Alan Jewell

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

Remembrance

November is the month for remembrance. In the church calendar, we mark the festivals of All Saints and All Souls. In the former, we remember the heroes of the faith, recognized by the church for their outstanding example. In the latter, we remember all those “we love but see no longer”.

On 11th November, Remembrance Day, we think particularly of those who have died in the line of duty during two world wars and subsequent conflicts.

Remembrance Sunday falls on 12th November this year. As well as the usual morning services and acts of remembrance at both churches (10:15 AM at St Cross and 10:30 AM at St Matthew’s), we are planning a special evening service at St Matthew’s at 6:30 PM.

This year marks the centenary of a number of key events in the First World War, such as the Battle of Passchendaele. With this in mind, I have been looking at the poetry of GA Studdert-Kennedy in order to prepare an act of worship and reflection. Studdert-Kennedy was a vicar in Worcester when war broke out in 1914. He volunteered and went to the front line as a chaplain, where his practice of handing out cigarettes earned him the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’.

He was awarded the Military Cross for his services. His citation read:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

As well as a chaplain, ‘Woodbine Willie’ was a poet. His collection, “The Unutterable Beauty“, from 1927, has recently been re-published. He writes from a Christian perspective of the horrors of war, seen at first hand. His work is thoughtful and moving, bringing together the faith of a Christian priest and the questions of someone caught up in bloody warfare.

As well as poetry, the service will include hymns and readings, and I think will provide an opportunity for prayer and reflection in the spirit of remembrance.

I hope you can join us and I look forward to seeing you,

Alan Jewell

The Commemoration Service

Please join us at St Matthew’s at 6:30 PM on Sunday 5th November for our All Souls Commemoration service. As usual, we have particularly invited families who have arranged funeral services with us in the past year or so to attend, but the service is for all of us who have lost loved ones, whether recently or not.

Thanks to Geoff Buchan, we have a beautiful new book of remembrance which will be in church if you wish to add names to be included in the prayers during the service. (Please write clearly as we have to sight-read them!)

The service will include suitable hymns, readings and prayers, and a sermon. Please come and invite others who might find it helpful.

Thy Kingdom Come

Prayer. It’s one of those things we know Christians are supposed to do but perhaps we don’t find enough time or energy for. Or perhaps we are stuck with the same words we used as children:

“God bless mummy. God bless daddy…”

Or perhaps we think that praying is best left to the professionals: after all, that’s what vicars are for, isn’t it?

Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. His answer was to give them the words we call the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Our Father’. Some have called this prayer ‘a summary of the whole gospel’. Others note that whatever differences of belief and practice divide us, The Lord’s Prayer is said by Christians of all traditions and denominations.

In Matthew’s gospel a slightly longer version of the prayer is given as part of Jesus’ teaching that we call the Sermon on the Mount: here the context is a warning against thinking that God is likely to be impressed by the many words we might use in prayer. Keep it simple, Jesus says, and don’t pray to impress others. It’s just between you and God.

Many who are not regular churchgoers have this prayer tucked away somewhere. Occasionally when I have been praying with someone who is quite ill and not at all communicative, I have noticed that the words of the Lord’s Prayer seem to strike a chord. Their very familiarity is a point of contact.

I’m not sure that when Jesus was asked, ‘teach us to pray’, his aim was to give us a formula to recite. After all, in the Sermon on the Mount we are told not to ‘heap up empty phrases’. Rather, I think that the Lord’s Prayer is an example of what prayer is all about. It begins by addressing God in a way that is both intimate and reverent – as ‘our Father in heaven’. Our first concern in prayer is for God’s kingdom and God’s will, before we come on to our own needs (our ‘daily bread’). Then we seek God’s forgiveness, which is tied in with our willingness to forgive others, and ask for God’s protection in the face of temptation and evil.

The Lord’s Prayer, then, is not a formula but a pattern for prayer. It’s also a useful resource to fall back on when we have no words or thoughts of our own!

In 2016, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited members of the Church of England to pray, “Thy kingdom come”. The invitation was offered for the period between Ascension and Pentecost that we should pray for God’s Holy Spirit to help us become better witnesses to Jesus Christ and that others might come to faith in him.

“In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.”

Archbishop Justin Welby

In 2017, the invitation is being re-issued. This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday 4th June. At Pentecost, we hear of God’s Spirit being poured out on the disciples, as Jesus had promised. It is the coming of the Spirit that turns them from timid followers to bold witnesses, and makes them the Church. (We sometimes call Pentecost ‘the birthday of the Church’.) This year, as well as attending a service on the day, can I ask you to set aside some time to pray? Perhaps you could do that as soon as you finish reading this! You might simply ask God to pour out his Spirit on you – in a new way, with renewed love and power. And then you might ask God to make himself known to your family, friends, and neighbours. You don’t need many words. Just the willingness to connect with ‘our Father in heaven’. You might think of a handful of people who need your prayer, that they will come to know Jesus Christ.

If you want to know more, there are resources online (‘Thy Kingdom Come‘).

May God bless you as you pray ‘Thy kingdom come’.

Alan Jewell