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.
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.
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.
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 But some old assumptions are no longer valid.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.