With the October mission Council fresh in mind – especially after the much appreciated, open, honest and constructive conversations at the Joint Methodist Council/United Reformed Church Mission Council, I was looking forward to my whole day and evening visit to the Mid Staffordshire Area, mindful of its very ecumenical focus on mission and ministry. I was eager to see the “talk” as it is being “walked”! A year ago I was invited by the ecumenical team. The visit was arranged and the programme worked out by Revd Franziska Herring (area minister of the Mid Staffs area of the United Reformed Church) and the pastoral team.
Our day began with a meal at Wade Street Church (Lichfield) with members of the Mid Staffordshire pastoral team. It is not often that one is greeted with signed direction at a church which reads: “This way to Michael Jagessar’s lunch”. I should not have expected less from my colleague and minister (Ian Hayter) of Wade Street Baptist-United Reformed Church. Wade Street Church will make all our “scarcity discourses” feel out of place and rightly so! It was a delight to meet and greet both familiar and not familiar faces, before we were all welcomed, prayers offered and we “delved into” a generous three course meal prepared by the local staff of the Church Centre. The conversations flowed around local ministry, building woes, displacement, and ecumenical joys and challenges specific to the area. I was asked to share my thoughts on a vision of the present and future of the church. I spoke of our ecumenical commitment, the recently concluded joint Methodist and URC Mission Council, the ecumenical work of the Joint Public Issues Team, and the need to move from problem saturated and scarcity discourses about ourselves, to a more generous, expansive and hopeful outlook as we grapple with the challenges before us. I also spoke of how an intercultural calling, habit and method can enable all to be “mutually inconvenienced” for a larger story – God’s story of fullness of life for all. The ensuing conversations revolved around ways to input local contributions to ecumenical conversations at the denominational level, a lively conversation around the generosity habit in living our ecumenical calling and especially the potential that can be released through the intercultural habit and focus.
From Lichfield, we journeyed to Hednesford and Trinity Church (a Methodist and United Reformed Church LEP) where the minister Revd Edward Sakwe welcomed us. A brief act of worship was led by the Revd Anthony Hick (Methodist Superintendent of Cannock Chase Circuit) who reflected on Ephesians 4: 1-11 and especially the ecumenical vocation in the local context. With the help of the minister and the Senior Steward (Mr Martyn Bradley) I was given a tour and introduction to the ministry of Trinity. I heard encouraging stories about “messy church” and young people, the pop-in feeding and meal ministry that has grown and the role of the Churches in Cannock and District Foodbank programme project. The response to this has been phenomenal. As I listened I was touched by the generosity, humility and commitment of the members. One immediate challenge facing the congregation is the much needed and massive repairs to be carried out to one of its main halls presently unfit for any gathering.
Before my next late afternoon meeting, I joined Franziska’s at her home for tea where I met some other members of her family: her husband ‘Michael and her mother-in-law (Ceridwen Herring) the widow of the late Revd Albert J. Herring of the United Reformed Church. It was a real pleasure and delight to meet this sharp, humorous, and lively woman who gripped me with her stories about the church and some amazing ways she, her husband and the congregations they worked with were practicing hospitality to international students and families in their midst, long before any campaign on radical welcome!! She was very pleased that a moderator of GA could dropped by to pay her a visit. When I asked her what she wished me to say to the United Reformed Church, she responded: “Tell them, that I continue to pray that God will bless the ministry of the church and that we must keep up all the good work we are doing however small they may be.” Nothing but an “amen” was more appropriate at her response!
The latter part of my visit to the Mid Staffs area took me to Trinity (URC/Methodist) Stafford where I was greeted and welcomed by Revd Peter Powers and Mrs Helen Haigh (Church Secretary). Here I was privileged to share in a meal with the “House of Bread” outreach project for the homeless and other needy people. This project, supported by the churches in Stafford, is presently based at Trinity. Besides a delicious meal, I met a number of wonderful people for whom the ministry of the “House of Bread” and especially the commitment and compassion of the volunteers have made a massive difference to their lives and wellbeing. I was totally bowled over by the young volunteers, some of whom may not have any active connection with a church community, but who are full of praise about this initiative of the churches which was started by a young man.
The day ended with an evening service at Trinity (Stafford) with all the churches in the area contributing to our service of word and table. It included hymns selected by the churches with special significance to their present journey, a splendid rendition of the Lord’s Prayer the Revd Kathryn Cook, and a dance performance (Di Turner and Alison Rudd) to Psalm 23. In my reflections I drew insights from the story blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-51) as we gathered around the table desiring to see, to receive, to feed and to embody the compassionate, generous and graceful heart of God in Christ.
I saw and experienced on this visit a variety of ways that churches live ecuemnical hospitality as they take the open, welcoming, gracious space we call table into the community -into the present, letting it watch them and keep them awake to what is happening around, as they strive to “walk the talk” of the way of Jesus.