Author Archives: kirsty

Preaching away

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.

Kirsty, Abel, Jane and Carmina

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.

Remembering my mother

Lunch together at The Lowry

Life has been very full recently, and blogging has temporarily slipped down my priorities list. The main reason for this has been the death of my mother, Sheila Thorpe, on the day in September when Martin and I would otherwise have been at Westminster Abbey for the Pope’s visit. Her funeral took place a week later and we had a service of thanksgiving for her life at church in November after I’d been on a visit to Cuba. I was delighted that on December 1st the Guardian chose to run the obituary I’d submitted about her. Here it is: She was a URC minister too, and a big influence on my life and Christian faith.

Take me to your leader

Discussing with Stephen Timms, MP, his ideas on how the Labour Party should engage with faith groups

Walking around a party conference wearing a dog collar is certainly one way to get yourself stared at, as I’ve discovered recently. Last week a group of Free Church leaders had a day with the Lib Dem’s in Liverpool, and this week we spent Tuesday with Labour in Manchester.  The day of Ed Miliband’s speech was a good opportunity to feel the buzz, press some political flesh and bend a few ears about issues dear to the churches’ hearts.

Unfortunately, as charity visitors we didn’t get allocated tickets to sit in the hall and hear the big event of the day, the new leader’s speech. We had to view it on the monitors in the exhibition hall outside.  I found myself wondering how it was to be at the back of a large crowd when Jesus was preaching – unable to hear the message fully but still keen to catch the moment.

It’s not often nowadays that speeches last more than an hour. My attention was held, though some of those around me lost interest at various points. Afterwards I caught a distant glimpse of a departing Ed Miliband, surrounded by people and clicking camera shutters. Back in the lobby of the Midland Hotel it was tempting to try and decode the inscrutable expressions on the faces of some former cabinet members who had worked with both brothers.

We had started the day at a prayer breakfast organised by the Christian Socialist Movement, where I was asked to give a brief theological reflection on the issue of affordable housing. I quoted Isaiah 65, where the prophet talks of a community in which people can both build houses and live in them. It was good to find a room full of people at the Friends Meeting House and a receptive response. Another joy was sharing time with Deacon Eunice Attwood, Vice President of Methodist Conference, who’d been asked to offer prayer at the breakfast.

I’m in no doubt that it’s worthwhile for church leaders and church public affairs officers to attend these party conferences.  It was striking how often politicians expressed surprise and pleasure to us that we had taken the time to show our interest in public affairs.  We basked in the pleasure of being reminded how influential the churches had been in giving the momentum to MakePovertyHistory during 2005, allowing Gordon Brown to take new steps to combat poverty.

A few generations ago, a church leader might have been preoccupied with questions such as whether we could have confidence in an atheist Jewish party leader, who’s not yet married to the mother of their children. Today, those issues seem far less relevant to me than how this autumn’s cuts will impact communities across Britain. The churches are well placed to alert MP’s to places where the pain becomes too much for people to bear. From what we heard this week and last, there are plenty of politicians of all hues who expect us to be in touch with events around our churches, and who are waiting to hear from us how things look on the ground when the budget cuts bite.