Back in Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dodenherdenking’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Capsule

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

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

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

The Time Capsule: my hand for scale!

Suggestions included

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Jewell

From Now On…

This month, at St Matthew’s, we begin the first phase of refurbishing the church building. The original vision for a development project began when my predecessor was here, so to say it’s been a long time coming is something of an understatement. We need a church building that is fit for purpose, one that is comfortable, welcoming and accessible. In this first phase of the work, we will be taking out the pews at the back of church on both sides and levelling the floor. This will create an area that can be used for serving refreshments after services and for a variety of occasions during the week. It will also mean that our font, a major feature in the building, is more accessible and visible.

In the longer term, we would like to improve the building further with a kitchen facility, step-free access from the car park and even a new toilet! (The current convenience is functional but hardly convenient!) All of this costs money, of course, and you will know that our finances are hardly in a strong position. It is my view that we need to invest now for the future of the church in this community. Simply keeping things ticking over, while our reserves trickle away, won’t work. I know that not everyone in the congregation shares this vision but I hope that most will come on board and support it.

Throughout March, while the work is carried out, the church will be inaccessible during the week but we aim to be open for services on Sundays. (Evening services will take place in the choir stalls.) Wednesday morning coffee will take a break until after Easter but we plan to hold Thursday morning communion services, and any funerals that come in, at St Cross. Praise and Play will move to the church hall, and start at the earlier time of 1.30pm (to fit in with other users). Some information about the arrangements are to be found in the March edition of the magazine. Other details will be given in notices.

The builders will work Monday to Friday and leave the building in a fit state for services on Sundays. We will need help from volunteers to clear and tidy the church ahead of the work starting, and each week to make sure that the building is clean and safe for worshippers. After Sunday services, we need to leave things ready for work to start again on Monday mornings. If you can help, please speak with me or with one of the Churchwardens.

All of this coincides with the Church’s season of Lent, so maybe there’s something we can learn about making changes and moving on. People often associate Lent with giving something up, or perhaps with taking something on. But abstaining from chocolate or alcohol, or supporting a charity or good cause – valuable things in themselves – don’t really get to the heart of things, and may be little more than a form of sanctified self-improvement. In the early church, Easter was the time for new converts to be baptised, following a period of instruction and preparation. Easter was also the time when those who had been excluded from the life of the church could be reconciled. After a while, others joined them in self-examination and penitence, as a way of preparing for the celebration of Easter. This period came to be associated with Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism and before his public ministry, but Lent hasn’t always had a fixed length. And, if you are good at counting, you might want to have a look at how the period from Ash Wednesday (26 February this year) to Easter (12 April) can be calculated as lasting 40 days. (Answers on a postcard to the usual address.)

Lent, Holy Week and Easter, are an invitation to share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as God in Christ has chosen to share our lives with us. The bible says:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6.3,4)

Some of us will be following a Lent course this year based on the hit musical, The Greatest Showman (2017). That might not seem an obvious starting point, but author Rachel Mann has written a book that aims to help us do just that. It’s called ‘From Now on: a Lent Course on Hope and Redemption in The Greatest Showman’. Rachel is a parish priest and poet with an interest in popular culture and its relevance for the gospel. She says that the film – which is a fictionalised and musical version of the life story of circus entrepreneur PT Barnum – speaks about how we (like the characters in Barnum’s circus) can overcome life’s obstacles and “begin to live authentic lives”.

Perhaps a goal for Lent (and for life) might not be one of self-improvement, but a journey of discovery of who we already are, in Christ.

Have a great Lent!

Alan Jewell

Derek Redmond’s Emotional Olympic Story – Injury Mid-Race | Barcelona 1992 Olympics

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

https://youtu.be/t2G8KVzTwfw

The unforgettable story of Great Britain’s 400m runner Derek Redmond, whose hamstring snapped during his event but was determined to finish the race at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.

“Derek Anthony Redmond didn’t win a medal at the Barcelona Olympics. In fact, the British 400m runner didn’t even make it past the semi-final stage. But it was his determination to finish that will live forever in the minds of millions. Injury forced the Briton to withdraw from the 1988 Seoul Games just ten minutes before the start of his 400m heat, so Redmond felt he had everything to prove in Barcelona four years later. Not to his peers, that is but, as he later admitted, to himself. Redmond wanted a medal whatever the colour and he started well, qualifying for the semi-finals by clocking the fastest time in his heat. As the gun signalled the start of his semi-final, Redmond charged out of the blocks, making good speed over his first 250m. At that point his right hamstring snapped. The one-time British 400m record holder pulled sharply up as the rest of his field ran away from him, leaving Redmond on his knees and crippled, his Olympic dream over. What followed, however, is one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history. Redmond got back to his feet and tried to finish the race. In an act of true courage against adversity, Redmond could only hop on one leg towards the finish line. Pain etched on his face as each step became more painful than the last, Redmond would not give up. He had promised himself and his father, that he would finish the race ‘no matter what,’ and he would keep that promise. Halfway to the finish line on one leg and crying with desperation, Derek was joined by his father Jim. The moment Redmond crossed the finish line brought sixty-five thousand spectators to their feet in a standing ovation, many also in tears. Few can remember that Steve Lewis of the USA won the semi-final in a time of 44.50. But no one who saw it will ever forget Derek Redmond’s courage on the day he defined the essence of the human and Olympic spirit.”

Just for Christmas?

The Church of England has recently published its most recent report on church attendance. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not exactly good news. Church attendance continues to decline. Of even greater concern is the fall in the number of children in our churches. In ten years, adult Sunday attendance has fallen by 15%. Children’s Sunday attendance has fallen by 24%. The numbers coming to us for baptisms, weddings and funerals – a mainstay of our church’s ministry – have also fallen (by 22%, 27%, and 28% respectively). Church attendance at Easter has fallen by 16% and there isn’t a diocese in the Church of England that can report an increase in Sunday attendance.

There are a few brighter spots, however: one is the size of what is called “the worshipping community”. This is the number of people who come to church each month, including to midweek services. That has stayed about the same for the past few years, despite the fall in weekly Sunday attendance. (In other words, the number of people who come occasionally is no less, even though the numbers in church on any given Sunday are fewer. People who are part of our church community come less often than they would have done in the past.)

Another bright spot is Christmas. Christmas attendance has “bucked the trend“. Over the decade it has increased by 1%, which is not huge, admittedly, but after a dip in attendance at the start of the period, the numbers attending a service at Christmas have grown to 2.68 million in 2017, the highest figure since 2006 (and a 13% increase since 2013). Clearly, not all who attend midnight mass or a Carol Service regard themselves as practising Christians. For some, it’s an annual ritual irrespective of belief. But at the same time Christmas services demonstrate that the church still has something which is attractive to those who are not part of our regular worshipping community. We have seen the same with the attendance at our Remembrance and Armistice services. (94 people attended an evening service at St Matthew’s on Remembrance Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.)

What is it about Christmas? I suppose the familiarity is comforting. If you come to a Christmas service, you’ll probably recognise at least some of the hymns. The story is well-known and, as someone commented, it’s difficult for clergy to mess-up the nativity (whatever they might do for the rest of the year).

I’m writing this at the vicarage in November (it’s a miserable day today, too!). Just down the road there is evidence of new homes being built. I realise that development in any community can be controversial but as the church we look forward to welcoming our new parishioners when they move in. I was interested to discover that the two new developments close to St Matthew’s church have names:

Saviours Place and Kings Quarter

I’m not sure where those names have come from. (I’m aware from David and Margaret Hart’s history of St Matthew’s that, in 1527, there was a chapel in Stretton known as the Oratory of St Saviour, but I’m not sure if the housebuilders were aware of that.) It occurred to me that those names might help me to prepare my sermon for Christmas midnight. You can probably fill in the gaps yourself, but I see it going something like this…

In the gospel of Luke, we hear the message of the angel to some terrified shepherds: it’s “good news of great joy for all people”. A Saviour has been born. But where is the Saviour’s place? Not Jerusalem, where power lies, but the little town of Bethlehem, the city of David. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had seen a ruler whose origin was “from old, from ancient days” who would come from little old Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the home of Joseph’s ancestors, including King David, so he and Mary go there to be registered at the Emperor’s command. While in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to be delivered of a child, her first-born. She wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn”.

The Saviour’s place is not in the centre of power but tucked away in insignificance, in a manger in Bethlehem.

Another ancient prophet, Isaiah, had also painted a picture of one who would occupy David’s throne and establish his kingdom. A child would be born whose arrival would come like light to those in darkness. Among his kingly titles, he would be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son to whom God would give the throne of his ancestor David.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that wise men from the east will come to Jerusalem looking for the one born to be king. They have seen his star rising and want to pay him homage. Jerusalem is just the kind of place to find a king. But Jerusalem already has a king. His name is Herod, and he and his court are terrified at the news of a potential rival. Who is this that threatens Herod’s position and power, and where might he be found? The king’s advisors tell him about the word of the prophet who said that Bethlehem was the place where a king might be born, and that’s where the wise men go to find him. Herod says he wants news of the infant king’s whereabouts so that he too can pay his respects. He wants to do nothing of the sort, of course. He just wants rid of the threat to his power, and will stop at nothing to hold on to his throne.

Herod fails to eradicate his young rival (the holy family go to Egypt as refugees). As an adult, Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has arrived. It’s not like the kingdom that Herod ruled over. It’s not a place with boundaries. It is the recognition of God’s reign, and Jesus is its centre. The Kingdom of God is within you, he says. You could reach out and take hold of it. Where I am, the Kingdom of God is.

Jesus is proclaimed as the messiah – the Christ – a title which means that he is anointed to be King. But what a strange king he turns out to be! Starting his life in a manger, not in a palace, this king practices his kingship by taking the role of a servant, not a boss. And as our servant, he humbly surrenders himself – out of love for us – to the earthly powers, “even to death on a cross“. The only crown he ever wore was not of gold but of thorns. Pilate’s ascription to him of the title ‘king’ is made to mock him and his people.

The resurrection changes everything, of course. Except that those wounds of love are somehow taken into the Godhead. Jesus, our Saviour, is our wounded King.

As well as welcoming those who come to the Kings Quarter and to the Saviours Place, the church is here to proclaim, not itself, but our Saviour King, and his message of love and welcome to all who want to find themselves finally at home.

Happy Christmas!

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

The Fight to Survive?

Jeremy Paxman (former Newsnight presenter and University Challenge inquisitor) has written a piece about the Church of England in, of all places, the Financial Times (to which he is a contributing editor). It’s an affectionate piece. He clearly has a soft spot for the good old C of E. But it’s a bleak piece too, about ‘the Church of England’s fight to survive’, as Paxman asks

“is the Church of the brink of extinction?”

Paxman describes a visit to “an ancient Dorset church as a tiny handful of parishioners takes communion”. The priest is 87 years old. None of the congregation is “in the flush of youth”. Paxman admires the scene but speaks of the Church’s “Irreversible decline”. Whereas a decade ago, 13 million British people identified themselves as Anglican, that number is now just 8.5 million. Fewer than one million people go to church regularly, a decline of 11% over the past decade.

The Church, he says, has some very precious real estate. But historic buildings are expensive to maintain: 20 C of E buildings are closed each year. Why not sell most of them off?, he asks.

Church giving, as well as church going, is declining as our core supporters age: 70% of giving to the Church comes from those over 50. 40% from the over 70s. He quotes Mike Eastwood, the Liverpool Diocesan Secretary, as saying that we have “about 10 years” to turn things around.

Paxman writes:

Optimism is a precondition for any job in the Church of England. But the overwhelming impression is of dwindling, ageing congregations: homely, well-mannered and kindly folk increasingly out of joint with the noisy, secular spirit of the age.

Underlying our problems is the fact that every survey shows that succeeding generations are less likely to believe in God or have a positive view of religion or church.

In the end, the C of E’s problem is that not enough people believe in the one thing that makes it different from the secular world…

There are signs of hope, too, including an increase in the numbers coming forward for ordination. (A quarter of the Church’s clergy are aged 60 or over.) But where are congregations growing?

One of the phenomena of our day is the success of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and the churches it has planted. ‘HTB’ is the church that gave us the Alpha Course which offers people an opportunity to explore the Christian faith, usually over a bowl of pasta. Paxman tells us that 24 million people have completed the course. HTB is a success story: not only are its services full but HTB sends whole congregations out to plant churches elsewhere. Sometimes the HTB plant takes over a church building that is in danger of being closed down. It’s a controversial strategy but one in which the Church of England is investing money. (One church that has been ‘taken over’ by HTB is St Sepulchre’s, Holborn. Known as the ‘National Musicians’ Church’, St Sepulchre’s is the last resting place of Proms-founder, Sir Henry Wood. When former HTB curate, the Revd David Ingall became Priest-in-charge, the church announced that it would no longer host concerts because the space was required for worship. The change in policy drew criticism from figures in the music world such as John Rutter and Aled Jones.)

HTB’s theology is conservative evangelical and its worship style, charismatic. It is the form of Christianity in which I was ‘born again’ and from which I heard the call to ordained ministry. But I have changed in the 31 years since I was ordained deacon. To those who care to ask, I sometimes describe myself as ‘post-evangelical’ and a ‘recovering charismatic’. I still believe that Jesus is good news and that God is to be encountered in the bible which bears witness to Jesus as the Word of God. My own preference is for contemporary styles of worship: my ideal church service would be a ‘Rock Mass’ – lead by a band (with me on lead guitar and preaching, of course). But even vicars don’t always get want they want. And neither should they! In Stretton and Appleton Thorn, we continue with our ‘mixed economy’ of services – from All-age Worship to Book of Common Prayer Evensong – because we are trying to serve the whole community. In city centres, you can specialise – if you want Anglo-Catholic worship there’s a church for you. If you want a conservative low church, there’s one for you. And if you want guitars and drums, you can find that too. In our churches, we have to try to offer something for everyone. The danger of course is that you end up pleasing nobody.

And I’m not pessimistic about the church: as Paxman says, you have to be an optimist in my line of work. I’m encouraged by some words I heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the church survives because it is God’s idea.

I believe that God has a purpose for the churches in our parishes and I don’t think that involves us going out of business. We need to learn to engage with a culture that no longer takes faith in God for granted and which does not have a ‘brand loyalty’ to the Church of England.

We are not going to be ‘HTB’ – at least, I don’t think so – but we do need to be the church in this place. I still believe that the story of God’s love for the world revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the best news there is. How do we live our faith in the world as it is today (not harking back to some halcyon days, now long gone)?

Those are the challenges we face. I think we can do it. What do you think?

Alan Jewell

Jesus heals the Leper

I may have mentioned that I am going to New Testament Greek classes, trying to make good my poor performance in Greek as a theological student. When I arrived yesterday, my fellow-students were asking our tutor if he always started with the Greek text when he was preaching. He said he did and was reading from Romans, in Greek, the text on which he was going to preach on Sunday.

I don’t. But occasionally I do consult a Greek text just to check something. So, today, in the story of the leper who comes to Jesus (Mark 1:40-45), we read:

“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand…”

And I thought, ‘I know this one!’ The words “Moved with pity” translate a single Greek word:

Σπλαγχνισθεις

From the Greek σπλαγχνον, which means intestines or bowels. We say, his heart was moved. In Jesus’s day, it was your gut that felt strong emotion. We talk about a ‘gut-feeling’ or something being ‘visceral’, which is to do with the internal organs. When you feel something so strongly it churns your insides.

Philippians 1:8 King James Version:

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.

Good News Translation:

God is my witness that I tell the truth when I say that my deep feeling for you all comes from the heart of Christ Jesus himself.

Jesus is deeply moved by this man’s plight. His heart goes out to him. He’s a ‘leper’, which means he has some sort of skin condition (not necessarily Hansen’s disease) which marks him out as an outsider. Leviticus (13) says that those with skin conditions are unclean. They must live outside the camp and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ Skin diseases were seen as a sign of God’s judgement.

Illness can often lead to people being stigmatised. People with skin conditions may fee embarrassed. Other illnesses and diseases can be ranked according to how much we blame people. A current campaign in our own day, which I heartily endorse, is to end the stigma around mental illness. We are a bit better at talking about depression, bipolar illness and dementia. Churches should be places where people don’t need to pretend. But mental illness is still sometimes associated with moral or spiritual weakness…

Jesus’s heart goes out the man. Our hearts must go out to those who are ill, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually… Jesus brings healing to the man. And so must we.