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Make a difference

(This week’s is an exchange of blogs between the Moderators of General Assembly and the Moderator of the Youth Assembly)

get-talking-blog

The week just gone was Mental Health Awareness Week. You may have seen recently that a new resource from members of URC Youth has been published. URC Youth, as an organisation, has made a firm commitment to tackling the stigma surrounding mental ill health. Continue reading

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Oldham and Older

By John Ellis

The URC Mission Committee has recently agreed it should be a priority for a Moderator of General Assembly to represent us at the annual Assembly of the Congregational Federation. I was glad to do so in Oldham.

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The Mayor of Oldham addresses Assembly

The one day Assembly had many features in common with a meeting of one of the URC’s larger Synods. Their membership, like ours, is in overall decline and across Britain is now 6,800, although with a markedly higher proportion in Scotland and Wales than is true of the URC. The worship music was more modern than at our Synod meetings but the size, style, age range, programme, levels of participation, committee reporting and business elements made it almost feel like a meeting of a 14th URC Synod. As with many of our Synods, the Federation balances its books by spending capital released from the sale of redundant churches.

A notably active part of the Federation’s life is their suite of learning options, which appeared to be meeting needs in a variety of local church settings as well as being academically validated where appropriate. The training needs of the Federation are not absolutely identical with those of the URC, but a radical mind might wonder whether the differences are really great enough to justify the URC devising another independent programme of learning now that our TLS programme is being phased out. In my short address to the Assembly I noticed that their annual theme had been “Forward Together”.

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The Revd Haroutune Selimian

The civic greeting to the Assembly was brought by the Mayor of Oldham, whom this year is a Muslim. Shortly afterwards we heard an impassioned address from the Revd Haroutune Selimian from Syria, who is in Britain to raise awareness of the plight of Christians in his country at the hands of a very different brand of Muslim. He pointed out that Christians in his home area had faced threats of persecution ever since the time when Saul was sent to Damascus to reinforce the aggression.

As if to underline how porous the boundaries between the Congregational Federation and the United Reformed Church often are on the ground, the Assembly elected the Revd Martin Spain as President for 2017-18. Martin is a Federation minister who is currently serving the URC Landsker pastorate in South West Wales and helped as a steward at our 2014 General Assembly in Cardiff.

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Madge Cleaver 100 not out

Local links have often been kept alive by Lay Preachers crossing the denominational boundaries so it was apt that four days before the Assembly, and on the occasion of her 100th birthday, I was able to present Madge Cleaver of Maidstone URC with a certificate marking her exceptionally long service as a Lay Preacher and in other roles. Amongst her 110 cards there was one from Coxheath Congregational Church and another from that relative youngster, Her Majesty the Queen.

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The past is gone but the future is ours to shape…

The way it was is not always the way we remember it. In preparation for a visit to the United Reformed Church in Cheltenham I was sent a copy of the story of Presbyterianism in Cheltenham. That insightful booklet records the fact that the erection of the building was “an act of faith to resuscitate evangelical nonconformity in the early 19th Century when it appeared to be dying of apathy”! In reality the early attempts at establishing an independent chapel failed and only after serious financial difficulties did the leaders of the congregation turn to the Presbyterian Church of England for help. Even then it was not all plain sailing, the history continues to record tensions within the congregation often with finance as the root cause. Continue reading

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Champions!!

By John Ellis

You don’t need any link with Leicestershire to be celebrating. When so often money seems to talk and strength is measured in financial terms, here we have an example worthy of widespread notice. The remarkable landmark is not so much explained by secret weapons as by forgotten ones. The power of working together as a team; the added energy and commitment that comes from liking each other. The catalytic effect of self-effacing, high quality leadership. A shrewd and effective youth policy. The strength that comes from faithful supporters, including some who have kept the faith through many long years. The boost that comes when some people from beyond the locality notice and show an interest.

I refer of course to Wigston Magna United Reformed Church as they celebrate their 350th birthday. If you travel a short distance south of the ground of a football club called Leicester City, you will find the village and their building. It is not as grand as some in the URC but much loved by the locals. In the seventeenth century they decided to play in a different style from that of the big boys in the church league. At times there were doubtless those who assumed they would be relegated out of sight but with several family dynasties interwoven with their history, the team there is still very much alive and enjoying their life together. Once a week you can find the place humming with up to 50 members of the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade. There are no Russian oligarchs bankrolling the operation but faithful members include a financial dimension to their discipleship.  And at their 350th anniversary service, the other churches of the South Leicestershire Group showed that the group was not just a fellowship on paper by joining in.

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1890s Minister, Revd Cope Deeming….

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….and his grandson and three great, great grandchildren below his wife’s memorial tablet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should Manchester United or Chelsea feel they would like to learn about how to make a difference without spending millions, there are many local United Reformed Churches they would be welcome to visit.

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Wigston Magna URC….

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….featured on the birthday cake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monkey Business

‘Don’t mention the monkey’ was my advice to Carla as we drove into Hartlepool. The people of this port in North East England haven’t always taken kindly to the taunt that in the Napoleonic wars they mistook a monkey for a French spy shipwrecked off the coast and hung the monkey in the town square.

I needn’t have worried as it quickly became evident that the town has embraced the story.

The Headland, Hartlepool

The Headland, Hartlepool

Like many other parts of the North East of England Hartlepool has had its difficult times. As traditional industries decline and wealth gravitates south it would be easy to become dispirited and blame others for apparent misfortune.

But folk around here are used to hard times and the ability to embrace reality and still keep smiling is part of the regional character. Continue reading

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The fathers that begat us

By John Ellis

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Pinhoe United Reformed Church

Fifty years ago this year my father was ordained as a pioneer of what would later be called Non-Stipendiary Ministry in our church at Pinhoe, on the outskirts of Exeter. To return there as Moderator was therefore a Sunday of special personal significance.

In 1966 you left the main village, crossed the railway line and walked down a lane with no pavements until you reached an ancient farmhouse on your right and there was the chapel tucked away on the left. If you needed to practise the organ, chatty Miss Daisy Maunder in the farmhouse, or her taciturn brother Reg, could provide the chapel key. Occasionally a car might interrupt the sound of the gurgling of the Pinn Brook. Continue reading

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Holiday thoughts

Walking along the Thames Path in Abingdon or playing with grandchildren may not, at first sight, constitute a connection with the holy. Holidays have become a form of escape from the routine, time away from the responsibilities of the here and now. Google the word ‘holiday’ and the page will fill with advertisements from tour companies offering you the best deals on hotels, flights and cruises. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from whatever you are trying to escape from but little in the way of connecting with life at a deeper level. Continue reading

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From Surrey to the Sea

By John Ellis

Two creative constructions have enhanced my last two Sunday visits.

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Reigate Park URC

At Reigate Park URC in Surrey, in line with local custom, the Easter morning service began with All Age Communion. On the Communion Table was a colourful cross created by Messy Church. It was covered with buttons of all shapes and sizes which illustrated the variety of people of all shapes and sizes who make up the church. As well as the cross being attractive in its own right, I was pleased to find this evidence of those for whom Messy Church is their most natural form of church being linked with those for whom Sunday morning liturgies are their natural format. Continue reading

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The choices we make

Cumnor URC - Shadows of the Cross

Cumnor URC – Shadows of the Cross

Terrorist attacks in Brussels and Lahore, cuts to benefits to subsidise tax cuts for the rich are but some of the shadows that have framed our Easter celebration. It would be easy to imagine that the world is stuck on Good Friday unable to navigate the pathway to Easter Day itself.

Continue reading

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Visiting Leicester

By John Ellis

I spent a day in Leicester, where I was speaking at the East Midlands Synod meeting.

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Central Baptist Church, Charles Street

The Nonconformist chapels of Leicester have sent many ripples around the world. One fine Baptist chapel in Charles Street can claim links with both William Carey, who after ministering in Leicester became the pioneer Christian missionary to India, and with Thomas Cook, who invented the profession of travel agent with his teetotal railway excursions. In our own tradition, the Churches of Christ in the city shaped at least one Moderator of the General Assembly in the person of the Revd Professor David Thompson. Continue reading

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Conversation at Jacob’s well.

Eavesdropping on conversations was a theme that ran through the recent meeting of Mission Council. A fuller sharing of the work of the meeting will be available elsewhere on the main URC website. Synod representatives have their

At the well

At the well

own responsibilities in the chain of communication but let me give a Moderators perspective. For John Ellis and me and our chaplains this was the last opportunity to shape the worship and the business of the Council. We eavesdropped on the conversation between Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well. A story that invites us to cross boundaries, to drink deeply and to share good news. Continue reading

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Land of my Fathers?

By John Ellis

When in Wales I wonder about my family origins. The surname might well be Welsh although I have no evidence of devout Ellises crossing the Bristol Channel to evangelise the Devonians. What is not in doubt is the long Christian story in Wales.

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Synod venue in Carno

One recent visit was to the Synod of Wales, meeting in a very rural setting in a community hall built with Laura Ashley money. Many participants had round trips of over four hours in order to be present. Compared with English URC Synods, this one felt small and intimate. With so many of our Welsh pastorates including united churches with a variety of ecumenical partners, the URC’s ecumenical DNA was very much in evidence. So were items of business related directly to the Welsh scene, not least the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections. Continue reading

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Politics and Roast Beef

Tyddn Street, Mold

Tyddn Street, Mold

The lunch for the Alun Vale pastorate in Flintshire proved to be a lively affair. The conversation covered the debate about whether the UK should leave the European Union. An exchange of views in which all shared the concern that we never get the full story from either side. Amusement and concern in equal measure at the support for Donald Trump in the US election, and some less than flattering comparison with UK politicians. It was the kind of conversation that is probably happening across the UK as we all struggle to make sense of the items at the top of the news schedules. Continue reading

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Presbyterians in Commuterland

By John Ellis

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St Paul’s URC, South Croydon

Missionary endeavours by Presbyterians have shaped two recent visits. At the start of the twentieth century a church was planted in the developing area south of London which is now the Borough of Croydon. St Paul’s grew so quickly that the initial church soon become relegated to being the hall and a much larger building in the Edwardian style was erected. Continue reading

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‘Dreams and Visions’

Dreamers and visionaries do not always have an easy time of it. It takes courage and determination for a congregation of 30 to embark upon a £400K+ scheme to re-order the worship space and create a community café.

Buckland URC, Portsmouth

Buckland URC, Portsmouth

Buckland URC, Portsmouth have done that with some style. The re-furbished building definitely has the ‘wow’ factor. The removal of the balcony has created a worship space suitable for the needs of this generation and community space which welcomes the local community to step inside. The building is filled with light. Stained glass, once half hidden, now fills the space with colour. Continue reading

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The World in Bristol

By John Ellis

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Redland Park URC, as rebuilt 1957

Bristol has always been an international city. The unkind would say its prosperity was built on the obnoxious slave trade and then on the unhealthy promotion of tobacco. For the past 150 years our Redland Park church has been a beacon amongst the city’s most influential residents witnessing to another sort of wealth.

Today it also hosts the Bristol Korean Church, which draws its worshippers from a wide area of up to an hour’s drive around Bristol. Their minister, the Revd Bohyun Kim, is supported by the URC’s Special Category Ministry scheme, which is such a valuable feature of our overall ministry provision. Continue reading

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Borderlands

I watched anxiously as the river level rose dangerously towards the garden of the cottage that Carla and I were staying in near Bellingham. We were in Northumberland initially as a break away from WiFi and emails and the demands of church but instead we had to concentrate upon finding a house to live in when Carla’s appointment in Oxford comes to an end. The weather was atrocious as storms swept in from the Atlantic with high winds and snow flurries.

One highlight was the night time visit to the Kielder observatory and a fascinating illustrated talk about the stars.

The search for a new home had us travelling to the village of Norham on the border between Scotland and England and that along with the other experiences of the week had me reflecting on the thresholds we cross. Continue reading

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Finding Christ’s Kingdom

By John Ellis

P1020382Weapons are not to be used “for the Kingdom of Christ or the kingdoms of this world”: so declared the Quakers 350 years ago at a time of political turmoil. It was therefore appropriate that the Quakers should organise the commemoration in the Houses of Parliament of the centenary on 27 January of the Royal Assent being given to the Military Service Act 1916. This made Britain the first country to protect by law the right of Conscientious Objection to bearing arms. The event was officially sponsored by Helen Goodman MP, the idea having been first put to her when the Free Church leaders met her at the Labour Party Conference in 2014. Continue reading

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Guilt or choice?

This is about the time in the month of January when we can sort New Year Resolutions into two categories – those that were driven by guilt at over indulgence or those that might actually make a difference to our lives. The first are doomed to failure and the second have a chance of surviving into Lent. I began my New Year by leading the annual covenant service at the Local Ecumenical Partnership at St. Andrew’s, Devizes. A service which involves the commitment to deepening the relationship of trust that is at the heart of faith. The risky part of that resolution is that it requires giving up control and accepting what God might have in mind. Continue reading

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Turning the Year

By John Ellis

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Sevenoaks chocolate

 

With no one wanting an Assembly Moderator over the Christmas season, I have spent more days than usual in my adopted home of Kent.

The most appropriate chocolate over Christmas came from St John’s Hill URC in Sevenoaks. To mark the 150th anniversary year of their premises, they had the creative idea of producing chocolate bars featuring their building. As they were fairly traded, it was more a moral duty than a wicked indulgence to consume them.

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December dusk at Canterbury

 

 

The most appropriate rededication for the year ahead grew out of the opportunity to share in the annual service in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December commemorating the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Before the altar at the site of the assassination, Archbishop Justin removed his mitre. The candles carried by the congregation gathered around him lit the cathedral, as they had done on that fateful winter afternoon 845 years before. The overwhelming liturgical drama reached its climax as the doors from the cloisters were slammed shut, as they once were to keep out four murderous, alcohol-soaked knights. The tension mounted as the heavy doors were then flung open again, recalling Archbishop Thomas’ insistence that “The church is a house of prayer and is not to be made into a fortress.”  The deep silence that followed was of rare intensity. The privilege of serving the Church is not always costless.

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Site of the Martyrdom

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All Saints’ Church, Tudeley

The first Moderatorial sermon of 2016 was playing at home but in the context of a small piece of history of its own. The local Interim Moderator, the Revd Bernard Fidder, and I led what is thought to be the first Sunday Communion service fully in the forms used by the United Reformed Church to be held in All Saints’ Church, Tudeley, a parish church mentioned in the Domesday Book. The Local Ecumenical Partnership serving the two villages of Tudeley and Five Oak Green regularly includes services drawing on URC liturgical insights within its varied worship patterns, but normally hosts these in the former URC building.

Within the boundaries of the LEP’s parish there is a third and ancient church. It is dedicated to none other than St Thomas Becket.

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Here I stand

By John Ellis

At the end of the Second World War, some members of churches that are now part of the United Reformed Church felt there was an urgent need to make enemies into friends. As a result various congregations from St Andrew’s in Leeds to Purley in South London twinned with churches in the Church of the Palatinate in south west Germany and have maintained relationships ever since. Continue reading

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Advent Glory

By John Ellis

The trumpets sounded from on high. Everyone looked up in expectation. Was this the Advent when the King of Glory would come at last?

Not quite. But it was a monarch. Her Majesty the Queen, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, entered a packed Westminster Abbey and was conducted with the Duke of Edinburgh to their seats under the Lantern, opposite three rows of ecumenical guests. Then unfolded a Eucharist, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to mark the start of the tenth five-year General Synod of the CofE.

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The Ecumenical Guests

While the service was unmistakably Anglican, a Methodist contributed to the prayers and the preacher was the Roman Catholic Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household. That would have been hard to imagine when the first General Synod met in 1970. He urged that to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Christians of all traditions should embrace and celebrate the doctrine of Justification by Faith and work to ensure it was presented winningly to contemporary people. He noted that in those parts of the world where the Church is being persecuted, internal doctrinal differences hardly seem significant.

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General Synod assembles for the Royal Address

In her address later to the opening session of the Synod, the Queen returned to the ecumenical theme. She remarked on the “notable advances” that had been made since she opened the first Synod. She welcomed the presence of ecumenical representatives and urged the Synod to continue the quest for Church Unity.

With the Synod members all in formal dress, the occasion was also a striking ecclesiastical fashion parade. One noticed that the royal hat had flecks of episcopal purple and was wider than any of her bishops’ mitres. Archbishop Justin Welby reflected on how her royal predecessors had been adept at exercising influence over the Church.

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Fulbourn URC in Cambridgeshire

It was all a long way from the delightful village United Reformed Church in Fulbourn where I had preached two days previously. But Catholic and Protestant, Queen and commoner, Royal Abbey and village chapel all look towards the day when the King of Glory will come.

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Faith, hope and love…

Anniversaries are an opportunity to reflect on how far we have travelled and to prepare for the next stage of the journey. The church at Reigate Park celebrated forty years in its present building at a service which included the dedication of new lectern and pulpit falls. The imagery of ’faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘love’ in the embroidery is a modern setting for a familiar phrase. It is perhaps easier to imagine a new setting for this poetic and challenging affirmation of faith than to imagine how the church might re-imagine itself to face the challenge of the present.
Faith
As Advent beckons I was invited to speak to the community at Luther King House and reflected upon the phrase from Jeremiah: ‘the days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise…’ At a time of increased tension in the world and our own wresting with the future direction and shape of the church Advent invites us to ask of each other if we believe that the promise of God will be fulfilled. Advent is less about waiting and more about knowing and articulating our deepest longings. If we don’t know what we long for how will we know if the Hopepromise is kept?

Faith, hope and love must shape our deepest longings and so it must be possible to live expectantly and hopefully with our horizons broadened by a God that tramples through our defences and shatters our small mindedness. We live in a time when trust is demanded of us, trust that peace can embrace the world, that faithfulness will have its reward and that vocation, as Frederich Beuchner once asserted, is “the place where your deep gladness meets the Loveworld’s deep need”.

Expecting the world, the church and us to be changed by Advent longing and Christmas promise is the least we can do.

David Grosch-Miller

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Longings and Realities

By John Ellis

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The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick

The latest terrorist attacks in Paris occurred while our Mission Council was meeting at Swanwick. This shaped our prayers and the Council asked the Moderators to write to our partner Churches in France. Part of the letter we sent said:

We express our shock and profound sadness at the senseless acts of violence, the loss of many innocent lives and the pain and grief inflicted on so many people.

As friends and partners in the worldwide church of Christ we stand with you and we hold you and all affected people and communities in our thoughts and prayers.  Today we pray even more fervently that God’s kingdom will come where all tears will be wiped away and peace will reign.

Another aspect of Mission Council’s response was not to allow the terrorists to distract us from the work we had to do. The longest discussions at this meeting were on a paper suggesting a new approach to authorising Elders to preside at Communion. This had several of the features of the best Council discussions.

For a start, the topic was clearly relevant to local churches. How we use our Elders in single denomination churches and how the characteristics of URC Eldership are held in united churches are relevant all around Britain.

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A discussion group hard at work

It was also a discussion that followed a great deal of thorough work by the committee who brought the proposal, after a request for work from the General Assembly. Not for the first time, it was evident that some would have preferred a short report giving the highlights and others a document that addressed head on the wide range of questions that could arise in different settings and amongst ecumenical partners.

Like many discussions at Mission Council, the debate illuminated the differences of emphasis between those whose instincts are for a denomination with a clear and orderly policy, that we can be confident will be delivered with a family resemblance in every place, and those whose instincts are for greater local freedom, even at the cost of inconsistency and some confusion. Some heard echoes of Presbyterianism debating with Congregationalism.

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Mission Council earned its tea break

The discussion was also a good example of how Mission Council can never be just an academic discussion forum but has to grapple with how our aspirations can be worked out in practice with the people and resources available to us. Pertinent to a discussion about Elders was the information provided to the Council that while we enter 2016 with around 350 stipendiary ministers in pastorates, the number available is likely to fall to around 300 by 2020 and perhaps to less than 250 by 2025.

Mission Council asked for some more work to be done on the idea of Authorised Elders but we were all aware that patterns of local church leadership remain a key issue for the United Reformed Church.

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Lest we forget…

Standing on Whitehall during the silence of the Remembrance Sunday service is an experience that Moderators of General Assembly are privileged to share. The silence that falls across Central London and embraces the thousands of people watching and participating is tangible and real. Members of the Royal Family, senior members of the Armed Forces, Prime Ministers past and present, High Commissioners and representatives of the faith communities acknowledge the sacrifice of others. For a brief moment differences are set aside as the dead call out and plead for peace and the building of a fairer and more just world.

Commonwealth War Cemetry, PNG

Commonwealth War Cemetry, PNG


In my early years in ministry Remembrance Sunday began to fade in popularity. I still had veterans of World War 1 in the congregation that I swerved as well as those from World War 2, they were unanimous in supporting the emphasis on peace. Remember not to glorify, they said, but so that another generation might not suffer as theirs had. For me it was the Falklands War and the embedded TV reporters that began the change. War came into our homes in a way that we had not previously experienced. There followed a surge in attendance at Remembrance Sunday services and the re-introduction of the two minute silence on Armistice Day.
Curtain of Remembrance

Curtain of Remembrance


There is a delicate balancing act to be achieved between remembering in order to be touched by the horror and the waste of young lives while not being trapped by nostalgia. To know why we do things is as important, if not more so, than doing them. I understand the view that Remembrance Sunday is about showing our support for those who serve now as well as in the past. I want to do that and honour their commitment and self -sacrifice even though I profoundly disagree with some of the wars that we as a country have been engaged in. But it is the building of a better world that matters most. Let’s not forget why we remember.
At the going down of the sun...

At the going down of the sun…


David Grosch-Miller

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Crash Bank Wallop

By John Ellis

I hope one reason we have a lay Assembly Moderator is to increase the chances of Moderators having personal experience of the discipleship dilemmas that arise for an employee. Most employees work for organisations where they feel they are only a small cog in a large machine and their influence is limited. Sadly, surveys report that most local churches in Britain give very little help to Christians wrestling with the ethical challenges that arise at work. When I visit churches, I notice the intercessions are much more likely to focus on those who are ill than on those facing almost impossible burdens at work.

P1020264So it was a pleasure to be invited to the launch of a striking new book Crash Bank Wallop. This is the story of Paul Moore, the former head of risk management at HBOS – the megabank that resulted from the Halifax merging with the Bank of Scotland. Several years before the bank crashed disastrously in 2008, he warned its Board that the bank was relying on practices that were ethically and financially profoundly misguided. He was fired.

The book describes the turbulent journey into which he was then catapulted. It included suicidal depression. It included blowing the whistle publically on former friends and colleagues and shouldering the consequences. And in his mind all he had done was the job HBOS had been paying him to do.

While the details of the products HBOS sold may be complicated, the essence of the issue is starkly simple. Should an employee always tell the truth? Or are there times when saying what others want to hear is good enough?

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Whistleblower Paul Moore

Paul Moore is clear that the vast majority of HBOS staff were people of integrity wanting to do the right thing. Nevertheless he now sees how the ethos of the bank had drawn staff away from their personal values towards a sick internal culture. When a culture becomes embedded in any large organisation, be it a company or indeed a Church, it takes clarity and courage to criticise it.

When Paul first told his wife that he had been sacked and his career was ruined, he was astonished by her reply: “It’s all part of God’s plan for you.” A Roman Catholic believer, he found solace for the dark years that followed in Job and the Psalms. Today he also believes God has used the personal disaster for good and that he is richer in those things that are beyond price, even though his income may be much smaller.

Maybe we should spare a thought and a prayer for someone who is currently grappling with issues at work that offer no easy answer.

 

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Facing the Future

Like many of our congregations the five churches in the Goyt and Etherow pastorate are facing up to the reality of changing times. In the culture that we now inhabit the church has to learn to be a minority in a culture that it once dominated. The challenge is to do that with energy and optimism and not to be disempowered through anxiety.

Hatherow URC

Hatherow URC

The challenge of seeing things differently took on a different complexion at the Windermere Centre and the opportunity for people new to the URC to learn something who we are. It takes self-reflection to be able to tell Methodists and Baptists what makes the URC tick and to define that which we will not sacrifice. My answer was to say that there are some things we don’t need to define we just know them and enjoy them. We are not good at written constitutions and neat packages we are much better dancing where the Spirit leads us and not worrying about the

Lake Buttermere

Lake Buttermere

contradictions that we scatter along the way. Yes we will defend Church Meeting, Elders and the priesthood of all believers. We will point to our ecumenical credentials and Commitment for Life. We can still manage the odd cry of dissent and see the value in local independence that can call on the support of the Synod and Assembly. But that all seems a little dull! One Baptist minister did say that he admired the URC because we seemed able to disagree without falling out. Time will tell on that one but that’s not a bad thing to be known for.

The centenary of St. Columba’s Oxford was the opportunity to give thanks for the past but more significantly to express dreams and hopes for tomorrow. We did what we do best, we enjoyed being together, we ate, we drank, we laughed and looked forward in hope.

Still waters...

Still waters…

David Grosch-Miller

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North Sea Waves

By John Ellis

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Aberdeen Harbour

My most northerly moderatorial trip to date has been to Aberdeen. Shipbuilding is finished and the fishing fleet much diminished but the harbour remains noisy and active thanks to the offshore oil and gas industry. Nearby the Maritime Museum spreads into a former Congregational Chapel and shows how North Sea oil has transformed the Scottish economy. The technological achievement is on a vast scale and has been accompanied by entrepreneurial and safety risks, sometimes with tragic consequences.

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St Nicholas Uniting Church

The latter were one incentive behind constructing the remarkable and moving Oil and Gas Industry Chapel in the north transept of the city’s historic St Nicholas Church. The chair backs are made of many layers of different woods so they look like the geological layers under the seabed; but the initial letters of the names of the woods spell out in order “We remember you”. At the very top of the window is the Eagle of St John with a barrel of oil in its talons. St John not only wrote a Gospel but is also, I learnt, the Patron Saint of Oil Refiners.

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Oil & Gas Chapel Chairs

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St John’s Eagle carrying precious oil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Nicholas Church is double-ended and once accommodated two congregations worshipping at either end. The impressive Georgian space of the former West Kirk is now home to a united Church of Scotland and URC congregation. They proved most hospitable to the British Church Leaders visiting the Scottish National Party Conference for the first time.

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Callum McCaig, MP for Aberdeen South, discusses the oil price

From their respective standing ovations it was hard to tell whether Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, or her predecessor, Alex Salmond, is the Patron Saint of the SNP. The Party’s economic brains, the under-stated John Swinney, completes an impressive political triumvirate. None of them, though, can ignore the barrel of oil. Local MP and the Party’s energy spokesman at Westminster, Callum McCaig, was determinedly upbeat about the long term prospects for the oil industry, despite the doubts of some party members, and he needs to be right if the more ambitious social targets of the SNP are to be realised. For this Conference, however, the mood was more one of celebration than analysis.

We were particularly glad to meet Dave Thompson, MSP for 4,500 square miles of rural Scotland, one of whose constituents is the Loch Ness Monster. A former Baptist now in the Church of Scotland, he is unashamed to speak of his Christian convictions and is a staunch supporter of the regular prayer meetings held in the Scottish Parliament building. He is an instigator of Christians for Independence and of a Holyrood All Party Group on Religious Freedoms. He noted that over 20% of the SNP’s MPs and over 15% of all MSPs were practising Christians, which are higher proportions than in the population as a large. The commitment of Christians to be salt and yeast in politics continues.

And for displaying God’s creation, there are few more glorious railway journeys in Britain than a ride up the Scottish coastal line over the Forth and Tay Bridges, via Dundee and Arbroath, to the Granite City.

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Asking the right question…

It began at Westbury URC in Wiltshire with the lectionary reading of Jesus confronted with questions about divorce. Questions are not always what they seem! In the conversation with the Pharisees Jesus takes a question intended to trap him in legal niceties and turns it back on his questioners. The question from the Pharisees was harsh and judgemental the answer was shaped by grace and compassion – ‘Let the little children come to me, do not stop them’. We still often find ourselves hiding behind legal and constitutional convention afraid that grace and compassion Westbury URC might be too costly.

It was on the back of that reflection that I headed to Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference. The questions that we put to politicians were around the increasing gap between rich and poor, the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and poverty in Africa, UK membership of the European Union and the European convention on human rights. Asking politicians to make unpopular decisions has little integrity unless we too face

Free Church reps

Free Church reps

the discomfort of asking questions of ourselves.

After a quick detour to meet with Synod Clerks and wrestling the question how we might better listen to one another it was off to the Emirates stadium, home of Arsenal Football Club, to listen to the evangelist J John. He has a vision of evangelistic campaigns based in football stadiums beginning with July 2017 in London. They couldn’t be an alternative to local churches getting on with the job of sharing the story of faith in their locality but people might find it easier to ask friends and neighbours to an event at a football stadium than in a church but why is

URC folk at the Emirates

URC folk at the Emirates

that?

That left me asking the question of the people at St. Andrew’s, Chesterfield how as churches we had taken the most exciting, liberating, world changing event in human history and making it boring and apparently irrelevant to life in 21st century Britain. I don’t have answers but perhaps I am beginning to ask the right questions.

David Grosch-Miller

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Political Chocolate

By John Ellis

When the trees start to turn golden, the Moderators’ diaries start to feature the political party conferences. We visit in ecumenical harness with Methodist, Baptist, Quaker and Salvation Army leaders.

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Lib Dems in Conference

The first seaside visit was to Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrats. After their General Election catastrophe they were remarkably buoyant. They had found new hope and optimism in a way not all churches which are much smaller than they used to be seem to manage.

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Simon Hughes with Isaiah 35

 

 

 

Revival has certainly come to the Lib Dem Christian Forum. Membership has risen by 50% since May and their annual prayer breakfast had a record attendance of 88. For the first time it was funded by the Party and we wondered whether having a new Party Leader who is open about his Christian commitment was relevant to that decision. The main speaker at the Prayer Breakfast was Simon Hughes, who talked about how being a Christian had made a difference to his 32 years as an MP. He told us of turbulent times when behind the scenes prayer had been a crucial factor.

At the Labour Party Conference, along the coast in sunny Brighton, a steady stream of MPs came to talk with the Church Leaders. One was Ruth Cadbury, MP for Brentford and Isleworth and part of the Bourneville chocolate family. Some of us had other reasons to be thinking of the contribution her family has made to national life as Sir Adrian Cadbury had died only a few days before. His full life included being Chairman of the family firm and a quarter of a century as a Director of the Bank of England. Sir Adrian was a perceptive and invariably gracious gentleman.

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Ruth Cadbury MP in discussion

Ruth continues the Cadbury tradition of public service, having served in local Government before being elected last May for the first time to the House of Commons. She also follows family tradition in being a Quaker, one of two new Quaker MPs elected this year. In her maiden speech she explained how her political views were shaped by her religious beliefs and she made it clear to us that on matters of Quaker principle she would vote following her Christian convictions, even if that was unwelcome to the Party Whips.

Such personal encounters are a powerful antidote to the cruder caricatures of our politicians that parts of the media present.

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The cost of unity?

Forum Worship

Forum Worship

The Ecumenical Forum for Peace in North East Asia was held in Seoul, Korea at the initiative of the Presbyterian Church in the Korea (PCK) and the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK). The event marked the 100th General Assembly of the two churches but also the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese occupation at the end of World War II. The forum was dominated by the desire for the re-unification of Korea and held in the heightened tension between North and South. At several points in the conversation we were made aware of the wider forces at work. The division of Korea suits the needs of both China and the USA, globalisation often puts the interests of the powerful before the needs of those separated from loved ones.
North Korea

North Korea

In dreaming of a new future for the people of North East Asia the church has the opportunity of offering an alternative globalisation in which people come before profits. The Forum made a commitment to seek out ways of reconciliation and peace but any effort requires the co-operation of people beyond the church. Our partners ask for our prayers and support as they pursue the vison of a united Korea but there is a cost to such unity. The language of re-unification can suggest that future unity simply means making the North more like the South. That isn’t going to happen and the question remains how much change the people of both Koreas are willing to accept if they are to remove the barriers that divide them.
The visit to Seoul also included the opportunity to preach at one of the churches of the PCK. With four services each Sunday with an attendance of 1200 at each service and a different choir of 80, orchestra of 15 and contemporary music group of 15 for each this was not your average URC! We are part of a global community and it is good to be reminded that others flourish in the faith as we persist in our faithfulness despite the lack of popular appeal.
David Grosch-Miller
Final Benediction at PCK Assembly

Final Benediction at PCK Assembly

PS I hope that fuller accounts of my visits to Papua New Guinea and Korea will appear on the URC website or in Reform at a later stage.

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Papua New Guinea

Bouncing from wave top to wave top in a dinghy with salt spray stinging the eyes may not be the most comfortable way to travel but in Papua New Guinea comfort is easily outshone by unforgettable experiences. The journey from Port Moresby to Fisherman’s Island was far more heart stopping than any theme park log flume. The island is low lying and vulnerable to the effects of global warming. As an elder of the United Church explained when threatened by a tsunami there is nowhere to run to so they go fishing. As elsewhere on the visit to this partner church in the South Pacific we were overwhelmed by the hospitality of people who made up in generosity what they lacked in material wealth.

Fisherman's Island

Fisherman’s Island


There are more than 800 languages spoken by the people of PNG and the challenge to build a cohesive national identity is real. The exploitation of natural resources by multinational companies is both threat and promise. The inflow of wealth could be a lifeline to the poorest but will threaten the strong village communities where people care for one another. There is an irony in a land threatened by climate change needing to export fossil burning fuel in order to lift her people from poverty. Accusations of corruption do not build confidence.
Rarongo Chapel

Rarongo Chapel


By contrast the students of the Rarongo School of Theology and Mission are an impressive and committed group. Those training to be ministers of the United Church must find their own fees and rely upon family members and home communities to supplement the food they grow for themselves. A five month drought has students and families often going hungry. Despite the challenges the standard of MA thesis supervised by URC minister Gwen Collins is high. Carla and I were privileged to spend a week with Gwen and Bernie Collins, sharing with students and participating in classes.
Parliament Building, Port Moresby

Parliament Building, Port Moresby


The lasting memory will be of laughter and joy as communities of faithful people gave thanks for the privilege of serving a generous God.

David Grosch-Miller

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The Uden Factor

By John Ellis

My invaluable Chaplain, the Revd Nigel Uden, wears many hats and provided a link between what might otherwise have seemed disconnected weekend engagements.

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St Peter’s Church and Chaplaincy

On Saturday he was the preacher chosen by the Revd Andrew Mills when Andrew was inducted as the Moderator of the North Western Synod. The Induction was held in the modern, ecumenical St Peter’s Chaplaincy in the heart of Manchester with an international and young community of students all around us. This contemporary context underlined the challenges facing the Church today.

Nigel used flower pots – a modern version of the clay jars of 2 Corinthians 4 – to illustrate Paul’s points about the extraordinary gifts God entrusts to clay jars. Even more extraordinary is that when the clay jars are broken, they can still be used, at least by a skilled Gardener, to cradle something beautiful as living works of art.

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L to R: Nigel Uden; clay jars; Andrew Mills

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Abbey Lane Chapel 1811

On Sunday the 350th anniversary of the congregation at Abbey Lane, Saffron Walden could have been about the distant past. They were already almost 150 years old when their present elegant Georgian chapel was erected, within sight of the spire of the great parish church which dominates the town. Instead I gained a strong sense of a church still moving forward, with key milestones still being added to their long story. One was the Induction only a week before of the second minister, Caroline Vodden, for the newly configured West Essex and Bishop’s Stortford pastorate. The lengthy preparatory work was guided by their Interim Moderator, one Nigel Uden.

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Joshua Clarke 1807-90: ten times Mayor

As we considered the distinctive features of Abbey Lane’s Nonconformist witness over the generations, one aspect was engagement with politics. The congregation has produced 13 Mayors of Saffron Walden, including Joshua Clarke who was elected ten times. But some old assumptions are no longer valid. The 350th Anniversary service began three hours after a well-placed source had told Radio 4 listeners that the new leader of the Labour Party does not believe the Churches have any useful contribution to make to political debate.

Whether in rural Essex or urban Manchester, the challenge of how to connect effectively with the wider community, and in ways that allow the Gospel to be heard, confront both our most historic congregations and newest Church leaders.

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Retired?

By John Ellis

The intercessions led by an Elder included a prayer for retired ministers. The retired minister leading the service commented it was the first time he had ever heard retired ministers prayed for in an act of worship. I found my mind shot through with a mixture of emotions including shock and concern. I hoped his experience was not typical but realised it might be.

As I travel around the United Reformed Church our 900 retired ministers are frequently in evidence. Some, with every justification, now rest from their labours. A few justify the fears some ministers have of finding retired ministers, who remember so well the good old days, lurking in their congregations. But in very many places I have found wise, gracious retired ministers using their experience to craft distinctive complementary ministries alongside that of the local stipendiary. Indeed I have been struck at how often in congregations that seem positive and happy there is a retired minister in the leadership mix.

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Richmond Hill St Andrew’s URC

The incident I mentioned was during the Church Anniversary day of celebration at Richmond Hill St Andrew’s URC in the centre of Bournemouth. The most famous minister of the Richmond Hill congregation was the Revd J D Jones who served there for 39 years and somehow also found time in the early twentieth century to write enough books to fill a whole shelf in the Minister’s Vestry and to be the equivalent of the General Secretary of the Congregational Union nationally. I was intrigued to discover that he did not retire until well past the current state pension age. A giant of his time; but also a minister who went on serving as long as health and strength permitted.

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The Pulpit of the Revd J D Jones

If your local church is enriched by the presence and work of a retired minister, have you prayed for him or her this week? And will you tell them next Sunday?

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Bald Statements

St. Martin's, Bude

St. Martin’s, Bude

The congregation of St. Martin’s Bude has played host to an exhibition of sculptures by one of their members, Jean Parker. The collection of eight alabaster figures was born as a reflection of Jean’s own experience of cancer. The exhibition moves through the stages of loss and grief that are familiar to those in pastoral ministry. The models, as the explanatory leaflet says, ‘are intended to stimulate discussion and the understanding of powerful emotions’. The pathway from denial to peace is a way that many are forced to travel and having these stimuli to conversation is a gift that all would gain from.

The sculptures are available on free loan from the Westhill Endowment, Selly Oak, B29 6WE www.westhilltrust.org

Alabaster sculpture - Denial

Alabaster sculpture – Denial


The particular journey of one individual will find resonance among many others and it is a journey which the United Reformed Church must also travel. There are those who respond with denial or disbelief to the decline in church attendance and more that question why or grow angry and depressed. The experience of loss is to move beyond the sadness to the reality of the present and to be future orientated rather than captive to the past. We must not be defined by loss rather we become at peace with who we are and dream of a future that we can only imagine with God.

IMG_0558Creating the space for one of their own members to share her gifts and talents is something that many other congregations could copy. We are sometimes so anxious that we miss the opportunities that exist for sharing gifts and honing the art of hospitality. St. Martin’s Bude is a small congregation with a big heart and a ready welcome to all. If you do visit it is as well to remember that Bude is in Cornwall and not Devon so make sure that at the cream tea you get the jam and cream on the scone in the right order!

David Grosch-Miller

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SOAR!

But those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)

IMG_0482Representatives and guests gathered in Columbus, Ohio for the Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the words of the foundational text were a source of inspiration and strength. There was much to appreciate from this partner church and opportunity to reflect on our similarities and differences. The clear anxiety about declining numbers sounded familiar with the call to review the cost and frequency of Assembly, the challenge of vocation to the young, the need to plant new churches and for Disciples to be mission focussed. I even heard some echo of the conversation around the use of the word evangelism! I did feel compelled in a workshop to point out that compared to our experience in the UK they were still riding the edge of the storm and they needed to begin the painful transition to being a minority in a culture where they until recently held a central place.

IMG_0504The format of Assembly reflected the nature of an open gathering rather than business only. Mornings offered a wide range of educational opportunities. As a guest of Global Ministries I had the opportunity to exchange stories with other international guests. A keynote speaker was Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Jordan and the Holy Land and we shared several meal times together. He left the Assembly in no doubt that it was failed US and European foreign policy that had de-stabilised the Middle East and led the to the refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon. 1.6millioin refugees out of a population of 6 million puts the problems of refugees entering the UK into a different perspective.

Business was restricted to the afternoon with resolutions on gun control, the burning and intimidation of black churches, the nuclear deal with Iran, the unification of Korea being issues where painful and potentially divisive issues were handled with sensitivity. Evening sessions were given over to worship with guest preachers inviting us all to SOAR!
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There is much to learn and much to share in this global family of ours and I was glad to have been part of the continuing story.

David Grosch-Miller

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More Mitres

By John Ellis

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Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral was packed for a Eucharist including the Ordination and Consecration of the Venerable Rachel Treweek as the Bishop of Gloucester and thus the first ever female Diocesan Bishop in the history of the Church of England.

Before the service a long procession of over a hundred dignitaries threaded its way through the Cloisters and into the Cathedral between crowds of international tourists, who seemed to think that seeing a real live Archbishop in a golden mitre was a definite bonus in their Canterbury day. The tourists were doubtless of every faith and none, but every participant in the procession except me was Anglican. I was assured that other ecumenical guests had been invited. Nonetheless, when the liturgy stated that Rachel was being consecrated as a bishop “in the Church of God” rather than “in the Church of England”, and the prayers included one for the “visible unity of Christ’s Church”, it seemed strange to be the only representative of the whole of the rest of the Christian family present.

The special chair set aside for the one representative of the Reformed tradition was immediately opposite the pulpit. I wondered whether that was significant.

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The new Bishop of Gloucester

The feeling of privilege at participating in the service was enhanced by the fact that I know Rachel at a personal level. Like Canon Dame Sarah Mullally, who was consecrated as Bishop of Crediton alongside her, Rachel’s first career was in the NHS. I imagine she must be the first Speech and Language Therapist to join the Bench of Bishops. Through that work, she developed a special interest in the dynamics of family life. Rachel believes that the insights that came from that experience have shaped the way she has exercised leadership as an Archdeacon in the diocese of London. In his sermon, the Bishop of Stepney, Adrian Newman, paid tribute to the way Rachel had modelled relational forms of Christian leadership. Bishop Adrian suggested that women bishops will be distinctive as “socialisers and subverters”. Rachel will certainly be a credit to her office.

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The Supreme Governor and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh

One of the curiosities of the length of time the Church of England has taken to appoint women to senior leadership is that the Supreme Governor of the Church has been a woman for over sixty years. As we entered the Great West Door, a new statue of her unveiled just a few weeks ago looked down on us. Perhaps she smiled.

 

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Steaming round the Isle of Wight

By John Ellis

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Brading Parish Church

The first Christian baptism on the Isle of Wight was in 687 on the site now occupied by Brading Parish Church. The United Reformed Church arrived somewhat later and currently there are three congregations on the island. I was pleased to meet with representatives from all three at Freshwater URC when we considered the wider life and future of the denomination.

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Shanklin URC

The strongest of the island URCs is on the east coast at Shanklin, where membership has grown by 50% during the long ministry of the Revd Brian Harley. With their prominent central site helping to draw in visitors to the island, the church was comfortably full on Sunday morning. Later in the day they would be joining with other local churches for an ecumenical outdoor service in the pattern established for many years during the peak summer months. Although larger than most of our churches, I found the congregation at Shanklin having to face a range of challenges and sadly having to address enforced changes to some of their cherished hopes. They gave the impression, however, of a church family that cared for each other and prayed with each other and who would find a way forward together.

As befits a holiday centre, the URC members were also most hospitable, providing not only bright sunshine and wonderful scenery but also regular updates on the score in the Test Match against Australia and a working steam railway.

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“Calbourne” ready to steam away

The locomotive I rode behind on the steam railway (an LSWR O2 class, as you asked) could itself have been a sermon illustration. Like many of the URC’s buildings, it was built in the Victorian era. It reached a point when it was thought no longer useful, ignored by nearly everyone and apparently thoroughly dead. Then due to the vision of just three people, resurrection occurred. The engine came back to life, as did its railway, and now Calbourne serves hundreds of people every working day.

It is astonishing what a combination of vision, enthusiasm and determination can accomplish.

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Stories of Liberation

It is 70 years since the liberation of the Chanel Islands from German occupation but the memory of that time is not forgotten. The United Reformed Church in Jersey is a place of welcome and generous hospitality. Among the church IMG_0321members pride in the natural beauty of the island is matched with a sense of independency and a determination to maintain a faithful witness. It is perhaps in remembering the adversities of a previous generation that we discover the strength to persevere when difficulties crowd in on us.

_MG_0334It is not only the people of Jersey that wonder about the future shape of the United Reformed Church. Ministerial resources are stretched, elders and church officers can feel adrift on choppy seas but that is only part of the story. Many congregations play a vital part in the life of their local communities, offering safe space for people of different ages and backgrounds. It is understandable that we regret that people do not find their way into worship in the natural way of previous generations. We struggle to express faith in ways that fire the imagination of others and we are slightly confused as to why we need to. But good things happen, lives are touched, hope is given and love expressed.

IMG_0308Nobody would advocate ignoring the challenges of the present but we might discover that celebrating the present is more attractive to the potential seeker than getting anxious about the future and being pre-occupied with our own agendas. Mission does not begin with what we have to say but with how well we listen to the communities that we are called to serve. Liberation from fear and anxiety that leads to the joyful celebration of knowing that we are the beloved people of God would be a good story to share.

David Grosch-Miller

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A Cornerstone

By John Ellis

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Carrs Lane Church

Many people worked very hard in order for it to be possible for the General Assembly to meet in Carrs Lane Church, Birmingham on 27 June, as requested by Mission Council. Assembly members also gave up their Saturday and in many cases travelled long distances to fulfil their responsibilities. The papers presented and the conclusions reached are available elsewhere.

There will be mixed views about the decisions taken. One thing that is clear is that Assembly affirmed the importance in our tradition of the local church as the key focus of church life and witness. So it was both appropriate and most refreshing that a few hours after the end of Assembly the next moderatorial appointment was with a local congregation.

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Cornerstone: 1914 chapel with 2007 extension

Cornerstone, as Hythe United Reformed Church is generally known locally, serves a mixed community in Hampshire located between Southampton Water on one side and the New Forest on the other. The century old chapel was refurbished, adapted and extended in 2007 and now offers high quality facilities, whether you are the preacher or serving the coffee. Two consecutive morning services have enough in common to feel this is one church but enough difference in style to enable a wide variety of people of different age groups to worship the same God in ways they find enriching. A large leadership team of Elders and others, led by the minister Eddie Boon, work behind the scenes to ensure all areas of church life receive prayerful attention.

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Cornerstone worship area

What particularly struck me was the energetic flow of ideas to address different stages of discipleship and serve the needs of both church members and the wider community. For just one Sunday there was a message conveyed via doughnuts, a group of teenagers from a relatively poor community in London sleeping over in the halls and sharing in the worship, the results of the church fantasy football league, a trip to the county cricket ground for those who prefer a smaller ball, the church puppet group away serving a nearby URC, the Girls’ Brigade recovering from their concert, photos from the weekend’s Korean Christian visitors and preparation for an open air service as part of the local Waterside Festival. And that’s before you even ask why the front row at the 1100 service were all in Regency costume.

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Cornerstone’s piano praising the Lord

Assemblies will never be everyone’s favourite pastime, but get caught up in the energy, life and laughter of a place like Cornerstone and you will decide the Gospel story still has its ancient power.

 

 

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Northern Delights

Lancaster Castle has been suggested as a possible location for Parliament should MPs opt to move out of the Palace of Westminster during much needed renovation. The suggestion has been both welcomed and ridiculed but the warning that those in the bubble of the Westminster village ignore the rest of the country at their peril is real enough. It may not be any more practical to move the Assembly Office away from London than to move Parliament to Lancaster but we do need to be reminded that we are not only a church in three nations but 13 Synods and nearly 1500 congregations. Each one of those congregations important and vital to our shared life. To elevate one part above another would be to ignore the story of faith that is lived out by committed disciples across the United Reformed hsfront2 (1)Church.

Trinity Lancaster has responded to the changing needs of being church in a rapidly changing world by structuring itself as one church on two sites. The city centre High Street congregation tracing its history back to 1773 and the former mission station at Bowerham to 1904. The Elders share responsibility along with the minister for the two congregations, allowing some resources to be diverted from administration to pastoral care and leadership.hs1

In a culture dominated by the collapse of institutional structures it is critical that the church learns to do things differently. The time when culture would allow itself to be shaped by church has past. One small reminder being the need for the congregate at High Street to be out by 12.30 to avoid having their cars clamped!
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It was a joy to worship with these warm and welcoming congregations who retain an enthusiasm for the task of mission both in Lancaster and with their partner congregation in Velore.

David Grosch-Miller

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He’s in a meeting

By John Ellis

The United Reformed Church is never short of meetings. One of the special honours bestowed on Assembly Moderators is that we are members of every denominational committee. In practice we attend selectively but the diary recently saw me in London for four days in one week attending eight different URC meetings.

I suspect nobody at any of those meetings would claim that committees are the glamour end of Church life. Reflecting on their business, I could nevertheless easily produce a lengthy list of people who would be annoyed, hurt, disappointed or exasperated if those meetings had done their work poorly. Some of them would have complained. If the committees do their work well, few notice.

We owe a substantial debt to the 500 people who serve on our various denominational committees and linked meetings. Many travel long distances and some serve in time that their employers treat as holiday. A wide range of friends and relations informally provide accommodation near to wherever the committee is meeting, saving the Church money.

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Congregational Church in Soweto

None of this of course is unique to the URC. When visiting our partner Churches in Southern Africa, I was on several occasions invited to sit in on one of their committees. The Church Council at the Congregational Church in the Johannesburg township of Soweto felt much like the Elders Meeting of any URC village chapel. The Mission and Discipleship Committee of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa had an agenda so similar to our Mission Committee that its Chairman suggested he should develop closer links with his URC opposite number. Both of those meetings were also a reminder of how critical to the energy levels of a meeting is the way it is chaired.

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Soweto Church Council at work

Necessary though some meetings are, personally I welcome the recent call by Mission Council for a fresh review of the committee structures we are currently using. The labyrinth does not look greatly different from it did when the Church was very much larger and communications technology much less sophisticated.  We now spend more money on the committee structure around the General Assembly than we spend on the Assembly itself.

And if you are just off to a meeting, think of the Anglican Bishop who insisted on having as the last, summary item on the agenda of his meetings “Territory gained”. If holding this meeting has not produced some clear advance, who will ask the difficult questions about purpose and process?

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Reorganisation, fruitfulness and sex…

The last time I visited Belfast was at the height of ’The Troubles’ in 1987. The ring of steel that surrounded the city centre has gone and there is a freedom of movement that was absent when the city was under threat of bombing. The Assembly Office of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is an impressive building with ample seating for the 624 ministers and 452 elders that comprised the court. URC folk would have been surprised by the number of retired ministers present and the low number of women.

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

The agendas of Church Assemblies are remarkably similar. Congregations whose average age increases as the overall numbers decrease prompts urgent conversation about the structures that are needed to support congregations. Boards have been replaced by a reduced number of Councils in an attempt to better co-ordinate the work of the Assembly Office and to encourage growth. The Council for Congregational Life and Witness facilitated a discussion among members of the Assembly asking what fruitfulness might look like in the life of local churches and how that could be better encouraged.

Church House, Belfast

Church House, Belfast

The concern for Christians suffering persecution in different parts of the world was highlighted through contributions given by representatives from Syria, Pakistan and India in a session ‘Listening to the Global Church’. It is the story of ordinary people struggling to remain faithful despite overwhelming odds that reminds us how fortunate we are.

It seems impossible for Assemblies to meet and not talk about sex and the PCI was no exception. The recent referendum in the Republic of Ireland that paved the way for marriage between couples of the same sex and the court ruling that found the owners of Ashers Bakery guilty of discrimination for refusing to honour an order for a cake with a pro gay marriage slogan were the subject of lively debate. While not surprised by the Assemblies determination to oppose the introduction of same sex marriage it was disappointing that the Assembly ended by deciding not to send a delegation to the Church of Scotland Assembly in 2016. This to express concern at the decision of that church to permit ministers in civil partnership to seek a call to a congregation prepared to depart from the traditional teaching of the church.

Ecumenical and international guests

Ecumenical and international guests

This is not the time to emphasise our differences but to build on our shared commitment to be the people of God.

David Grosch-Miller

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The Wings of Faith

By John Ellis

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Wanstead URC

The story of the building used by Wanstead URC is remarkable. It was built for an Anglican congregation in 1861 on a site close to the current URC offices in London. The land however was soon required for building St Pancras railway station, so the Anglicans built another church nearby and the new Congregational Church in Wanstead seized the opportunity to buy the entire structure, move it brick by brick and rebuild it ten miles to the east in their developing community. A recent major refurbishment has given the congregation a bright, attractive and flexible building while preserving its fine architectural features.

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With church and community leaders to celebrate Wanstead URC’s 150th anniversary

For the church’s 150th birthday we enjoyed the building but focused more on the people for whom it has been a spiritual home. One was an eight-year-old boy from a church family, Joe Wing, who in 1931 came to church as usual and found the speaker dressed in Chinese costume: he was a missionary on furlough. Joe was captivated by his stories and that day he became certain he should spend his life as a missionary. Little did he know then that he would become a midwife and first Secretary of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, bringing together black and white denominations across five countries. Nor could he have guessed the central role he would play in the Churches’ contribution to the struggle to free South Africa of apartheid. Desmond Tutu said he relied on Joe’s advice at critical times. Sustained by a resilient Faith, the boy from Wanstead helped change the world.

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Gravestone of the Revd Joe Wing, Kuruman

Joe Wing was clearly revered by many people I met when visiting our partner churches in South Africa. He was accorded the exceptional honour of being buried in the original LMS missionaries cemetery at Kuruman, amongst some of the most famous Victorian pioneers. Like Moses, Joe did not live to see the promised land for which he longed. A free, democratic South Africa only arrived two years after he died.

Now the new South Africa is 20 years old and continues to evolve, not always in ways the Churches welcome. One fascinating conversation was with the Acting General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana. He explained how the impetus behind the ecumenical council in the apartheid era was largely so there could be a strong voice for the Churches’ opposition to apartheid. Once President Mandela was able to form his Government, many of the leading members of the Council of Churches were taken into Government posts and the Council’s role fell away. The current President Zuma comes from a different background from Nelson Mandela and the Churches find they are having to think afresh about what is the proper role for the Churches in relation to the Government, and how do they find ways to exercise that role effectively.

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With Bishop Malusi in front of a photo of his SACC Gen Sec predecessor Desmond Tutu

One part of Bishop Malusi’s account that sounded very familiar was that the Churches have lost the enthusiasm they used to have for paying for ecumenical work. So the Council of Churches is needing to be highly creative in finding sources of funding for doing any work at all.

Isaac Watts did not have Joe and Marjorie Wing in mind when he wrote of the Wings of Faith. Nonetheless, his hymn (Rejoice and Sing 664) reminds us that in each generation our new challenges can be put into perspective by remembering the inspirational Christians who tackled courageously the issues of their day.

 

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Ceremonies and Concerns

The Ceremony of the Keys is not how we would usually begin an Assembly of the United Reformed Church but ceremony is very much part of the Church of Scotland. The Provost handing the keys of the city to the Queen’s representative and the Lord High Commissioner returning them, all within the splendour of Holyrood House, is not familiar territory for us. Within the URC we have an identity that clearly separates us from the State while our

Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Presbyterian cousins in the Church of Scotland are part of the establishment. This was a useful reminder that how we understand our tradition and how we exercise our ministry is as much the product of culture as it is of deeply held theological views. No doubt others will disagree but the connection of culture and faith is inescapable.

When the Assembly got down to business there was a more familiar ring to the proceedings. A decade of ministry was launched to recruit candidates for the ministry, a call to have confidence in the Gospel message given voice, review of existing structures and the future of the church endorsed, ecumenical relations commented upon, finance

Meeting the Lord High Commissoner

Meeting the Lord High Commissoner

and stewardship urged. Church and Society questions around the use of fossil fuels and climate justice, the use of nuclear weapons, the situation in Syria and among persecuted Christian minorities, the increasing gap between rich and poor were all topics that could as easily have been on the agenda of any of our denominations.

Assembly Hall

Assembly Hall

The contributions from young people and from overseas visitors were significant and memorable. Inevitably the Press focussed on the conversations around ministers in Civil Partnerships and/or same sex marriages. The holding of strongly held views was evident as was the desire to find a way that allowed for ‘constrained difference’. The conversation around same sex marriage continues and, along with all the representatives of the Presbyterian family, we pray that we may together find our way to unity that neither denies justice to some nor produces an unacceptable compromise to others. I will be interested to hear how the conversation is continued when I visit Belfast for the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland next week following the referendum in the Republic.

Augustine United

Augustine United

Sunday was spent in worship with the congregation of Augustine United. The sanctuary was filled with paper cranes symbols of peace and sign of our commitment to discover the wholeness of each human being that Jesus called ‘shalom’.

David Grosch-Miller

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A Glimpse of Heaven

By Andrew Weston, Guest Contributor

DSC_0245 600pxA gathering of 1500 people of all ages, all associated with Pilots from all over the country, with all sorts of backgrounds might not be something you can imagine happening. Hearing that they were mostly from the URC, but also the Church of England, the Congregational Federation and the Baptist Union plus one of our multi faith Pilots companies might seem even harder to imagine. However, this weekend, that’s exactly what happened – and great fun it was too!

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The Animal Catcher Adventure challenge

Let me paint the picture. Last Saturday saw Pilots on Safari take place at West Midlands Safari Park. As if the 4 mile long safari drive with over 600 animals wasn’t enough excitement, there was all sorts to see and do with the Adventure Theme Park and the Discovery Trail. As well as all that was on offer from the Safari Park, we opened and closed the day in worship together and had an Animal Catcher Adventure challenge where the Pilots could collect stickers from different points all around the site in order to complete the game.

DSC_0255 600pxThe sun shone down for most of the day, and there was so much to see and do. Yet that wasn’t what made the day feel so special. Having grown up within it, I often think that the URC feels a bit like a big family, and bumping into so many people who I knew was really special. It was great to catch up with friends old and new, hearing how they’re doing and being encouraged by all that’s going on in their churches. That was a real highlight. The really special thing, though, was meeting so many people who I hadn’t met before, and seeing everybody having such a great time together.

There’s something so powerful about community that comes from being together, isn’t there? I don’t think that in itself is a surprise, but you might be surprised that a feeling of community would come out in such a big gathering of 1500 Pilots (or people being Pilots for the day). As we shared our stories, discovered new things together, and praised God for the goodness of His creation as one family in Christ, I was struck that it felt a little bit like a glimpse of heaven.

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Closing Worship

All of us had travelled from different places, some in big groups but many in small groups, so it was so encouraging to be reminded that God’s church – the people who gather in Jesus name – is alive and active and doing all sorts of things all over our nation.

Pilots on Safari: a glimpse of heaven. Be sure to join us at the next Pilots Big Day Out – I’ll see you there!

Pilots is a Christian organisation open to all children and young people – you can find out more by heading to pilots.org.uk. Andrew Weston is the current Fellowship of the United Reformed Youth Moderator and writes regularly over at the FURY Moderators Blog: fury.org.uk and on Twitter @Andrew_Weston.

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Persevering in Faith

By John Ellis

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Ewell URC

The congregation of the United Reformed Church at Ewell in Surrey has reached its 150th birthday. I was particularly pleased to be part of the celebration as my great, great uncle, the Rev James Ellis, was their first minister. As an old man he wrote them a letter of congratulation on their Golden Jubilee in 1915, recording his happy memories of the church and sending them a guinea!

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Oldest member Louise Wolsoncroft, 96, helps minister Heather Cadoux cut the 150th birthday cake

Anyone studying the anniversary exhibition soon realises that the story of the congregation goes back much further than the formation of Ewell Congregational Church in 1865. Sixty years before that, a servant girl in Ewell believed God was calling her to be the means of erecting a chapel in the village. Without either a congregation or any money, this was a challenge. Many kindly people tried to persuade Mary Wallis to drop her idea but she was made of sterner stuff. Answers to prayer, careful saving of her meagre earnings and much hard work meant that a succession of more or less suitable premises, starting with a disused slaughterhouse, were acquired for worship. Mary held together a little band of worshippers until a chapel could be built in the High Street and in her old age she could be one of the nine founder members of a properly constituted Congregational Church.

Mary Wallis’ perseverance over decades, even when the response seemed minimal, put me in mind of the pioneer missionaries whose work came alive for me when I was in southern Africa. David Livingstone may have been the most famous missionary of the Victorian era but he only ever converted one African to Christianity. Amongst many of the tribes with whom he worked, a standing joke for years was to mimic Livingstone preaching and singing hymns.

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The church at Kuruman

Livingstone’s missionary father-in-law, Robert Moffat, was the leader of the mission at Kuruman for forty five years (1825-70). Early in his time there he built a church to accommodate 800 at a time when there were only eight converts in the area. These pioneers were sure they were building for the long term and God had a plan. The widespread, vibrant Christianity which is so much part of the fabric of southern Africa today was not something they ever lived to see.

The season of Ascensiontide offers no guarantee of quick results or even visible results at all. We do not know God’s times and seasons. The Ascension does promise us that God is sovereign and that is a basis for faithfulness.

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New Friends

By John Ellis

Spending almost a month visiting partner Churches in Southern Africa meant I made many remarkable new friends. Come and meet a few of them….

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With Bernard Spong

Bernard Spong was the last missionary the London Missionary Society sent to South Africa. He arrived in 1963 and has stayed ever since. He became the equivalent of a Synod Moderator for the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in an area centred on Johannesburg, which under apartheid included the black townships such as Soweto. Particularly after the Soweto student uprisings of 1976, he became increasingly immersed in the underground struggle against apartheid, was banned from radio broadcasting and was under constant surveillance by the Government. In the later stages of apartheid he also developed a key role as the communications expert for the South African Council of Churches, which meant he actually drafted many texts for other, more famous names to issue or speak. Desmond Tutu made Bernard his chaplain. Now in his 80s, his story of where God led a Manchester boy, who first attended the local Congregational church because it offered table tennis, is amazing.

 

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Alison Gibbs and Peggy Kabonde

Alison Gibbs is still in harness as a Mission Partner through the Council for World Mission and values her personal roots in the URC. She is headmistress of a state school at the northernmost boundary of Zambia. She is the only white person in the district and as one of few people with a large, reliable vehicle is used to finding herself suddenly having to make it serve as a makeshift ambulance. She has transformed what in Britain would have been dubbed a “failing school” into one with exceptional results, notably in her own subject of mathematics.

 

The Revd Peggy Kabonde is the first woman General Secretary of the United Church of Zambia. I had evidence of her being both a stirring preacher and an excellent administrator. In this Golden Jubilee year of the formation of the UCZ, they are renewing their emphasis on the Gospel and on Unity and their exuberant enthusiasm for both was a tonic.

 

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Mukondi preaching in Bulawayo

The Revd Mukondi Ramulondi serves as the Assembly Moderator of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa and I met him both in South Africa and in Zimbabwe. Alongside his Moderator duties across three countries, he continues as minister in Diepsloot, a very impoverished shanty town a few miles outside Johannesburg. His church congregation provides food and schooling for 500 children every week and rejoice when their efforts allow a child to break out of the cycle of extreme poverty, so vividly illustrated by the sewerage running down the streets.

 

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The Neshangwe Family

The Revds Paul and Lydia Neshangwe, together with their delightful son Melusi, were my hosts for a long weekend in the south of Zimbabwe. It was quickly apparent that they are both exceptional ministers. Paul, highly educated and well read, is entrusted with an striking portfolio of Church roles, which currently include being the Assembly Moderator’s Chaplain for the Uniting Presbyterian Church. Lydia has entered the ministry more recently and a traditional, predominantly white congregation in Bulawayo was astonished and, frankly, horrified when the Presbytery appointed her there for her probationary year: they could not imagine having a minister who was both female and black. Within a year the quality of her leadership and the grace of her personality had completely won them over and they now have nothing but praise for her as she guides the congregation into new areas of mission.

 

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Africa’s Future

It was an immense privilege to meet them all.

 

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Fresh Thinking

St. Andrew’s with Castle Gate nestles within the embrace of Nottingham Trent University. The growth of that institution is both opportunity and challenge and the congregation has responded with imagination. The newly re-furbished and extended hall will provide a shop window to the passing students and be a hub for community activity.

St. Andrew's with Castle Gate

St. Andrew’s with Castle Gate

As with all new projects there needs to be the patient, discerning phase that lets go of the building in order to further the mission of God. When so many resources and so much energy has been given to a project it would be understandable if the congregation became possessive and conversation focussed on ‘our’ building rather than the gift that is being given to those beyond the existing fellowship. The generosity of the people of St. Andrew’s with Castle Gate in
Act of Dedication

Act of Dedication

giving their building to others is the measure of those who serve a generous God.

Generosity became an underlying theme of the Fresh Expressions Vision Day at Methodist Central Hall. We live in a culture defined by scarcity and yet we follow a God whose generosity breaks down all the barriers we build. As the network of people involved in Fresh Expressions expands it will be a challenge to ensure that a movement that challenges the centre from the edge does not itself become defensive.

The need to change to meet the needs of contemporary mission continue to batter at our comfort zones not least in how we use the gift of ministry of word and sacraments. While

Training in Mission Participants in Taipei

Training in Mission Participants in Taipei

in Taiwan I was told of a seminary in the Unites States that had concluded that in the coming years all pastors would need to have a source of income beyond the church. After research into what might be a suitable skill that could be exercised in all the places that pastors might be called to serve they concluded that plumbing was the most useful.

Should our colleges be equipping people for a dual vocational world that is coming soon?

David Grosch-Miller

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Taiwan Revisited

It is now almost a week since I returned from Taiwan and the celebrations to mark 150 years since James Maxwell, from the Presbyterian Church of England, arrived in the country to preach the Gospel. I have been reflecting upon what the United Reformed Church might learn from this daughter church that has grown in confidence and strength as

Bao-An Temple, Taipei

Bao-An Temple, Taipei

we have declined. Taiwan is a land of different religious and political cultures. Political parties argue over the relationship with mainland China while the aboriginal tribes hold fast to a culture that predates Chinese domination. From a religious perspective Christianity amounts for only 3% of the population. Walking through Taipei with a Cantonese speaking former missionary we engaged in conversation with a local man who had never before heard the Cantonese word for Christian and had no idea what religion we came from.

A walk through the streets of Taipei will take you past temples to Confucius and Tao, the smell of incense being burned in memory of ancestors at family shrines claims your attention and the rich variety of culture and religion is impossible to ignore. If anything this diversity of competing forces seems to sharpen the missionary aims of the church rather than to diminish or dilute it. The present mission focus is the ‘One-leads-One New Doubling Movement’, the basic guiding principles of which are “Identity, Commitment and Growth”.

Taipei Confucius Temple

Taipei Confucius Temple

The Confession of Faith from 1985 perhaps gives a clue to the energy of the PCT, the aim to become a sign of hope through love and suffering is expressed and repeated by the church of today. Perhaps we in the west have forgotten that suffering is to be expected and if not welcomed neither can it be avoided. Always the commitment to the service of those for whom no one else speaks prevails whatever the cost. The early missionaries were committed to equipping local people to take responsibility for the continuing work. The ministers of the United Reformed Church might consider that equipping the saints is more necessary to the health of the church than relieving them of the
Sunset over Taipei

Sunset over Taipei

responsibility to witness in every aspect of our lives.

David Grosch-Miller

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Confessing the Faith

Mission through service was a recurring theme as the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT) celebrated their 150th anniversary. In 1865 Dr James L. Maxwell of the Presbyterian Church of England began the mission that has grown into the confident church of today. Maxwell was joined by George L. Mackay from the Presbyterian Church of Canada,

Mackay Memorial Hospital, Taipei

Mackay Memorial Hospital, Taipei

whose medical mission is now continued through different branches of the Mackay Memorial Hospital. Mackay was the first to introduce Western medicine to Taiwan (then known as Formosa). His philosophy of treating all equally and caring for the poorest lives on in the hospital core value: ”Loving others as ourselves, actively caring for minorities and the disadvantaged”

Again and again representatives of the world wide Reformed family were reminded that the work of the church is to love unconditionally. Assembly representatives were asked if they were ready to serve the needs of others rather than their own and urged to do the work in society that nobody else would do. That didn’t stop the Assembly falling into the trap of devoting more energy to procedural matters than to matters of substance. We have all been there!

]The example of self-giving is of course enshrined in the nearest that the Reformed family gets to a canonised Saint, Dr. C.M. Kao. The former General Secretary spent four years in prison because of his commitment to the cause of freedom and his refusal to compromise his faith. He spoke movingly to the International guests of that time in prison as a God-given opportunity to witness to his fellow prisoners. We were awed by the outflowing of grace from this man of God but also impressed by the enthusiasm and passion from the young pastor who answered questions on church growth. “Tell people that they don’t have to do anything; God loves them 100%” was his advice, “’Give God the glory and don’t dwell on the negative”. ‘ He observed that it helped that the elderly eight people that comprised his congregation on arrival had told him that the future of the church was not within the building but outside of it. Today the church he leads has a regular attendance of sixty-two adults and eighteen children.

150th. Anniversary Service

150th. Anniversary Service

The PCT has accepted the challenge to “make our Church the sign of love through hope and suffering”. That is not without risks in a country that lives in tension with powerful neighbours and where the struggle to be recognised as an independent nation is politically controversial. But the Israel of the Bible had a similar challenge. My URC heart was gladdened to hear that the Church should not be eager to share power with governments, that we fear only

by Elizabeth Gray-King

by Elizabeth Gray-King

God and that our role is to love the people of the land. The theme of sharing not only the past but the future is captured in the art work created by Elizabeth Gray-King and present as a gift at the 60th Assembly of the PCT. We are challenged to think less of the church and more of the Christ that heals and inspires us.

David Grosch-Miller
Taipei April 2015

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Assets or Liabilities?

By John Ellis

I have been thinking about buildings a good deal lately. Most of the wealth of the United Reformed Church is tied up in buildings. Some of them are undoubtedly hard-working assets, enabling all sorts of Christian witness that would be harder without a physical base fully under the local church’s control. Others seem to be an exhausting distraction from effective mission.

I hope that there is a strong response to the series of roadshows that our Joint Property Strategy Group is taking around Britain, from Edinburgh to Plymouth, between May and July. These will stimulate fresh thinking on how to use buildings creatively, with plenty of good news stories of what can be done. More details are available from Kim Medford-Vassell at Medford-VassellK@methodistchurch.org.uk or 020 7467 5183.

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Castle Hill Church, Ipswich

I found an interesting building when sharing in a service for the Ipswich and East Suffolk Area Partnership. The Castle Hill church was erected by the local Congregationalists in 1956 to serve as the church for what became three large Ipswich estates. Its striking architecture meant it became the youngest church building of any denomination to be listed. It also meant it is a prominent landmark on its excellent site. The main space can face one way for worship and all the furniture, including the pulpit, can easily be removed and the seating face the opposite way to use a well-equipped stage. It is a busy building through the week and supplemented by a 1970s hall. This adjoins a kitchen and is suitable for sports, not least by the church’s Girls’ Brigade company.

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Derek Pledger at the organ

An unusual sharing with the local community was that the organ was a former cinema organ. The local Ipswich Light Organ Music Society have a suitably large hall for their regular recitals on the historic 1930s instrument, while the church has use of the less exotic features of the organ for accompanying worship. It was a reminder that fruitful partnerships with our communities can take many forms.

 

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Dragons and Socks

Greenock West URC

Greenock West URC

The children of Inverclyde URC congregations had been challenged to provide the artwork for the Mothering Sunday card to be given to the congregations of Greenock East, Greenock West and Port Glasgow. If the heart bearing the inscription ‘Wonder Mum caring for kids’ won the prize for honesty then the three dragons stole the show for originality. The congregation also celebrated the generosity that enabled a substantial gift of knitted goods to be donated to charities working with children in Eastern Europe. Dragons and knitted socks may not appear to have much in common but there is something about imagination, common sense and using the gifts that we have.Greenock 2

In these changing times we need the imagination to see things differently. It is easy, if ultimately unrewarding, to keep repeating what we have always done. Perhaps we do need some dragons to burn away some of the old assumptions and set us free to fly and explore new ways of being the faithful people of God. And as we explore and re-imagine the church of tomorrow we will need to know the gifts we have. Knitted socks are very important for keeping feet warm, they may not be spectacular but the desire to share a gift with others in need is at the heart of the Gospel. The good folk of Greenock had a gift and found an outlet for their generosity. All congregations would benefit from knowing what gifts they possess and then finding ways of giving them away without any expectation of reward. Learn to live like that and we will find ourselves turning faith into action.

Greenock 4Ministry and ministers come in all shapes and sizes but it works best when none of us take ourselves too seriously and we can laugh together and enjoy the God who challenge us to combine imagination and gifts in celebration.

David Grosch-Miller

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Devon Travels

By John Ellis

My great grandfather has been travelling around with me lately, although the Treasurer is pleased it has been at no cost to the United Reformed Church.

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Dawlish URC

At Dawlish, exactly 144 years after the present building was opened and approximately 200 years after the fellowship covenanted to form a Congregational church, I had the privilege of leading worship standing on the spot where he would have stood when married in that chapel in 1881. The Ferris family, into which he married, were early supporters of the new Congregational church and remained active in it for the next 150 years.

Not long after, George Ellis and his bride settled in Exmouth and became members at Glenorchy Congregational Church. His special focus was the Sunday School and a physical link is the desk chair he was given by them when he left Exmouth to move his business to Exeter in 1902. There he built the house that I grew up in, and where I stayed overnight on my Devon visits.

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New entrance at Glenorchy with secretary Jenny Newman and minister Robert Jennings

Both at Glenorchy and Dawlish I saw evidence of hard work to adapt to the 21st century. At Glenorchy the huge Sunday School buildings in which my great grandfather taught disappeared in a redevelopment deal that has given the church a splendid and well-equipped hall. The sense of welcome extends to a door that opens automatically as one approaches it.

At Dawlish the buildings are also very extensive and in an even more prime site in the centre of the town. As in a number of our churches, their outreach and community potential outstrips the available human resources from the church’s membership. It was encouraging to find imaginative ecumenical solutions emerging, not least through United Christian Action in Dawlish and District (UCADD) with an impressive Board of Directors and active participation from four of the town’s main churches. This allows the most appropriate building, regardless of denomination, to be used for each of the churches’ activities. I am sure my great grandfather would have appreciated UCADD’s entrepreneurial spirit.

While thinking entrepreneurially, perhaps our Retired Ministers Housing Society would like to set up a branch office in South Devon. There seems to be plenty of business there. I heard some good ministerial stories in Dawlish and my visit to Glenorchy included an entertaining lunch with a group of ministers who seemed retired only in name, including the Revds Peter Brain and Michael Diffey, whose ministries have included years of service in denominational roles. It was a reminder of the vast debt the United Reformed Church owes to active, cheerful, retired ministers.

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Great grandfather’s Glenorchy chair

To which great grandfather wants to add that his minister brother was in pastoral charge until the day he died aged 87, a few hours after preaching enthusiastically about heaven.

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Better together…

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, with its warm hospitality and inviting grounds, was an appropriate place for the Assembly Ministries Committee to meet. The agenda, as is often the case for hard pressed committees, was full of challenge and opportunity. Conversation flowed as we grappled with issues of deployment, the use of ministers and what leads to growth. Deployment is a live issue for many congregations, and the ministers that serve them, but we don’t always get to the basics of what we want ministers to do. If we are serious about mission it isn’t just a question of how many congregations ministers are expected to give pastoral care and spiritual leadership to but how ministers and congregations together wrestle with a shared vocation. We are all called to the task of ministry and we need to be clear in our purpose and our expectations of one another.

IMG_0047Worship this week was with the lively congregation of Hadleigh, Suffolk and we enjoyed being together around the table of grace. The conversation in the Church Meeting, that followed worship, was respectful and considered. The congregation considered their response to the question whether Assembly should give permission to those congregation who wish to offer equal marriage. Much has been written elsewhere on this subject but what impressed me from Hadleigh was the genuine desire to create a safe space where people could express their views. Much concern was expressed of the need to hold together people of diverse views within all the councils of the church. Having respect for difference while continuing to be open to the leading of the Spirit is at the heart of who we are as a Reformed family.

Inspire

Inspire

The splendid lunch gave an opportunity for further sharing and, at my table at least, we did wonder why we seem to give so much energy to what we disagree about instead of to the greater abundance of what unites us.

Now it is off to the -24C temperatures of Northern Wisconsin!

David Grosch-Miller

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Think, Pray, Vote

By John Ellis

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JPIT Conference in Coventry Central Hall

As the last 100 days to the General Election count down, nearly 400 converged on Coventry for a day preparing for a Christian contribution to the Election campaign. Thoroughly prepared by the staff of our Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT: Baptist, Methodist and URC), the day also followed the publication of the lengthy Pastoral Letter from the Bench of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England.  We were not engaged in party politics or denominational politics but seeking a Gospel lens through which to view our political culture.

Having first discussed these matters with Justin Welby when he was a rural Curate, and knowing that he was keen as Archbishop of Canterbury to have some engagement with the United Reformed Church, I was delighted he accepted my invitation to be our morning keynote speaker. I understand those who feel he should have addressed a General Assembly not an ecumenical event, but his diary makes an Assembly Moderator’s life look positively lazy and had we restricted the invitation to Assemblies he would not have been able to accept until 2018 at the very earliest. And for me personally, working ecumenically with Methodists and Baptists feels like honouring the URC’s DNA, rather than corrupting it.

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Archbishop Justin enjoying questions from the floor

The Archbishop’s address (now available as a podcast) encouraged us to notice the positives in our political scene, such as the unexpectedly low unemployment figures. He commented that over his two years as Primate his respect for our political leaders had generally increased, not diminished, as he had got to know them as individuals and learnt directly about their motivations. Nonetheless, he robustly rejected any notion that the Church should stay out of politics and suggested that the Sermon on the Mount would probably have been as popular in some sections of the British media as his bishops’ letter. He observed that the Pastoral Letter had been condemned by almost everybody except for the minority who had actually read it!

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The Archbishop with the URC Youth and Assembly Moderators

The JPIT Conference also provided a variety of workshops to equip church members for their work locally, including one led by our Youth Moderator, Andrew Weston, on the important question of young people’s engagement with the political process. It also saw the launch of JPIT’s own Election Pack and was properly held within worship at each end of the day. I hope this event will be a springboard for godly action as all the Churches accept their responsibility to be salt and light amongst the electorate as we approach 7 May.

For a short film about the conference have a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XL9QP1ojwZQ&feature=youtu.be&noredirect=1

 

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Question and Answer

A visit from an Assembly Moderator can prompt unexpected questions and unearth unusual stories. St. Martin’s, Saltdean is no exception! There are probably many individual members of the United Reformed Church who would like to ask “What is the point of an Assembly Moderator?” The opportunity to respond in a few brief sentences is a challenge. The role is a representative one, a Moderator presides over the meetings of the General Assembly and the Mission Council. The role is shared between an Elder and a Minster of Word and Sacraments. Assembly Moderators, unlike in some other denominations, do not have personal authority and take part in public and ecumenical events on behalf of the Assembly.

St. Martin's, Saltdean

St. Martin’s, Saltdean

At St. Martin’s this led to a conversation about how the voice of the URC is expressed in the public square. Assembly Moderators, when asked for comment on current affairs, will look to see what Assembly has said previously. The problem comes when there has been no conversation in Assembly or Mission Council, do we say nothing or express a personal view? Either way we will upset someone! That led onto the use of social media and the need for congregations to be sharing their views with Synod and Assembly and not waiting to complain about what they don’t like. As a denomination we need more agitation from the ground up.

Where the revolution begins?

Where the revolution begins?


Little known facts about this part of Sussex include the information that Billy Butlin had one of his first hotels in Saltdean and just along the coast is Peacehaven. Originally called New Anzac and conceived as a place of respite and healing at the end of World War II, Peacehaven straddles the Greenwich Meridian and follows a grid pattern familiar in America. Local tales have it that the entrepreneur that designed and built the town, along with much of Saltdean, was not always accurate in the descriptions used to sell the plots for housing. The devil, it appears, was in the detail as it so often is.
The South Downs

The South Downs


David Grosch-Miller

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Under the wings of the angel…

The Angel of the North is an impressive piece of public art that stands on what was once the pithead of Ravensworth Colliery near Gateshead. The church where I was baptised, and where I was taking part in Anniversary celebrations, is a little over a mile away at Cromer Avenue. This was always going to be a trip down memory lane but there were some unexpected bonuses.

The Angel of the North

The Angel of the North

Carla and I stopped, on a gloriously sunny day to take photographs of Gormley’s ‘Angel’. In the bushes nearby a memorial garden has sprung up. People have left floral tributes and cards in memory of daughters, friends and loved ones. Under the wings of the angel is a natural place to remember and to trust with our memories and our hopes. I wonder if we, in the church, are sometimes so concerned to get the theology right that we fail to grasp the emotional and spiritual needs of those around us. Could it be that people find it easier to create their own spirituality than to access what the church has to offer because we get in the way of finding God with our rules and our need for people to think like us?

Andy Raine of the Northumbria Community

Andy Raine of the Northumbria Community

As if to underline the point a group of drummers appeared to make their own music and add another dimension. They were led by Andy Raine, a founder member of the Northumbria Community. Andy is a free spirit by anybody’s definition and here he was on a February morning playing drums with a group of men seeking an alternative way of sharing faith and being alive to the movement of the Spirit. I am not sure whether they would see themselves as a parallel church but their drumming sounded as if they were giving the Angel a heartbeat.

Sunday morning was a time of giving thanks, of laughing with friends from 40+ years ago. The point was made that in that place I am known as Eileen’s little brother rather than as a Moderator of General Assembly, beneath the Angel we are all equal. With friends from other local churches we celebrated the faith that gives hope and a promise of the future. The heartbeat of the angels is the faith of the people that needs to be shared and set free.

Cromer Avenue, Gateshead

Cromer Avenue, Gateshead

David Grosch-Miller

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Down the Danube

By John Ellis

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King Stephen and Catherine Ball enjoy the snow

Hungary was established as a Christian Kingdom in the year 1000 by King Stephen. During the Reformation, strong Lutheran and Reformed presences were established alongside the continuing Roman Catholic strand. Christian, Muslim and Communist Empires have sought to dominate the territory in the centuries since. Its beautiful capital city of Budapest therefore offered a rich context for a Synod of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) at which the Rev Dr Catherine Ball and I represented the United Reformed Church. There were 48 other Churches present from Scotland to Italy and from France to Georgia.

CPCE is dominated by the German Lutheran tradition. Their definition of “Protestant” means that the Anglicans are excluded as ineligible, the German Churches pay most of CPCE’s bills and the default language is German, with everyone else having to manage in English. After one intervention, a kind German lady complimented me on speaking “very good English”.

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Synod in session

As the Synod is not a decision-making body, we had plenty of time to explore together both common and different elements of our heritage and to reflect on shared problems and opportunities. People from nations that had been at war with each other within the lifetimes of some present knelt together at the Communion rail when we worshipped in a Lutheran church that was bombed in 1944. Highly and painfully contemporary were the stories of the struggles of the Reformed Church in the Ukraine, which values its links with our Southern Synod.  We enjoyed a memorable moonlit cruise down the Danube through the heart of the city, during which we also heard an address about the economic challenges for Hungary.

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Hungarian Parliament from the Danube

Many of the internal Church challenges were very familiar. Financial problems threatened to become too dominant in many Churches, with some Churches from former Soviet Bloc countries still adjusting to the state handing back to the Church responsibility for paying Pastors. Most of the historic Churches were enduring numerical decline, some very rapidly. The lack of young people at the Synod was noticed. My Norwegian opposite number said that they pay a modest salary to their Moderator so that a wider range of lay people can consider accepting nomination.

What will remain more prominently in the memory, however, is being embraced in a community of Christians which treasures more explicitly than many in the URC the core revelations of the Reformation and remains convinced that through them comes the confidence to believe in the ultimate triumph of the purposes of God. As Luther wrote, A safe stronghold our God is still.

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Bishop Libby Lane

By John Ellis

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York Minster

Constance Todd, shortly to become Constance Coltman, was ordained to the ministry of word and sacraments in the Congregational tradition in 1917. Another milestone on the same journey was reached when Libby Lane was consecrated a bishop in the Church of England and it was a privilege to be one of the official ecumenical guests participating in the service. Indeed Jackie Embrey, our Mersey Synod Moderator, and I led the ecumenical procession down the long nave of York Minster. In truth this was for the purely practical reason that the Head Verger was a confident we knew where we were meant to go in the complex seating plan, but maybe a few of the 1,000 in the congregation thought it symbolically appropriate that where those in the Congregational tradition lead, the rest eventually follow.

Of course not everyone in the Church of England shares the conviction that the Holy Spirit is just as likely to call a woman to Church leadership as a man. When the Archbishop of York asked the congregation whether it was their will that Libby Lane should be ordained a bishop a cry of “It is” was followed by a lone protester coming forward and objecting. The Archbishop calmly read a prepared statement in response, focusing on the legality of the occasion. It made a distinctively Anglican argument, drawing on his obligation to do what the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church had, by the Royal Mandate read earlier in the service, commanded him to do.

Libby Lane was ordained to the episcopate as over one hundred Anglican bishops from England and beyond joined in an act of laying on of hands. A few, such as the Lord Bishop of Chichester, chose to be present but not to join in on grounds of conscience. Nevertheless, within the more profound unity that Christ gives us in the Eucharist, it was possible for me to share the Peace with him and that felt like an important moment too. Amongst much else, this grand occasion was a case study in ways of handling difference.

Grand and historic it undoubtedly was and amongst the questions put to the new Bishop of Stockport was “Will you strive …. for the visible unity of Christ’s Church?” to which she replied “By the help of God, I will”. We must pray that this appointment and the new norm it represents will not just refresh the Church of England but remove one of the blockages to closer ecumenical engagement in England.

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Bishopthorpe Palace

The Archbishop invited some of us to lunch afterwards at Bishopthorpe Palace, a home somewhat larger than the average URC manse, where a blazing log fire in the State Banqueting Room was an effective antidote to the Yorkshire winter weather. Cardinal Wolsey, absentee Archbishop of York, looked down on us from his portrait and we were glad that there is more to Henry VIII’s Church of England than Wolf Hall.

 

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Youth Assembly

It isn’t very often that I am the oldest person in the room at a URC event but that was the situation at Youth Assembly at Whitemoor Lakes. Lively worship, engaging keynote addresses, informed discussion and plenty of fun were the ingredients of this celebration of belonging to the United Reformed Church. There will be other and more detailed reports of this event but the importance of this gathering to the whole church cannot be told too often.

Whitemoor Lakes

Whitemoor Lakes

There are bonds of friendship formed at Youth Assembly which will bind people to each other and to the church for years to come. There was a real sense of friendship which was evident even during difficult discussions and a respect for different viewpoints which the whole church would do well to imitate. The theme of the weekend was hidden treasures and participants were encouraged to know themselves treasured by God as well as having gifts to offer.

DSC_0264There was time given to internal re-structuring and wrestling the name. Underneath was the question we all wrestle with, when is it time to let go that which has served us well that we might serve the purposes of God better? It was refreshing to hear the commitment to removing the stigma to mental health issues. The work of Christian Aid was promoted and resolutions passed to keep the needs of the most vulnerable at the top of our agendas.

FURY Advisory Board

FURY Advisory Board

A new FURY advisory board was inducted, alongside Andrew Weston as Moderator, and we can have confidence that these people will deliver on the promise to keep work among young people a priority of the church. The Ceilidh on Saturday night ensured that fun was not forgotten. I know that people will come away with many good memories. (I am still enjoying the telling of the parable of the talents to a soundtrack of Abba songs!) There are many older people who need to learn from Youth Assembly that being a person of faith can be challenging and fun. Belonging to the United Reformed Church is about building and sustaining friendships with other disciples and with God.

David Grosch-Miller

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A Bethlehem Pastorate

By John Ellis

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Pastor Nihad

On an ecumenical Study Tour of Israel/Palestine I met a wide range of people. Many members of the United Reformed Church would instinctively warm to Pastor Nihad. He leads an independent local church which tries to stay free of the complications and restrictions of the historic “established” Church traditions. His congregation uses a utilitarian building without expensive decoration or tourist appeal. He has a heart for evangelism, believing Jesus Christ to be the unique Son of God. He has a mixed congregation of around 300, keen to take their faith seriously. The noticeboards in the hall show evidence of a lively Junior Church. His main request of us was for prayer.

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Immanuel Evangelical Church, Bethlehem

 

 

But unlike any URC congregation, his church is in Bethlehem. His people feel vulnerable to political instability, dramatically illustrated by the 25 feet high wall that now separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Many of his congregation ask him for advice on whether to leave the country, given their sense that many would be glad to be rid of the Christian minority. A group of local youths bombarded our coach, although fortunately with nothing more dangerous than snowballs.

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Manger Square with Christmas tree and mosque

One could turn aside from all this and follow the peaceful pilgrim trail to the church in Manger Square, and enter the church on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. It claims to be the oldest church in continuous use in the world. It is elaborately decorated in the style of the Greek Orthodox Church, which could hardly be more different from that of our tradition. The centrepiece, at which visitors are invited to pray for a few moments, is a silver star set into the floor. When I reached it, I found someone had left on the star an American one dollar bill. Whatever that was about, it was a sharp reminder that you cannot keep contemporary global influences out of life in Israel/Palestine.

And almost everything Nihad told us, with deep conviction and moving passion, was contested by someone else we met. For example, both the Israeli Government spokesman and the representatives of the Palestinian leadership insisted that they would honour and protect Christians. They inhabited a radically different story. Each conversation served to underline how the complexities of different narratives make any progress towards a lasting peace with justice seem almost impossible, at least while present leaders remain in place.

Perhaps it was a relief that what Nihad most sought was our prayers.

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New beginnings

After a week of news dominated by the atrocities in Paris and Nigeria the wind sweeping across Scarborough’s North Bay was strangely comforting. The threat posed by extremism is real and not restricted to one faith. Christianity has its own share of violent extremists who excuse their self-deluded fantasies in the name of religion. A short

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

drive north from Scarborough is Whitby where the Synod of the same name saw the triumph of Roman over Celtic customs. We often find it easier to label and condemn than we do to embrace and celebrate difference.

The congregation at St. Andrew’s, Scarborough is celebrating 150 years in their present building, although the history of the congregation goes much further back to the watershed of the 17th century. Like many they find IMG_9756themselves in a building built on a grand scale for another time. The desire to see the building used by community groups is a testimony to their resilience and determination. Buildings matter, they are a visible sign of our presence and a reminder of where we have come from. But on the chilly wind swept January day it was the warmth of the welcome and the laughter of friends that spoke of a faith that endures.

Scarborough South Bay

Scarborough South Bay

We grieve with the people of France and voice our own concerns that violence breeds fear and fear divides. And in the face of anxiety we turn not in on ourselves but towards each other and to the God who calls us to worship. At the beginning of a new year it was good to be reminded that no matter the difficulties we face, as communities and as individuals, then we are not alone. The God of the stable is the God of the moment and lives despite the darkness.

David Grosch-Miller

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Christmas Diary

By the Moderator’s Hat

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My Self-Portrait

Hibernation seemed to be my permanent lot until one of the Moderators rescued me and now takes me out with him on visits occasionally.  A memorable one was to a grand library where the portraits on the wall looked as if they understood perfectly my eighteenth century fashion sense. Perhaps more doubtful was when a retired Professor there decided to try me on, but he was a former Moderator of General Assembly so I suppose it was alright.

Probably the highlight of my year was meeting someone called Irene who has been in the same church for 100 years, 80 of them as a full church member. Yet even more remarkable was the story of the minister, David Picton, who baptised her. Nearly half the way through the First World War, he had an army officer staying at the manse who showed him how a hand grenade worked. Even the officer did not know though, and the grenade went off, killing both the minister and the soldier.

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Mr Happy

While I enjoy my outings, I am really rather old, and the Moderator’s mascot, Mr Happy, gets out more. Yellow and cheerful, Mr Happy is recognised by everyone in the URC from small children to great grandmas. Extra special was one church that actually invited Mr Happy to make a return visit on Christmas Day. Although he had to endure being wrapped up in paper for 24 hours, which was a bit claustrophobic, it meant he was revealed dramatically in front of over 150 people to underline God’s gift of Joy at Christmas.

Really it is rather wonderful for us to be able to travel around with the Moderator and meet the extraordinary family that is the United Reformed Church.

[PS If still unsure what is the point of this blog, try writing down the first letter of each sentence]

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The Advent Godfather

 

By John Ellis

My most recent Advent Sundays have illustrated the variety of the United Reformed Church with visits to two congregations with radically different histories. I discovered they were linked by the Godfather of the minister’s wife at the first being a key luminary in the creation of the second.

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Witham United Reformed Church

The URC at Witham in Essex traces its history back to a 1662 ejected Vicar and is in the Congregational tradition. It operates from a Victorian chapel, which was skilfully refurbished in the 1980s, and occupies an excellent site in the main street of the town. Its community facilities are busy through the week, with several groups directly related to the church’s own work and led by church members. Membership today, at 170, is at the same level as it was 20 years ago, making it now one of the largest 20 churches in the denomination.

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Hampton Park United Reformed Church

Hampton Park URC in Hereford is well outside the city centre, being built to serve a new estate in the 1960s. An influx of Scots coming to work at a local factory led to a group of enthusiasts persuading the then General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of England, Arthur Macarthur, to support their vision for a church plant (alongside his Godfather responsibilities). A modern building was erected at a prominent road junction on the estate and close to the parish church. The church grew to around 80 members with lively youth activities in its first generation of life. Like many other URCs, an ecumenical strategy for the estate was key to their vision, but sadly this never really grew beyond friendliness with the Anglicans into a coherent common mission. Membership has declined and some of the very faithful stalwarts wondered to me where the next generation of leaders are coming from.

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Christmas tapestries at Hampton Park

Pondering my visits, I once again found myself wondering about our ministerial deployment policies. At Witham there is a full-time stipendiary minister (who happens to be my brother) who although he also has pastoral charge of a small village chapel is complemented by a part-time Self-supporting Minister (what some still call “Non-Stipendiary”). By contrast, the popular new minister at Hampton Park, Martin Hardy, is the only URC stipendiary minister in Herefordshire and has four widespread causes to lead. As I heard and read about Hampton Park’s story, I was struck at how in the early years of confidence and growth there was a succession of energetic young ministers, some straight from college, able to give their full energies to the one church, even when it only had 30 members. The wider Church had caught the vision and deliberately provided substantial subsidy.

Giving our ministers pastorates with multiple churches in them is now our norm; it is easy to see why it happens. I wonder how many of our Synods would today be willing to deploy an outstanding young minister full-time in a setting with 30 members. Do we still believe in that sort of courageous risk-taking? I hope so.

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Advent thoughts…

As Advent began I found myself sitting in the congregation at Cumnor URC near Oxford. For once I was able to sit and listen as my wife, who is also my chaplain, led the worship. This was an opportunity to receive and to listen.

Cumnor URC

Cumnor URC

We sometime hear comments that the seasons of the year are no longer distinct, with warmer winters and wetter summers, but when we fail to mark the distinctive seasons of the liturgical year we are in danger of losing our way. Advent is not only about preparation it is about paying attention to our needs. Unless we know our need of God to come and save us from ourselves then incarnation has little relevance. The beginning of the Gospel, as Mark so eloquently puts it, is not in the stable but in the cry of the prophet for the people of God to be comforted.

St. John's, Warrington

St. John’s, Warrington

The following Sunday I was with the congregations of St. John’s Warrington and Elmwood Avenue. The church was set out for a musical to be performed in the afternoon which gave the opportunity for different lighting and seating arrangements. Being disturbed from our usual comfort zones is a good reminder that God comes to answer the needs of the world and not to save the church. If the church can be used to bring hope and healing, joy and fulfilment to the world then that is cause for celebration. If the church becomes too pre-occupied with its own needs and spends its time pointing backwards then the future is not in it and it will die.

Lighting the Way

Lighting the Way

The Word of God is always future orientated challenging us to imagine a future that is shaped by the life of the one history calls Jesus of Nazareth and who we know as the Christ child. The church with a future is not the one that seeks to imprison people with the prejudices of the past but the one that entices people to dream of what might be possible with God at our side.

David Grosch-Miller

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Brothers and Sisters

By John Ellis

I was privileged to offer the Right Hand of Fellowship on behalf of the United Reformed Church when Brother Joachim Kreusel was consecrated a Bishop of the Moravian Church and leader of their British Province.

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Moravian emblem: Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow Him

The Moravians are a very small Church in this country. They have fewer than 30 congregations, including united ones with the URC in Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford and London. Their total British membership is much smaller than that of any of the URC Synods. Nonetheless they are a key part of the story of Christianity in these islands: it was watching Moravian devotion to Christ that provided the stimulus the Wesleys needed to move from dry religion to a living Faith. The Moravians can reasonably claim to be midwives of Methodism.

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Hornsey Moravian Church

Internationally the Moravians are a reminder of how world Christianity is changing. They have around three-quarters of a million members worldwide but with the large majority in Africa. In that continent they continue to grow. The migration to Britain of African and Afro-Caribbean Moravians has been a key influence on their congregations in London, which now enjoy a mix of cultural influences. The consecration service was held in one of these churches in Hornsey, and the singing was accompanied jointly by a large Edwardian tracker action organ and a drum kit. The refreshment queue in the hall afterwards was enlivened by the exuberance of a steel band.

P1010182Although the Moravians have bishops, they share many of the principles held dear by the United Reformed Church. Knowing all to be equal before God, they call each other Brother and Sister. Brother Joachim, the new Bishop, grew up in East Germany before the end of Communism and would well understand the URC conviction that Christ has given the Church a government distinct from that of the state. His conviction that ministers are to serve as the Church calls meant he was willing to uproot his young family in 1998 and come from Germany to help offset a shortage of ministers in the British Province. His “loan” has now become permanent.

As a small Church itself, the United Reformed Church is enriched by its friendships with other small Churches witnessing alongside us.

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Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving will have an added poignancy for Carla and me this year. As many people are aware we had to make an unexpected visit to Northern Wisconsin because of the death of Carla’s father at the beginning of November.

Mincoqua in winter

Mincoqua in winter

Thanksgiving traditionally is a time for families to gather and to share the blessings of life. When death casts its shadow it takes a little more effort to see the blessings, there is an emptiness that memories only partially fill. Like many other families we will draw strength from each other and look for words of comfort and encouragement.

Into my Thanksgiving will be the blessings of being part of the family of the United Reformed Church. Having missed Mission Council it was business as usual with visits to Cwmbran and Knaresborough. It was good to share in the

Ebenezer Centre Pontnewynydd

Ebenezer Centre Pontnewynydd

laughter and the joy of congregations gathered for worship and to hear a little more of their story. Cwmbran United features in the Guinness Book of Records because the couple who laid claim to the longest marriage in Britain lie buried in their graveyard! A Saturday evening Hymnathon to raise money for the Street Pastors was followed by a united service on the Sunday morning. Ebenezer, at Pontnewyndd, is the other congregation in the Torfaen Pastorate where the new centre is set to serve the local community through offering IT training as well as café, drama club, gardening and a range of activities waiting to be rolled out.

Knaresborough URC

Knaresborough URC

A visit to Knaresborough was a return to a congregation I served as an Interim Moderator in the late 1980’s. The world has changed a great deal since then but the commitment to living out the gospel remains undiminished. We shared some anxieties about the future as well as memories of the past and reminded each other that faith is about trusting God and one another. As the church continues to wrestle its way to a fresh understanding of the future we count our blessings, give thanks that we are part of a family of faith and look for new ways to encourage and support one another.

David Grosch-Miller

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Unitatis Redintegratio

By John Ellis

Yes, it was a new phrase to me too. It is the title of a Roman Catholic Decree arising from the Second Vatican Council issued in November 1964. As it formally declared that the authentic Church could be found in denominations other than the Roman Catholic, some see it as the crucial moment when the Roman Catholic Church took ecumenism into its system.

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Leeds Roman Catholic Cathedral

The 50th anniversary of the Decree was marked by an ecumenical seminar at the Catholic Cathedral in Leeds to which I was invited as a formal representative of the United Reformed Church. It was good to see a number of other URC members present too. Four speakers from different Church traditions, including the Revd Dr David Cornick as General Secretary of Churches Together in England, explored the impact and continuing relevance of the Decree and its context.

Compared with most URC discussions on ecumenism, the time scales within which the speakers considered progress were strikingly long. It was suggested that God only takes one stride every decade. This would certainly provide some reason for a lack of urgency odd to the average URC mind.

It was also striking that nearly all the questions from the floor were from Free Church Christians pressing for more on actions now: the seminar sub-title was The last 50 years; the next 50 years and it felt as if the first half had been given much more attention than the second half. Nonetheless it was good to be reminded that God sometimes requires us to wait and that such a gathering would have been hardly possible fifty years ago.

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Church Leaders at Ecumenical Vespers

After the Seminar the ecumenical guests were invited to participate in a service called “Ecumenical Vespers” in the Cathedral, at which the Metropolitan Archbishop of Liverpool presided. The climax of the service was a hymn sung to the Virgin Mary in Latin, which showed that not everything changed with Vatican Two.

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A Cross at Banbury

By John Ellis

After Mission Council had worked hard for three days at Swanwick, we left the Synod Moderators there for their monthly two-day meeting. Some of them hardly reached home before it was time for the last minute preparations for their Autumn Synod meetings.

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Southern Synod in discussion on Discipleship

I was pleased to be invited to join my home Synod having a Southern Synod Together day at the URC’s Caterham School. Smiling boarders helped Synod members to find their way around their widespread campus. The theme for the day was Growing Disciples, which fitted well with some of what I said in my address to the General Assembly in July. After the interactive session I led, the Synod formally resolved to adopt a Resolution of the Synod Council to make this theme the centrepiece of their future work.

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S Mary’s Church, Banbury

From there I travelled to the furthest northern outpost of the Wessex Synod ready for the elaborate town celebrations of Remembrance Sunday in Banbury. Unmissable at the centre of the town is St Mary’s Church, a very large and elegant Georgian Church, which on a typical Sunday hosts an Anglican service followed by a URC one. But for Remembrance Linda the Vicar and Lynda the URC minister combine with the Royal British Legion and the Town Council in the organising of an ecumenical act of worship. Around 800 attended and I had the privilege to reflect with them on the experience of representing the United Reformed Church at the Cenotaph in Whitehall last year in the light of Jesus’ promise that Blessed are the Peacemakers.

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Revd Lynda Spokes at the War Memorial

Afterwards the huge congregation processed to the town War Memorial and wreaths were laid there on behalf of all sections of the community. I was particularly pleased that for the first time this year a wreath was laid on behalf of the Street Pastors. In Banbury, as in so many other towns, this work is an ecumenical venture drawing on people from nine different churches. Street Pastors so often defuse situations that if allowed to develop might not lead to a World War but could easily generate violence. We may not be able to solve Syria or Afghanistan on our own, but we can honour those who made sacrifices for peace by supporting that special sort of salt and light that Street Pastors represent in our local communities.

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The Street Pastors’ Wreath

For blessed are the peacemakers.

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Mining for Truth

By John Ellis

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The Tudor Gatehouse

In the far corner of what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls his “secret garden”, he has five beehives. The community of bees went about their tidy and highly ordered lives while inside Lambeth Palace two communities, who often meet only to sting each other, were debating the untidiness of disordered life in human communities. The leaders of the world’s major mining companies were discussing with the British Churches their ethical dilemmas.

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Lambeth Palace

The mining companies know they have a bad reputation for destroying communities in poor countries where they impose their mines. Church representatives, especially through our ethical investment work, have told them so loudly. Church leaders know they will be criticised if they appear to cosy up to multinationals. But both sides swallowed their doubts and engaged in serious debate.

This Day of Reflection was the culmination of a careful process, in which the URC has played a full part, to ensure the day was well-informed and that personal relationships were strong enough to cope with frank talking. The fact that the mining companies had asked for the process was crucial. The fact that the leaders of companies representing 90% of the world’s mining industry turned up was remarkable. The fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury used to work in the oil industry was a providential bonus.

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Spot the beehives….

Justin Welby ensured the day was held within a pattern of worship and prayer and the mining company people all joined in. A Eucharist in the Palace Chapel at the heart of the day was jointly led by the Archbishop, the President of the Methodist Conference (the grandson of a miner) and this Moderator of the URC (the great grandson of a miner).

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Fareham United Reformed Church

Such extraordinary days rest of course on the faithful work of local churches which nurture those who serve as church leaders and pray for them. It has been good to resume visits to local churches, some of which witnessed for many years before anyone created a multinational. So at Fareham URC in Hampshire we celebrated the 323rd anniversary, including a lunch as good as that at Lambeth Palace; while at the oldest Baptist Church in Exeter we even managed a 358th anniversary. What will our demand for mined metals make the landscape look like in another 358 years?

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Responding to the moment

It has been a busy time in pursuit of the places where God is at work! The latest quest began in Sheffield with the 300th anniversary of worship on the site now occupied by Central URC. Anniversaries can sometimes be the excuse for nostalgia to cloud the memory and reality to take a back seat. Not in Sheffield as they prepare to bring the churches of the city together with a new look ministry designed to face the challenge of today and optimistic about IMG_9664the future.

From Sheffield to Edinburgh and a meeting with representatives of the churches in Scotland to consider the church and nation landscape post referendum. South of the border the debate might have been seen as purely about national identity but the underlying theme is what kind of Scotland do the people want to live in. The debate about what values should shape the future is as relevant in England as it is in Scotland and Wales. The list produced by the

Barrhead volunteers

Barrhead volunteers

Church of Scotland report ‘Our vision – imagining Scotland’s future’ is both challenging and informative. The top ten values distilled from the 4,000 shared were: 1. Equality 2. Fairness 3. Justice 4. Education 5. Respect 6. Honesty 7. Community 8. Opportunity 9. Compassion 10. Tolerance. As the report itself says ‘The dominance of values which focussed on the relational, rather than the personal, was overwhelming. Tackling poverty was the most frequently expressed value which had any economic content, but it was not until #53 on the list that the term “prosperity” appears, the first indication of a value that is associated with wealth and money.’

On to the Liberal Democrat Conference at Glasgow with some of the representatives of the other Free Church Group. The group representing Baptist, Methodist, Quakers, Salvation Army as well as the United Reformed Church quickly agreed on our concerns: the effects of welfare reform on the poorest and most vulnerable, NHS funding, Food Banks,

Asylum Seekers - Drumchapel

Asylum Seekers – Drumchapel

localism, the Lobbying Act. The politicians were polite and it was an opportunity to register concern about any strategy that makes the poor pay for the mistakes of the rich.

The conversation might have been more robust if I had met the politicians after hearing the stories from some of the congregations around Glasgow the following day. Barrhead URC is the distribution point for a Food bank and there I was told of clients being ‘sanctioned’ by the Job Centre for being two minutes late for an appointment, or because they had not met the target for online applications. Apparently lack of access to a computer or computer literacy or even dyslexia does not prevent benefits being stopped for eight weeks. Conveniently being sanctioned also removes you from the statistics of those unemployed. The Food Bank is a lifeline for the poorest and it is no surprise that it is the poorest communities that are the most generous in their giving. Drumchapel Partnership

Community Garden - Priesthill

Community Garden – Priesthill

supports a drop in centre for Asylum seekers and Priesthill maintains a community garden. Both are imprints of compassion in a world that often looks the other way. At Giffnock we had a robust conversation about a whole range of subjects and enjoyed laughter and singing. The family of the church does not recognise the borders of nation or need and welcomes all who want to belong.

All in all plenty of evidence that God is at work through the members of the United Reformed Church!

David Grosch-Miller

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What’s in a name?

When a group of people gathered recently at the Windermere Centre to share their experience of ministry the challenge was to find the appropriate collective description. Non Stipendiary Ministers, Ministers in Secular Employment, Self-Supporting Ministers were descriptions on offer. To describe a person’s ministry depending upon whether she or he are on the URC payroll or not does not seem satisfactory. This was a deeply impressive group of people who brought a rich variety of life experience to the ministry of Word and Sacraments. Some live out their calling in local churches, some in chaplaincies, some in the work place all of them with a deep pastoral heart and a desire to live out the Gospel.

IMG_9614When the United Reformed Church first received this gift of what were first called Auxiliary Ministers and later Non Stipendiary Ministers from the Churches of Christ there was a hope that the world of work and leisure would influence and direct the whole ministry of the church. Regrettably the church has not always been as open as we should have been to what these ministers not on our payroll bring to us. We need to encourage more people to bridge that gap between world and church.

In the break between that event and another gathering at the Centre Carla and I walked up Scafell Pike. The effort

View from the summit of Scafell Pike

View from the summit of Scafell Pike

was sufficiently demanding for us to boast of the achievement and the experience did offer some insight into the journey that the church is on. Part of the route to the summit is across boulders that you need to scramble over, there is no obvious route you set off in hope and trust. There are times when you need to descend in order to ascend and the advice of other walkers is always welcome. For this allegedly retired minister there were moments of exhaustion and doubt as to my ability to complete the climb. When we did get to the top the views were stunning and I will wear the ‘I climbed Scafell Pike’ badge with pride.

Back down the mountain to the conversation ‘When Church and Kingdom Collide’ and further explorations with people

Stockley, Bridge, near Seathwaite

Stockley, Bridge, near Seathwaite

passionate about the United Reformed Church. One phrase that will stay with me is the observation that there can be Kingdom without Church but there cannot be Church without Kingdom. I will continue to seek out signs of the Kingdom in my journeys across the URC.

David Grosch-Miller

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Building Bridges

By John Ellis

P1010092The arrival of the Party Conference season means that our splendid staff in the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) have been briefing Nonconformist Church Leaders ready for the delegations that attend each conference. We began at Manchester with Labour. As usual the United Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Union, Salvation Army and teh Society of Friends were represented.

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The Church Leaders delegation

The Conference was thought rather low key. Ed Miliband may be reflecting on whether a veneer of spontaneity is such a good idea if you forget vital passages. But for us the most valuable part was our discussions with a variety of MPs and MEPs: Anglicans, atheists and others were willing to find time in pressured diaries to talk with us.

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Hilary Benn in full flow

Hilary Benn, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, was personable, energetic and in a hurry. Graham Allen, MP for a poor area of Nottingham had very specific requests for us to pass on to the local churches in his constituency. Jude Kirton-Darling, the Quaker MEP for North East England, encouraged the Churches to promote positive messages that would help counter the impact of more extreme political parties.

We had not previously met Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, but she proved very open and interesting. As Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport she agreed that if Labour won the 2015 General Election the official approach to commemorating the First World War should be reviewed to ensure the story of the Conscientious Objectors is properly honoured. She thought the liberalisation of the gambling industry by the previous Labour Government had been “a massive mistake”. We were also pleased to learn she had made use of the JPIT papers on poverty in Britain.

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Making a point to Stephen Timms

Our time with Stephen Timms MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, was valuable on issues specifically relevant to the Churches. He was not aware of the problems the new Lobbying Act has created for Churches (as our Mission Council will discover at its November meeting) and wanted to examine that further. He also showed us a draft Covenant intended for Local Authorities to agree with faith groups in their area. The principles on which this rests include that “faith communities are free to practise their belief and religious observances without restriction, and to raise their voice in public debate and to be respected, within the framework of UK law.” This seemed a promising initiative.

Amidst the noise and campaigning of the Conference we hope we built some useful bridges for further engagement with politicians and our political process.

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Sunshine and Cheese

By John Ellis     

I am very grateful to readers of this blog and others who have sent kind messages as my fractured arm gradually heals. It is apparently making as rapid progress as could be hoped for even though it still seems a slow process. I no longer take any painkillers.

At my most recent consultation with the specialist, I was told the best medication for the next phase of recovery was “sunshine and cheese”. These are less onerous than the exercises designed to restore the muscles. I think prayer has been in the mix too.

P1010082I am now beginning to resume easy duties and hope to return to something like a normal programme during October. By then I hope shall again be able to think of Zurich not as a place of freak accidents but the key Protestant city where the pioneer Reformer Zwingli had his base. His church continues to dominate the city centre skylines and has a door covered in bronze reliefs depicting incidents from his life.

 

 

 

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CH Dodd and the Great British (URC) Bake Off

DSC04960There is a theme emerging in the early days of this Moderator’s travels. We like to mark celebrations with a cake! The 225th anniversary of Salisbury Park, Wrexham was a weekend of nostalgia, celebration, renewing friendships and new beginnings. A 50 strong community choir began the proceedings with the choir director insisting that we all have a voice, we simply have to learn to use it. A sensible piece of advice for any church community. We all have a story of faith to tell, we have simply got out of the habit of telling it or we get put off by criticism or disinterest. I don’t DSC04966know how many wrong notes had been sung before they got to the level of excellence they now enjoyed but they were a mixed ability choir, that turned no one away, and proud of it.

Anniversaries are an opportunity to welcome back former members and minsters who have moved away and to enjoy shared memories. It was good to see people from across North Wales come together for a lively conversation about where they found hope in their churches. None of the congregations represented were large but they all have big hearts and live generous lives. Food banks, Street Pastors and support for the homeless were shared activities. Salisbury Park shares with other churches in the town to ‘Feed the roofless’. They prepare food and set up a stall in a car park and feed all who turn up whatever the weather and despite the opposition of local retailers. Most of those they feed are the victims of alcohol, drug or gambling addictions. It is in reaching out to others that the gospel is proclaimed.

DSC04970And in case you are wondering this is the church where CH Dodd, one of the great New Testament scholars of the 20th century, first become a church member. The great man once commented that the purpose of the parables was to tease the mind into active thought. There is plenty happening in Wrexham and in the URC across North Wales to sir our thoughts and to give thanks for parables lived out by God’s faithful people.

David Grosch-Miller

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Wedding Cake and Crossroads

IMG_9373When is an Induction of a Synod Moderator like a wedding? The answer could be when there is a cake to be cut as there was when Jacky Embrey was inducted as the Moderator of the Mersey Synod on Saturday September 7th at the Bridge Chapel Centre, Liverpool. It could be when the service spontaneously becomes a celebration and becomes the beginning of a relationship in which the partners commit themselves to a shared future. Representatives of the Synod, together with ecumenical _MG_9364guests, spoke energetically about dreaming dreams and fulfilling visions. The church can sometimes seem intent on viewing the road ahead through the rear view mirror and wonders why it then makes some wrong turns. The conversation over the sandwiches as well as in the music and the words were about the future and we can only hope that remains the direction of travel.

One unexpected ecumenical gen was offered by the Rt. Revd Tom Williams from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool who, while complimenting the preacher, wondered if we should be inviting people of other denominations to play a bigger part in such services.

After a quick trip along the M62 to Hipperholme on the outskirts of Halifax it was more ecumenical activity on Sunday for the anniversary of Christ Church, a Methodist/United Reformed Church LEP. This is a relationship that IMG_9382remains strong and where the partners are eager to keep alive their vision of serving the local community. The building stands on a busy cross roads and if some of our conversation reflected the feeling of standing on the edge there is a commitment to be strong and courageous and to be a faithful witness to the people of Hipperholme. The gem on this occasion came from the children who in thinking about the anniversary reported that church was not the building but the people IMG_9378and that we are all a team. Things happen when we work to support and encourage one another.

Next weekend it will be Wrexham and churches from across North Wales. I have no doubt that there will be other gems to share!

David Grosch-Miller

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A Summer Break

By John Ellis

Late August seemed the ideal time to have a short break from all the meetings and emails. They indeed seemed far away when on the south coast of France and travelling on to see my godson in Zurich.

Unfortunately in Zurich a different sort of break occurred as a result of a freak accident. The locals called it a Humerusschaft-Spiralfraktur. If you want to be technical it was a diaphyseal fracture of the right humerus; in plain English a double break in the right arm.

This means there is not likely to be much from me on this blog for a while. David Grosch-Miller will of course continue to offer reflections on his travels.

The worst part of this incident is the long list of people I am now going to have to let down. Please pray particularly for the members of Christ Church Hipperholme, outside Halifax, and Dawlish URC in Devon: both congregations have worked hard in preparation for special anniversary weekends which I shall now be unable to lead.

 

 

 

 

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URC Holiday Forum

It was 1979 that I was last at Swanick for the URC Holiday Forum. The event is much changed but still an important refuge for individuals wanting to maintain their connection to others in the United Reformed Church. IMG_9245Some of the connections were people who knew my sister from her days as Secretary to the Congregational Central Youth Council, others had met my wife Carla, some had been colleagues in Yorkshire or the South West and there was even a couple who I had been best man to 43 years ago!

It is the connection to others that is often the anchor that holds us in the family of faith when fears, doubts, or weariness are the storm clouds that threaten to blow us off course. IMG_9236I was not surprised to be asked if the removal of District Councils had led to even greater isolation for individuals and congregations. My response was to suggest we need to look deeper into ourselves before pining over what is no more. We need to be honest about what is preventing us from meeting with other people to share our faith and respond to the missionary task of sharing God’s love for the world. I doubt it is the lack of opportunity and more to do with how we prioritise our time.

There was amusement that the alternative to meeting the Moderator was the opportunity to learn circus skills. Juggler or tight rope walker seemed to be useful for more than this Moderator! Forum was exploring the theme of Growing the Church and the children utilised the visual aid of a tree whose roots were in scripture and the cross, whose trunk was the people of God and whose branches formed the outline of the UK.IMG_9230 Forum members were to be invited to add the leaves as their mark of commitment. Knowing the roots that connect us to one another is to know that together we can grow and flourish.

David Grosch-Miller

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Copper in Chile

By John Ellis

Multinational companies are viewed with suspicion. This is especially true of mining companies, with a reputation for imposing themselves on defenceless communities in poor countries, ripping out their mineral wealth and leaving a trail of destruction. Add the poor safety record of some mines and the occasional catastrophe and they have an image problem.

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The mountain context

One of the largest mining companies, Anglo American, has more employees around the world than the URC has members. Its CEO, Australian Mark Cutifani, has decided they need to reassess how they do business and explore what operating ethics are appropriate in the 21st century. Although not a Christian himself, he felt there was nobody better than the Churches to help his company undertake such a review.

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Layers of the mountain excavated with trucks below

 

So I found myself with an ecumenical group from several countries at the top of a mountain range in the Andes looking done into a vast hole in the ground where a mountain had once been. This Los Bronces copper mine is the fourth largest in the world and the flagship of the Anglo American operation in Chile. The huge trucks that bring out the copper-rich rock look like ants at the base of the open cast operation. They climb up the zig zag track cut into the side of the mine to dump their loads in a crusher and start the long process of converting an ore containing 0.8% copper to copper products of 99.9% purity.

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Mining shovel…..

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…with Church representatives and hosts inside its scoop

Nobody lives at the high altitude of the mine but its pipelines and related processes directly affect areas where over a quarter of a million people live. If environmental controls failed a far large number could suffer. As well as hearing from the mining company executives, we had meetings with a variety of community groups and some of their priests. We visited schools, a cultural centre, a vocational high school and numerous other facilities paid for by Anglo American rather than the government.

Mining in Chile has been a main engine of remarkable economic growth in Chile over the past generation: copper mining alone generates 60% of the country’s exports. Anglo American generated net revenue of £7bn in Chile last year and paid around a fifth of that in taxes. Every group we met said they definitely wanted Anglo American to continue to operate there and generate jobs and wealth.

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Local teenagers learn technical skills in a High School funded by Anglo American

 

But there were plenty of questions too. Is Chile now too dependent on copper mining? There was plenty of anecdotal evidence that even where Anglo American has good and responsible policies there are other mining companies operating in the country with distinctly less impressive records. How are the less reputable to be brought up to the standards of the best?

Later stages of this international process will include a summit meeting at Lambeth Palace chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury and attended by the leaders of a number of the world’s main mining companies. The URC will remain a prominent contributor.              

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Hopes and Dreams

I confess to some misgivings concerning the commemoration of World War 1. To remember in order to go the extra mile in not repeating the tragedy of war is one thing but to pretend that there is anything glorious in the horror and destruction of human life is to cloud our mind to reality. It was while I was sitting in a park in the urban village of Oak Park on the western edge of Chicago that my mind turned to hopes and dreams. Memorials to the dead of World War 1 are not so common place in that part of the world but the Stars and Stripes blew proudly above the reminder of the part that Americans paid in the ‘war to end all wars’.

Oak Park, Il

Oak Park, Il

What hopes and dreams died in the trenches of the Somme? What are the hopes and dreams that we share across the one hundred years since that fateful day in August 1914 when it all began? What are the hopes and dreams that bind us together as members of the United Reformed Church?

Too often we plan our strategies and makes our choices based upon fear and anxiety. The loss of income or fewer people joining us in church, the loss of power and influence or the fear that comes from being a minority. What differences might occur if we shared our dreams and helped each other fulfil our hopes? Over the next two years I intend to share through this space some of the signs of God at work in our churches. As I sat in the sunshine I couldn’t help reflect that the signs of God’s presence were in the feeding of the hungry and the welcome of the stranger, or the touch of a loved one, or the laughter of friends or a glass of red wine rather than a memorial to our collective failure to settle our differences without resort to violence.

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Be Thy love my power

By John Ellis

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Aberystwyth

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The Three Musketeers: from Ireland, Scotland and the URC

After our General Assembly in Cardiff, I stayed in Wales to complete my Assembly season by speaking at the Presbyterian Church of Wales Assembly in Aberystwyth. A small hotel on the seafront hosted a concentration of Moderators: at breakfast the outgoing and incoming Welsh Moderators, Trefor Morris and Neil Kirkham, shared toast with the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Michael Barry, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, John Chalmers, and me. We then travelled in convoy to the University Great Hall for the Assembly sessions. The formal procession for the Moderator’s Induction saw three moderatorial frogged gowns in rare close proximity.

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The 1914 sanctuary of Fleet URC

Fleet in Hampshire is very definitely back in England and I found the 1914 church building whose centenary we were celebrating now wrapped round with modern and attractive facilities for the use of the community. The formidable Mrs Tomes, who opened the building exactly a hundred years before my visit, said “I now open the door of this Church for the assembling of God’s people, for the conversion of souls, the extension of Christ’s kingdom and the well-being of this town.” The sentiments are just as pertinent a century later and it was encouraging to find the local MP, James Arbuthnot, in the congregation as a sign that the wider community recognised the church’s contribution.

A few days later I was marking 90 rather than 100 years and this time not of a building but of a person. I was honoured to be asked to take part in the Thanksgiving Service for the long life of Bernard Edwards. After moving to Kent in mid career, he was a stalwart of two of our larger churches serving as Church Secretary in both and for a long period as Treasurer at Tonbridge. His dedication and thoroughness became more widely known in his years as Treasurer of the Southern Synod. His finance reports always included a Biblical quotation to underline his conviction that the most important challenge a Treasurer can offer is the challenge to believe in God’s faithfulness. A man of strong opinions, he nonetheless drew on his Civil Service training to be scrupulous in carrying out agreed policies whether or not he favoured them himself.

It was no surprise to find Bernard had planned his memorial service himself. As well as the unshakeable confidence of Romans 8, we had the John Wesley hymn that begins

Jesus, Thy boundless love to me

no thought can reach, no tongue declare

…and ends…

In suffering be Thy love my peace;

in weakness be Thy love my power;

and when the storms of life shall cease,

O Jesus, in that solemn hour,

in death, as life, be Thou my guide,

and save me, who for me has died. 

Of such living stones as Bernard is the Church built.   

 

 

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The work goes on

By John Ellis

With preparations for General Assembly building up, I have been glad to escape to see the continuing flow of church life away from all the papers.

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Liverpool Hope University Chapel

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Howard and Pam Sharp greet friends

In the chapel of Liverpool Hope University representatives from Mersey Synod and beyond gathered to give thanks to God for the ministry of the Revd Howard Sharp as he retires as Synod Moderator after 11 years and over thirty in the ministry. The affection in which Howard is held was obvious even if he did his best to minimise the focus on him. With Jacky Embrey ready to move into the Moderator role within a few weeks, the work goes on.

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Cutting the ribbon at Geddes Place

 

There was continuity too at Geddes Place United Reformed Church in Bexleyheath as we celebrated remodelled premises. The street is named after their long serving Victorian minister the Revd J Geddes. Their current building dates only from 1988 but rather than rest content with its facilities, the congregation have undertaken ingenious refurbishment at a cost of over £200,000 to make it more adaptable and flexible for community use. Their commitment to their local partners was emphasised by the room full of displays by groups who use the town centre premises regularly. They will now enjoy much improved accommodation. With their newly inducted minister, Alison Davis, the congregation felt ready to move forward.

The continuing stories of Synods and local churches are the vital backcloth as General Assembly now gathers in Cardiff. That will mark the end of my partnership with Michael Jagessar as Assembly Moderator, not least in sharing this Blog page with him. He has been a delight to work with. I now look forward to a new partnership with David Grosch-Miller, who will soon be inducted into the wonderful world of blogging.

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Confessions and more….

by Michael Jagessar

Over the last week I have had to cancel some of my moderatorial appointments because of family bereavement in the USA and Guyana. It has been a tough few weeks for my family. I did DSCN1438manage to attend the Queen’s Garden Party which my recently deceased mother, at heart a royalist, would have been very delighted to hear about.

I must confess that it was with much hesitation that Leonora and I decided to attend. I am glad we did. Many were expecting us to attend, having checked out the moderators’ diary! It was a wholly new experience for me though I have met Her Majesty as school-boy in May 1963 when Guyana became independent. Surreal may not be appropriate to describe the experience but it felt that way. We were in a massive gathering of total strangers, with formality and protocol down to the detail. Ironically the recognisable faces were the Royals and some of the clergy in their fancy dress! I now know why I very much appreciate uniforms: for these opened up conversation points and though people were total strangers it was easy to recognise their “work domain”. This is where a clergy collar may become a great conversational tool!

The minimalist servings of cakes and sandwich were delicious. My chocolate cake with the royal emblem on top was caught in limbo upon the arrival of Her Majesty and as the band struck up “God save the Queen” and we were all called (literally frozen) to “attention”. I was praying that God would save my chocolate cake from melting as it was a gloriously sunny day. Sun tends to follow me around!

My contribution to these blogs is drawing to an end. Reading back some of these underscore a 20140319_093604breadth of exciting things in our life together, as well as the delight and privilege I have had visiting congregations and representing the United Reformed Church in a variety of ways. I think I can say that my knowledge of our church has grown a bit.

DSCN2195One other thought which I wish to share is that of the need for us to work on holding opposing ideas together, approaching the future with hope and remembering to draw on and tell stories. The moment we do not have a story to tell, we become lost. In terms of holding opposing ideas together, to avoid trenchant polarisations, we need to move away from either/or thinking (by opposition) and give more agency to the minor word “and” (learning from Martin Buber) that can help us to learn to think, hold and live with opposing ideas together. In crossing theological and cultural borders we would be better off when our thinking and acting is largely informed by “and”.

And then, who knows where the Spirit will lead us…

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A Belfast Peace

By John Ellis

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PCI Assembly Hall

I represented the United Reformed Church at the General Assembly of the largest Protestant denomination in Ireland, our sister Church the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). We met in their Assembly Hall in the centre of Belfast, which was built in 1905 in a Scottish style to stress the umbilical links with their mother Church. Nowadays the PCI holds on to more of the traditions of past generations than does the Church of Scotland. In principle their Assembly is much larger than ours with 1300 members, although for many of the business sessions the actual attendance was smaller than at a URC Assembly.

Many of the speeches included tributes to the Revd Dr Donald Watts who is retiring after combining the roles of Assembly Clerk and General Secretary for eleven years. During that time he has had to steer the PCI through political and financial crises of a severity fortunately unknown to the United Reformed Church.

Most Assembly debates were low key and the superficial impression of wider Belfast life was also that the controversies of “the Troubles” were over. Certainly a tourist business has built up again in certain areas of Ulster. However visiting various areas of Belfast with an expert guide, who leads a peace project for the Irish Churches, revealed a much more complex story.

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Shankill Peace Wall

In too many places there are ominously solid and permanent separation barriers or “Peace Walls” to keep polarised communities, often on opposite sides of the same street, apart. The barriers had gates in them which were usually open during the day but the communities still feel a fear of their neighbours. While “Catholic” and “Protestant” labels simplify the historic, cultural and political divisions, there is undeniably a religious element.

That made it even more encouraging to find some of the Churches working at patiently building a more robust and holistic peace. We had coffee in a Catholic area just off the Crumlin Road in a new project housed in a former Presbyterian Church; it has the strapline Building Peace, Promoting Reconciliation. At the height of the Troubles in the 1970s this church had attempted to serve the whole community and the minister, Dermot McMorran, was respected across the religious divide. One Sunday evening there was a sectarian riot going on outside the church which was making it hard for the congregation to concentrate on his sermon. So Dermot went outside and asked the rioters to desist. As it was him, they agreed to stop. Once the evening service was over, they resumed their riot where they had left off….

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The Duncairn Centre

Today the Duncairn Centre is selective in what activities it will house, determined that everything it does contributes to building a healthy community in that deprived part of Belfast. It will not permit a single denomination to hold public worship there, for example, but will welcome ecumenical services.

We still need to pray for true peace in Belfast and across the island of Ireland.

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From Tartan to Tideswell

By John Ellis

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Saughtonhall URC

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All in uniform: including minister Sue Kirkbride and Natasha from the GB

My last two Sundays have both taken me into new territory. In Edinburgh the new trams trundle past the end of the street where Saughtonhall United Reformed Church is situated but were still only on trial runs when I visited. In contrast the congregation at Saughtonhall were well beyond the trial stage with their 1995 building, being well practised at using it for a splendid variety of community uses.

 

 

Their award for a play put on during the Edinburgh fringe sat in the corner of the space we used first for worship and then for a church lunch. The Girls’ Brigade display had taken place in the same hall a few days before and two of their members sang in the Sunday service. A distinctly Scottish flavour was also provided by four of the men being attired in their kilts.

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Fountain Square Church in Tideswell

 

The following weekend I was in the beauty of the Peak District in Derbyshire with time for a tour with the URC minister for Buxton and Tideswell, Steve Fisher. Both congregations joined on Sunday morning in the strategically placed Fountain Square United Church at the heart of the village of Tideswell. Methodist and URC Christians have united to increase their impact on the village and await approval of their plans to refurbish and extend their premises which were last refurbished just before the outbreak of war in 1914.

 

Delays in moving toward implementing their building project have been frustrating but as a sign of the good fruit that will eventually come I was invited to plant a peace tree, which will in due course find a permanent home in the new church garden. The architect and the local vicar joined us for the service and a lunch afterwards and there was a sense of the whole community waiting eagerly for the new creation.

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Planting for the future, watched by Steve Fisher and Church Secretary Owen Walters

 

Two positive stories of churches addressing creatively, joyfully and with necessary determination the challenge of engaging with their communities. Urban Edinburgh and rural Derbyshire may offer different sorts of beauty but the need for the Gospel is common.

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A “fantastic” Church

By John Ellis

P1000701The General Assembly season has arrived. Before joining Irish and Welsh Presbyterian Assemblies either side of the URC one, I have had a full week at the Church of Scotland Assembly. My Chaplain, Nigel Uden, and I had ample breakfasts looking out over Edinburgh Castle.

Long days followed and some very familiar debates unfolded, with brevity not always their most evident characteristic. The number of stipendiary ministers is falling. The average age is rising and it is hard to find volunteers for jobs. The website is excellent in theory but sometimes crashes. Maintaining ministers’ pensions presents challenges. There are not enough staff in the Edinburgh offices to do everything immediately, or even by next Assembly. There is a lively group of youth representatives. There are deeply held but different views on what the Bible implies about human sexuality.

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The Lord High Commissioner with the Moderator

One major difference from a URC Assembly was the various consequences of being recognised as the national Church.  The most visible difference was that the Queen is represented in the Assembly. This year she chose as her Lord High Commissioner HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. He and the Countess of Wessex played an active role in proceedings attending worship and some business sessions as well as giving two thoughtful addresses to the Assembly, hosting a reception at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (with entertainment from a pipe and drum band of 150 teenagers) and going out on visits to church and community projects around the country. These included visiting the largest Boys’ Brigade company in Scotland.

The awareness of being a national Church was also reflected in the main Assembly service being held in St Giles Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, where it was attended by a large number of official representatives of many different aspects of Scottish society from the military to the physicians, from the universities to the politicians. In policy discussions it put debates about the deployment of ministers in a different light from URC ones, as however many or few ministers the Church of Scotland has, there is a commitment to serve every geographical corner of the land.

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Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, with the outgoing Moderator, Lorna Hood

This year the relationship with the state had a new dimension as the Church addressed the issue of September’s referendum on independence. A large scale listening exercise had been conducted around the Church to find out what members felt were the most important values for Scotland, within or outside the United Kingdom. At Assembly the main feature was a “Respectful Dialogue” when the Moderator, John Chalmers, chaired a discussion that gave representatives of both sides a chance to state their case and for comments from Assembly members, but which deliberately did not take a vote. From comments made it would appear opinion in the Church is fairly evenly divided.

Prince Edward thought the best word to sum up his week was “illuminating” and other first timers might agree. They might also agree with him that whatever the many internal challenges facing the Church, a very clear thread that emerged repeatedly was the way in which, in so many varied urban and rural settings, the Church and its agencies were making a positive difference in the local community. He thanked the Church of Scotland for its “fantastic work”.

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changing narratives….

by Michael N. Jagessar

Over the last few weeks I have been very busy: the inaugural Christian Aid Parliamentary 20140511_123530lecture, reception and dinner; participating in the 75th Anniversary Service of Christ Church, Petts Wood; visiting a couple of the shortlisted  Community Project Awards 2014; Celebrating Holy Communion and Preaching at Grange Park URC.

It was a great view from the House of Lord’s Terrace with some of my table companions (among others) the CEO of Oxfam, the ambassador of Belize and the Bishop of Rochester (the Rt. Rev. James Langstaff with whom I played cricket as a member of the Birmingham Diocese Cricket Team). It was great conversations and a very good “buzz”. Even better was the brilliant lecture by Rowan Williams, who highlighted the role that inequality plays in provoking violence. What stuck with me is the timely insight that in order to end violence and global poverty we must tackle the redistribution of power. Lord Williams noted that the challenge “is not so much gaps in wealth as gaps in power”. Hence “addressing basic causes means looking at where power lies and where it ought to lie”. This, of course, is as much a challenge forChristian Aid governments and corporations, as it is for NGO’s and Churches! It was interesting that another distinguished Lord who responded totally missed this key argument of former Archbishop Rowan Williams. Redistributing power remains the challenge before all of us! As William Sloane Coffin wrote, “what the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice.”

If there is any doubt about a younger or missing generation in the life of the URC, my visit to Petts Wood for the 75th Anniversary Celebrations suggests a different story. It is amazing how the things we say regularly of ourselves as anecdotes quickly turn into fact. It was not the case with this packed out church of all the generations including many children. ‘Fruitful’ is indeed an operative word to describe the ministry at Petts Wood over the years. The music was just 20140511_123412brilliant. The Children’s choir delighted us with their performance of “Let’s Celebrate” and “Starburst” while the voices of the young and more mature adult singers rose like fragrance in and beyond the building. Reading the history of Petts Wood and joining in the celebrations and conversations left me with the impression that the witness of this congregation will continue to flourish for another 75 years. My reflections were on the theme of “living stones and abundant life for all”. Let remember and pray for the ministry of the Revd Pauline Sparks (minister) and her team of elders and lay leaders. As I joined the moderator of Southern Synod (Nicola Furley Smith) at the door to greet members after the service, the Deputy Mayor remarked that she had visited all the churches in area and this was the most lively and warmest of them all. Not wishing to miss an opportunity, I invited her to return!

My most recent Sunday visit was to Grange Park United Reformed Church to preach and preside at Holy Communion, ably assisted by local lay leader Solomon Aryee-Brown. Like Petts Wood, this was an overcrowded gathering with people across all the generations but favouring more young people and young adults. All the talk about “millennials leaving church” often overlook the fact that many are still in church, especially in our multicultural congregations. We need to learn from this “treasure” in our midst, especially their ability to communicate the good news across generations. Indeed, Grange Park URC and its thriving BME community underscore com_awards_yellow_lrthat the future of the Church has to be a multicultural one. It is the gospel vision!

In my two years as a moderator of GA, I have tried to counter the debilitating mantra of scarcity and depletion around us, with the yeast and fragrance of generosity. So I was delighted (as a moderator of GA) to be asked to be one of the judges reading the submissions to the Community Project Awards 2014 and to visit some of the short-listed projects. Through this medium (moderator’s blog), we have noted on a number of occasions the many exciting activities/projects happening quietly in our local congregations. The Community Awards affirm this. The United Reformed Church is very much alive, active, striving to live in faith and faithfulness – witnessing to the good news of abundant life for all.

Keep on, keeping and living the faith!!!

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Hope in the Land of the Saviour

By John Ellis

P1000583A week in El Salvador (=the Saviour) in Central America has been an unforgettable and moving experience. The new focus area for our URC Commitment for Life programme is Central America and Christian Aid organised, very efficiently, a trip for four representatives of the United Reformed Church to see at first hand some of the projects that are being supported.

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Clean water gushes from a project supported by Christian Aid

The Christian Aid model of working is to use its money to support expert national partner organisations.  This partner organisation then uses its local knowledge to support key projects empowering communities. We saw this model enabling wonderfully positive results in a variety of settings: urban and rural, near the Pacific coast and in mountain villages, with women’s groups and youth groups, in political campaigning and in building viable businesses. We saw the impact the supply of clean water can make on an isolated village – even if they could only afford the electricity to have the water pumps operating for three hours a day.

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The next generation …. just home from school

The representatives of Christian Aid’s partner organisations were uniformly impressive, as were Christian Aid’s local staff. One of the former, for example, an economics think tank called FUNDE, was strikingly insightful and sophisticated, and regularly consulted by the Government.

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Josie Ramos in North East El Salvador

 

 

 

 

We also met some extraordinary individuals. Josie Ramos is 29 and hopes soon to complete his university languages degree: for each day of teaching he makes a five hour round trip from his village of Cacaopera to the town of San Miguel. Passionate for his community and country to maximise its potential, he is also the leading light of the local youth work, teaches in the local High School for no pay (because there is no funding) and does his share to keep his own family budget afloat by tailoring. And he smiles easily and almost all the time!

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The Altar at which Oscar Romero was murdered

The inspiration behind a great deal of the most constructive work is Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980, and now “our saint”: an almost tangible presence and source of determination and hope in this predominantly Catholic country.

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Graffiti marking the territory of a violent gang

 

 

Sadly there is a very dark side to El Salvador too. Drugs, gangs outside the rule of law, violence, corruption, deep poverty and low life expectancy are all part of the story. The economy could not survive without its links with the United States but is a painfully unequal partner in trade negotiations.  A great deal about El Salvadorian society is at best very fragile.

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Gathering for Mass in Perquin Church

But the dominant memory is of Hope and how much Christian Aid is contributing to that.

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Celebrating Resurrection – Drumchapel Essenside URC

by Michael N. Jagessar

At Glasgow airport and around the city one cannot miss the bold claim, “People make Glasgow. Let us celebrate”. It felt like a message Churches should boldly declare, if we are daring enough! I was glad for this bold welcome as I awaited my ride for the manse of the Revd William Young. 20140420_123340 (1)On this occasion I nearly missed my flight because I had etched in my mind the wrong airport (Luton when it was Gatwick), and a train moving at the pace of a snail created more anxiety. I arrived at the airport when the gate was supposed to be closed and the security staff and the many patient travellers were kind to allow me VIP access. “People make travelling a joy” and it was certainly the case as I raced down to the departure gate to find that the Divine had further intervened to delay EasyJet. The waiting passengers may have had a different view!

It was Drumchapel Essenside URC’s 60th anniversary homecoming service with a packed-out church – members and adherents travelling in from all directions. Spirit-filled and committed people make Drumchapel! This is the story I heard, saw and experienced as I joined the 20140420_111810congregation in celebrating 60 years of ministry at Essenside.

The sun was out in full force, a rarity associated with my arrival. It was a glorious day for the overflowing congregation to respond to Revd William Young’s Easter Sunday greetings, “the Lord is risen!” with a roaring response of “Risen indeed! Alleluia!” The lively singing of Easter hymns (traditional, contemporary and very new) accompanied with music from a 87 years old expert musician (the church organist) and groovy soul music by Tina Freeland and the “Groove” band created an atmosphere of “jazzed-up resurrection”! The music and words of “we’ll go out with joy”, as pianist, guitarists and drummers spoke to each other across generations evoked a “rising experience” as we shared bread and wine.

Essenside was founded as a Congregational Church in 1954, to minister to the residents of the 20140420_102719then new housing estate of Drumchapel. Members elected to change its name to Drumchapel Essenside URC when the Congregational Union of Scotland united with The United Reformed Church. While a number of ministers have served in this congregation, most people speak of the significant work of the Revd Isabel Sheddon – her dedication, walking the roads and knocking on doors, inviting people to church – a minister with a genuine heart for the community. And all of the nine ministers who followed demonstrated this ‘heart’ for the community. Two were present at the celebrations. And among others, I met the daughter of one of the oldest woman in Scotland (107 years old) who sent her greetings as she was unable to be there. And, as the minister prayed…..

On this occasion, while I stuck to the gist of my Easter message, I was led to move off the script and respond to the energising signs of “resurrection” all around the 20140420_123503gathering. For Drumchapel, three words “Christ is risen” sums up their ministry. For them nothing makes sense without these words. I took the opportunity to remind the gathering that the power of the resurrection is not in what happens after death, but what the knowledge of the resurrection does for our lives before death; that God is creating a new heaven and a new earth, with love working overtime, and that biodegradability is not the final word. For Christ is risen and that God is on the loose!

Planting Poppy seedsAs we gathered around the table in church and in the hall to eat, drink, remember, share in conversations, plant poppy seeds my heart, to quote Wesley, “felt strangely warm” (and it was not the glorious sun outside). People – faithful, committed and loving people – make Drumchapel! What a blessing! Let us celebrate!

May the God of ‘always springing hope’ and new life help us, like Drumchapel – a church at the heart of community, to be the hopeful, generous and trusting people we are called to be, for Christ’s sake.

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Renewal at Redditch

By John Ellis

My Easter celebrations were in Redditch where I enjoyed generous hospitality from former Assembly Moderator John Marsh and his wife Jackie, and led morning worship at Emmanuel jointly with local Methodist stalwart Stan Taylor.

P1000544The theme of the visit seemed to be renewal, often in response to what at first seemed unwelcome change. As an overture, alongside John and Jackie’s house, which was purchased with the help of our Retired Ministers’ Housing Society, is a wood that was shaking off winter and renewing itself with a growing carpet of bluebells. Redditch as a town was in previous generations the Midlands centre for the manufacture of needles and a tapestry in the church marks this. But changing economic forces meant the town had to renew itself.

P1000542One aspect of the renewal was the creation of a new town centre 50 years ago, which required the demolition of the Congregational church. Its renewal came through uniting with a nearby Methodist fellowship and moving into a new Ecumenical Centre spaciously laid out above ground floor shops. Another Methodist congregation joined in 2003 to form the present united Emmanuel Church.

The prime site has enabled a great variety of work in the community to be offered from the premises, often alongside people who are in need of many different sorts of renewal in their own lives. From the second floor worship area the preacher can see the neon signs of the adjoining Kingfisher shopping centre as a reminder that the Church’s work is always set in the midst of the world. On Easter morning a striking visual reminder of God’s ultimate act of renewal was provided in the worship area by decorating a large bare cross with fresh flowers.

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P1000546AEven Stan’s grandfather clock reinforced the theme. A fine specimen by a Redditch clockmaker from the early nineteenth century, it had suffered badly from an accident on the stairs of his previous home but had been fully renewed. This had special resonance for me as in the Ellis family home there is a contemporary clock which had to be renewed after a similar episode. The clock known as Grandfather Ellis (to distinguish it from the other grandfather clocks) took a nasty tumble down the stairs several decades ago. This was not wholly unconnected to the boyish games of a future Moderator, but the insurance company decided to categorise it as an “act of God”.

For however many years or centuries faithful clocks tick on, the critical and genuine act of God at Easter stands to remind us of God’s renewal at a point in history and, one day, at the end of history too.

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From Broxbourne to Wirksworth – Sharing Ministry

by Michael N. Jagessar

For the last two Sundays, moderatorial visits took me to the joyful and complex world of shared ministry gatherings. On April 6th I joined the North Lea Valley 20140406_154041Area (Hertford, Broxbourne and Cheshunt) gathering at Broxbourne URC. And on April 13th it a long an pleasant train ride took me to the North Derbyshire Cluster (Wirksworth, St. Andrew’ and Holymoorside) joining in their Palm Sunday worship at Wirksworth

At Broxbourne it was a full church with music, lively singing, active lay participation and a well-crafted liturgy which was followed by an overflowing table of food and lively conversations. With a variety of musical instruments – grand piano, organ, guitar, flute, tambourines and even the keys in one’s possession – the congregation sang with enough fervour to rock the whole building. Among the memories I will carry is the ingenious invitation of the DSCN0054minister (the Revd David Bradburn) for all to take their car or house keys and accompany the closing hymn “I’ll go out in the strength of the Lord”. It was just brilliant! I can imagine St. Peter feeling jealous with his ‘one lone key’ unable to make melody as the congregation at Broxbourne did with their bundle of keys! I now need to lengthen my strap-line about us: “we are a small church, with a large heart” to “we are small church, with a large heart and plenty musical keys”.

One of the lectionary readings for this Sunday (Ezekiel 37:1-14. I) offered a timely opportunity to share some encouraging words at a time when many may be experiencing a sense of “tiredness”. Hence, my reflection which was titled “Thus says the Lord…breathing hope and new life”. I invited us to seriously consider that if God can animate dry bones and if Jesus can bring about the restoration of DSCN0026dead flesh (Lazarus story), how about imagining what the Spirit can do for a tired congregation, for a group of weary and battered disciples, and for the communities in which our congregations are rooted! We all agreed that the day we lose our ability to envision a better tomorrow is the day we deny that we really believe in the resurrection and the offer of abundant life!

My North Derbyshire jaunt started on Saturday afternoon with a delightful train ride, the latter part of which was on a rural train line (Beeston to Cromford) chugging along to the more familiar sound of train on tracks. An early evening arrival meant a good opportunity to “soak in” the delightful environment! The Palm Sunday gathering was a warm, pleasant, ‘alert’ gathering with a good turnout from the three churches filling-out the pews of this historic and well-kept churchUnitedReformed in the market town of Wirksworth. The presiding ministers were the Revd Camilla Veitch and the Revd John Cook. A specially crafted service included embodied “rejoicing and singing” of “triumphant” Palm Sunday hymns (both traditional and contemporary), waving ingeniously made palm branches and streamers from colourful papers, a dramatized reading of the gospel reading, active participation by a group of children and young people and another amazing spread of food. I am yet to turn up at a URC congregation where food runs out – as we have perfected the art of multiplying loaves and more than fish!

Following the Palm Sunday theme, I re-read the narrative in the contexts of despair, conflicting expectations, and an attempt to suck Jesus into the energy and excitement of a different oikonomia – when Jesus’ clearly advances a kin(g)dom that calls for a radical conversion of the heart, where the last is the first and where one has to lose to gain. I suggested that Palm Sunday happens when we discover that 20140413_095254 (1)God has come to call us back to do God’s work (not ours), and when what is routine in our daily lives is disturbed, when God’s Spirit challenges the ways our faith is tied to diaries, credit cards and organised religion that serve our own interest. If we are not disturbed and the way of think of life and ourselves remain untouched, we are probably still waiting to meet the donkey-riding Jesus!

I was very impressed with the group of children and young people – very alert, especially as we imagined together what sort of questions the donkey Jesus sat may wish to ask. Their suggestions would get most current biblical commentators I have read (and I have read many) to rethink their interpretative angle on the narrative. And, the group did come back before the end of the service and shared 20140413_095205_1(pictorially) how they imagined the triumphal entry would have happened today – Jesus as a wheel chair user, probably with no permission to lead a procession into the town centre and not allowed any branches from trees as these would have been protected! And one young person even worked out a timely quiz for us to use. You can just imagined the buzz and conversations after worship and as we gather for lunch in the Glenorchy Centre.

 

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Finding Scotland in Sussex

By John Ellis

A triangle of Lent travels has kept me happily grounded in the realities of local church life even whilst all the planning for General Assembly in only three months’ time accelerates. Lent or not, good food has been plentiful and generously offered.

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Bridport United Church

The south western point of the triangle was Bridport in Dorset. A Sunday visit to the United Church while their sanctuary is being refurbished involved the church hall being in quick succession sanctuary and dining room. Relatives past and present greatly enhanced the visit as I saw the predecessor Barrack Street chapel where my great, great grandmother was baptised in 1825; discovered plaques in the United Church commemorating a total of 93 years’ service as organist by two cousins; and had time with the Revd Nelson Bainbridge, former Wessex Synod moderator, who is my brother’s father-in-law.

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North Western Elders at work

The northern point of the triangle was a hotel just north of Preston where the North Western Synod had organised a 24-hour conference to refresh their Elders. I was glad to share with them some reflections on that sphere of service and its continuing importance to the United Reformed Church. An interviewer from Radio Lancashire was impressed at how hard URC Elders work. The presence of the URC was evident even to visitors strolling through the car park as a leading member of the Synod, who has a churchy name, has a relevant number plate too.P1000524

The south eastern point of the travel triangle was in Hassocks, just north of Brighton. The small town has a centrally situated and thriving church with 100 at morning worship. At breakfast with the Sunday Club I learnt that in Sussex the tooth fairy pays out £1 a tooth these days. At lunch with some older members l gained the impression that this congregation was perhaps the URC with the greatest concentration of Bluebell Railway enthusiasts anywhere but also enriched by a crop of retired ministers. During the Communion service I was glad to greet the Revd Peter Scotland, who has completed 50 years as a minister and, far from sitting back, was also inducted for a period of service on the Elders’ Meeting.

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Hassocks URC

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‘across the pond’ – warm hospitality

by Michael N. Jagessar

It was freezing cold when we arrived in Toronto. Changing wind direction encouraged by high rising condominiums lower the temperature further. In arranging my moderatorial visit to the United Church of Canada (a partner DSCN2195Uniting Church), Leonora and I expected an early spring experience. So much for predicting weather! The welcome and hospitality, though, from both the United Church of Canada and the many Canadians we have met generated a gracious and generous warmth to provide us with a joyful and fruitful experience. The sun did follow us from the UK and when we departed she was in full glow in Toronto!

My friend and colleague, the Revd Michael Blair (Executive Minister – Church in Mission), arranged and planned our visit which included a varied and full programme that allowed me to ‘taste, experience and become immersed’ in the United Church of Canada. The programme included: a roundtable conversation enabled by the Canadian Churches Forum on ‘Hospitality, Generosity and Radical Welcome’ (Toronto School of Theology); delivering a public lecture (“Dis-place Theologising: Fragments of Intercultural God-Talk”) at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto); preach at UCC Church House weekly worship; meet with the Core Management Group of UCC; lunch conversations with the General Secretary (Nora Sanders) and Moderator (Gary Paterson); conversations with the UCC’s Ecumenical Office (Gail Allan) and Formation for Faithful Leadership Team Leader (Steve Willey) on an upcoming conference for United and UnitingDSCN2220 Churches we will be hosting in 2015; preaching at Bloor Street United Church and Emmanuel College  communion service and  meetings with staff at Tyndale Intercultural Ministries, and more conversations with colleagues working in the areas of Discipleship and Witness, Intercultural Ministry (Adele Halliday), Worship, Music and Spirituality (Alydia Smith).

A number of things struck me about the United Church of Canada. While a larger united community than the URC, current conversations on reviewing and restructuring, budgetary constraints, depleting membership, discerning new patterns of ministries and ways of being church, considering the relocating of its central office into a newly developed space at Bloor Street United Church, growing and active ‘migrant and language based’ congregations, and managing all 20140319_093553sorts of diversity seem to resonate with some of our own conversations in the URC. Of interest are the UC’s United Future reports, especially the consideration being given to losing a layer of their current structure and advancing a case for a stronger congregational role and for ‘connectionalism’. I also found refreshing the level of engagement from colleagues with my presentations and with each other. But most striking for me is the level of investment placed on providing a range of excellent and very user friendly resources for local congregations. It was encouraging to learn of the eagerness of their General Secretary to get the uniting churches to make available/share their resources with partner churches. From an intercultural perspective, I think much of it can be adapted for our context and this may prove to be a fruitful way of collaborating.

While there were many high points, the ones that stand out for me are the communion service at Emmanuel College and my dialogue sermon at Bloor Street UC. I was greatly impressed with the way the college took one of my eucharistic liturgies and, with help from one of its doctoral student in Sacred Music, interspersed it with music from across the world accompanied by a choir that rehearsed just once and a community that loves singing. For a moment I thought the rocking floor would have collapsed. At Bloor Street, I was interviewed and shared in a conversation with one of the young people (Shintaro Tsukamoto) of the congregation as we reflected on aspects of the UCC’s Song of Faith. There was no script – just an open, lively, unpredictable conversation on worship, faith and the Holy Spirit. And She did move in mischievous ways to the delight of all of us!!

And lest you are wondering, we did find time to use the subway (it was warmer down there), dip in and out of a few of the numerous eating places, browse some antiquarian bookshops and visit museums and an art gallery. Our daily dose of the local Globe and Mail (compliment of our hotel) offered some fascinating read into current challenges Canadians are facing. Some of the headlines that caught my eyeDSCN2201 could apply to churches as well: “key steps to change corporate culture”, “when confusion breeds certainty”, “when consumer choice is a bad thing”, and “where the heart is”. The URC and the UCC may be located “across the pond” away from each other. My sense, though, is that we need each other and the distinctive experiences we bring to our common table. The world is still a small village and the gospel is larger than each of our distinctive contributions. Let us remember and pray for the United Church of Canada.

 

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Feelin’ de Spirit…

Michael N. Jagessar

This is not a misspelling. It is a Caribbean expression for naming a way one encounters the Holy Spirit. The emphasis is placed on “feeling” and 20140316_100155“experiencing” rather than that which is reasoned, logical or one can easily articulate.

Over the last few weeks I felt and experienced the presence of God’s Spirit moving in conversations, planned and unplanned meetings, worship, chance encounters, around meal tables and in learning spaces. The sense of the Spirit at work was felt at various moments during and long after these encounters.

Some of these moments include worship, discussing business, sharing in cutting edges conversations and at meal times at our recently held March Mission Council. Then there was a Saturday (March 8th) encounter in Doncaster with the Unitarians and Interfaith leaders and practitioners. I am glad I accepted the invitation to speak on the topic: “Interrogating Liberal Religion through Racial Justice and Intercultural Optics”. In my capacity as a moderator of GA and secretary for RJiM, it was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the topic.  I was able to do so drawing from current conversations around ‘multicultural church, intercultural habit’ and from what I perceive as the most urgent challenges before20140316_100127 us as a diverse community often polarised by intransigent theological perspectives. The event began with a lavish multicultural meal and conversations organised by the Revd Tom McCready and his excellent team. For me, there was strong sense of God’s Spirit at work in the stories of commitment, authenticity and love from those present.

When I participate in interfaith gatherings I always find the following words of Jesus (as recorded by the gospel writers) assuring and challenging: “Whoever is not against us, is for us” and “Whoever is not with me, is against me”. The first saying provides me with a clue as to how to think of the “other” person – calling me to expansive generosity in terms of my judgement of others. The second provides me with a clue as to how to think of myself – calling me to do honest self-examination and testing of my motives. Simply put: the first says to me, without mincing words: “judge not” while the second insists, “examine yourself”!

At Banstead URC (March 16th) the Spirit was “moving just like a magnet” (a line from a Caribbean hymn)! It was a glorious day, to borrow cricketing parlance, and given the way the church is built light filled-up the church. But the music also filled the air and it was very good. What wonderful voices and a great music ministry! Banstead URCOne of the first things that struck me about Banstead URC was its ideal location and the fact that anyone passing can see inside the church. I learnt that after every service the bible is brought to the back of Church and placed on the lectern located by a nicely kept and large glass window. Anyone standing on the outside can read the gospel lesson for that Sunday. What a brilliant idea! I was also struck by the high level of energy and organising skills of the team of elders and leaders at Banstead.

Reflecting on the gospel reading for this Sunday (story of Nicodemus), I invited all 20140316_114012of us to give more attention to the habit of curiosity, rethinking assumptions, and looking at the present and future through the eyes of new possibility. Like Nicodemus, we are also invited to “listen to the sound of the wind” – for learning God cannot be done with our minds alone, or even our clearest thinking. Hence the need to be attentive and trusting God’s Spirit to lead us in places and ways we never dreamt of.

Perhaps, you the readers have your own stories of “feelin’ de Spirit” that you may wish to share. Why not tell us by using the comment button.

Go well, with plenty blessings!

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The Wisdom of the Years

By John Ellis

Michael Jagessar and I have been in even more frequent contact than usual over recent days as we prepare for the meeting of Mission Council this week. Routine business is unusually thin so we have the welcome luxury of time for reflecting on some of the wider issues facing the Church. We shall consider what being a “Learning Church” should look like, we shall review how we communicate the Gospel using contemporary media, we shall ask how the spiritual leadership potential of the Eldership could be developed further, and we shall ask how the URC passion for ecumenism can best be channelled in future.

In some of our discussions we shall explicitly draw on our past. This will be very obvious when we consider how the URC might most appropriately contribute to the lengthy commemorations starting this year of the First World War. To my generation even the early days of the United Reformed Church are more history than memory but on recent visits to churches I have met a sequence of alert nonagenarians who have brought history alive as they have told something of their story.

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Ken Ohlson

Pride of place perhaps goes to Ken Ohlson at St Andrew’s, Cheam, who marked his 90th birthday weekend by serving Communion with his fellow Elders. He remembered clearly the 1933 building being erected and, apart from going away to another War, seemed to been central to the congregation’s life ever since.

On the same visit I was able to see Bernard Edwards, also 90, former Southern Synod Treasurer, now in a nursing home in Cheam. The previous weekend in Lymington I discovered the lively 94-year-old at the next table at the church lunch was Bernard’s cousin, Winnie. With her husband, Frank Tovey, they had remarkable stories of their time as medical missionaries in China and India before I was born. They kindly gave me a copy of their book of reflections.

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St Andrew’s, Cheam built 1933

This morning at after service coffee I found myself talking to a 91-year-old with vivid memories of Dunkirk and sharp thoughts on the Ukraine. An intriguing aspect of such conversations is that sometimes the perspective at the time remains the perspective; in other cases the passage of time has cast a quite different light on decisions made in an earlier age.

I wonder what Christians two and three generations on will make of our stewardship of our Church inheritance.

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From St. Andrew’s Reading to Leicester University

by Michael N. Jagessar

The floods had receded and trains were running back on schedule, so it was an uneventful journey to St. Andrew’s URC in Reading (Sunday February 23rd). I was 20140223_102158 (1)warmly greeted and welcomed by Colin McBean in his Scottish Kilt! As I said to Colin, it was good signposting as I could not have missed him in that newly refurbished rail station! The “warm” welcome continued at church where everyone took time to greet and converse with me as Colin gave me a whirlwind tour of the church that included some good insights into the history of the church, and the various objects hanging on the walls and collected over the years. I learnt a lot.

I was impressed by the effective team-work of the elders, the many events and the ministry engagement in and beyond the church, as well as some of the hopes and aspirations of the members of the church. It happened that my visit was on the Sunday when a monthly “ecumenically” cooked meal was served for members and friends from the churches in the area. It was delicious and while I and my 93 years old table companion delighted in the dessert, I would refrain from noting which church tradition supplied the dessert, lest I cause an ecumenical incident! One of the surprising things I discovered was that  during World War II, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands worshipped regularly at the then St. Andrew Presbyterian Church!

I must congratulate St. Andrew’s on the care elders and members invest in welcoming each person arriving at their entrance, and on spending time with visitors and new members before, during and after the service. No wonder, St Andrew’s is a very diverse and multicultural congregation where people from a number of nationalities find a home. On this Sunday, I met people with connections in Scotland, Kenya, Nepal, Norway, Hungary, India and Germany. One20140223_103514 member of the Nepalese family even asked me, in the midst of our table fellowship afterwards, to bless and pray over him. Also sharing the worship space at St. Andrew’s are a German-Speaking Lutheran congregation and a Swahili speaking Lutheran congregation. And if you need to see a ‘fair-trade stall’ at its best, then visit St. Andrew’s!

I drew my theme, “generous and radical”, for the Sunday from Matthew 5:38-48 reflecting around the question: Are we God’s dwelling place? And if so, how would anyone know? The service also marked a transition from one Joint Church Secretary to another which was recognised and celebrated. What would our congregations be without the commitment, faith and faithfulness of the many elders and members of the laity who walk more than their “expected mile” for the sake of Christ!

Readers may be amused to learn that a photo image of your moderator has now been indelibly registered in the minds of every staff, student and taxi driver who have recently journeyed across Leicester University Campus. I was overwhelmed Leicester Universityby the numerous posters announcing that I would be delivering the 2014 Leicester University Lecture sponsored by the Chaplaincy! In accepting this lecture I followed in the noble footsteps of the likes such as former Bishop Jana (Lutheran), John Millbank and Timothy Radcliffe. To a good size gathering I spoke on “Drinking from many wells: excerpts from an interfaith/intercultural journey” which provoked some good discussions and got many thinking again about ‘Jesus as the only way’. I suspect the 2015 speaker, no other than former Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams, will bring a more “sober” style to my “performative” delivery and transgressive content!

 

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‘good work’: working on a theology of…

By Michael N. Jagessar

I was delighted to represent the URC at the Ecumenical World Development Conference (EWDC) on “Good Work” which was held from February 7-9 at High Leigh Conference Centre. The conference was organised by a coalition of 20130922_115908agencies and churches with both Linda Mead and Susan Durber actively involved. The coalition includes Christian Aid, Christian Concern for One World (CCOW), the Church of England, Commitment for Life (URC), Methodist Relief and Development Fund (MRDF), Progressio, Smile, Tearfund, Traidcraft and World Development Movement (WDM). There were about eighty five participants in attendance drawn from across three groups: those with responsibility for development and economic justice issues within a denominational area; lay and ordained people who are interested in and active within their churches around development and justice issues, some of whom may also work on these issues professionally; and staff from the organising agencies and denominations.

 

The questions before participants throughout the weekend were: what is good work? How do we understand it theologically and recognise it in practice? What role can it play in helping to create more just societies and a fairer world? And how can we work with others here and elsewhere to enable more people to have access to it? With two other colleagues (Elaine Storkey [Anglican] and David McLoughlin [Roman Catholic]) I was invited to participate in a panel presentation and conversation on a “theology of good work” drawing on my ecclesial tradition (reformed and united) and from my own theological journey.

 

While our presentations were complimentary, each of us took a different “way” in both our approach to and focus on the “good work”. I was struck, though not surprised, by how easier it was for our RC presenter (David) to locate the teachings of his ecclesial tradition on work, while both Elaine and I drew only on some aspects of our ecclesial traditions and largely from our experience.

 

Underscoring the timely significance of revisiting our theologies of work, I queried: what have we really done to work or what has work done to us? Given our dependence on a free market ideology that thrives and spreads on heartless competition and unequal distribution of goods and profit at all cost, what hope there is for “good work”? What could possibly be good about work when the poor get poorer and the rich richer – and when the gap between those who have and those who do not have has become so wide that bodies/victims are starting to fill up the chasm? And do our theological/biblical motivations and ecclesial self-understanding collude with such sacrifice?

 

Drawing on the Reformed understanding of work as vocation which underscores that all human work, as long as it serves a person’s neighbours, is pleasing to God, I also sounded a caveat.  I noted that a working premise of the Reformers is that human work is an antidote to idleness which is considered the breeding ground of sin. Hence, the view that work “helps people resist temptations and worldly pleasures” and is thus “essential for salvation.” [Soelle 1984: 65] I suggested that some of the theological and biblical motivations behind such a view need interrogating because of how they may have contributed to a skewed understanding of work, led to forced labour, and the continuing negative perceptions of unemployed people, not to mention the restrictive theologies that spun off from it.

 

The main thrust of my presentation explored: a)“good work in the image of God” making a case for a theology of work that holds in balance and in fresh/helpful ways our understanding of creation, incarnation, resurrection and eschatology; b)“good work as rediscovering rest”, challenging the theology of God as actus purus (pure activity) with little or no emphasis in our theology or liturgy on God as “rester”; c)“good work as re-engaging playfulness”, rediscovering that God is a God of play and that we need to cultivate a spirit of playfulness as both our gift and our responsibility in an often-too serious world; c)“good work as purposeful, perfecting and valuable”, noting that work is not done for its own sake but develops the worker and is essential both to the development and well-being of community and justice.

 

I did enjoy preparing this presentation and discovered a deep gladness in and through the depth of engagement and discussions that followed. I must confess, however, the irony of the amount of “work” and negotiating with my over-crowded diary it took in order to ensure I had something substantive to say. I hardly had time to rest! What has work done to me? And what I have I done to/with work? What has our Church done to work? It is time to practice my/our theology of “good work”!

 

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Giving Thanks, Transitions and Celebrating

by Michael N. Jagessar

The image of “overflowing and pouring” over the weekend of January 25th -26th has stuck with me. This was alongside the downpour of very heavy rain that 20140126_101339I would normally (a wonderful URC word) associate with the tropics and it brought to mind a line of an old favourite hymn, “There shall be showers of blessings”. While the outside showers were cold, the gathering inside was very warm, friendly and overflowing with thankfulness.

On Saturday (25th) I was invited by the congregation of Trinity Mill Hill Broadway URC/Methodist Church to offer a few words of thanks and appreciation, along with ecumenical colleagues, for the ministry of the Revd Ann Jack who is retiring. It was a very full house with an appropriate number of speeches underscoring the significant contributions of Ann to Mill Hill, the churches Together, Synod and the indexwider United Reformed Church. It was a real privilege to hear Ann’s ecumenical colleagues underscoring her brilliant leadership, team spirit, professional skills, care and loving presence in and beyond her community. In responding Ann gave thanks to all for their support and underscored how her ministry at Mill Hill has been a rewarding and joyful experience because of the deploying of the gifts of many around her. She also noted her confidence that the congregation is in a right place to handle a transition. With speeches over we all shared in the delights of a lavishly spread table of cakes, scones, sandwiches and other good things – with enough refills of tea and coffee. Outside the heavens continued to pour out its own blessings!

It was an early start on my train ride to Abington Avenue URC (Northampton) the next day, with John and Jo Moulding waiting patiently to collect me, with heavens still producing showers of blessings. This is another congregation in transition as their 20140126_100538minister has only recently left. If any URC is thinking of redesigning the interior space(s) of their church, then I suggest they arrange to visit Abington URC to see the brilliant work they did on their building. And I also had the privilege of meeting the architect (Jane Stapleton), a member of the congregation. I loved the ways in which space have been creatively reconfigured, the use of colours and light, and the furnishings. Everything suggested warmth, welcome, spaciousness and ambience conducive to enable worship. As I often share in the liturgy class I teach, space can both form and distort faith. For the physical spaces and arrangements we construct around us have also to do with the space in our hearts, space for both stranger and the Divine.

It was a full congregation with attendance around 90 to100 with a younger age range evident. Abington Avenue URC has a strong music ministry and on this Sunday a20140126_100331 group of musicians, along with the organist and a “singing community,” nearly lifted the roof off the building with the symphony of their voices and instruments.

My reading of the children’s story, “What the ladybird heard” was very well received and I even got a “star” from one of the youngest member whose father thought that his son would have a different view of church after the way I told that story. I reflected on the gospel reading of the day (Matthew 4:12-23) around the theme of “risking all for full life” doing a socio-economic reading of the implications of the Roman Occupation for fishermen and fishing which offered much food for thought about our current realities and the demands of discipleship today. I even employed Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: the power of thinking without thinking (2005) to make a case for “snap decisions”!

The stories of both Mill Hill and Abington Avenue URC suggest communities who are ready and able to get up, move out and move on to where God in Christ is calling them on the next phase of their life together. May grace continue to pour out and overflow!

“Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead; Walk beside me and by my friend.” [Albert Camus]

 

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Past, Present and Future

By John Ellis

The last two Sundays have brought contrasting experiences of leaders in the United Reformed Church. On one weekend, after presiding at the Induction of Neil Thorogood as the new Principal of Westminster College, I was in St Columba’s URC in the centre of Oxford for a special Communion service. This was jointly led by the Church Secretary, Professor Adrian Moore, and the Revd Tony Tucker.

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Mr Tony Tucker 1952

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The Revd Tony Tucker 2014

I have known Adrian since student days but I have never not known Tony Tucker as his photo watched over my growing up from my parents’ favourite wedding picture: he was their Best Man. His family and mine were both part of Heavitree Congregational Church in Exeter for most of the 20th century. From there he went into the ministry and this year he celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of his ordination. I was particularly glad to be the representative of the United Reformed Church who presented him with his certificate.

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Youth Assembly in session

A large part of Tony’s ministry has been with students, including ministerial students at Mansfield College, so it felt an apt progression for the next Sunday to be with the rising generation of URC leaders at Youth Assembly. There Rebecca Whiffen completed her year as FURY Moderator and I inducted Matthew Barkley, from a URC family in North Wales, as her successor.

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FURY Moderators: Rebecca (2013), Matthew (2014) and Andrew (2015)

The Youth Assembly chose Andrew Weston, a son of the manse, as Moderator elect. He will serve in a very different world from that in which my grandparents impressed the youthful Tony Tucker with their hospitality while the Great Depression was bankrupting the Ellis family business. Nonetheless the line from Tony Tucker to Andrew Weston illustrates the continuing influence of the local church on Christian formation.

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Change: tiny word for a cup-full of challenges

By Michael N. Jagessar

The above brilliant ‘strap-line’ is from the Revd Neil Thorogood in his “statement” before his induction as the next Principal of Westminster College. Noting how humbling, exciting and challenging the call to serve as Principal at a time of significant changes, Neil described it as NRT inductionboth a ‘mighty blessing’ and a ‘massive responsibility’. He affirmed his commitment to join in the shaping and reshaping of Westminster as a Resource Centre for Learning for the whole of the United Reformed Church. At the same time, the assembled congregation representing family, friends, students, staff, representatives of the Cambridge Theological Federation, education and learning, RCL’s, and synods promised their support and prayers.

The induction service (Saturday 18 January) was presided by John Ellis, moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church with others, including staff, students, chaplain and chair of the Board of Governors, sharing in the service. The Revd Dr Lance Stone delivered a timely and challenging sermon working the imageries of “stone” (from I Peter 2:4-10) and “vine” (John 15:1-17) in a dialectical and astute conversation. I suspect that all those who were present can no longer look at Westminster as a mere architectural edifice handed down to Flameus to be preserved for the future, without noting at the entrance of the college (looking up) the “burning bush”, and forever remembering Lance’s comment that vines are often messy, intertwined, unruly and unpredictable. Lance’s charge to the new Principal and to all present was a timely plea for all of us to remember and give agency to the shaping and re-shaping, and the planting, watering, pruning and growing that takes place at Westminster and beyond. Investing in bricks and mortars is as important as recalling the living encounters of teaching, learning and growing that happen within the walls of the  architectural  edifice.

During the service John Ellis read an induction prayer that was written by Bernard Thorogood who was unable to travel from Australia to be present for Neil’s induction. They were timely and appropriate words as we remembered the heritage of the College as well as the expectations of the present and future. I was particularly struck by the lines: “on this day, when my name is called, / may I know who I am”….”I’m a dreamer, thinking of possibilities,/ so I stretch forward to grasp/ whatever you plan for me”.

The sense of dreaming and thinking of possibilities was also evident the following day as I joined the Oxton Noctorum Churches Together’ group’ at their annual “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” Service where I was speaker/preacher. The service was held at Christ Church (C of E) in Oxton, Birkenhead, where I was very warmly received and welcomed by the Revd Karen Freeman, her husband Andy and many others. It was a very well attended ecumenical gathering Christ Church - Oxtonwith seven church communities participating. Drawing on the theme “Is Christ Divided?” and using the materials which was prepared by Churches in Canada, all shared in a rich liturgy of words, images, music, prayers, reading and reflections. Reflecting on I Corinthians 1: 1-18, I suggested the need for an ecumenical vocation that must be shaped by grace, gratitude and generosity to avoid the danger (like the Corinthian Christians) of turning in on ourselves at every level of life together, becoming what psychologists refer to as “cognitive misers” or communities banking on a “low hope” account! I suggested that Paul’s appeal to the Christians at Corinth to remember that “God is faithful” is a timely reminder of who and whose we are, as we shape-up our priorities with grace-filled extravagance.

Of course, the re-orienting and re-inhabiting of generous and grace-filled habits call for radical conversion, journeying through change with its bucket-full of challenges and opportunities. God is faithful!

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Beware false beauty

By John Ellis

This morning was crisp and beautiful. The prospect of an unhurried drive by the cross-country route to Staplehurst, where I was due to lead worship, felt like another Moderator’s perk. Coming down a hill with the road surface in shade, a large patch of black ice turned this into a very bad plan. After some impromptu ballet, the car was stuck in the muddy roadside verge facing the wrong direction. A few minutes later another car came down the hill, followed the same pattern and ended up in the verge on the other side of the lane. At least we were symmetrical.

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Staplehurst United Reformed Church

Although entirely unhurt, being marooned in a country lane five miles from where I was supposed to be leading worship in 45 minutes presented some challenges. Before the Elder on preacher rescue duty reached me, God provided a cheerful Good Samaritan in a Landrover with a towline to haul me back on to the road. The service began only fifteen minutes behind schedule.

This is not a way of preparing for worship that I would recommend; but it highlighted some thoughts that might not have been so prominent without it.

First, even the most trivial of road accidents remind us of what could have been. Only last Wednesday there was an email at 3.30am to tell me of the death in a road accident of a friend’s brother. We can make whatever plans we like, but in reality our hold on the gift of life itself is fragile.

More positively, plans breaking down demonstrated the thoughtfulness and resourcefulness of the local church. Without a hint of criticism of their foolish visitor, they rose to the occasion. In particular, the music group ensured the congregation’s extra time was filled with worshipping God. When our plans don’t work, what better response than to focus again on God: check out Acts 16.25.

Thirdly, I had inadvertently illustrated one point that I had planned to make in the sermon anyway. All leaders are dependent on many other people in order to deliver what is expected of them. If the leader is more prominent, it does not make him or her more important.

It being the season of Epiphany, I followed the example of the Magi and travelled home by another way.

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Silence at the heart of Living Conversations

 

By Michael N. Jagessar

 

“In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.” (Rumi)

We live in contexts that encourage activity for activity’s sake (Thomas Merton). In our noise-distraction-filled world, connected to all sorts of gadgets that both fill our already crowded lives and demand our attention, we are in danger of missing Busan Worshipthe power of silence and the need to “pause”. In our Reformed context silence is often filled by our preference towards the word read, spoken, written and towards rational appeals. How easy is it to find moments of quiet in the busy, hurried and consumer frantic season of Advent? Where are the silences in Advent that allow us to be expectant, waiting and watching – reflecting on the meaning of Christmas? The absence of silence, however, is more than an issue during Advent and Christmas. How much space do we give to silence and “pause” in our worship, meetings, gatherings, and in our personal and corporate life together? Can it be that the inability to “pause” may be one of the reasons why our conversations may feel frustrating and futile?

 

Living conversations need silence or pause. For silence creates space and opportunities to process the many things we share in intense conversations that may leave us with little sense of movement or an outcome. Pausing or taking time out to reflect may be one way to give deeper thought to our words and views, to engage with our internal processes, and to think more about what our conversation partners are actually saying. Perhaps in the quiet we may be better able to grasp how instinctive it is to want to fill the silence out of fear that others may fill it with a different view. Rather than an empty space that we must rush in to fill, silence is often the most important dimension in a conversation – a transition moment that enables genuine communication. And, paying attention to the silence within our conversations and embracing such spaces may help us to reconnect with ourselves, to become aware of our prejudices and to be better geared to participate in mutual inconveniencing that can move us beyond our own views.

 

In the midst of the competing voices and claims around him, Jesus took ‘time-out’ to retreat from the crowds to pray and contemplate. These moments of pause and silence were necessary—a vital practice of a spirit beating to and in tune with the heart of God. We also know from the Scriptures and from the lives of many Christian saints that silence helps to deepen our awareness of ‘the still, small voice within us’, and to distinguish it from all the competing voices around us. The message is simple: the more of silence we inhabit, the more we would become aware of what needs to be said through us, distinguishing it from what we desire to say. And what needs to be said through us may be less of words and more of a listening and accompanying presence.

 

So in our next conversation or meeting, when we find ourselves reverting to our default mode by saying the things we normally say, consider silence or a pause. We give deep thought to what we may have just said, and then check whether what we have to say next is reflecting who we are in the moment. If what we say leads to self-awareness, then we have most likely been experiencing the transforming power of silence.

 

 

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Mustard for Christmas

By John Ellis

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Synod Devotions

 

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An enthusiastic finance workshop

 

 

 

 

 

 

The West Midlands Synod met residentially in a Birmingham city centre hotel at the weekend. The work behind the scenes by the Synod staff must have been formidable but a lively, intensive programme was made available which attracted not just Synod members but numerous other people from around the Synod, many of whom were willing to pay for the privilege. Formal business was constrained into one hour, leaving space for a wide variety of plenary sessions, worship, workshops and even a visit to a nearby casino (for educational purposes only). It was a creative and encouraging way of being Synod.

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What 24 hours at Synod can do for a mustard plant…

The Synod theme was Through God’s eyes…Seeing ourselves differently. The Revd Dr Susan Durber of Christian Aid and I were invited as guests to help unpack this. Somehow we ended up illustrating the URC’s structures by performing a sketch with Roy Lowes, the Synod Moderator, which owed something to John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. Susan and I also explored the parable of the mustard seed. During the course of the Synod tiny weak mustard seedlings miraculously grew into flourishing strong mustard plants, thanks to the work of the Spirit (with a little assistance from the Synod Clerk’s husband).

P1000378Mustard featured again when I had the pleasure of leading a Harvest Festival on Sunday at the united URC-Methodist church in Sheerness, which uses their wonderful address to call themselves The Church in Hope Street. Sheerness is a relatively isolated town on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames, which lost its naval dockyard many years ago and had its steelworks put into mothballs in 2011. The effects of a bleak economic harvest are all too clear.

P1000382To their immense credit the churches keep their Hope alive and refuse to be daunted. The Hope Street premises have had a major and complex refurbishment to make them more useful to the wider community. A food bank was set up after the steelworks closed and I heard about the Street Pastors scheme. A Local Preacher commented on the complementarity of being on the streets on a Saturday night and in the pulpit on a Sunday.P1000381

One of the messages of the mustard seed parable is to believe the unexpected might happen. So perhaps I should not have been surprised that within minutes of the end of the service I was being taught the Christmas story by young Daniel, with the help of finger puppets. Except ye become as little children….P1000379

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Olive Branch Ministry – with Stockton United Reformed Church

By Michael N. Jagessar

It is not often that you find a minister of a church waiting expectantly outside of the front door to welcome the visiting preacher. But it was good to be met and 20131006_104756greeted by the Revd Colin Offor, with his usual pleasant and welcoming disposition. I knew Colin from Queens College (Birmingham) and so it was a delight to see him again after such a long time! Travelling by train to Stockton United Reformed Church for a Sunday service (October 6th) also provided the opportunity for a Saturday night stop over with a few of our intercultural advocates living in Darlington.

Stockton United Reformed Church embraces a long and complex history. Its storylines include that of St Andrew and St. George (Presbyterian) and some history of dissention and splits with an eventual union in 1934 which was proposed way back in 1897. Then there is the narrative of the congregational group that moved away from the Presbyterians to establish churches at Norton Road and Yarm Road. The formation of the URC proved to be the stimulus that brought the churches back together in Stockton United Reformed Church, worshipping at St Andrew and St20131010_225532 George, at St Andrew’s Mission Thornaby, and the Queen’s Park building (successor to Norton Road).

Though the Sunday gathering I attended may have been smaller in comparison to what the church used to seat many years ago, the singing was just as bold and uplifting as it must have been with a filled balcony. A liturgically well-crafted service was followed by coffee and a delightful lunch at the home of one of the elders (Eleanor 20131006_131157Smith), a former mathematician by vocation, with a mind as sharp as it is broad. I was also pleased to meet Pip, her Border terrier, who generously entertained me with his ball tricks and determined acrobatics. The thought did cross my mind about a possible moderatorial blessing for dogs and other pets!

My after-lunch engagement took me to the Queen’s Park church building where I was able to participate in The Olive Branch table-conversations. I am really impressed with this café-style initiative that grew out of a desire to offer worship20131010_232018 and fellowship opportunities to folk unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable with conventional worship styles.  With the building having a very high community use, the original idea was to create a space for those using the building and those living in the flats and estate around the church. At these conversations, those present are offered a conversation menu, focussing on some issue of current significance in society or politics, or suggested by the church season. Refreshments are served throughout – generous amounts of tea, coffee and cakes – and people are invited to let the conversations go where they will. Towards the close there is a brief of worship (a scripture reading, short reflection and prayer).   Those present are also offered the opportunity to request the church to pray for specific need. (a prayer request card).  

20131006_154747Given my visit, the conversation menu was specifically “served up” to include questions such as: what does being part of a church community mean to you? What do you value about your church? What should we stop doing to better do God’s work? Does the URC contribute anything special to the work of God’s kingdom in our town or in our nation? I was invited to move from table to table to listen to the conversations which were free to move in whatever way the group wished. And it did. Someone very new to computers was concerned about not being able to get her new computer and internet connection working. Others wanted to know more about me. In response to the ‘set conversation menu questions’ some asked: “is our church in the right place (location)?” “How do we respond to the moment and to what people need?”What are we handing over to our children and the community?” Some around the tables were clear as to why they are part of the URC – “we are not a dogmatic church; we belong to a world family; we are an inclusive church; denominational labels do not matter”. Some were keen to note a sense of “tiredness” around, while highlighting the need to stay positive! While the table-conversations provided an opportunity to raise lots of questions, I think it is also another practical example of a positive way of connecting faith with contextual realities, asking critical 20130927_181616questions, building relationships, engaging a wider-cross section of people and sharing good practices/examples with each other.

While the venture may not have attracted as many people from outside the church community as hoped for, from what I have witnessed, I have no doubt about the potential of this ministry to grow in a number of exciting ways and would highly recommend churches to consider it. In the meantime, I invite you to join me in praying for the ministry of the minister and elders, all the churches and people in the areas, and for also those participating in The Olive Branch.

 

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Women in Leadership

By John Ellis

I had a weekend that seemed to develop a theme of women in leadership.

On the Friday I was part of lively email correspondence around the papers that the Convener of our Faith and Order Committee, the Revd Elizabeth Welch, is preparing for the next meeting of Mission Council. These pick up the discussion at the last meeting on the future of the United Reformed Church.

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Trinity URC, Bromley

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The Revds Nicola Furley-Smith, Helen Warmington and John Proctor

Its future in Bromley looked more secure after the new combined pastorate of the two town centre URC fellowships welcomed their new minister, the Revd Helen Warmington. It was a privilege to participate in her ordination. Both churches have female Church Secretaries. The Saturday afternoon service was led by the Southern Synod Moderator, the Revd Nicola Furley-Smith while the Acting Principal of Westminster College, the Revd John Procter, preached a challenging sermon reflecting on the promise to “live a holy life”.

On Sunday afternoon I reached Sutton Coldfield, north of Birmingham, in time to have an impromptu tour of the recently refurbished premises of the town centre URC by one of its leading ladies, Thelma Hadley. Then I walked round the corner to the Baptist Church which was hosting the Induction Service of the new General Secretary of the Baptist Union, the Revd Lynn Green. Sutton Coldfield Baptist Church has over 500 members and uses a converted school for their premises, which ensured plenty of space for a large congregation from all around the country. The worship style was a contrast with the previous afternoon at Bromley but it was the same God who was worshipped.

In her description of her spiritual journey, Lynn told us that when as a child she first felt God calling her to work in the Church, her immediate reaction was to query what a woman could be called to do. One hopes that children growing up today within the Baptist and URC communities would find it natural to believe God is as likely to need women as men to be leaders.

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Gifted! Vibrant! & Lively!

by Michael N. Jagessar

Past moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, the Revd John Marsh, sums up our recently held Multicultural Celebration (September DSC0065828th) with these words: “What a vivid and vibrant Church we are!  What a living and lively foretaste of the Kingdom of God we demonstrate!  How totally we smother despair with unrestrained Christian hope and Gospel joy in a marvellous rainbow glory.”

Indeed! Welcome to the brave new world of the changing face of our Church. Whether we believe it or not or care to note it, we are a gifted community and there are more storylines to share other than that of despair or the one we have grown accustomed to share! For what URC wide gathering (besides General Assembly) can pull a crowd of overDSC00604 DSC00538425 of us in celebration of our life together? And it was a diverse crowd in a broad sense from a diverse church: culture, geographical location, theological outlook, gender, generational, ability, and church ethos

Those who were gathered at Carrs Lane URC (from 10.00 am to 3.30 pm) had a delightful time together of worship, music, singing, dancing, drama, story-telling, community singing, keynoting through conversations, hearing exciting stories from DSC00575congregations, viewing the art submissions for ourDSC00686 multicultural art award, hearing local folk music and musicians in concert, feasting around a sumptuous meal, and meeting old friends and making new ones.

As I attended the day both as a moderator of GA and Secretary for Racial Justice and Intercultural Ministry, it allowed me to share the impressions of some of those who were present at the event. One colleague said: I enjoyed what I was able to stay DSC00697for… It was good to see friends and meet new people too. I thought the event was well organised…there were lots to celebrate – and across cultures too …” Another (who is not a member of the URC) shared this with me: “Well what a wonderful event! Words such as, joyous, inspiring, loving, exciting, fun, fellowship and sharing spring to my mind. Thank you for letting me be part of it.” And another participant had this to say: “What a wonderful day! It was entertaining, inspiring and uplifting. We have a wealth of talent in the United Reformed Church which showed itself through song, dance, art, drama and story. For me DSC00591it demonstrated once again that in our church there is life, joy and abundance. We are not done yet! And, let me end with the words of a synod moderator: It was a living expression – very much alive with the richness of diversity that makes multi-cultural experiences so powerful I really felt the anointing of the Spirit on the whole day.”  To God be the glory!

 

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Living out a Strap-Line: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”

By Michael N. Jagessar

I had to make up to my family for spending my birthday at a Political Party Conference in Glasgow, even though it was that of the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems). From September 16-17, LibDemI joined other Free Churches’ Leaders (Baptist, Methodist, Salvation Army and Quakers) and staff advisors from the respective Churches on what is now a regular annual feature at the three main Political Party  (Autumn) Conferences. I continue to be impressed by the amount of energy, organisation, thought and appropriate briefings that the staff of the Free Churches put into this undertaking.

The aims of these visits and engagement include: an opportunity to meet politicians from the respective Parties, offer solidarity where appropriate, build relationships, offer a visible presence/support for the vocation of those involved in politics, to emphasise the significance of Christian engagement in politics and on the public square, and to bring to the attention of politicians some of the shared concerns of the Churches either to highlight issues or to influence policy making. These visits also afford Churches an opportunity to visibly work together (which always impresses politicians) and to also support Christians who are involved in the political life of their Parties.

Our gathering began with some brief introductions, briefing on the current conversations at the Conference, agreeing on how the Church leaders would share the moderating of the various meetings with MPs, and the key issues we will raise with them. In terms of the latter, high on our agenda as an entry point into these conversations were food, food-banks, sustainability, economy and defence. Later that evening, it was a very “tight squeeze”, as we shared in a meal at the Wee Curry Shop and in conversation with Lord David Shutt, a Quaker. As he has done over the years Lord Shutt offered us valuable insights from his broad and interesting Parliamentary experiences, especially on the ways/process of getting an item on the agenda of the Lords, as well as some of the current issues and challenges before the Lib Dems. 

Tuesday was an early rise as we headed towards the Kinning Park Parish Church (Eaglesham Place, Glasgow) for the Lib Dems Prayer breakfast. It was a very good turn-out, filling breakfast, good conversations with a diverse group of people, and a short presentation on “Political Christianity” by Duncan Hames MP who reflected on his Christian journey and the place of20130917_081448 integrity as a Christian on the “public square”. After a time of question and answer, the Revd Alison Tomlinson, former President of the Methodist Conference offered some brief words and the closing prayers. Reflecting on the presentation and reading a recent volume (Liberal Democrats Do God, 2013) published by the Lib Dems Christian Forum, I can sense both an urgent need and opportunity for intentional engagement with politicians on matters of faith/theology and politics.

The rest of the day saw us at the Conference Centre where we were able to dip into on-going debates, meet with MP’s, visit the exhibition hall, participate in workshops and engage in one to one conversations with participants and visitors. Most of time were spent in conversation with David Heath (Minister of State for Agriculture and Food – DEFRA), Sir Alan Beith (a Methodist Local Preacher and on National Security Strategy – Joint Committee) and Steve Webb (a committed Christian and Minister of State –Department for Work and Pensions). These were all lively, robust, affirming and encouraging conversations with a genuine appreciation of the affirmation, challenges and partnership (or potential ones) that Churches’ offer. The Lunch-time event I attended, sponsored by Carers UK, and titled: “Women’s work is never Done? Supporting the Sandwich Generation,” was a brilliant and engaging debate on the high percentage of women caring for families and both the need for better provision from government and employers, and for men to take more responsibility in this area.

In moving around on Conference, my “dog-collar” opened up very interesting conversations from people who had some church connection and from those who were just intrigued by the LibDem do Godpresence of a member of clergy at the Lib Dems conference. I even found some lapsed Congregationalists and Presbyterians whom I encouraged to visit their nearest United Reformed Church and recommended that they have a good read of Liberal Democrats Do God.

Reflecting on my brief dip into the Lib Dems Party Conference and following much of the debate on-line, the words of a member of the URC (to me) which I quoted in my last blog are more pertinent than ever. She had said to: “tell the politicians to ‘stick to the truth’, ‘make up their minds’, and value “integrity”. For the wonderful strapline of ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ to become incarnated these words must inhabit and shape political dispositions. For, voters quickly see through rhetoric such as “we must stay in government”!

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Table Habits – Celebrating with TwPG in Liverpool

by Michael N. Jagessar

I have been told that what was once taken as a pejorative representation of Liverpudlians, has now become a fancy and very popular dish in Liverpool. I am 20130915_095933referring to “skouse” (stew) with its Scandinavian roots, originally served with pickled beets/red cabbage and buttered bread. I was unable to try this. The meal and table-spread that followed the service at Trinity with Palm Grove United Reformed and Methodist Church (TwPG) on Sunday September 15th did not serve up this distinctive dish. We were, however, presented with a food laden-table as diverse as the make-up of the Liverpudlians. It was a small taste of why IMG_3064Liverpool was named capital of culture in 2008! It still is in my estimation.

This year (2013) TwPG, a union of Palm Grove Methodist and Trinity United Reformed Church, is marking 150 years of ministry, tracing their history back to 1863 (Trinity Presbyterian). To mark this significant milestone, the celebrations have thus far been marked by coffee mornings, concerts, barn dances, special worship services, extra mission projects, historical displays, lunch-time conversations about the future of TwPG’s ministry, and a renewed sense of outreach into the local community. As the Revd Blair Kirkby notes: the community in celebrating affirms both their “call to faithfulness” and the urgency for “more enthusiastic expressions of commitment”. This is certainly a call for the whole of the United Reformed Church.

My visit on Sunday September 15th waspart of the celebrations. On this occasion, the community at TwPG were joined by members of Charing Cross and Tranmere Methodist Churches and Hamilton Memorial URC. The main act of worship was IMG_3030(1)led by Allan Brame (Local Preacher) and assisted by the Revd Blair Kirkby. Greasby Mission Band and the Church Organist provided the celebration with lively and appropriate music – a very good combination of contemporary and traditional music. I was invited to preach.

In my sermon, I reflected on the theme, “Table-habits: Our Life together” focusing on Luke 15:1-2. Around questions such as: are our table-habits convivial, joyful and overflowing with generosity, expansive embrace, when we gather together? Do they reflect the alternative economy of Jesus – the bread of life? What does our life together really say about what God’s economy is all about? – I noted that compassion, generosity, and goodness need to become our way of life; otherwise, we may end up becoming “dried up and stale bread!  I noted theIMG_3051(1) urgent need for a radical conversion and drew on the psalm of the day (Psalm 51) “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” to underscore that: “we need to put away old ways of thinking and acting that are not good/helpful and to have our hearts renewed with joy, peace, goodness.  It was a plea for “character restoration, soul rejuvenation, heart re-galvanization and the mutual inconveniencing of all”.

One significant part of the act worship is worth noting for readers. After the sermon and the taking of the collection/offering, there was an open time (minister with a roaming microphone) when the congregation was invited to respond to the sermon, share any concern, good news, and requests for prayers. These, along IMG_3045with the prayer requests on the “prayer tree of the church”, were noted on the spot by the person who was leading the prayers of intercession and then included in the prayers. This very important and welcomed habit was clearly an integral part of worship with enough time, care and thought given to it. The prayer thus became a real lived encounter of lifting needs on the hearts of those present, for many locally and for situations across the world.

The service literally spilled over and continued in the meal that followed and I was delighted to be able to share in some wonderful conversations and stories of exciting things in the life of both Methodist and URC, congregations in Liverpool. Those present were eager to share stories, fill me in with historical bits associated with the church and the areas and extended invitations for me to return, includingIMG_3076 one from a 92 year old member to take me on personally guided tour of the area where she lives. I will be seriously considering her offer as her sharp mind was like one massive history book! Another very seasoned observer of the political landscape, upon learning that I will be at the LibDem Party Conference with the Free Churches team suggested that I tell the politicians to “stick to the truth”, make up their minds, and value “integrity”. All applicable to the Church as well!

Since I am always in the habit of reading the many wall memorial plaques in churches, I was surprised to learn that Trinity Presbyterian Church was the home congregation of Andrew Comyn Irvine who died near the summit of Mount 20130915_100346Everest on June 8 1924, only 22 years old. The Mount Everest pundits will tell you that there is an on-going dispute as to whether he died ascending or descending! The walls of our congregations carry some significant historical notes that we should pay more careful attention to.

In the meantime, as you start to look closer at some of these historical markers, I invite all of us to remember and keep the communities of TwPG, Charing Cross and Tranmere Methodist and Hamilton URC and the leadership teams in our prayers.

 

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Leading beside the M25

By John Ellis

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St Andrew’s URC Dartford

Most drivers racing round the M25 are no doubt unaware that behind the sound barriers just south of the Dartford Crossing is St Andrew’s United Reformed Church. A green oasis of a safe garden next to the church hall serves community groups and a Pilots company during the week.

I was there on a Sunday morning when the flexible worship area in the church building is laid out to provide comfortable seating for adults and a space for young children, plus refreshments after worship. A congregation representing every generation and several parts of the world shared worship and Communion together. They prayed for Michael Jagessar, me and other Church leaders as we visit the political party conferences over the coming fortnight.

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Rosemary Davis – Pastor

One very significant feature of St Andrew’s is its leadership. Geography does not lend itself to making a natural group of local churches under one minister. Instead Mrs Rosemary Davis has been authorised as the local lay leader. A larger church five miles away provides various forms of support, but Rosemary, as Pastor, is recognised by the congregation and the community as the church’s leader. St Andrew’s Dartford is also one of the minority of United Reformed Churches which has more members today than five years ago. The wider Church might well ponder whether those two facts are connected.

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Happy New Year?

By John Ellis

Schoolteachers and Methodists started their new year last week. The Coptic Church celebrates its new year this week. To mark the occasion, a service of Raising the Evening Incense was held in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, and the Revd David Tatem, our Ecumenical Secretary, and I were privileged to represent the United Reformed Church.

The Coptic Church dates its origins to missionary work by St Mark in Egypt and is part of the Orthodox part of the Christian family. They have recently installed their 118th Pope since St Mark. Around 20,000 Copts form their community in Britain and Ireland and our preacher was the General Bishop for the United Kingdom, His Grace Bishop Angaelos. Greetings were received from Her Majesty the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and addresses given by representatives of the British Government and Westminster Parliament.

Particularly poignant this new year were our thoughts for those Christians in Egypt who have suffered as a result of the Arab Spring and the recent persecution of the Christian community. We were given a sheet listing over 80 churches and other Church properties that have been attacked in the last month. There were also the names of 18 Christians, one as young as ten, who have been attacked or killed.

The steady, ancient liturgy and the words of the sermon both indicated that there will be no retaliation of violence for violence and the Coptic Church intends to continue its work as it has for 20 centuries, in times of peace and of strife.

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Being Great in Northumberland

By John Ellis

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Shepherds Dene Retreat House

I was glad to spend the weekend with the United Reformed Church History Society at the binennial Study Conference and to lead the conference Sunday service. This year the conference was based at the Diocese of Newcastle’s Retreat House at Riding Mill, a hamlet 15 miles west of Newcastle along the Tyne Valley which retains its own railway station.

As is usually the case, erudite papers were read on a wide variety of topics with particular significance for Christians of our tradition. For example, Professor Stephen Orchard gave an illustrated tour of the nineteenth century temperance movement, the Revd Nigel Lemon reminded us of the group of former Lay Pastors who became Ministers by Assembly Resolution in the early years of the URC and Dr John Thompson analysed enticing extracts from the coverage of the First World War by the weekly paper The Christian World.

There was local colour too. The Revd James Breslin, well known as our previous Clerk of the Assembly but also a minister who has devoted more than 30 years of his ministry to pastorates in the North East, turned historian (or was it detective?) to unravel the complex story of Presbyterianism in Northumberland. Scottish influences and disputes interwove with the English context.

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Great Bavington URC

For practical work, the Conference saw something of this context in a rural tour on the Saturday afternoon. If some thought Riding Mill remote, it was nothing compared with Great Bavington United Reformed Church. “Great” was a surprising adjective for a cluster of farm buildings and cottages at the end of a long single track road. One really needed a horse rather than a car for the remainder of the journey, until down a rocky path and at the end of a grassy walk one was confronted with a pair of donkeys in a field on the left and Bavington Chapel on the right. The latter dates from 1725 and is the oldest surviving Presbyterian cause in Northumberland. It was good to know that God is still worshipped there regularly.

The History Society deserves to be better known as the Church grapples with how its distinctive traditions can enrich contemporary discipleship and mission. Any enquiries would doubtless be welcomed by the new Secretary, Mrs Margaret Thompson, at mt212@cam.ac.uk.

 

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ArtTalk: living conversations another way

by Michael N. Jagessar

One of the projects we have encouraged and endorsed as moderators of General Assembly is ArtTalk. Supported by the Mission Department and with the Legacy Fund providing financial artsupport, ArtTalk offers creative opportunities to facilitate church projects and activities through the use of visual arts. It is facilitated by the Revd Elizabeth Gray-King, an artist/theologian and a minister of the United Reformed Church. ArtTalk is intended to enable ‘living conversations’ on matters of faith and faithfulness to take place and to include a larger diversity of the giftings across the United Reformed Church.

Christians, especially those of us from Protestant traditions, can be very “wordy”. Yet, for many, words can be hard to find and may even hinder conversations on matters of faith. Many of the “punters in the pews” find it challenging to verbalise their faith story. Some struggle to find new and appropriate words, while others may despair at their attempts to breathe new life into over-usedVision 20 20b words in order to share their faith. On the other hand, many will respond to and talk about pictures or objects more readily than they would about doctrines and theological ideas. As people explain what they think and feel about an image, it is ‘easier’ to share their own stories/journeys and connect these with faith. ArtTalk draws on this reality to enable people to share and connect their stories and faith by conversing about and around images.

Accompanying ArtTalk is a glossy Image Resource Pack created by Elizabeth Gray-King. As conversation starters, these can be used in a variety of ways and contexts, and I encourage churches to get their copy. These images remind us of the potential of art to disclose and actualise Living Water wholethe present, giving it a concrete and felt reality. As an incarnational medium, the paintings make one profoundly aware of possibility and embodied-ness. They highlight the presence of grace in and through the messiness of our lives, while helping us to catch a glimpse of ‘mystery’ in the ordinary. Such ‘seeing’ or ‘glimpsing’ needs discipline and patience, drawing on all of our senses, or, if you prefer, being “literally brought to our senses” as we experience the ‘holy’.

As ArtTalk continues to “lift-off” and blossom, I invite churches to consider participating in whatever way they are best able to do and/or to send us information on similar work they are already involved in. We are hoping to make all the exciting and creative art projects in the URC availablearttalk dancing online. Whatever form visual arts may take for you, I invite you to see ArtTalk as growing and deepening Kingdom values as we set our feet ‘homewards’.

Art, of course, cannot save us. But, at its best, it bears witness to something “beyond the hills”, as the psalmist declares. Art does not show us the world as it ought to be. It shows us the world as it is, here and now, and enables us to see that our redemption is always present and available. For as a holy person once observed: ‘we are all thirty seconds away from salvation’. Try picturing that!

 

 

 

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Charlestown Community

By John Ellis

For the Victorians, Albion Congregational Chapel in the centre of the Lancashire mill town of Ashton-under-Lyne was one of the Nonconformist cathedrals of the North. In 1862 it planted a daughter church in Charlestown, a relatively poor area of the town, and so this year sees the 151st birthday of that church. On 21st July I was privileged to lead an All Age service in Charlestown to celebrate this, helped by Mr Happy.

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Charlestown United Reformed Church

The Charlestown church community makes a distinctive contribution to the Ashton-under-Lyne pastorate which operates as three congregations of one church with the Revd Alan Wickens as minister.  The solid brick building is unexpectedly light and bright inside and is used flexibly through the week for a variety of community activities. The Sunday morning congregation included young men shaped by the work of The Boys’ Brigade as well as longstanding local residents. Afterwards coffee in the hall was supplemented by hot buttered toast.

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Mr Happy with two new friends

The impression I formed was of a church family who knew each other well and understood the community in which they serve. Pastoral care was evident, natural and genuine. Different generations seemed relaxed with each other and everyone contributed to the life of the congregation as they were able. It felt like a good church to belong to. Mr Happy thought so too.

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Beside the Danube

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Breakfast time view of the Danube

For six days in July I was in Budapest in Hungary with the Revd James Breslin, our previous Clerk to Assembly, representing the United Reformed Church at the 14th General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). This was somewhat more luxurious than one would expect at a URC Assembly, with accommodation in luxury hotels and a brand new conference centre as the main venue.

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CEC Assembly in session

The dominant business was the revision of the CEC constitution, partly to make CEC a more coherent organisation and partly to save money. It might be kindest to draw a veil over the extraordinary, frustrating and incredibly slow process used to achieve this revision, which left me grateful for many of the aspects of a URC Assembly that we tend to take for granted. Doubtless it was always going to be hard to reach agreement amongst 115 different Churches, especially when technical detail was being translated between three different languages.

The first main aim of CEC is to provide a voice for Europe’s Churches in discussions with the institutions of the European Union. The absence of the Roman Catholic Church from CEC obviously handicaps this but there was some evidence that having CEC is better than not having it. The second main aim is to provide support for the smaller churches of Europe, especially those who feel under pressure from their governments or a dominant religious group, Christian or other.  The Assembly briefly came to life when we heard first hand stories from places such as Serbia or Syria where speaking out as a Christian is to risk life. The prayers and moral support of other Christians matter to those are at the heart of such struggles.

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Gazdagreti Reformed Church, Budapest

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Reformed Church interior

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CEC visitors with Pastor Thoma (right)

The best part of the visit, however, was when Assembly members split up into small groups and dispersed around Budapest to worship with local congregations. I was in a group who visited a Hungarian Reformed Church built in 2004 in a growing and prosperous suburb of the city. A membership of 233 support the stipends for three pastors, who work with a deliberately small team of seven Elders. I was able to bring a greeting from the United Reformed Church to the congregation in which all ages were represented. After three baptisms, the meaty 37-minute sermon set out the Reformed understanding of the sacrament of baptism. The CEC visitors had the privilege of excellent simultaneous translation, so we were able to participate fully in the service before having a delicious Hungarian lunch with the English speaking Pastor Thoma. Here, rather than in cross debates over the size of CEC committees, was the World Church a true Christian fellowship.

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Horsham Home from Home

By John Ellis

One branch of my ancestors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries all lived within a horse ride of Horsham in Sussex. My great grandfather, Henry Boon, moved the family home to the town a century ago and since then there have always been relations living there. It therefore felt like coming home to visit Horsham as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Congregational Church being established on the present town centre site.

The first church building eventually proved too small and in the year my grandmother was born, 1884, a larger one was opened. As so often, the ubiquitous Samuel Morley was there to help pay for it and lay the foundation stone. The 200th anniversary celebrations however enjoy the more modern comforts of the third building, erected in 1983 and extended in 2009.

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The story has an ecumenical thread too. The original plot of land was leased and later purchased from the Catholic Duke of Norfolk and a later Duchess of Norfolk laid the foundation stone of the present building. United services for the town on special occasions date back to at least the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s accession in 1887. So I hope I am right to guess that my great grandfather, a Wesleyan Local Preacher, might have preached in the Congregational Chapel on occasion.

The celebration service at which I preached came at the start of a busy week of bicentenary activity. It included a presentation by the Junior Church reminding us that important though the building was, the real issue was how it helped equip people for Christian living and service. The activities this week illustrate the point with a focus on the support given to the local community and the charities working beyond Horsham that the church supports.  The ARK project based in the church, which supports some of the most vulnerable adults in the town, was the local Charity of the Year in 2012.

P1000154After the service the church family sat down for a celebration lunch. Miraculously a substantial cooked meal emerged from a kitchen with just one cooker and was served with an efficiency some restaurants might envy. It was a good opportunity to hear more about the church’s life from the minister, the Revd Elaine Dunn, and other leaders.  It also showed what energy and commitment can achieve when God’s people work together.

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URC answer to David Copperfield

By John Ellis

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Maidstone United Reformed Church

P1000146Charles Dickens has David Copperfield moving from Suffolk to Kent. This provided an intriguing opening to the Charge to Minister and Church at the induction of the Revd Andrew Royal as minister of Maidstone United Reformed Church in Kent and as ecumenical officer for the URC Synod Area. The perceptive and pertinent Charge was preached by Mr William Glasse, Pastoral Advocate of the East Suffolk Area Partnership. The Induction was thereby unusual in having a lay person rather than a minister preach: itself an admirable symbol of the robust and distinctive nature of the Congregational tradition in Suffolk within which, with the help of The Boys’ Brigade, Andrew’s own Christian journey has been shaped.

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Harvey Richardson with Presiding Minister Nicola Furley-Smith, Southern Synod Moderator

Amongst others participating in the service was Kent’s Ecumenical Officer, the Revd Harvey Richardson, a Methodist minister who has always been a good friend to the United Reformed Church. It was a reminder that the vacancy at Maidstone has lasted a long five years, not least because of detailed explorations of the possibility of union with a nearby Methodist Church, also in the town centre. Perhaps at some points in that story some other Dickensian characters came to mind, but in the end it was not to be.

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Andrew Royal greets the congregation

So Suffolk and Kent united in actual and metaphorical sunshine for a celebration of a new start for minister and congregation. It was a pleasure to take part. But all knew the real test will be keeping the joy and hope just as evident when the sun does not shine so brightly.

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Turning Points, an Induction & Hot Stuff

by Michael N. Jagessar

I suspect that our man on the Isle of Patmos (that visionary John) would have had to concede DSCN2031that there was nothing lukewarm or cold about the induction service (Saturday July 13, 2013) of Ruth Whitehead as the new moderator of the South Western Synod. It was “hot stuff” – the singing, the praying, the scripture readings, the preaching, the story of the appointing, Ruth’s story, the affirmations of moderator, members and ecumenical guests, the induction, the words of greetings from near and very far (Jamaica), the tears and laughter, the continuous applause to receive the newly inducted moderator and the table conversations and fellowship that followed – all of which contributed to a moving and memorable occasion. This was noted by a Methodist colleague who brought greetings on behalf of all the ecumenical guests present

And, it would be remiss of me not to mention the “searing heat” flavouring the occasion! ADSCN2045 confession (I do need to make them often): the thought crossed my mind whether we should have identified a first-aider for this occasion, with a “still small voice’ ringing in my ears: “O, you of little faith!” And speaking of faith: among the things that struck me were the place of faith and the individual and collective discernment as told in the story of the appointment and that of the journey of Ruth. A brilliant sermon by the Revd Craig Bowman gave a powerful charge both to Ruth and members of the South Western DSCN2040Synod. Craig reflected on the readings (1Peter 5:1-11 and John 21:4-17) and the words that are etched in my memory are: leadership, listening, following, trusting and humility – all timely for where we are as a church. We would all do well to remember this as “we commit ourselves to speak the truth in love and grow together in the peace of Christ”.

One powerful imagery that Ruth pointed to in her story, and which was captured in our recessional hymn, is “dance” As we sang Kendrick’s “teach me to dance”, I imagined the induction of a new moderator as a turning point (among other turning points) in the life of a Synod. Like a ballerina pirouetting on her toes, turning points allow us to dance in new DSCN2055directions, to encounter life more fully, and to embrace both movement and stillness – a necessary and dynamic tension that creates dance. We may not always know the next step: but if in every moment we can listen, follow, learn and trust in humility we will be able to rediscover our ‘center’ and regain balance and movement

I invite all of us to hold Ruth and her family, the South Western Synod team and all the churches of the Synod in our prayers. And DSCN2068together, we must keep dancing and turning. The converting or turning moments are all around us in each marvellous and mundane moment – may we experience these with open eyes, clear ears, loosened tongues, and released hands and legs.

 

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In the Open: Hooker & Eliot of Little Baddow

by Michael N. Jagessar

While Andy Murray was contemplating whether he was going to break the cycle of drought and URC-Chapelcreate history, the churches in Little Baddow gathered for their annual service (27th), remembering Thomas Hooker (1586-1647) and John Eliot (1604-1690). While not planned, it was ecumenical non-conformity for me on this exceptionally hot Sunday (July 7, 2013). I could not manage with my heavy alb in the heat and in the open! How the Area Bishop of Bradwell (the Rt. Revd John Wraw) and the local Anglican Vicar (Revd Clive Ashley) coped in their ‘vestments’ is not to be envied! I suppose my ecumenical non-conformity would have pleased Hooker and Eliot!

I was received and warmly welcomed by Pastor Ryan Sirmons of Little Baddow United Reformed Church and taken to the farm (Cuckoo’s Farm) where Eliot and Hooker, a couple of early non-conformists who practiced a form of Puritanism, taught. The congregation wasDSCN2010 gathered in the rebuilt barn and the whole service was conducted in the open, complimented with the sound of chirping birds, slowly trotting horses on the road and familiar sounds of other animals. After leaving the Caribbean sun, I never thought I would value the use of a Gazebo in the UK to provide shade while leading worship!

For both Bishop John and I, this was our first visit to the churches in Baddow. These churches are rightly keen on their significant history and rich heritages. And, it was very encouraging to hear the stories of how the Chapel (United Reformed Church) and St. Mary’s (Church of England) in Little Baddow have covenanted to work together (from 2005). In fact at this service of celebration there were also Catholics, Baptist and members of the Society of Friends present.

Sharing in the service with the two local ministers, I was invited to preach and Bishop John to DSCN1960lead the prayers of intercession. Together we led all in the prayer of peace and the blessings and dismissal. I was especially asked to encourage the churches to deepen their ecumenical commitment. While mindful of the independent and non-conformist heritage (Hooker and Eliot), the rich heritages of both Church traditions, and current challenges facing all the established churches in the UK, I reflected on the gospel reading (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20) and noted some pointers for our ecumenical calling. I underscored the need to deepen and widen a habit of generosity and hospitality; the importance of growing an attitude of curiosity in our life together; the model of accompanying each other; the challenge of crossing borders and comfort zones; the wisdom of travelling light on the journey; faithfulness in sharing and living a message which mirrors the faithfulness of God; joy as an ecumenical habit; the assurance of enough andLadybird appropriate words for the journey and that the effectiveness of the words is not being dependent on either the bearers nor the response of the hearers. I ended my reflections with telling the story of what the Ladybird heard which got the whole gathering in participatory mode!

After the worship we moved across to the United Reformed Church, where a generous and delightful spread ‘welcomed’ all – and it was delicious! So around tables and under more gazebos’ we “lunched” in Hookerthe garden of Little Baddow URC and continued our conversations.

I would encourage anyone interested in the adventure of a ‘day out’ to visit the Little Baddow History Centre which is attached to the Chapel. This small centre is full of interesting surprises, as Bishop John and I discovered from our whirlwind tour. If you like walking, there are lovely routes in and around Baddow. And, for those interested in the story of the village and the Chapel, I would recommend chapter 5 of Deryck Collingwood’s Father of American Democracy: Thomas Hooker (1586-1647). You may borrow my complimentary copy if you wish. In the meantime my Little Baddow Chapel 300th anniversary mug will proudly rest on my desk!

 

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Generous to Overflowing – Colourful(l) Spirituality

by Michael N. Jagessar

It felt like Pentecost on Saturday June 29th. It was a Carnival-like atmosphere. Celebration was in the air. Like that first Pentecost, people swarmed in from all over the place – with strange sounding 20130701_174709foreign names. There were Ghanaians, Koreans, Scottish, English, Iranians, Irish, Nigerians, Caribbeans, Dutch, Australian, American, Hungarian, Zimbabweans, young and old, citizens and newer migrants – all mostly British – gathered at Kensington United Reformed Church. Even summer turned up in full glory for our rainbow of spiritualities celebration of our intercultural life together. And it was as celebratory as it was also an occasion to encourage, learn, discover, support, sing and pray in different ‘tongues’ and experience the amazing giftings of the membership of a small part of the United Reformed Church.

 Among my moderatorial emphases is that of encouraging a series of conversations across the church, especially given our diversity and often polarised and parallel lives that we be drawn into as members of the United Reformed Church. To this end, I asked Ann Sardenson (Training Officer of the Thames North Synod) and John Campbell and Helen Matthews (of Urban URC Network) to plan  and work towards this gathering, supported by the multicultural church, intercultural habit project. It was also an opportunity to do joined up thinking and work in delivering the annual ‘Cause for Celebration’ event!! For all the work they have put in (with a small planning group) and for all those who led sessions and workshops, I 20130629_153435am (and the whole of the United Reformed Church)very grateful.

The event began with a time of learning and singing songs from a around the world and often sung in local congregations. These songs were put together by a team of singers and musicians and included a free booklet of forty-two songs with music and a CD to accompany the lyrics. There are extra copies if you need one! My ‘keynote’ address was integrated throughout the opening worship and located around seven readings of verses from the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2: 1-47). I briefly reflected on the themes (accompanying the verses read): all together, diverse and fired up, wine of astonishment – dreams and vision, rising up God-talk, poured-out spirituality, receiving the gift,  and generously shaped.

20130629_142354Then there were workshops which included: praying the Pentecostal way, making mosaics, song sharing, letting the Spirit dance, song writing, drumming and rhythms in worship (Rainbow Rhythms), New Monasticism in daily life, Stepping into another Story (praying inter-faithfully). All these workshops were very ably led, were hands-on and had maximum participation from those who signed up. A 20130629_135609generous and delicious lunch feast offered a great time for respite, recharging and buzzing conversations between the workshops. And our closing worship included aspects and items from most of the workshops. Indeed, there was a real sense and feeling of the power of the Holy Spirit at work at the event and in our working together! As we sang in Twi (Ghanaian) ‘Yi na ye’ (praise the Lord)!

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Celebrating 150 years of Witness

by Michael N. Jagessar

On Saturday June 22nd, I joined Central United Reformed Church in Hove (Brighton) for their R3jFEZ-UIylUOVJOwvtzat0wVCuJHMdyh7lsbook4Boservice of celebration of 150 years of ministry in Hove. Our well-attended gathering for a Saturday event included the presence of the Mayor of Brighton and Hove (Denise Cobb) and the MP for Hove and Portslade (Mike Weatherley), both of whom were attending Central United Reformed Church for the first time! Participants in the service of celebration included the Revd Alex Mabbs, Revd Brian Stone and Revd Roger Wood. I was invited to bring greetings from the United Reformed Church and to preach on the occasion.

The story of Central United Reformed Church is that of two congregations and church traditions (Cliftonville Congregational and St. Cuthbert’s Presbyterian) and the movement of God’s Spirit in the lives of the people. The story of St. Cuthbert’s started only in 1902 as an initiative of the Presbytery of London South. That of Cliftonville Congregational, however,OWpjy6qatniiL9qAq8dbxioobmR_5OE_xWXyP21wTr8 commenced earlier than 1863, with first stirrings in 1823 when a few persons connected with the congregation at Union Street Chapel (Ship Street Brighton) gathered a group of children in the Parish and village of Hove. Perhaps the habit of “uniting” has been there from the story of the beginnings of both churches. For in 1863 (August 15th), the faithful of Cliftonville who gathered there confidently declared:

“We do hereby cordially unite in Christian fellowship as a Church of Christ in this place, in order to observe and maintain the ordinances of the Gospel according to the New Testament.”

Both churches were built to accommodate the large number of people that attended. After the formation of the United Reformed Church in 1972, conversations started locally with St. Cuthbert’s URC and in July 1980 they became Central United Reformed Church.

From the history of both congregations and their witness in the Hove and Portslade pastorate, one is aware of a ministry and mission that has engaged and continue to engage in the life of the index2local community. There is a strong and cherished sense of being part of a uniting and reforming heritage that is also dissenting and non-conforming. This came across in the service of celebration, the brief history as told by two members, the historical display and the conversations that followed the service. At least both the Mayor and the local MP were asking interesting questions about the United Reformed Church and the dissenting tradition!

Central United Reformed Church has much to thank God for. They have received much over the years from that initial commitment of uniting to do ministry in Hove and surrounding areas. How to keep alight the flame of this adventure in their continuing discipleship and ministry to which God in Christ has called them, mindful of the very different landscape, is the challenge before the ‘faithful’ of Central URC. There is much from their stories of faith and faithfulness (past and present) to affirm the UiLTQL6NjhRmqpzo-LaEvMD-SwchWEat-ZNJik-_2Tgpresence and guidance of God as they face the future.

It is my hope and prayer that members of Central URC will continue to grow into maturity, to being built into a house of living stones (not a random pile of stones) – constantly being shaped and re-shaped, and become a people where the presence of God is known and seen by all, and where unconditional love and forgiveness overflow freely.

 

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Beyond the Legacy of David Livingstone

by Michael N. Jagessar

I was invited to give the guest lecture at the Council meeting of the Council for World Mission (CWM), held at the Glasgow Caledonian University (Glasgow, Scotland) from June 17-19, cwmlogo2013. The lecture was given on June the 18th in the Govan Mbeki Building. On behalf of the United Reformed Church, we must thank the national Synod of Scotland for making all the arrangements to receive and host our partners and members of the CWM family. Well done!

As I arrived very early for my 4.15pm presentation, I was warmly welcomed and invited to join the afternoon session of the day’s programme. It was good to see a few familiar faces (colleagues I have not seen for years) and to meet many new ones from across the CWM partnership. It was fascinating to enter a significant mission body and find that it969983_10151564636839961_1024246796_n was overwhelmingly represented by members from the majority world. I wondered: what would David Livingstone have made of this successor body of the London Missionary Society? Even Professor Brian Stanley, who responded to my lecture, said to me as we gathered in the lecture hall: “It is refreshing to be at an international mission gathering where Europeans are in a minority!”

The afternoon session I sat in was a presentation by CWM missioner, Rebecca Lalbiaksangi Ralte from the Presbyterian Church in India and now working with partner churches in Penrhys (Wales) and specifically within an eight denominational local ecumenical partnership. Rebecca told of her journey from Mizoram to Madagascar to Penrhys underscoring a clear and deep sense of call from God. She was delighted to be in Wales as it was through Welsh missionaries that she and others were fortunate to have received an education and she wanted to return something to the Welsh people. She spoke 983576_10151564071484961_326901086_npassionately of the challenges of learning a new language (in both Madagascar and Wales), of displacement and of finding a home among strangers who welcomed her and the assurance of the abiding presence of God. While there is much deprivation in Penrhys and consequent social ills, Rebecca spoke of the warmth, generosity, and community mindedness of the whole community, and the variety of activities she and her family are involved in.

In my lecture,  “Hope as a Missional Impulse: Beyond the Legacy of David Livingstone”, I explored connections and impressions from the life and work of Livingstone locating these in the context of the shape of a missional vocation for today, grounded on the expansive generosity of God inBannerJagessar Christ. This was framed around two overarching questions: to what extent have we adequately assessed and responded to the tragic collusion of Christian mission and empire as we experience and practice mission today? Has the content of our ‘missional score’ really changed or are we simply offering catchy tunes with fancy lyrics masking the shifting (not displacing) of power and the re-inscribing of habits we are so critical of? Given that hagiography is not my inclination, I ‘played’ with the overused three C’s associated with Livingstone to draw out the implications of commitment, crossing borders, and conscience (prophetic). Employing aspects of postcolonial theorising, I tried to push the conversation to beyond, as that which signifies spatial distance, marks progress, and promises the future, mindful that the very act of going beyond takes us into the unknowable and offers possibilities to transcend shortcomings – without a return to the ‘present’. Even more enjoyable, though, were the lively conversations through 988644_10151561207894961_46586261_nquestions and comments, that followed the lecture!

A report of the lecture as well as a brilliant response from Professor Brian Stanley can be found on the CWM webpage. For the more curious and interested I provide a link to my full lecture, which will give a larger picture than that of a necessarily  brief report.

 

 

 

 

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From Moderator to Moderator

By John Ellis

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Taunton United Reformed Church – founded 1662 with the Bicentenary Hall of 1862 on the right

The first URC Synod I ever attended was held in the fine 1797 Meeting House of Taunton United Reformed Church in Somerset. It was one of the early meetings of the new South Western Synod after the URC had been formed. The 61st meeting of that Synod, in 2002, was also in the Taunton church and presided over by a new inducted Moderator. It therefore seemed most appropriate that we should gather in the same place for a Valedictory Service to mark the retirement of that Moderator, David Grosch-Miller.

David’s eleven years of service to the Synod were recognised, not least by the presentation of a bound book of memories from the Synod’s churches. His distinctive contribution to the life of the Moderators’ Meeting was reflected through the presence of several of his colleagues from there, including Nigel Uden (ex Southern Synod Moderator) playing the organ, Richard Church (North Western Synod Moderator) offering a tribute on behalf of the wider United Reformed Church and Adrian Bulley (ex Wessex Synod Moderator) preaching a robust sermon. Adrian reminded us all of the need to be prepared to take a leap of Faith into God’s unknown, remembering the willingness of David to leave Yorkshire for the unknown South West.

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After the service the congregation admired the gifts to David on the Communion Table

The Lord Bishop of Exeter, two weeks before his own retirement, spoke of the vision, honesty and friendship David had brought to Church Leaders’ gatherings across the South West. The relatively huge size of the Synod compared with the typical Anglican dioceses was illustrated by the presence of half a dozen other bishops.

In his response David noted the wide range of churches and church styles represented in the congregation of several hundred. He urged all the synod’s churches to be passionate about what they all held in common through the Gospel and beware of spending their passion on those matters where they disagree.

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David Grosch-Miller (left) and Adrian Bulley enjoy their tea

While the service might originally have been planned as a retirement farewell, I and several of the speakers were very conscious it has not turned out that way for David. He has accepted the Church’s request to become Interim Assistant General Secretary for some months immediately after he retires as Synod Moderator. Then in July 2014 he will be inducted as Moderator of General Assembly. His willingness to take leaps of Faith into God’s unknown is not exhausted and he deserves the prayers of us all.

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Celebrating – Inspiring – Transforming

By Michael N. Jagessar

It was an inspiring and “fired-up” weekend (June 8-9), attending the ‘Synod Day’ of the National Synod of Wales and then participating in a St. Columba’s day service in Birmingham DSCN1855(St. Columba’s United Reformed Church in Moseley). The presence of the ‘sun’ was a delight to our eyes as we enjoyed the beauty of Wales, travelling from the Friday and over-nighting not far from the Royal Welsh Showground. As the invitation noted, coaches brought people from North and South and South West Wales. We (Leonora and I) of course came all the way from Hertfordshire. Around 300 hundred of us shared in a very pleasant and inspiring day!

Working the theme ‘Celebration, Inspiration, Transformation’,  it was a delight to share thoughts in the initial planning of the day with moderator Simon Walkling and his team as I was invited to be the “keynote” speaker. Mindful that I am best placed to give a “note” (with the wider perspective that I bring), we agreed that the “key” would be around unlocking the resources already in abundance within the Synod. We agreed to shape the whole day around the visible presence of a round communion table, withDSCN1853 bread, wine and other gifts, visibly present and around which we would conclude in sharing bread and wine (Holy Communion). Mindful of words from “our sponsor” to keep us focused during the day we drew on words and images from Ephesians 4:4-16 and Isaiah 55:1-10.

Simon was brilliant in his leading of the opening worship as he worked the Ephesians text and themes (body-building, building up and growing to maturity) with songs, prayers, and group activities that involved all. I can still hear the “build up” song ringing in my ears! My presentation, which was entitled ‘the shape of our life together’, employed the familiar actions and words (Jesus took, thanked/blessed, broke, poured and gave) we use around the communion table to explore (in group conversations) implications for the shape of our life together. I am DSCN1870delighted by the conversation and interest that this focus and method generated and was pleased to hear of the interest of using the questions at Elders’ and Church meetings.

After our lunch break in glorious weather, we all moved to feast on the various workshops on offer. These included: Remembering the Bible in Wales, Engaging with the Community, Music, Seeking Gran Funding, Investment Seminar, Digital Filming, Developing a Local Church Mission Plan using the Vision2020 Statements, DIY Worship, Cafe Church, Sharing stories from the Synod, Using Social Media, Children and Young