Here endeth my Reader Ministry

Today, Pentecost 2013 marks the end of my Reader Ministry.

2013-05-17 14.23.56cw-x
Ramtopsrac: Church of England Reader – 3rd Oct 2009 – 19th May 2013

The different diocese of the Anglican church are not known for their consistency in approach to patterns of, or peoples development through, different ministries. But in the Diocese of Winchester the rule is normally that if you are a Reader selected for ordination training, then you are asked to surrender your license as you start college.

The idea is that this change of status marks and somehow enables the change in that slightly nebulous, unexplainable, but very important element of ordination training that goes by the name ‘formation’. I have to say that this has seem a rather odd idea which I really haven’t understood.

The observant or regular follower of this blog will note that I’ve completed nearly a year of my two-year ordination training, and yet I am only surrendering my Reader License today. The intention was that, agreed by my vicar and Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), by keeping my license I could continue to take funerals and therefore support that element of ministry within my parish; funerals were the only thing I couldn’t do as an ordinand that the Reader License enabled me to do. Except, I haven’t in fact taken a funeral since about last July – it’s just the way things worked out.

However, being asked to surrender my Reader License today, suddenly feels very significant.

Partly, it’s because I know how important my Reader ministry, and funerals in particular, were to my discerning my calling to the priesthood. I may have said before, but I had to be a Reader to understand my calling to the priesthood.

However, despite retaining my license till today, I have (at the request of my DDO) undertaken so little ‘ministerial’ practice in the parish (I’ve not preached since August last year) that when I led our Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter’s, some people were surprised because they thought I’d already left the parish!

And I’ve hated that. I’ve hated not being able to, or allowed to, do those things that were so important to me as minister, and so important to my discernment process. Not having the chance to preach has been like having a limb cut off – I’ve not engaged in-depth with individual chunks of Bible for months!

Equally I know that the advice was probably sound; I have struggled so much academically this year that the additional load of active parish ministry would probably have been the straw that broke the camels back. (I’ll try and explain that better in another blog post soon.)

What I’m wondering now is that, since this comes at the end of a week of sorting out with my tutors some academic niggles, and actually falls just a fortnight before I do at last preach again but as an ordinand, finally surrendering my Reader License will after all mark a significant turning point in my emotional engagement and the confidence I exhibit in myself, within in my ordination training.

When I wrote about my licensing in 2009 I talked about things feeling ‘right’, and in God’s timing, and about starting out on a fresh new journey, again. Possibly surrendering my Reader License is something I should have done months ago, but actually it’s something that feels ‘right’ for now, for a point where I’m finally getting some grip on what it is that I can realistically achieve academically in ordination training, and at last feel some sense of excitement as to what God has in store for me within that, and within the active ministry that will follow ordination next year.

Creative bits of Liturgy for Ash Wednesday 2013

Ash and Palm Cross
Ash and Palm Cross

The Ash Wednesday service for the EDGY group (Eversley, Derby Green and Yateley) had a focus on how Lent might prompt us not just to give up things, but give them away. The preacher focused in part on our newly launched satellite of the Hart Food Bank under the umbrella of the Trussell Trust. To this end, it had been decided that we would depart from the lectionary readings and use instead Isaiah 58:1-9 and Matthew 25:31-46.

My task as the service leader was therefore to tie this theme together with the wider theme of penitence, and a looking forward to the victory of the cross at Easter, symbolised in the use of ash made by burning old palm crosses.

In doing so I used or slightly adapted the bulk of the liturgy from Common Worship’s Liturgy for Ash Wednesday but with the Liturgy of Penitence based on the Beatitudes from Common Worship’s Christian Initiation texts for Reconciliation and Restoration: Recovering Baptism (p242).

Several of our local congregations are used to less formal liturgy, so some things I adapted to subtly include the appropriate focus without (I hope) making the overall service feel too heavy. Here therefore are some of my prayerful links, with thanks for additional inspiration to the Digital Nun at iBenedictines, Malcolm Guite’s Sonnet for Ash Wednesday, and Jeremy Clines’s redubbed collect which I used part of.

Opening Prayer:

Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us
as we accept your invitation to rest this night in your presence, just as we are.
We do so, knowing that through his death on the cross,
Jesus Christ has already won for us the victory of life over death
which offers forgiveness for sin,
and recognising that we fail to keep his way of life and truth.
Take down this night,
any barriers to our understanding and expression of your love,
that we might go from this place into an observance of Lent
that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord,
to the glory of his name.
Amen

Collect: (adapted from two!)

Creator God
you love all that you have made.
Your gift of life is visible all around.
We ask that, by your Spirit,
you would comfort the afflicted,
and unsettle the comfortable.

Holy God,
our lives are laid open before you:
rescue us from the chaos of sin
and through the death of your Son
bring us healing and make us whole.

Living God,
inspire us to be the change
you want to see in the world,
and particularly in this community
which you have called us
to make your home.

We ask these things
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Reflective Prayer before closing responses:

We have gathered together
under the promise of Christ’s victory on the cross.
As we journey towards that promise,
let us shine the light of Christ
into our hearts through our Lenten disciplines
and outward into the community he makes our home,
that his light will break forth like the dawn,
and his healing will quickly appear.
Then will we see God’s righteousness go before us,
and witness the glory of the Lord.
(based loosely on Isaiah 58:8-9)

Grace at Cuddesdon in the week of Plough Sunday

Sunset at Ripon College Cuddesdon 15th January 2013 (the new Harriet Monsell building is on the right)
Sunset at Ripon College Cuddesdon 15th January 2013 (the new Harriet Monsell building is on the right)

Last night I said grace at the meal we always share at the start of an Oxford Ministry Course evening. Knowing that some rural communities may well have celebrated Plough Sunday/Monday last week, I was inspired to think about Cuddesdon’s own rural context, those things seen as we walk round campus and the recent floods of the surrounding areas.

Here is what I prayed:

Lord, who created the soaring kites in the sky above
And the glistening ice that delights our eye
but chills the sodden ground;
We give thanks for your glorious creation,
And ask your wisdom and strength to fill all those
who till the land and care for livestock at this time.
May we never waste the fruits of their endeavours
or our own,
That your name may be glorified
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen

Life and Lives Lived – a fresh expression of All Saints and Souls?

All Saints Church, Minstead, lit to welcome those celebrating ‘Life and Lives Lived’ 3rd November 2012

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of sharing in ‘A Service Celebrating Life and Lives Lived’ at All Saints, Minstead in the New Forest. The village church was filled with light and colour as people from all over the area met together at the conclusion of two community events designed to dovetail together.

Minstead Study Centre held a light of heart ‘Days of the Dead’, reflective celebration of death, dying, grief and bereavement, building on the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration of dead ancestors.

All Saints Church in Minstead celebrated ‘Life and Lives Lived’ at the same time, with felt angel making, a prayer tree, time to think and talk about the Christian view of life and death over cake and tea, and a vivid illustration of how a school had engaged with patients at a local hospice to explore ideas surrounding death and dying.

The sarcophagus and display material showing the work of pupils from Pennington Junior School with the residents of Oakhaven Hospice, 2012

The service that concluded both the events was led by Revd Kate Wilson, who as well as being vicar of a neighbouring parish is part-time chaplain at Oakhaven Hospice, where, nearly 17 years ago, my mother died. Kate had worked with volunteers at the hospice, Pennington Junior School, a student at Brockenhurst College, and the residents at the hospice to create a wonderful Egyptian sarcophagus which was on display along with many photo’s of all the other activities involved in their project day. Reading and seeing the details of young children working with people who were dying to create things of beauty like Egyptian bookmarks, whilst also talking about the fears of all about the idea of dying, was actually very moving.

Cross and candles in the south window of the nave at All Saints, Minstead for the celebration of ‘Life and Lives Lived’, 3rd November 2012

The service itself was also very moving, as it drew together people of all faiths and none, with the Gospel message being drawn out through non-scriptural readings. With Revd Wilson’s permission I am outlining below roughly what material was used and the order this very informal service took; what she described as “probably what they call a ‘fresh expression’ of church.

Travellers in the community – Gospel opportunity?

Travellers in a local public open space, Yateley, July 2012

Last week we had a small group of travellers take up residence in a field, which happens to be a public open space. As far as I can tell they caused no trouble, (unless you particularly dislike what I think was Elvis being played quite loudly), had no dogs loose that I encountered, and once they left, there remained only tyre tracks (though it is possible the Council may have cleared up, I don’t know).

I have been challenged personally over the last year or so in my pre-conceptions of, and reactions to travellers, gypsies and those of romany origin. I grew up in the 1980’s in Minstead, when my father was involved (through his work in the Forestry Commission) with the ‘Peace Convoy’ on Stoney Cross in 1986. I had also grown up with the stories of his previous work as a policeman in the same area, and the old encampment he used to visit on the edge of the village before I was born. There were other, less law abiding groups he encountered too! I knew these groups to be utterly different, but most had brought with them disruption (of different sorts) to the village, and inadvertently created division in the residential community.

I have not met directly, any of the travellers that pass through Yateley, and I don’t like fairground rides, so don’t visit that either.

I have however met several of our local settled Romany community through my work doing funerals, and baptism preparation at St Peter’s. They have without fail, been welcoming, both to me personally and to talking about their understanding of God. They feel very strongly about having a local Christian minister ‘do the honours’, and a loyalty to their local church that to be honest has surprised me. On each occasion, I sensed a strong link with God in the simple things of life: his creation which they value, and the family ties and traditions they keep so strong.

These points of recent contact and past memories, highlighted for me how easy it is to restrict who it is we regard as belonging to our community, who it is we offer a welcome to, who we are willing to recognise as fellow worshippers of God Almighty, who in fact our neighbour is.

It has also made me enquire into and research how the traveller and Romany communities relate to God, use a lot of Christian symbols in their home, and still are quite particular about returning to a parish church to mark the way-points in life.

As part of the selection process for ordination (Bishops Advisory Panel or BAP) that I have spoken about before, you have to give a short presentation on something that interests you, and which you can relate directly to your experiences of ministry so far. (You then have to lead a discussion about it with your fellow candidates!) I chose to do a presentation “How can the Gospel be ministered effectively and inclusively to our native Romany and traveller communities?” You can download and read it if you wish, but please be aware that I wrote it in a deliberately challenging fashion to provoke discussion: Gospel ministry with Romany and Travellers

In the process of putting that together, I discovered many links and a great book about the life and faith of these people, and I draw them together here in case they are of use to anyone else:

The Pure in Heart: An Epistle from the Romanies by Martin Burrell a truly excellent book (also available in Kindle format).

Pip, a 17 year old Romany boy, writes an Open letter to Channel 4 about Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

Diocese of Ely: Travellers and the Church including a download from Revd Martin Hore “Travellers and the Church – a Christian Response”

Friends, Families and Travellers a website aimed at ending racism and discrimination against the traveller community

Gypsies and Travellers – Why Should Christian’s Care from the Church Network for Gypsies and Travellers

I was, and am, particularly indebted to Simon Martin, Training and Resources Officer at the Arthur Rank Centre (supporting rural communities and churches) and Revd Simon Cutmore (who blogs at Rectory Musings) for their help in pointing me in the direction of these resources as I prepared for BAP.

I think that (probably after ordination training) I will be challenged again in this area, so I would welcome your thoughts, reactions, and experiences.

Where Buzzards Call – God’s own Cathedral

Buzzard above the trees in Yateley

There is a field where I like to walk the dog, to breath deeply of the fresh air, to watch butterflies and look across the edge of town to the hill beyond, and to listen to the buzzards calling.

They are a new edition to the scenery. At one visit about two weeks ago, I spotted six separate buzzards – four in the air at once, but two others calling from nearby trees. Regularly since then there have been two, lifting from the nearby oaks and circling above my head calling to each other as I walk the field boundary.

Stitchwort flowering in the field bank

The sound of a buzzard, lifts my spirits. When I’m in the company of my husband, the effect is even better. There is something about sharing our appreciation of wildlife, from the tiniest flower to the raptors above, that brings a depth to the sense of joy at God’s creation that I struggle to put into words. There is also a freedom in such circumstances to praise and worship God in a way that is impossible within the walls of a building, however majestic and prayer-filled it might be. Truly I sense that this is one of the places where I stand in God’s own cathedral.

Moulting Roe Buck near Yateley, May 2012

Yesterday, I entered this same field, to be greeted by yet another treat. At the top of the field was a grazing Roe Deer, unconcerned by the presence of myself & my Honey dog. For once, she stayed quiet and allowed herself to be put on the lead as I crept closer, a few yards at the time. The Roe buck raised it’s head occasionally, moved occasionally to some new patch, and grazed on. Before it left the field, I was even able to get close enough to take a photo!

I wondered at it’s unusual mottled look, but not until I got home and looked at the photo did I realise that it was moulting heavily, the glossy gingery red coat just visible below the long guard hairs that have kept it warm through the winter.


As the Roe buck leapt over the fence, my terrier Honey, finally spotted it!

[On the phone later in the day, Dad (30 plus years a wildlife manager in the New Forest) reminded me that the Roe Deer has an unusual biological cycle, that doesn’t match that of the other deer of Britain. They caste their antlers in November (rather than May as the Fallow do), bearing new antlers in velvet during the cold of winter. They rut (mate) in late July and early August. But there’s another twist of biology, for the fertilised eggs have delayed implantation until sometime towards the shortest day, so that the young, which can be twins, are born in high summer.]

Dare to Break Bread – a reflection from discernment

Following on from my previous reflections (here and here) written in the last few weeks before my BAP, re-reading the following written some months earlier I find that there have been several echoes of my reflections on what Bishop Jonathan Frost (Bishop of Southampton) asked me to read during my Diocesan Panel Interview with him in November 2011.

It was a book called ‘Dare to Break Bread – Eucharist in Desert and City’ by Geoffrey Howard, that had been published in 1992. It focuses on the work of a priest (the author) in the light of the Eucharistic liturgy (the words Christians use at Holy Communion.) The following is a copy of my letter to Bishop Jonathan in January 2012 responding to the three tasks he gave me in connection with the book, and forms a review and reflection of it:

The first part of your charge to me I failed, as I did not achieve it before Christmas; the festive demands got in the way I’m afraid. Actually this confession of failure almost seems appropriate to the book. Within it the author shares so much of his burden of guilt for what he seems to feel is constant failure. I found myself wanting to hold him before God (as he does Harry at the start of the book) so that he might find absolution.

The second part of your task I have now accomplished. With shoes off and candle lit in a wonderfully silent room at Alton Abbey, I read the whole book in a day. Now I am returning to my notes and thoughts as I read it, I once again appreciate the gift of that space, indeed any quiet space, within ministry. Geoffrey Howard wrote the book in a space within his ministry. It is from these spaces with God that perhaps we see most vividly the true “colours” of how we connect with God in people and draw people to God.

"Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom." Luke 23:42 (Painting by Kari Juhani Hintikka by permission of Alton Abbey)

This letter completes the third part of the challenge you set me, that I write to you with my reflections. The book emphasises that the role of a priest is not restricted to the Lord’s Table or any other sacramental liturgy. Blood is truly shed, and the body and soul broken in day-to-day contact with those in whom we recognise Christ. We come alongside people on God’s behalf, yet we must expect Christ to be revealed to us in every encounter – the Christ who holds the pain and sacrifice of our failures nailed with him to the cross.

The word that struck me as I concluded the book, and has stuck with me in the days since, is “vulnerability”. By offering to serve as priests we make ourselves vulnerable in several ways. In the simplest sense, and with our families, we make ourselves vulnerable to unwanted interruptions, ‘reduced circumstances’ and spiritual attack. We will also have repeated occasion to make practical and spiritual sacrifices and make ourselves vulnerable to acts of aggression – verbal, material and physical. It’s like in the very act of being “gospel” we offer people the right to metaphorically nail us to the cross next to Christ – whether they do so deliberately or we do it to ourselves in our responses, both visibly and invisibly.

If we understand the Eucharist as a sacrament of community (“sharing the bread of common experience”) then this book seems to emphasise its’ place as the culmination of all that proceeds it through the days or week of other “sacramental activity” that precedes it. Our connection with Christ in the Eucharist should therefore lie in what we bring to it, not that which we expect to receive from it.

Perhaps in this lies some of the differences and tensions between the Eucharistic worship of evangelical and catholic traditions. Is there any truth in the idea that for many of a more evangelical persuasion, the Eucharist can be a place from where people take the Gospel message out into the community, rather than the place of Resurrection to which those of a more catholic persuasion bring to Eucharist both the burdens and joys of the Gospel message in community? For if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would and could not share in the remembrance of the broken body and blood of Jesus; so we must first have shared in that sacrifice through our living and preparation for Eucharistic worship.

The thing that truck me as liturgically most significant, and something I’d like to know more about, was the question that Howard poses early on: where is the freedom of unconditional forgiveness in our Eucharistic liturgy? Beyond the reason of tradition, I don’t know why the liturgy maintains a stance of repeatedly seeking God’s mercy after the absolution, which seems on the face of it to conflict with a Gospel of abundant grace.

Thank you for making this book part of my journey to understanding a calling to ordination. It leaves many questions unresolved in the readers mind, but then I don’t think it set out to answer any, only to highlight that there is no black and white in our faith, and how we are called to live it out. Instead it highlights the many tensions that a priest draws from the community they are called to serve, and is required to hold as a humble offering before God.


Plunging into the promise – Romans 4:13-25

A recent gift & an unused sermon illustration: made in the Holy Land (part of the promise to Abraham) this olive wood "Jerusalem Cross" has crosses on each arm of the central cross. Our faith requires us to accept and trust in Jesus Christ who died on a cross, yet rose again to new life.

I had to take my personal story of ministry and faith back 18 years, to the parish of Warfield (near Bracknell)  to preach about that little word “faith” last week. The process proved to be one of the toughest battles I’ve had in the sermon writing department. Apparently the result was worth it though, in that I now know at least one person with a decision they’d been grappling with, for which I thank God, and him alone!

(You may find looking at The Message version of Romans 4 helpful – it’s the one we read in the evening service this sermon was preached at.)

Do you remember the first time that you trusted God for something? It might have been as you prayed for someone for the first time, or as you tentatively moved forward into your first ministry, sensing somehow that you were ‘meant’ to do this thing for which you felt distinctly ill-equipped. It may even have been something that seemed almost an accident, or a co-incidence; almost but not quite – because you were sure that God was directing this and guiding circumstances towards some particular end that he wanted you to be part of.

My husband and I were reminiscing recently about our 5 years attending church in Warfield. Shortly after we settled as a newly married couple into St Michael’s Warfield, the church held a church planting conference. A significant part of the geographical area that the parish covered was being developed as housing, and the churches leaders had obviously entered into discussions as to how it might build a new congregation within that new community, using as it’s base the CofE aided school that was conveniently being built on a road called All Saint’s Rise.

We had laid low since arriving in the church, and were not eager to take on long-term responsibilities. We did not live in the parish, nor even on the edge of the new housing development, but well to the south. We didn’t expect to have anything to offer, and might perhaps have not even attended the conference, if it were not for the fact that God, in the shape of the Anglican mafia, took a hand. Our old vicar from our Aberystwyth era, had a conversation with our new vicar at a meeting, in which our names cropped up. And lo, we were asked to lead the worship for the church planting conference in Warfield!

There was something about the circumstances, the twists that conversations took, our own reaction to that one weekend’s commitment, that meant we both knew, deep down inside, that this was only the start of something God wanted us to do. We trusted that God knew what he was doing because we weren’t completely sure what he was asking of us, but within months we were less than surprised to find ourselves on the leadership team of the new church plant at All Saints, Warfield.

I went to look at Warfield on the web, to see what All Saints might be up to these days, almost if you like, to check out the validity of the story as a sermon illustration. I discovered that this very weekend (3rd March 2012) was in fact the 18th anniversary of our very first service at All Saint’s Warfield. From our small musical contribution to those first tentative steps at church planting have blossomed 18 years of ministry in a developing community, and in that parish, three further planted congregations!

At the beginning of Genesis 12, we read “The LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation,and I will bless you.”

I wonder if Abraham really understood at that stage in his life, at the tender age of 75, why it was so important for him to leave the trail his father was following and set off with his family and his herds for pastures new? Yet, trusting in what he believed God wanted of him, he did it anyway; and he kept on doing it as God guided his life continually in the decades to come.

He exhibited something we call faith; a small word, that trips off the tongue quite easily, usually in reference to others, but which is so difficult to live out in practice!

Faith.

We probably know the story quite well. Abraham the nomadic leader of pre-written history. A man not without selfish fears for his own well-being that did no honour to God, his wife or the Pharoah of Egypt! (Genesis 12:19) Yet someone for whom God’s promise that he would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations (Gen 17:4-6) developed over time, despite his efforts to take matters into his own hands with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Abraham, the geriatric who, nearing 100 years old still hadn’t sired a legitimate heir, and whose equally aged wife remained agonisingly barren.

Yet, Abraham “dared to trust God to do what only God could do” as we heard in the Message version of Paul’s letter to the Roman’s just now. And we know that Abraham’s faith was rewarded in the birth of Isaac. It was tested once again on the mountain of Moriah, and vindicated in the renewal of the God’s covenant promise in that place, and ultimately in the formation of God’s people the Israelites.

From what may have seemed an insignificant act of faith that we read about in Genesis 12, Abraham’s example, followed by that of his descendents, led to the founding of a nation of believers.

I wouldn’t normally place myself in the same context let alone sentence as Abraham, but reading the website of the Warfield Churches last night, reminded me that from a perhaps insignificant act of faith 18 years ago, has grown (with a lot of help from a lot of other faith-full followers of God) a vibrant fellowship of believers.

According to St Paul in this passage in Romans, Abraham is our “faith father” – the one from whom our faith in God is inherited. It is not that we have inherited simply a faith in the same God as Abraham believed in, but that Paul believes we should have inherited the attitude and degree of faith that Abraham exhibited when everything seemed hopeless and he decided to “live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do, but on what God said he would do.” (Romans 4:18 MSG)

Both Abraham, and to a far lesser extent those of us who planted the congregation at All Saint’s Warfield, exhibited great faith in God, plunging into the promises that the church there understood God had made for us to fulfil. But what was it that strengthened Abraham’s faith, inspires people to plant congregations, start new ministries, and share that faith inheritance so that we might see God’s promises for our generation and our community fulfilled.

We’re told here (Rom 4:17 TNIV) that Abraham had faith “in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” As his life went on God revealed to Abraham both the power and the faithfulness with which he acts in people’s lives, in such a way that Abraham’s faith was revealed as being in a God of resurrection and of creation. It wasn’t a blind or unreasoning faith, but one based on a rational response to a God he knew to be reliable and trustworthy.

For in the birth of Isaac was both creation and resurrection. In Isaac’s conception for Abraham was the resurrection of a body that was “as good as dead” (Romans :19) and for Sarah a reproductive resurrection. God was also showing himself to be a powerful creator, fulfilling his promise to Abraham through the future that was made possible in the birth of his son. This was gift, God’s overwhelming gift of grace to Abraham, the fulfilment of his promise that he would make Abraham the father of nations.

We can probably understand that on Mount Moriah, the power and faithfulness that had made Isaac’s birth possible, were the inspiration for the faith with which Abraham carried out God’s instructions. Yet, what Paul seems to be saying in this passage of Roman’s is that Abraham’s faith in the power and faithfulness of God, pre-dated the miracle of creation and resurrection that was Isaac’s birth, and that this is the extent of the faith to which we are heirs.

Do you remember the first time that you trusted God for something, felt God’s hand on your life not just for your own good, but in a way that would impact on the life and possibly the faith, of others? How certain were you that God, through his power was able to do even that which you sensed he was making you part of, let alone “immeasurably more than you asked or imagined” (Ephesians 3:20)?

Personally, I don’t remember anything of the sort.

Trying to remember back 18+ years to the months between the church planting conference in 1993, and the birth of a new congregation in March 1994, I can’t remember much at all to be honest, except some uncertainty as to whether Graham and I were fit for the purpose others seemed to see us being called to. Not for the last time in my life, I was probably being more obedient to the wisdom of my elders, a trust in their possibly naïve view of our abilities, and a prideful unwillingness to let them down, than I was actually showing faith in the power of God.

Perhaps your faith has been stronger than mine was at that stage in my life. If it has been, I do encourage you to share the testimony with us later if you wish. But it is often so much easier to see in the lives of others, examples of faith in the power of God to make the seemingly impossible, possible, than it is to witness to it in our own lives.

Canon Andrew White signing books at St. Thomas's Lymington in October 2010

I regularly have my puny faith encouraged by emails or Facebook messages from Baghdad and the Foundation for Relief and Reconcilliation in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White and the people of St George’s Baghdad, exhibit each day the kind of faith in the power of God to do miracles – financial, political and medical – that I don’t even wish to witness the need for! I guess you all know the story of his MS, his commitment to the practical needs of others, and to work for peace between the Abrahamic faiths, and within their fractured networks. His work, and the stories that issue from St Georges are for me living proof of the creative and resurrection power of God, in which I so often have such little faith.

Here’s an example of one of Canon Andrew’s emails. This one is dated in late August last year (2011):

The Alpha Course recommenced here this week. As usual we have so many people wanting to do the course that we can’t get everyone onto the church at once, so we meet at different times through the week. There are still hundreds of people at each session.

The really amazing thing is that we now have a course just for Muslim women….They tell us that they all come to Alpha because they have seen how we love people and care for them at the clinic. They have also heard that miracles happen at the church and they come to find out more. It is all rather amazing and a wonderful testimony of how good G-d is and how effective Alpha can be.

Abraham, was called from what we now call Iraq, to the place that became known as the Promised Land, where if my geography isn’t out, Isaac was born and God made his covenant with Abraham, and to which the people of the promise would return again and again through their history.

The faith of Abraham was based on the visible grace of the God to fulfilled a personal promise in a way that was eventually to bless the whole world. That grace was a gift, un-encumbered by the later necessity of the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law that was required to give boundaries to God’s people.

We, like Canon Andrew and the people of St George’s, are heirs of that quality of faith. In fact like Canon Andrew, we are in the privileged position of being able to have faith in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which showed beyond all doubt the dependability of God’s power. If you like, the faith of Abraham and the faith to which we are heirs through Christ, are the brackets around the parenthesis that was the era of the Law and the Prophets.

Yet, I don’t know about you, I but have a horrible tendency not to live as though I have the same quality of faith as Abraham, or someone like Canon Andrew. Not if I’m honest with the thoughts and feelings that flit through my mind as I pray for someone, or even as I prepare a sermon. The level of expectation my faith has in the power of God’s grace to change lives through the testimony of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is limited by my forgetfulness of examples of that power and the doubt that creeps in through my reliance on self, rather than the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is perhaps ironic in the era of the BOGOF offer and the free gift, that faith in the grace of God, a free gift generously given, and belief in his trustworthy power to create and resurrect life, can be so difficult for us to hold on to.

Doubt can hold us back from plunging into the promise that God has for us. It might be doubt that we’ve heard correctly God’s voice directing us; it might be doubt in our own abilities. It might be doubt in the willingness of others to be open to hearing God’s voice, or doubt in the structures of our church and society to make possible that which God wants to bring about.

Each of us has the option of grasping hold of a promise from God. He wishes to be exuberant in what he wants to give us, and through us what he wants to give others. The promise is that we have a part to play in fulfilling that original promise to Abraham, that we God’s people, the inheritors of Abraham’s faith, would be a blessing to all nations. We can only do that through acting as though we really believe in the same power of God that raised Jesus from death to life.

The only way I have found that I can maintain even a mustard seed sized faith in God (Matthew 17:20), and set aside my earthly doubts, is to keep reminding myself of past circumstances when some contribution I hesitantly made to his Kingdom, seems to have born some fruit, often in the hands of others, as is the case at All Saint’s Warfield. I have to learn to rely more and more on the power of God to work through me, way beyond what I know myself to be capable of, through continual practice. I have to discover for myself afresh each day, just how powerful is the love and grace of God.

As we move through Lent, we have a special chance to acknowledge our doubts and fears fledged through our continual tendency to depend on ourselves. We can do so with the assurance that we will see afresh at Easter, the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus.

God want’s to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, in our lives, and I believe, in the life of St Peter’s. St Peter’s is far from dead, but still God wants to call into being, things that are not yet! We have to dare to trust God to do through us, what only he can do, and what we can not do without him in us. Once we have worked out what we believe that is, and that after all is what Andy has presumably been called by God to help us discover, then we mustn’t tiptoe around the ideas asking sceptical questions (as the Message version of Romans 4:20 says). Instead we must grasp firmly that little word ‘faith’, at the same scale and with the same intensity that Abraham did, and Canon Andrew does, and plunge into whatever work it entails, sure that we do so filled through the Holy Spirit with the strength and power of our creator God and the resurrected Christ.

Reflections after two years of Reader ministry

My Reader colleagues and I at our licensing October 2009

I’ve been aware recently of various conversations about Reader Ministry on a thread of conversation at Lay Anglicana. A while back Doug Chaplin also blogged on why we bother with Reader’s in the C of E,  and to some extent it’s relationship with the permanent diaconate.

Having just completed Reader Ministry Duty Card for 2011, and realising I’ve now achieved two full calendar years in this ministry. The full break-down is here Reader Ministry Stats 2010-11 (RH) and includes some specific reflections on what the statistics of my own ministry tell me, and what they don’t tell you. They are rather practical and parochial, and I’m not sure how much will be relevant in parishes other than St Peter’s Yateley.

However, in the greater scheme of things here’s some other thoughts:

FIRSTLY: I will say for the record what I’ve probably said elsewhere: many people, both connected and unconnected with Anglican churches, don’t understand what the term “Reader” means. Before my colleagues and I were licensed there hadn’t been any here for years, and explaining what we were doing often took some while! More recently, and especially in funeral ministry, people just see the ‘vicar’ or ‘minister’ and don’t have the time or the mental energy in this situation to want to understand what a ‘Reader’ is. I swiftly adopted the title ‘lay minister’ and always explained that I wasn’t ‘THE VICAR’ (especially since we didn’t have one for nearly a year). I still got listed on one family’s phone book as ‘Vicar of Dibley’ though, and that was before they saw me in a cassock and surplice!

SECONDLY: Reader ministry varies hugely from person to person, and parish to parish, and probably from diocese to diocese. If people work full-time in secular employment (as two of my colleagues here do) then they’re not going to be able to undertake the quantity of commitments that I’ve had recently. As with all ministries each person will also have their own strengths and preferences. If you look at Emma’s Blog you’ll someone with a totally different style of ministry to mine (more orientated to family support and children’s work) and yet we are both ‘Readers’ or ‘Lay Ministers’ depending on your preferred terminology. For me this is part of the richness of ministry that Emma outlines here – and enables our calling to grow, develop and change over time, depending on our own and our parish’s needs, as well as God’s will of course 😉

THIRDLY: I’d suggest that those involved in licensed ministries that involve teaching, preaching and general pastoral work, and who are not called to the priesthood, need to be drawn together under that title ‘Licensed Lay Minister’. This would be a way of helping people understand what it is we are and do. For this reason it should also be done in every diocese in the Church of England. But we all know how long and drawn out a process such a change could entail. The last (revised) report on Reader Ministry was Reader Upbeat issued in 2009, and yet after an initial flurry of interest I’ve not heard much actually happening about it’s recommendations, at least from my Diocese (but then at present we are just finishing a vacancy in see, so that may change!)

FINALLY: The areas of ministry where I feel I am currently most effective are in preaching, taking funerals and creating (occasionally) bespoke acts of worship. By ‘effective’ I mean the places where I best enable people to experience God speaking into their lives, or where I enable God to be represented in some way. At some point in the future I know I need to stretch myself in these areas, particularly:

  • to re-visit some of the variety of preaching techniques we tried in Reader Training but which I’ve not used much;
  • to do more pastoral training that would enable me to cope with some of the aspects of funeral ministry I’ve not yet experienced (ministering to the terminally ill prior to death, to a family on the suicide of a loved one, or through the death of a child);
  • to have the space and opportunity to create more ‘bespoke’ services and also return to learning to prepare or write short studies for homegroup environments.

These are all for the future though. I am aware that various factors in 2012 will change my pattern of ministry; ‘how’ this will happen will probably be revealed later in the year. But in the meantime it’s just a case of meeting the next need and placing God firmly in the middle of it… So, I’m off to write another funeral talk!

Why should our parishes have a relationship with their Cathedrals?

Winchester Cathedral 'Make Poverty History' Rally 2005

I received a very unexpected invitation this year, which has made me think about the relationship between the parishes of our Diocese, and the life and worship of it’s ‘mother church’ Winchester Cathedral.

My parish is on the outer fringes of the Diocese of Winchester, so much so that during Reader Training many people started conversations with “where’s Yateley”, or “didn’t know Yateley was in the Diocese of Winchester!”

In the 14 years I’ve lived and worshipped here the only group of parishioners who seem to consistently ‘get involved’ at the Cathedral are our choir (annually), and those who attend to support Readers being licensed, or friends being ordained. Making sure that our parish has it’s six passes to enable people to visit freely produced interesting and instantaneous results recently, which I hope we can build on during the Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market.

But, I’m sure there should be more, better and regular reasons for going to the Cathedral than once a year for our Christmas shopping!

Now I’ve been invited to contribute to a Cathedral Advisory and Action Group (with the difficult title reference ‘Mother Church and Regional Beacon’), I’m meant to be trying to offer suggestions of ways that the Cathedral and parishes can become more mutually supportive in both worship and the wider mission of the Church, as well as the community.

One of the exisiting connecting points is through the involvement of parish clergy as Cathedral Chaplains, something that Revd Claire has been learning about.  From what Claire says, the role of Cathedral Chaplain  seems to be mainly to rightly, but forcibly, insert prayer and pastoral care into the value of cathedrals as tourist attractions.

It strikes me that if it is right to improve the working relationships between our parishes and our Cathedrals, then it probably needs to be through finding things that ‘add value’ to the ministries of both, rather than risk being purely a greater drain on already frantic clergy diaries.

But before we can find suggested answers to how, I found myself asking “why”. Why should our parishes have a relationship with their ‘Mother Church’?

Then I got worried, because I really don’t know the answer. Some fuzzy warm feelings about the Cathedral being

  • at the centre of Diocesan worship,
  • the ‘seat’ of the Bishop from which he leads the Diocese in the worship of God and our mission to God’s Kingdom,
  • the historicity and atmosphere of buildings soaked in prayer,
  • and a traditional place of pilgrimage and the burial of kings,

don’t seem to be concrete answers enough for the modern context.

So, do you think that parishes should have a relationship with their Cathedrals, and if so why?