I do not wish to give the impression that I am merely delighting in birthday cakes and after service table hospitality on my visits around our churches. You will be pleased to know that I am learning much about our exciting heritage as well, besides meeting very committed and gifted members in our churches.
On Sunday November 18th I visited Skinner United Reformed Church (in Poole and the Wessex Synod) to celebrate 350 years of mission and ministry in and around the area and beyond. Through my practice of always “dipping” into the history of the congregation (and the surrounding areas) that I am visiting, I discovered another of our many congregations with a rich history where saints past and present have shared and are sharing the “good news” of God in Christ!
I was pleasantly surprised to discover the name of the Revd John Wesley Snr (father of the John and Charles Wesley) associated with the story of Skinner Street United Reformed Church. Wesley Snr was ejected from his church at Winterbourne, Whitchurch (Dorset), associated with and then invited by a group of dissenters to be their minister. They met in Hell Hill (no misspelling here!) that was renamed Hill Street, and as the congregation grew, moved to Skinner Street. This became an Independent Chapel, then a Congregational Chapel and Skinner Street United Reformed Church. Among other things, I was delighted to read that Skinner Street was very “missional” in its early life locally and as far as Newfoundland!
What a warm welcome I received from a group of elders on duty! They were “walking history books” and within 15 minutes briefed me thoroughly about significant aspects of their history and other necessary logistics. For instance, should I decide to use the ornate and elevated pulpit, I needed to be mindful of the top step which slopes. The potential of a non-liturgical sliding descent was luckily avoided! I was impressed by the clock-work arrangements for the event in a very easy going and unhurried manner. The way in which the elder of the day invited the vestry party to be seated around a table while she led in vestry prayers, was very moving.
It was a well-attended service, though Santa Claus was arriving that Sunday in Poole and the whole town was out to receive him. While I led the worship and preached, members of the congregation read the lessons, prayed and we sang with much joy. I was taken by the wonderful architecture and wondered, especially during the hymns, what it must have been like in the days when this church was full to overflowing.
I was looking forward to the fellowship that followed the worship. I had also discovered that Skinner Street has written a small book on Church Recipes specific to them. I was not disappointed with what was placed before us. So around a light lunch, the conversations continued, now joined by the Mayor of Poole (Cllr Carol Evans) and her husband. I learnt from the Mayor and our CRCW worker (Alison Dalton) that this area in which the church is located is a poor and deprived neighbourhood, contrary to the idyllic perception of Poole. The Mayor, with a real heart for her community, shared with me the challenge of very high pregnancy and birth rate in the area, with one of the consequences being the need for more schools and greater demand on social services. The impression I got from members is that of support for their work in the community from the Mayor.
In my sermon, I reflected on the story of the congregation which tells of God’s love and economy always present though, at times, it may not have felt that way. I also noted that while there is much to celebrate, at the same time, 2012 is also an opportunity for recommitment to a new, exciting and adventurous journey that God is calling the community at Skinner Street to share in. For, among the challenges before the congregation is that of intentionally exploring and finding ways to work with the two other URC congregations very nearby. This is going to be a necessary, long and transforming journey as they discern together the new that God is leading them to collectively share in and be part of at this time. Good adventure to Skinner Street United Reformed Church in the days ahead!