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We all took some deep breaths ……..

By Val Morrison

…….. on Pentecost Sunday when I was at Elswick United Reformed Church for their 364th anniversary. I had not been to a church with this length of history and there was a feel of an old fashioned church anniversary about the event. Not because the church was backward looking but because of the sense of history and the continuing sense of this being a church which was very much a part of the community – it being the only one in the village. The church is situated in a village outside Preston – the result of the Five Mile Act of 1665 which prohibited any ejected minister from living within five miles of a corporate town or any place where they had previously served.

The Victorian building

The Victorian building

The present church building is Victorian but on the site there is also the original church building – constructed in 1753 as well as a modern hall which was built in 1998 and serves the church and local community in the 21st century.

1753 building

1753 building

Today the anniversary service is attended by people from surrounding churches and the local community but in the past the numbers required a marquee and three sittings for tea!

The tea is still a significant feature of the day and the custard tarts are, I was told, ‘legendary’. Photographs of Victorian ladies sitting on the gravestones in the surrounding graveyard give something of the atmosphere.

An Anniversary afternoon

An Anniversary afternoon

On the day I was there the sun shone and before the service there were groups of people sitting chatting and enjoying the sunshine or wandering through the graveyard and exchanging news with people they had not seen maybe since the last anniversary.

A time to relax and remember

A time to relax and remember

As we thought about the message of Pentecost – that wind and those flames – we recognized the mystery of all of that but at the same time recognised that like those first disciples we have received the Holy Spirit. Jesus ‘breathed on them’ and he has metaphorically breathed on us so that we may in turn breath on others as we engage in the work of speaking, healing and loving – spreading the breath of the Spirit. One of the messages of that day in Jerusalem is that God’s Spirit is for everyone and one of the other messages is that taking that message to people involves risks, putting ourselves in uncomfortable places. This church, like many others with a similar history, grew out of the dissenters willingness to put themselves in uncomfortable and challenging places on order to ensure that no-one was denied the message – we have the history and we have the tradition, what we need to do is to continue our part in the work of the Spirit, take a breath, take God into ourselves, breath out and give God back to the world again with some of ourselves attached. And as we breathe remember that this is God’s moment-by-moment gift to each of us. A gift beyond our understanding but as close to us as our next breath.

On our final day in North Northumberland …………

……… P1000372I was leading worship at a Partnership service in the church in Wooler. It had become clear that the theme of identity was crucial in this area. An identity shaped by history and tradition, by isolation from the bigger centres of population and by the distinctiveness of small areas within the larger one. Such an identity can make us insular or it can give us the security which we all need to identify with wider issues and different situations.

The lectionary readings for the day included one from 2Kings chapter 2 which tells the story of the end of Elijah’s life, leaving Elisha to take up the mantle. It is a story of two prophets, journeying on a circuitous route from Gilgal to Jordan via Bethel and Jericho. There are interfering prophets and miracles, chariots of fire and horses and there is a journey into the unknown made possible by parting the waters by striking them with a rolled up mantle. There are promises about the future and mystery and hiddeness in the present. It is not an obvious story to try to link with the identity of people in small churches in North Northumberland or anywhere else in 21st century Britain.

But it is a story about endings – Elijah has reached the end of his life and his service. Recognising when it is right to end something is as important as deciding on a beginning whether that is about individuals or about church families. Maybe it is time for some piece of activity or some form of service ‘to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind’ even if only metaphorically. 

It is about journeying, Surely many of us can identify with that tendency to make circuitous journeys as we have listened for God’s call,  maybe following someone or some group which is powerful or persuasive, longstanding or sparkly new and innovative or maybe it is merely about loyalty just as it was with Elisha.

It is about the crunch time. Elijah and Elisha made a journey across the Jordan – an unknown crossing leading to crunch time, handover time and uncertainty about whether Elisha would inherit Elijah;s spirit. There followed despair and an acceptance of the need to carry on in the confidence that God is leading. Even when, like Elisha, despair overwhelms us, we discover we have skills beyond anything we have known before and so can move on to serve God.

There is so much in this story with which we can identify wherever we come from and whatever our experience. For Elijah, Elisha as well as each of us are a part of God’s plan and share the experiences which responding to his call. If we are wise we share too, the lessons learned from generation to generation as we try to do his will.

Preparing for worship

Preparing for worship

Some of the unusual windows in this church

Some of the unusual windows in this church

More from North Northumberland ………..

P1000270Thursday morning (9th May)found us a little further north from Crookham, in the town of Berwick and at the Coffee Morning of the United Reformed Church. I met elders and members as well as people from other churches who support this piece of community activity and I learnt how important it is to identify exactly where people come from – Berwick itself or Spittal, a specific part of Berwick or Tweedale. I was shown round the building which had been reordered some time ago but carefully planned and well cared for the building was now much more ‘user friendly’ as well as being warm and welcoming. My husband (who often gets to see parts of

The clock mechanism

The clock mechanism

the building that I don’t) was shown the clock with its particular history and mechanism confirming for me the uniqueness of so many of the details of the buildings we inhabit and the stories which are a part of that particular history.

 

One of the bonuses of this visit was staying on Holy Island and though not part of the North Northumberland Mission Partnership it was good to join Rachel Poolman – the Warden – for morning prayers at the St Cuthbert’s Centre.

 

St Cuthbert's Centre

St Cuthbert’s Centre

This unique piece of mission work means that it is never known who will come for prayers nor indeed who will leave matters for prayer on the prayer tree which is in the open-all-day Centre. On that Friday morning we were joined by a Roman Catholic nun resident on the island and one of Rachel’s colleagues and a couple from the Netherlands. Later that morning I met with a retired minister, his wife and a lay preacher who are members of the small Leadership Team in the partnership. We discussed something of the difficulties to be found in a rural area with (numerically) small church membership and few ministers but with communities to serve.  We agreed that all mainstream denominations need to find new ways to do things and new ways of co-operation. In some senses the discussion could have taken place in any part of the country but somehow there seemed to be extra dimensions to the issues in this area with its history, its largely Presbyterian roots which bring a particular perspective and its sense of isolation from the centre of power in terms of government of the country – also a long standing matter for those who live here.

 

P1000336Saturday involved another short journey – south this time to Belford where we met the Church Secretary and saw the church building. We heard the story of this small congregation bravely deciding to hold a meeting for the community to tell them that they were no longer able to maintain the building and stay open and how the community rallied round to support what was an important part of their town and we was told about the extensive use which the community make of the building. This Church Secretary was enthusiastically into a project with a group of local people researching the history of the church and was pleased to share some of her new found knowledge. She showed us the ‘bride’s door’ – with a main entrance which takes one into the front of the church there was no means for brides to enter the church and process down the aisle, hence a small door round the side to enable that to happen. P1000340This was another place with a historic clock 200 years old and built by Thomas Tait. I wondered whether the buildings and their particular details are more important in small communities where the history is important to people with deep roots in the area