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BISHOP ROBERT ATWELL and I touched on the convergence of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ in a stimulating conversation the other day. Both of us were speaking of inclusiveness, accessibility, direction, purpose, of a church’s special charism or gift of grace – of getting back to grass roots. And “the Spirit is moving” it seems, because ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ featured frequently and prominently in our excellent Church Council deliberations about Growth Action Planning here last night. (Where are we? What are we? Why are we? Where are we heading? Where could we be in 5 years? Where do we want to be in 5 years?)
Sandcastles and temples
It doesn’t take much effort to enumerate some of the ways in which church and society are changing before our very eyes, and at a rate of knots. Frenetic building (or perpetual ‘repairing’) of even our strongest sandcastles is – history shows us time and again – sooner or later to be inundated. Baptism. The ocean prevails. The proud are scattered “in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek”. (Magnificat – Luke 1)
Justice and peace
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O light that foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
It’s no accident that ocean breeze and flow keeps blowing the words ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ back into the faces of a Church comprised of many who lived through the human turmoil of the twentieth century – during which more human beings killed members of their own species than at any other point in history. We simply MUST aspire to richer, fuller, brighter, fairer, tearless promise. And our Growth Action Planning last night had the current atrocities in Syria as a backdrop to concentrate the mind, whilst one of our Council reps teaches in a school in which over 35 languages are spoken amongst the small children.
Open plan … and the old glass ceilings
Oceans level sandcastles and temples and leave beaches washed clean. And golden. An invitation. Like fresh snow the shoreline swept clean invites new footprints. “And we therefore will not fear, though the earth be moved and the hills be carried into the midst of the sea” (Psalm 46). And we ask the question, “so where are we headed now?” Levelled, shaken up a bit and cleaned, both the ocean and the land are still here. Shall we build the same old castles or shall we have a rethink? Shall we go for a bit more “open plan”? Shall we leave out the old glass ceilings? Shall we thank God that all the Synodical and Parliamentary minutes about the difference between men and women, and straight and gay, and the world’s faith traditions, and political ideologies, and representation rules – got washed out to sea, whilst the ocean and the land and the better memories – one might almost say the “divine memories” – are still here.
Once again there’s a fabulous little parable in this week’s UK Church Times. The visionary and prophetic Bishop Kelvin Wright of Dunedin, New Zealand, is reported as saying
my diocese faces extinction … but I’m not losing any sleep over this. I think several other dioceses will be watching what we do with interest
We are. And thankfully Kelvin will be as familiar as I am with an older parable
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12.24
What will it mean for the Church – “the Body of Christ now on earth” – and for the World of the future to be both liberal and radical? Bring on the ocean – an inundation worth learning to swim in, and that right early.
Jerusalem the golden with milk and honey blest beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed. I know not, O, I know not what joys await us there, what radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare
Blessed are you, Lord God,
our light and our salvation;
to you be glory and praise for ever.
From the beginning you have created all things
and all your works echo the silent music of your praise.
In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.
You give us breath and speech, that with angels
and archangels and all the powers of heaven
we may find a voice to sing your praise
from Eucharistic Prayer G, Common Worship
A HAPPY AFTERNOON. Good house visits with good conversation about allsorts in the sunshine. I always come back from afternoons like this one reminded that there are some really wonderful people in the world, people of faith, people of courage, kindness, and solid down-to-earth goodness. And I often come back feeling that many people go out of their way to encourage and affirm.
The job of parish priest in a fairly large place like Bramhall often involves being what the parish profile, six years ago, called “the conductor of an orchestra”. I think that most parishes need the sort of leadership a conductor provides. It’s usually an unhappy, or at least a “going nowhere” sort of a parish where the only voice to be heard is that of the priest, (or any too-vocal individual for that matter) just as the sound of an orchestra requires vastly more than the voice of the conductor.
If the pastoring and other work of the Church in this place had to be done by the priest alone there’d many more thousands who’d have little or no contact with the parish church at all. Being “the Body of Christ” in this place involves every person’s call to pastoring of some kind or another, and to each is given a particular gift, a distinctive, discipling voice. A good translation of the word discipling might be “learning on the job!” - in our case within a big, big orchestra.
A large team
Bramhall Parish Church relies upon the gifts of a large pastoral team, and upon teachers and encouragers, and upon buildings and financial specialists. And we’re always actively hoping and praying for candidates for ordained ministry in the wider Church (currently four such people engaging with training and the processes of discernment, study and formation). We rely on praying people, and visiting people, and musical people and other artists and contributors of every conceivable kind.
And we’re constantly on the look-out for the ways in which all our members might be encouraged in life and ministry in the world, and right here in our own neighbourhood. (Not all of it church-based of course – we ought never to limit the word “ministry” to purely church-related sending or activity. The work of God is not confined only to the Church, or to any other religious body).
But in exactly the same way that an orchestral conductor likes sometimes to actually play an instrument or instruments, so, too, this “conductor” likes, whenever possible, just to get out and about amongst the people of our parish. It’s good to get alongside the different instruments and have a chance to play one’s own.
Whatever I’m doing here in Bramhall, and on whatever the day of the week, or the particular nature of the activity, there’s one thing I am certain of: we need each other. Every child, woman and man upon earth has a contribution to make towards the good of all. Whatever our faith tradition (or the lack thereof), whatever instrument we play or the song we sing, wherever we’ve come from and wheresoever we think we’re going, each and every one of us is made for and called to good conversation, thereby co-creating “the Peace that passeth all understanding”. Making great (and sometimes silent) music.
IT’S WELL NIGH impossible to describe the measure of “peace that passeth understanding” that is experienced here during our monthly gatherings for Monday Meditation. That, in part, must be due to the fact that meditation is really about letting go of thoughts and words and just being. I’m mindful this evening of the gospel account of the great storm that frightened Jesus’ disciples out of their wits. His words for them are words we do well to hear now:
Peace. Be still.
A core group of around 75 people are practising regularly in and around our parish church, and many tell me that the “peace” spoken of in the ancient prayers of the Church – but not always experienced - is becoming a deeper reality for them.
For all that Jesus calls us to rise up and follow him into action, (said one note this week) there’s no avoiding the message that he still speaks when we get caught in – or turn life into a storm. Always the same: ‘Peace. Be still.’
IT’S A GLORIOUS DAY in Cumbria, albeit still decidedly chilly. My always-waiting books and armchair are too frequently my default position after the little household jobs, haircut, shopping etc on Saturday mornings, up here, away from the busyness and routine of Vicarage life. That’s not good on two counts: the first, that this is a spectacularly beautiful part of the world and it’s daft to come here and not to see any of it. The second, that I woke up stiff as a board this morning and just know, in the way that one does just know such things sometimes, that it’s blooming-well time I shifted my idle self and took some exercise. And I did. And now I’m (slightly) less stiff. And my head has cleared. And I’ve decided that though we humans generally reckon sheep are silly, they’re not.
Sheep take plenty of exercise. They’re fairly focused. And they make time in their lives to sit around quite a bit and contemplate (apparently not too troubled by the fact that their young seem to leap and skip around the place like lambs). Now Simon the sheep is fairly focused, I think, and he does set aside time for contemplation and the all-important silence. It’s just this blessed exercise business. Baa! Health MOT coming up this week so it’s on my mind, because I know it’ll be on the doc’s. Can you hear me? Ooooh yes, doctor, a couple of hours a day, I’d say. Bit of weights, a few rounds of the track, the bike, swimming. Cumberland sausage? No. Only for a treat now and then. Yeah. Not bad at all. (Except I need to go to confession after this consultation!). If only I could remember that a bit of exercise can be positively enjoyable. If only my increasingly creaky old self didn’t look upon exercise as a form of penance!
HOMS IS UNDER FIRE and news from Syria – carrying images of terrified people, severely injured children amongst them, brings home a host of unpalatable realities. How am I – watching from a distance – to respond? Is there anything at all I can do? Pray, pray, pray for peace, of course. But I must actively will peace into existence too.
Where are the false divisions I’ve set up between me and my neighbour? What would it take, in my own life to start with, to dismantle walls that divide? How much religious or nationalist or personal “certainty” amounts, in the end, to false pride? Whether on a national scale, or domestic (women bishops, same-sex partnerships and so on) – what do I really imagine the Divine will might be? And whatever the subject, and whatever my current take on things, could my prayers, my will for unity and peace, my actions and the Love of God change my (or anyone’s) attitude to what I hear, to what is revealed to me in the course of my prayer, or to what I see?
EVER CHANGING LIGHT at Ullswater is among the many reasons that the lake, its surrounding fells, the sky above and the depth beneath speak to me of life itself: beautiful, natural, glorious, sometimes choppy and precarious, sometimes bright and blue, sometimes grey and dull. Enormous, and thereby quietening. And quietened brought to further experience of peace in the depths of me. Beyond me and yet within me. Whole and a glimpse of the holy. Life. Health. Peace.
CHRISTMAS worship at Bramhall Parish Church is a joy, and you’re invited to be a part of it. Please be assured of a warm welcome wherever you’re from, whether you’re a day old or 100 years old, whether you’ve been before or not. St Michael & All Angels Bramhall is a home beside the road for any of God’s children who wish to make it so. Bring yourself. Bring friends and family. Bring openness and peace with you. And you’ll find all those gifts surrounding you.
GREAT TODAY to have artist Wendy Rudd with us for the installation of her fabulously peaceful Windsails in our Lantern Tower. As with most artworks there’s a story behind this one. We hope that many will enjoy learning their story and a blessed time of peace, quiet and reflective meditation. The gentle, silent movement of the Windsails draws and leads willing souls into just such blessedness. Bramhall Parish Church is open on weekdays from 9-12 (join us for Wednesday Eucharist & Coffee afterwards at 10.30am?) & on Sunday mornings from 8am – 12.30. All welcome.
THERE’S AN AUTUMN nip in the air tonight and the trees are definitely a-changing. I’ve been spending a deal of time in the last couple of weeks with the many, many people, individually and corporately, who play out a thousand different roles in the life and ministry of our parish. The September-Start-Of-Term feeling always reminds me of just how many people are involved. Christianity must be one of the world’s biggest roadshows!
I’m also reminded of the fragility of human life and of the need to be gentle in our discipling (our learning, caring and teaching) – with others, certainly, but also with ourselves. Many of our people are afflicted with illness or pain of one kind or another at present – some of them in key positions of leadership and the pastoral care of others. I’m humbled and frequently touched by their willingness to be faithful to their calling and responsibilities even in times when they themselves could do with a bit of sympathy and loving care. And I see as one of my most important roles a need to encourage time for quietness, reflection, “space”, and prayer.
Neither world nor parish ever knows a day when the various ministries of care are not needed. The work is never done and the needs enormous. So the more the merrier. The more we all learn to care for (and be cared for by) the people closest to us, the less overly-burdensome responsibility for the sometimes overstretched few. I’ve always loved that Autumn reminds me of the fragility of life, of changing hues and colours – of dying to what has been in order that the way might be paved for what is to be. My Autumn prayer is for ways of gentleness, and paths of peace. And healing.