The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

Mark 14:3-9

When I was in the first year of secondary school, I knew that we were grown up now because our RE teacher, Mr Potter, said to us, conspiratorially, “of course, boys, you know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute”. I have to say, I didn’t know that: it had never been mentioned in primary school. But it made me feel like an adult to have this information shared with me. By the time I was an adult, I learned that Mr Potter, RE teacher, was wrong. He wasn’t alone. He was repeating an error made in the C6th by Pope Gregory the Great. It turns out that the church hasn’t always been good in the way in which it handles the stories of women. Gregory had confused Mary Magdalene, the disciple from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, with a number of other women in the gospels. As we hear the story of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, let’s try to hear her story and not get distracted by any other stories from the gospels.

Mark is probably the earliest gospel: Mark (the author) invented the genre. And the earliest part of Mark’s Gospel is probably the passion narrative (chapters 14 to the end) – which existed before the gospel as we know it, either in written or spoken form. This part of the story is told in more detail than all of Jesus’s life up to this point. In fact, Mark’s Gospel is 16 chapters long and by the start of chapter 11, we are already entering Jerusalem, the beginning of the end (apparently).

Mark gives us the story of Holy Week day by day, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the resurrection of Jesus. So, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Not during the festival or there may be a riot. So, Mark tells us, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week (as we would call it). Jesus is in Bethany, at the home of ‘Simon the leper’, eating a meal, and a woman arrives with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, which she pours on Jesus’s head.

It’s perfumed oil, made from an exotic plant. At St Matthew’s a couple of years ago, in Holy Week, we thought about the stories of the passion narrative in terms of our senses – sight, sound, taste. touch… – and we used this story to think about the sense of smell. In our world, scented candles, aromatherapy oils and diffusers are common. But Mark tells us that the woman had an alabaster jar of “very costly ointment”. She broke open the jar and poured the contents on Jesus’s head. This is an extravagant gesture. The scented oil was worth more than 300 denarii. A denarius is a day’s wage for a labourer. This perfume cost getting on for a year’s wages.

What a waste! The disciples say. What a waste! We could have given that money to the poor! Jesus’s reply (“you always have the poor with you”) could sound callous. His point is not, There will always be poor people, get used to it! What he says is, you will have many opportunities to give to the poor – his assumption is that giving to the poor is a natural part of what it means to be a follower of his – but at this precise moment, what this woman has chosen to do is to make a “lavish offering of inspired devotion”. It’s spontaneous and generous and extravagant. She may not have understood what she was doing but Jesus gives an interpretation: she has anointed my body for burial. She has done what she could. At this precise moment in the story, what more could anyone have done, other than anoint his body in preparation for burial?

At this point, I could break into a sermon about giving: this woman gave a year’s wages. How much do you put in the plate on a Sunday? I want you to get out your chequebook – we don’t take cards and you won’t have enough cash on you – and prove your love for God by making an extravagant donation!

But I’ll spare you that. The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is a story of extravagance – there were 12 baskets left over after everyone had eaten! Jesus turning water into wine is a story of extravagance – 120 gallons of wine, after everyone has been drinking for days! This woman gets it.

When we are afraid, we live in a world where resources seem limited. “There’s a limited supply of happiness. If you’re happy, that takes away from my happiness.” But it doesn’t work like that! If you can be happy for other people, you’ll discover there is an unlimited supply of happiness. (“I’m happy for you” is sometimes said through gritted teeth. But what a skill to master! You’re happy. I’m happy! There’s an unlimited supply of happiness!)

How much love is there in the world? A limited supply? If you’ve got love in your life, does that mean there’s less for me?

No. As the children’s song has it:

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many

They’ll roll all over the floor.

For love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away.

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.


We often think of Lent as being about abstinence, being frugal. But what about an extravagant Lent? A lavish Lent? A Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

The unnamed woman with the alabaster jar gets it. And, Mark tells us, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”. And it is. And her story challenges us to get it too.

Thinking about our Worship

We have had a series of meetings across the two parishes to look at worship. On two occasions, we asked the Revd Andy Stinson, Diocesan Worship and Liturgy Missioner, to lead our thoughts and discussion. One of the things we have been thinking about is how our churches seek to reach others – our mission – and how that relates to worship. One of the questions we are asking is, How can we encourage more people to attend church services? Sadly, our motives are often mixed: we want more people to come to church. Why? Because we need more money in the collection plate to pay our bills! Why? So that the church will be there for us as long as we want it to be! Real mission happens when we believe we have something to share with others – the good news of God’s love. (Otherwise we are simply trying to recruit people to prop up an organisation that we support.)

It’s difficult to extricate the church’s worship from its mission. In fact, the two are very much tied up with each other. Mission is ultimately God’s activity: worship, our response. The church’s mission, as has been said, is to find out what God is up to and join in. So, what is God up to? God is the ultimate missionary. The incarnation is God’s coming to us and dwelling with us, sharing our lives and inviting us to share his. At Pentecost, we see how Jesus sends God’s Spirit to commission and empower the church to carry on his mission, God’s mission. In worship, we seek to respond to God who loved us so much that he sent his son (1 John 4:10-12). Once we grasp that we are loved, we are encouraged to share that love with others. So, worship (responding to God’s love) and mission (sharing God’s love with others) are intimately connected.

It’s a bit of a leap, then, to get from these lofty ideas to the nuts and bolts of what services we offer in our two churches. But we need to plan our worship so that it is (as far as we can manage) worthy of the God to whom it is offered and helpful to those who worship, and accessible to those who might join us.

One of the ideas that I got from Andy is based on the TV programme (sadly no longer being broadcast) Ready, Steady, Cook. The premise of the show was that members of the public had to bring a carrier bag of ingredients, bought on a limited budget, to their chef who had to cook up an enticing meal using what was in the bag, with a few stock items from the store cupboard. When it comes to cooking up enticing worship, what ingredients to we have to offer? We have two church buildings which are loved by their communities and a history of serving our two parishes. We have a church hall in Stretton. We have one vicar and are looking forward to the arrival of Ruth, our Curate. We have a couple of Readers and a large group of lay people who assist with our worship – from wardens and sidespeople, those who do the flowers, serve refreshments, lead prayers, sing, play musical instruments, ring bells, set up communion etc. We also have a number of congregations who meet for the services they value. What can we do with those ingredients? Quite a lot, I would suggest!

And what do we have in the store cupboard? The Church of England has the Book of Common Prayer, much loved and valued by many, and the range of provision under the heading Common Worship. We have centuries of liturgy and hymnody to draw on and the Anglican tradition of worship that has a recognisable structure but allows flexibility and seasonal variation.

We know that some value tradition and others prize contemporary expressions of worship. Some are more at home with formal worship, others with less structured services. Some like to have their communion at 8:00 AM, some like to worship mid-morning and some on Sunday evenings. Others come to midweek services, which include regular communions (weekly at St Matthew’s, monthly at St Cross) and Praise & Play. One of the things we must face is that those who come to church tend to like what they get: if you ask someone who attends the 8:00 AM service what time they think church should be, they are likely to answer ‘8:00 AM’. Equally, those who regularly attend other services. So, how do we find out what service dates and times, and what forms of worship, might suit those who don’t yet attend?

What media do we use or could we explore? The black ‘main volume’ Common Worship books are not necessarily user-friendly: they are bulky and contain material that we rarely use. The Book of Common Prayer offers services that some people love but in a language that resonates with some but not all. We use printed leaflets for many of our services, so that people have in their hands just the material they need – the structure of the service and the texts they are invited to share – but many churches now use projection for service words, allowing maximum flexibility (providing you get the technology to work reliably!). How would people feel about looking up at a screen rather than down at a book? (Singing and congregational speaking are probably improved by having people look up.)

When Andy spoke to our Deanery Clergy Chapter, I noted that he asked a couple of fundamental questions to think about when considering our worship:

  • Have we forgotten God?
  • Have we forgotten others?

If we have forgotten God or other people, then, whatever we are doing, it is not mission or worship! We have simply become a social club for like-minded people. Our worship, whether traditional or contemporary, high-church, low-church or middle of the road, needs to lead us towards the mystery of God. We also need to be hospitable to others: what are we willing to give up in order to make our worship accessible to those who don’t currently attend services?

I’m sure that we are never going to get it all to work perfectly. We won’t be able to please all of the people, all of the time. But each of us needs to ask what is the best worship we can offer and how can we make it accessible to those who are not yet regular worshippers?

As always, I value your thoughts!

Alan Jewell

Evaluating Worship

Think about the last church service you attended: how good was it? Perhaps that’s an odd question. How do we evaluate our worship? Is the whole thing just personal and subjective? Or are there some objective criteria that an OFSTED-style inspector could apply? What would a mystery worshipper (like the mystery shoppers who visit supermarkets) make of us?

We are thinking about the services we offer in our churches and, as part of that, I’m reading a booklet[1] on the topic of evaluating worship. The booklet asks whether our worship is any good and what we mean by ‘good’. Of course, we need to ask a prior question: what (or who) is worship for?

Some regard attending church as a duty. They value such qualities as loyalty and faithfulness. Nothing wrong with that, of course! But the danger with such an approach is that we might not care too much about the content or quality of our services if our only consideration is ticking the box that says we have ‘been to church’.

Another approach is to think about what we get out of going to church. Again, I’m not knocking people coming to church because of what they get out of it. We all do, to some extent. (I have to go to church because my name’s on the board outside.) But it surely can’t be right to approach worship if our only concern is, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Occasionally someone will say that they didn’t get much out of a particular service. The officially sanctioned answer to that is to ask, Well, what did you put into it? We live in a consumerist world where “What’s in it for me?” seems the most important question. We might want to turn that around: ‘ask not what your church can do for you. Ask rather, what you can do for your church’.

Another reason people might go to church is to meet their friends. Again, nothing wrong with that. Given that we all know that we can pray and worship God in the privacy of our own homes or gardens, or on a walk in the countryside, the fact that we go to church at all must be something to do with the other people who are there. Some of them minister to us in word and song; some in taking care of the practicalities of worship; some in providing a cup of tea or a friendly word. The danger, of course, is that church becomes nothing more than a social club where we exchange pleasantries and catch up with the gossip. (So, when people are exchanging the peace at a communion service, it can easily turn into a moment to talk about the weather or the bus service!)

Do you ever wonder what God thinks of our worship? Do we imagine that God probably likes the same things that we do? Perhaps God would prefer it done a bit more carefully or a bit more enthusiastically, but basically God likes the forms of worship that we like!

Of course, the God of the bible is often very far from pleased with the worship that is offered by God’s people. The prophet Amos rails against the hypocrisy of those who prepare “festivals” and “solemn assemblies”, those who offer sacrifice and song but neglect God’s command to act with justice and righteousness in their daily lives (Amos 5:21-24).

Of course, in the bible, worship is far more than what we do when come together on a Sunday. Paul reminds us that ‘spiritual worship’ is a life given over to God as a “living sacrifice”:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1,2)

What we do when we come together in church must be a part of that – a life that is acceptable to God – and must help us to live our lives as Christians.

In the charismatic tradition, where I came to faith, the emphasis was on worship as an intimate encounter with God: “I really felt the Spirit here today” means that the worship was good. It may not be that different from what people experience in BCP worship or listening to a great organist in a cathedral. You sense that God is present. I still believe that the aim of leading worship is to usher people into a sense of the presence of God. (Of course, God is always present: our sense of that varies with our circumstances and our mood.)

In some traditions, the emphasis is on worship as teaching or edification. Evangelical and liberal traditions have both seen worship as an opportunity to teach people about the Bible, about God. One discussion I sometimes have with colleagues when we share the preparation of a service is around who picks the hymns. To some it’s obvious that the preacher picks the hymns because they know what they are going to talk about and the hymns should support that, leading up to the sermon and responding to it. I make the point that, rather than worship being seen as supporting preaching, preaching should support worship. The preacher’s job is not to teach but to usher people into the presence of God. The best preaching does that: it makes you feel that you have encountered God.

Then there is the idea that worship has power to convert. What impact does our worship have on visitors? To be honest, this is where we probably do need to ask questions about the quality of our provision. We can expect committed worshippers to get something out of a service, even if the preacher goes on too long and they don’t know the hymns. Regular churchgoers can use the time to pray and to reflect. But visitors need to be bowled over by what they find. From the welcome of the sidespersons to the coffee after the service, the whole experience needs to be good. If we are looking at the quality of our worship, a primary question must be to ask what it looks like to visitors. How does it feel to be a visitor to one of our services?

Worship needs to speak of community – to be open and accessible to all, reflecting God’s unconditional love and acceptance. We can’t simply have the church as a club for those who like that sort of thing. How can our worship nurture, encourage and challenge the regular church-goers and reach out to our occasional visitors? I hope you will give some thought to this and to the other questions in this piece, and let me know what you think.

Alan Jewell

[1] Evaluating Worship: How Do We Know it is Any Good?, Mark Earey, Grove Books 2016

Evening Worship at St Matthew’s

Thank you to everyone who responded to our questionnaire on evening worship. There were 46 replies, which is pretty good! Of those, 14 people identified themselves as evening worshippers. The questionnaire asked you to state your preference for:

  • the frequency of the service. (Currently, we usually have an evening service on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month but there was a suggestion that we return to a weekly evening service.)
  • the time at which the service is held. (It had been at 6:30PM but is currently at 4:30PM. The suggestion was made that we consider changing the time in summer and winter.)
  • the style of the service – Book of Common Prayer or contemporary worship.
  • and, lastly, the style of the music – traditional hymns or contemporary songs.

The results of the survey were presented to the PCC at its meeting on 19th May and the PCC made some decisions. Just to be clear, this was not a referendum. It was an exercise in consultation: the vicar and the PCC take responsibility for the services we provide. We sought your views but the final responsibility remains ours. That said, this is where we got to!

The PCC has decided the following:

That, wherever possible, there will be an evening service at St Matthew’s each week.

Obviously, we need to be confident that we have the resources for a weekly service, which includes a minister to lead, a warden or sidesperson to take care of the practicalities, and, where possible, musical resources including an organist and choir.

On occasion, we may join with other churches in the Deanery, or as Bridgewater Churches Together, and that will replace our own evening service; there will also be times when the vicar is holiday and no-one is available to cover, but our usual pattern will be to have weekly evening services.

That the time of the service will change seasonally – 4:30PM in the winter and 6:30PM in the summer.

There isn’t a time that suits everybody, of course, but most people seem happy with this arrangement which allows people to go out for longer on balmy summer afternoons and get home earlier in the darker winter months. We have decided to make the change when the clocks go forward for British Summer Time and back for Greenwich Mean Time. (That’s on the last Sunday of March and the last Sunday of October.)

That evening services will mostly use the forms of worship found in the Book of Common Prayer.

There were some voices raised for more contemporary services, including the suggestion that we put something on that would better suit young people, but the prevailing view was that we mostly use the traditional BCP form of Evening Prayer. In months when there is a fifth Sunday, we will continue to offer a service of Holy Communion, from Common Worship, and on occasion, we will do something different. For example, this year, on the evening of Palm Sunday, we put together an expanded choir to lead a service of music and readings which we called “The Journey into Holy Week”; there might be occasions when we do something more reflective – using material from Taize, Iona or other sources – as we do when we offer Compline in Lent and Advent.

Ideally, the PCC would like the services to be led by the choir each week. I don’t know if this will be possible: the choir has a few very faithful members, to whom we are grateful. It is, however, sometimes a struggle getting enough singers together to lead a successful choral service. But we are going to try! (It may be that there are others who would like to join the choir and learn how to sing the psalms and canticles as we do at evensong.)

That we will mostly use traditional hymns at evening services.

Here the voting was tight, between those who want mostly traditional hymns and those who would prefer a range of traditional and contemporary music. (Nobody wanted ‘mostly contemporary hymns and songs’, so my ideal service – a rock mass, led by a band – isn’t going to be happening just yet! But I live in hope!).

None of the above is set in stone (apart from the vicar’s desire to see rock music in worship) but the PCC has decided that this will be the usual pattern and style of evening worship, starting in July this year, and to be reviewed by Christmas. If you have any observations on our proposals, please let me know.

Morning Services

And that brings me to our morning services… Sadly, in common with many other churches, our Sunday attendance is dropping. Some of the attendance figures for our 10:30AM services are, frankly, quite alarming. We do well on special occasions – Mothering Sunday, Remembrance and so on – and the attendance at All-age Worship (on the third Sunday of the month) is OK. The 10:30AM Communion service (first Sunday of the month) is not doing too badly (although attendance has gone down over the years). That leaves the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Here the figures are shocking and we clearly need to look at what we are doing on those Sundays.

I know that there is a group of worshippers who regret the loss of BCP Matins. I’m also aware that the cessation of Matins was handled badly: I apologise for that. But I don’t think that returning to BCP at 10:30AM is the answer to falling attendance. Before I was appointed to this post, the PCC had decided that all morning services should be contemporary in style and all-age friendly (not just ‘Family Services’ once a month). I believe that that is right and I am committed to that. The PCC has agreed that the evening service will concentrate on meeting the needs of those who value more traditional provision. (There are also communion services at 8:00AM each Sunday and at 10:30AM on Thursdays which cater to those with more traditional tastes.) So, morning services will be our ‘shop window’, the place we are looking to reach out to a wider, younger group of potential churchgoers. But how do we do that?

To be clear, this is not a criticism of those who plan and lead the 10:30AM services. We are doing our best! I suspect that this is partly a modern phenomenon: years ago, regular churchgoers would attend every week, unless sick or away. There were fewer alternatives for Sunday activities. These days the competition is fierce, from shopping to sport, and other commitments which families, in particular, have on Sundays. This means that regular worshippers these days probably expect to come to come to church about once a month. And people pick the Sunday in the month that best suits them. We do have a group of families that come when it is all-age worship, and there are people who prefer to come when it is a communion service. There was a group that came when it was BCP Matins. (There was also a group that stayed away from Matins!) But I don’t think there is a group of people whose preferred option is ‘non-eucharistic, non-all-age’ services, so that is what the PCC needs to look at next. (In my view, there are some terrific resources in Common Worship and elsewhere which can be used to make services which are meaningful, enjoyable and valuable.)

I have to say that I’m not sure that replacing Morning Prayer with either communion or all-age worship is going to be possible. One issue is that you only have one vicar[1] and I have two churches, both of which have services at 10:30AM every Sunday. I believe that some mystics and wizards have mastered the skill of bilocation (being in two places at once), but I have yet to accomplish that. Sadly, we don’t have a curate or assistant priest. St Cross has a communion service twice a month at 10:30AM and so, by default, I am there. Equally, I am usually at St Matthew’s on the first Sunday of the month, and I choose to lead the all-age worship services as that’s the thing I enjoy the most. The trouble then is that St Cross folk wonder why I don’t lead all-age worship there very often. The answer is that it is on the same Sunday as communion at St Matthew’s. I would love to be at both churches for the main morning service each week, with the support of colleagues. I hope that both churches would be happy to have me each week! But our current arrangements do not allow that.

There is also the ‘monthly worshipper’ phenomenon to consider: if we had All-age Worship twice a month, the ‘all-age’ crowd might simply split itself between the two Sundays when this is on offer. Those who prefer communion might not come twice as often if we had two morning communion services.

As we have asked you to think about the music we use in our evening services, it would be helpful to know what hymns you think we should sing in other services. We could then see if our current hymnbooks are adequate, or whether we should consider a new book or the possibility of having words projected on a screen so that we never again have to print a hymn sheet when the person leading the worship chooses hymns and songs that are not in one of our books.

That, then, is the task facing us. The PCC will again use a form of consultation before making a decision about our Sunday morning services. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy what we are doing and tell all your friends: they don’t know what they are missing!

Alan Jewell

[1] On current forecasts there will be 20% fewer stipendiary clergy across the Church of England by 2022. C of E Statistics for Mission 2012.

Evensong – a personal reflection by Kenneth Critchley

As Saint Matthews develops its service patterns, I am pleased to have been asked to provide some thoughts regarding the Evensong service.

At Saint Matthews we are very fortunate to have a bi-weekly Evensong service supported by an evening choir, when many churches have either lost this service altogether or only retain once a month.

The Evensong service connects the congregation to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 1549 and 1552 prayerbooks of Thomas Cranmer. I find a great feeling of strength and continuity in knowing I am saying and singing the same words and phrases that have been said by worshippers of the Church of England for over 450 years.

The Evensong service itself is a wonderful combination of extracts from scripture and deeply thought and expertly crafted text. I find the General Confession and its preamble in particular a deeply moving and thoughtful contemplation of one’s relationship with God.

The service structure with Psalms , the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, lessons from the Bible, The Apostles Creed, the Lord’s prayer (in traditional form), the three Collects, Prayers and Responses constitute a  carefully structured, beautifully balanced and thoughtful form of worship.

The service is further enhanced by singing from Hymns Ancient and Modern and a Sermon able to consider some of the deeper themes to be found in the lessons for that day.

Evensong is a service that binds us to tradition whilst still remaining relevant today.

I would certainly recommend attendance at Evensong for all those who are more traditionally minded and also for those who wish to explore the deep heritage of the Church of England.

I hope these thoughts will have encouraged some of the readers to try the Evensong service over the next few weeks and months.

If you wish to attend, the Evensong Service is currently being held on the first and third Sundays of the month at 4:30 PM until the end of March 2016, when the time will be reviewed.

If you would like to join the Choir: The choir meets to practice the psalms and hymns for 30 minutes before the start of the service.

Kenneth Critchley

Evensong – important news

We have been talking about the future of evening worship at St Matthew’s. During the vacancy, evening services were cut back from every week to twice a month. The numbers who attend make it difficult to justify the resources required to run a choral evensong.

Over the winter months, some of our regulars find it more difficult to get out on a dark, wet or frosty evening, so numbers look like dropping even further. The Church Council has therefore decided to try an earlier start time. For the first quarter of 2016, therefore, our evening service will move to 4:30PM. We will keep the pattern the same – there will be a service of evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on the first and third sundays of the month. We hope that this will encourage more people to attend, perhaps even those who wouldn’t normally come to evening service.

The Church Council will then review the situation to see if it has made a difference. If you have any thoughts on this, please get in touch.