Olive Branch Ministry – with Stockton United Reformed Church

By Michael N. Jagessar

It is not often that you find a minister of a church waiting expectantly outside of the front door to welcome the visiting preacher. But it was good to be met and 20131006_104756greeted by the Revd Colin Offor, with his usual pleasant and welcoming disposition. I knew Colin from Queens College (Birmingham) and so it was a delight to see him again after such a long time! Travelling by train to Stockton United Reformed Church for a Sunday service (October 6th) also provided the opportunity for a Saturday night stop over with a few of our intercultural advocates living in Darlington.

Stockton United Reformed Church embraces a long and complex history. Its storylines include that of St Andrew and St. George (Presbyterian) and some history of dissention and splits with an eventual union in 1934 which was proposed way back in 1897. Then there is the narrative of the congregational group that moved away from the Presbyterians to establish churches at Norton Road and Yarm Road. The formation of the URC proved to be the stimulus that brought the churches back together in Stockton United Reformed Church, worshipping at St Andrew and St20131010_225532 George, at St Andrew’s Mission Thornaby, and the Queen’s Park building (successor to Norton Road).

Though the Sunday gathering I attended may have been smaller in comparison to what the church used to seat many years ago, the singing was just as bold and uplifting as it must have been with a filled balcony. A liturgically well-crafted service was followed by coffee and a delightful lunch at the home of one of the elders (Eleanor 20131006_131157Smith), a former mathematician by vocation, with a mind as sharp as it is broad. I was also pleased to meet Pip, her Border terrier, who generously entertained me with his ball tricks and determined acrobatics. The thought did cross my mind about a possible moderatorial blessing for dogs and other pets!

My after-lunch engagement took me to the Queen’s Park church building where I was able to participate in The Olive Branch table-conversations. I am really impressed with this café-style initiative that grew out of a desire to offer worship20131010_232018 and fellowship opportunities to folk unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable with conventional worship styles.  With the building having a very high community use, the original idea was to create a space for those using the building and those living in the flats and estate around the church. At these conversations, those present are offered a conversation menu, focussing on some issue of current significance in society or politics, or suggested by the church season. Refreshments are served throughout – generous amounts of tea, coffee and cakes – and people are invited to let the conversations go where they will. Towards the close there is a brief of worship (a scripture reading, short reflection and prayer).   Those present are also offered the opportunity to request the church to pray for specific need. (a prayer request card).  

20131006_154747Given my visit, the conversation menu was specifically “served up” to include questions such as: what does being part of a church community mean to you? What do you value about your church? What should we stop doing to better do God’s work? Does the URC contribute anything special to the work of God’s kingdom in our town or in our nation? I was invited to move from table to table to listen to the conversations which were free to move in whatever way the group wished. And it did. Someone very new to computers was concerned about not being able to get her new computer and internet connection working. Others wanted to know more about me. In response to the ‘set conversation menu questions’ some asked: “is our church in the right place (location)?” “How do we respond to the moment and to what people need?”What are we handing over to our children and the community?” Some around the tables were clear as to why they are part of the URC – “we are not a dogmatic church; we belong to a world family; we are an inclusive church; denominational labels do not matter”. Some were keen to note a sense of “tiredness” around, while highlighting the need to stay positive! While the table-conversations provided an opportunity to raise lots of questions, I think it is also another practical example of a positive way of connecting faith with contextual realities, asking critical 20130927_181616questions, building relationships, engaging a wider-cross section of people and sharing good practices/examples with each other.

While the venture may not have attracted as many people from outside the church community as hoped for, from what I have witnessed, I have no doubt about the potential of this ministry to grow in a number of exciting ways and would highly recommend churches to consider it. In the meantime, I invite you to join me in praying for the ministry of the minister and elders, all the churches and people in the areas, and for also those participating in The Olive Branch.


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