One very varied part of the General Assembly Moderator’s role is leading worship in a whole variety of places, some familiar and others not. I’m still minister of Wilmslow URC but since my induction in July the congregation is seeing me there less often as I’m preaching about twice a month ‘away from home’.
As sports fans know, some people perform well for away fixtures, while others only have a solid record at home in familiar, supportive surroundings. I enjoy leading worship with people I know, who are reasonably familiar with my sense of humour and approach. It’s a new challenge for me, therefore, learning how to lead worship in different settings as I travel around the Church.
In September 2010 it was good to preach for the Annual College Service of Northern College in Luther King House, Manchester. There were plenty of familiar faces and impressive preachers in the chapel that afternoon so I was honoured to have been asked. Because training for ministers of word and sacrament and church related community workers is tailor-made to people’s previous experience and availability, and everyone follows a different timetable. As principal, the Revd Dr John Campbell commented it’s not often the staff and students of this theological community get together in one place. That makes it all the more special when this does happen.
My next autumn ‘away’ fixture was preaching at Union Street URC in Oldham. Until a couple of years ago I ministered in Bolton, which is quite near Oldham, but I had never been there before. I enjoyed discovering a bit about what makes that congregation tick, and sharing worship with their minister the Revd David Ireland. There was a good range of ages amongst those people present and some visitors from other nearby URCs. When you’re training for ministry, nobody tells you how to preach an anniversary service sermon, so I tried to say something that helped people to unpack the Bible passages for the day and relate them to the church’s multi racial, multi faith context. A few weeks later I was interested that ‘Newsnight’on BBC 2 reported on a pioneering Oldham high school that’s bringing together youngsters from the town’s white and Asian communities in new ways.
Derby Central was my next Sunday visit, a congregation which 34 years ago brought together several churches in its town centre setting. Finding my way to the church was the first challenge. Although my younger son did his degree in Derby, and still lives there, the roads had changed a lot even since my last visit because of major regeneration work. I was able to tell the congregation about our family links with ministry in Derby. My mother’s uncle, John Keyworth Lloyd-Williams and Martin’s father, Sydney Smith, were colleagues ministering there in the 1950s. It’s often like that in the URC – you discover a connection you didn’t know you had with people or a place. I was warmly welcomed at Central before, during and after worship. Often when the Moderator goes somewhere it’s because a new piece of building work has been completed. In this case, the contents of the hall where we had eaten lunch were being packed up for renovation work to begin there almost as soon as I left that afternoon. I left minister David Downing in the throes of helping to move chairs – a familiar ministerial task.
Bringing a greeting from the whole URC within morning worship at a Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba was my next experience of worship away from home. I was in the country for nine days in October, along with a group of church related community workers whom I joined on a visit to see the outreach work of our sister Reformed tradition there. Guanabacoa, a few miles outside Havana, was the first church our party went to in Cuba. At that stage of our trip we didn’t yet appreciate the resurrection story of a church that, after the revolution in the 1960s, had dwindled like many others to a membership of a handful of women and no minister. It now has a growing congregation, a music group, an HIV/Aids project and a new bus, courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.
Having enough money to put fuel in the bus is another matter though. In Cuba, where private cars are rare and public transport almost non-existent, the Havana Presbytery badly needs a bus to support joint activities between its nine churches. Guanabacoa’s minister, Abel, who is also Moderator of the Presbytery, was delighted to have our Secretary for Ecumenical Relations as guest preacher. Jane Rowell’s sermon and my words of greeting were translated into Spanish by Carmina, our companion for most of our visit. I don’t think I’ve often had to embrace almost every member of a departing congregation before leaving but in Cuba that’s quite normal.
Needless to say, embraces all round wasn’t the natural expectation at Hampstead Garden Suburb Free Church in December 2010 when I visited this URC/Baptist congregation at the end of their centenary events. The building, designed by architect Edwin Lutyens, feels as though it’s aspiring to be a cathedral. In view of the grand surroundings it was encouraging to find a congregation with a good number of young families, a play area, a Child Friendly Church award, and every sign of valuing the presence of all ages in worship. Baptist minister Ian Tutton taught me doctrine when I was training for ministry in Cardiff during the early 1990s, so it was good to meet up and to be present to preach, lead communion, and see three people received into membership. I felt I had been part of a real end of year celebration.