Wednesday, 1 December 1999

Familiar shaped emptiness

November is a month for remembering.  It has been all the more so for me this year after the death of my father on the first of the month, All Saints Day.  He died suddenly while out for his early morning run, near Battle in East Sussex, where he and my mum had been living for just eight weeks. 

Whilst walking from Worsbrough to Wortley yesterday, I crossed the corner of a field where the cows had been sleeping.  Amidst the other evidence of their occupation were the large oval patches of flattened grass, perhaps still justwarm to the touch.  It seemed a strange sight: more natural for the animals to be still there, chewing the cud as you would expect.  But now just a familiar shaped emptiness remained.  A rather odd analogy for bereavement perhaps, and it would be were it not that one strong memory associated with my Dad is the smallholding in deepest Suffolk where, as a teenager, my dream of ‘living the Good Life’ for five years came true.  There are many other places that will always remind me of him.  The Ecrehous islands, 7 miles from Jersey and halfway to France, at low tide an expanse of sand and rock, at high tide just a few cottages perched above the waves, where he took my sister and I, one fine summer day, by motorised canoe.  The Hardangger Vida, a windswept Norwegian Plateau where all the family went trekking – he was sure that one morning we would wake to find our tents surrounded by vast herds of Elk, but sadly our boots were burnt whilst drying by the fire after the third day and we had to bail out.  Then there’s Scotland: Shark bay where our wild campsite was only accessible by boat; Cape Wrath on the far north west, round which we walked on a 22-mile-day, eating wild mushrooms and watching gannets plunge like arrows into the deep blue sea.  He certainly made life an adventure for us!  He believed, too, that the life of faith should be an adventure: the adventure of stepping out in faith and walking with Christ; the adventure in which we discover together the great things God wants to do through us, and the greatness of his love for us.

There is no doubt that Christmas will have a double edge for my family this year, as it must have for many people.  However, the mystery and wonder of a birth, especially that birth in which the fullness of God began His fragile adventure into this life, can give us courage and hope to face the future, uncertain as it always is, with a sense of excitement and promise.

Sunday, 1 August 1999

The Good, the Bad and the Religious!

For some time now I’ve been a supporter of a charity called Survival.  It works for the rights of tribal people throughout the world.  To put it rather simply, these peoples had been living quite happily for thousands of years, following the traditional patterns of life passed down from one generation to another, on the land that they knew and loved and depended on.  Then the Europeans came along, thinking they were brave adventurers discovering new countries.  They saw the tribal people as ignorant savages who needed either to be “civilised” or simply got rid of, and they saw the lands as treasure houses to be raped and plundered of their rich natural resources.  Who knows how much of our affluent modern society is built on this and similar injustice and oppression?  It’s a tragic story, it still goes on today, and whenever I’m reminded of it I feel almost ashamed of being a white European.
The Church hasn’t been free from guilt in the story either.  Sometimes the missionary advance of the Church has been intertwined with the advance of the secular powers, the tactics used have often been heavy-handed and have, at times, shown little respect for the peoples and what was already good in the lives and the religions that they lived.
Perhaps I’m playing into the hands of those who say that religion is the root of all evil, or that we can’t take the Christian religion seriously since it has abused its position of power and trust and carried out so much wickedness in the past.  We have to face up to the powerful reasons for these accusations, but I, for one, don’t go along with the conclusions.
To put it simply: some football supporters are hooligans; but that does not make it wrong to support football.  Even if there had been a time when most supporters were hooligans this would still hold true.
Trying to go deeper: Religion is about what is deepest in life.  The problem of evil is something that has deep roots in humanity.  I don’t find it so surprising that they sometimes get mixed up together.  Wherever there is evil, true religion will be there, trying to bring people back to God and goodness.  But, true religion means people, and, sad as it is, wherever there are people evil always has a chance to take root.
But, more simply again: throwing out the baby with the bath water is a terrible thing to do.  We should instead learn from the past and play our part in putting things right where we can.  Let’s build on what is good, and finally, let’s not be ashamed of what we are. 

Thursday, 1 July 1999

A Visit to St Thomas’ Church

By Mr Dawson’s Class, Lobwood School

When we got there and walked up the path, we saw four grave-stones, one was Amys uncle Freds grave.  The other grave stone was Adams brothers.  When we got to the doors the church lookt really huge.  We walked inside it was beautiful ive never seen such a thing. First thing you see is the font the font is where you put water in it to baptise people.  Mr Homes put some water in it and  … showed us how to baptise a baby.                             (D Hewitt)

… As you walk in you can see this thing that looks like a tree … called a font.  And as you walk futher on you can see an egal whats called a lectern.  I thought the pulpit was for St Thomas to go up to sing but it was’nt.  In the church I thout it was going to smell horrible but it smelt lovely.                                              (S Durnan)

… One of the thing’s that we saw was a pulpit it smelt like a very old piece of material.  It was very old and rusty and had lots of dust on it.  When we went out of the church, we saw a lot of old graves that looked like they had been there over 100 years.  I felt very unusual when I walked in the church because it was very old, and had very old things in the church and had very funny music on, it was spooky. …  On our way back it was raining and all the gravestones looked mouldy. I enjoyed it at the church it was a lot of fun.                                                                           (J Whitham)

  The church is enormous.  It was built in 1858.  The first vicar who went in the church was the Rev. William Banham M.A. He was vicar between 1858 and 1920 …  The church is very interesting. …  I learned a lot about the church and had a real fun time. …  Mr Holmes has a bookstand with an eagle on the top because an eagle is powerfull and the Christians believe that the bible is powerful too. 
                                                                                               (K Cook)

…When everything is quiet in the church you can’t hear anything only the cars it’s wonderful to hear everything what gose by.    I thought that the church wouldn’t have so much stuff in because there is a pulpit is a thing were the vicar gose and talk to the people.                                                                                 (P Watson)

It was a nice sunny day and we went up to the church and I had a feeling that it was very old … The Vicar chose 4 volontears and put the four chasubles on us and I was one of them and I felt like a vicar myself.  Then I went and looked at the bread and wine and I saw that someone had had a nibble on it.  Then I went and read the bible.  I think the bible is powerful.  Then I saw the pulpit and I went up and thought of something to say. …  Mr Holmes rang the bell and all the rest of the school herd the church bell ringing. …  The Church smelt fresh and lovly and clean.  I felt all refreshed inside.  The music was nice and soft and made the church feel calm.                                                                   (MWatson)

The Truth beneath the Image

Last Tuesday (as I write), having ‘been to see the Vicar’ about our forthcoming wedding (always strange to have the tables turned), Beccy and I went for a walk at Sprotborough.  It was, I think, just the day after a fatal crash outside The Boat Inn, next to the River: the dashed lines on the road, which marked the trajectory of the vehicle, and the bouquets of flowers, with their brief, heartfelt messages, each, in their own way, told their part of the tragic story.

We walked in the direction of Doncaster, but only as far as the A1(M) viaduct which carries the teeming traffic high over the valley.  On the way back we saw the pleasure boat at its mooring and it reminded me of a previous walk at Sprotborough and a strange experience.  It was evening, and we had walked from the Pub in the opposite direction, through the reserve known as Sprotborough Flash – a wooded area with ponds to the north of the waterway and I think a disused quarry to the south.  It was getting quite dusky as we started to make our way back to the car and it seemed very tranquil.  But then the peace of the evening began to be disturbed – sounds of music and laughter became audible and drew gradually closer.  Eventually, round the next corner of the river the boat appeared, decked out with lights and crowded with people.  Evidently the party was in full swing, with a band playing and some kind of stand up comic sending people into fits of laughter every once and again.  Standing on the bank had seemed fine, now on-the-boat was obviously ‘the place to be’.  All this while the boat was still some distance off.  But then the bizarre nature of the moment revealed itself.   As the boat drew past, with us to its starboard side, it was we who burst out laughing in amazement.  Sure enough there were lights and there were people, but they were all sat there, glum and mute.  There were neither musicians, nor a comedian but only a stereo system with the volume turned up loud.  All the party spirit was simply an illusion!

A sad commentary on modern life?  Perhaps the Church has the problem of finding itself in exactly the opposite position.  People perceive it to be dead, boring, out of touch, trivial, and so on; whereas, in fact, behind the scenes, we should have the secret of life-in-all-its-fullness, a source of strength for living that life and the truth of reality at its greatest depths.  

Tuesday, 1 June 1999

This Church is becoming a community of people who …

To complete the sentence was the task set by our course leaders for myself and 11 other Vicars who had moved jobs in the last 12 months.
We were in the idyllic location of Wydale Hall, the York Diocesan Retreat Centre (just north of the Pickering to Scarborough road).  Despite the forecast the weather was fabulous, the view over a wooded valley majestic, and after a very pleasant lunch the cooing birds and gently droning bees seemed to suggest that a quite doze on the terrace for a few hours was much more sensible than getting our minds into gear and thinking about congregations back home, issues of leadership and managing change, once more!  But, as Macbeth said, “If t’were done when ‘tis done, ‘tis well it were done quickly”, or something, so we got on with it.
The answers that we came up with were as follows:
… live the answers to the questions people are asking.
… are free to share their stories.
… experience and live out of the resources of God’s grace.
… will engage in the risky business of asking questions about its role, mission and future.
… enjoy God and want others to enjoy him too.
… are understood and loved.
We, the group of course members, were not a ‘Church’ as such, but during those two days away we were a worshipping community of faith.  Amongst other things, it was good to be able to share our stories and raise our questions with one another in a context of love and grace.  We can listen for hours; but, until we start to speak (or write) our own thoughts and tell our own experience to one another, we perhaps don’t really know what we believe or think.
What do you think the Church should be becoming?  Do you agree that it should be ‘becoming’ at all, or do you think it should just ‘be’ as it always has been.  I’m looking forward to reading the results of the questionnaires – the one that has gone out to the congregation at St Thomas’s and others to the wider community, including those you receive with this magazine.

Saturday, 1 May 1999

Why don’t vicars look out of their windows in the morning?

Because they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.

The biography of a Welsh clergyman, who remained in one parish most of his life, told of a working day that always followed the same pattern: Mornings in the study (with a cosy fire in the grate) reading, meditating, and preparing the Sunday sermon.  After a hearty lunch the afternoon was spent walking the fells and communing with God through nature.  In the evening he would visit a few of his parishioners and enjoy a drink and a chat. (I’m still trying to find the parish!)

Apparently, in the year 1700 there was 1 cleric for every 100 of the population!  Today in Worsbrough Dale there is one cleric for some 8,000 people.  It is often said, however, that people’s expectations of the level of ministry their vicar can offer have changed very little.  Ministry these days tends to be rather more diverse and pressured than the example above.

Since 10th November I have done 14 baptisms, 37 funerals 3 internments of ashes and 1 Wedding: hardly a snappy title for a film but that’s the way it is.  For each of those services I make it a priority to try and see the families beforehand.  I have visited all 5 of the schools in the parish and have done 8 assemblies and 2 lessons to date, as well as hosting one school visit to Church: This is an area of work I would like to develop further.  I’ve visited 4 homes for the elderly and been round once with Jeanne and Ivy when they take communion.  I do have to do a lot of work in my study preparing for services and meetings, doing various administrative tasks, and thinking (I do stare out of the window occasionally, but usually not idly).  There are lots of one off things and bits and pieces: meetings the architect, hosting a Diocesan Advisory Committee visit, going on a week long jaunt to Bridlington (diocesan conference!), moving furniture in Church (!) etc etc.  There is the regular round of Sunday services, PCC, Standing Committee, Vestry Hour, Deanery Chapter, Parish Magazine and so on.  And gradually I’ve been trying to visit and get to know people in the parish and find out what’s going on here and round about.  It’s certainly not a boring job.  I hope I’m never one to moan about being overworked – I do believe in giving top priority to time off for recreation and relaxation – but contrary to the old joke it’s not a one-day-a-week job!  (Honest).

Thursday, 29 April 1999

St Thomas’ Church

The soft light shines through the
brightly-coloured windows of the church
Onto the grey stone floor.The tall, creamy-white candle flickers
And smoke curls silently into the still, quiet air.
A bible lies open on the lectern,
Waiting to be read.
The lectern stands tall,
Its eagle strong and brave,
Ready to take its message around the world.

Class 3, Ward Green Primary School

Thursday, 1 April 1999

Profile: Craig Sumpter

(Our local Community Constable, interviewed by Jannette Meek)

Whose arm do you reach out for when you hit a crisis and want help quick – a neighbour or the Samaritans?  Chances are it’s the long arm – of the Law, that is: in our case our local ‘bobby’, Craig Sumpter.
When he is not out chasing robbers, as he was when I made my first appointment with him (attempted break-in at the High Street Chemist), he’s just as likely to be helping an old lady get back into the house she’s locked herself out of, or pouring oil on the troubled waters of a ‘marital’.  Anything and everything can get ‘thrown at him’ in the course of a shift, and usually does.  He is able to take it all in his stride, though it wasn’t so easy when he first started in the Police over a decade ago.  Apparently ‘rookie’ cops are ‘seasoned’ with attendance at morgues.  We all know what’s kept there!  On Craig’s first visit the canteen menu included ‘spare-ribs’.  Somehow he just couldn’t fancy them.
The Police are the Emergency Service most turned to when we are in need.  90% of the time we use the phone to contact them; relatively few people visit the Station.  This is why – although we like them on the beat (and they are out there) – the top priority is to have the call-centre staffed round-the-clock so emergency calls can be immediately relayed to any or all of the sub-stations throughout the Borough.  Forces are then deployed at once to the trouble spot.  Apparently the police helicopter, based in Sheffield, can be hovering over Worsbrough in a couple of minutes.  Those gently paced days of ‘Heartbeat’ have gone forever, I’m afraid; but Worsbrough is just a ‘heartbeat’ away from the hi-tech and highly trained Police Force of today. 
Worsbrough is now a training centre for police recruits and, with extra evening shifts being put on shortly our local station is a hive of activity.  And, when the government puts money into re-furbishing all the police stations in the country, in the near future, it will have a welcome face lift.
Okay, so what are the crimes and where are the criminals?  Well, top of the pops in crime are: burglary, auto’s and drugs.  The criminals?  Some live amongst us, as they do in any strata of society; others sneak in from outside the area, using anonymity, and just as quietly sneak out again.   Many are young – well we know that; but, hearteningly, most grow out of it and only a minority go on to become ‘hardened criminals’.        There is  still honour among thieves, apparently.  For example, some won’t touch drugs with a barge-pole; some who will happily rob large stores would never dream of breaking into someone’s home.
Is there a particular day or season in crime?  Craig assures me not, though Christmas is an obvious and unfortunate exception.  Also, those long hot summer evenings (we do get them sometimes) with all the extra drinking that usually ensues: they create their own particular problems.  Oh and by the way thieves don’t like to get wet, so it’s not only farmers and gardeners who pray for a heavy downpour.
Craig sees the problems in Worsbrough as more or less common to all communities throughout the UK.  Crime is crime whatever the neighbourhood, and there is just as likely to be wife beating and break-ins in affluent areas as in poorer ones.
Along with his usual police duties Craig, as Community Constable, is very involved with all aspects of community life.  At the more difficult end the Police, working with the Local Authority are tackling ‘problem families’: and sometimes there are tough decisions to be made.  At the happier end is the quest to provide a safe, stable environment and a good future for everyone in the area to look forward to.  Projects are already well under way in Worsbrough with just this aim in mind.  The Joseph Rowntree backed ‘Communities that Care’ and the Kendray and Worsbrough partnership are two such schemes.  Many local authorities and groups are involved: Craig certainly is, to a very great extent.  He also visits schools, youth groups and children’s groups offering advice, help and s sympathetic ear.  He was on his way to Elmhirst School after this interview to meet with the students there.
Worsbrough has had its hard times over the past decades: pit closures, massive unemployment and the family unit hit badly.  As Craig says “We got off the rails a while back there but we’re back on and someone’s switched the light on at the end of the tunnel”.  It’s not going to get better overnight but good things are beginning to happen.  Craig can understand what mining communities have gone through – he comes from mining stock – his father was a miner.
Well, this all makes for a demanding schedule for ‘our bobby’.  How does the man relax?  He changes nappies!  His year-old son’s to be exact. Then there’s his three-and-a-half year old daughter and her dancing classes: I suspect his wife does most of the ferrying to-and-fro there.

Craig met the number one lady in his life whilst based in Dodworth where she worked in an old folk’s residential home.  It became a ‘convenient’ calling in spot for a cuppa and a chat for our PC!  I bet the senior citizens living there exchanged some knowing looks after his visits.  Craig’s family and his work are his two major loves.  Before he became a policeman he worked in a bank – two very different lines of work but, as he says, they’re both public relations jobs.  Yes Craig, with one you have a panic-button and with the other you have a truncheon, (and Craig assures me he wouldn’t hesitate to use it if he had to).
Craig doesn’t know what the future holds for him, but then who does 100%?  Somehow I can’t see him going back to banking.  Hopefully Worsbrough can hang on to him for a good few years to come.
As he showed me out, Craig pointed out with pride the motto of the south Yorkshire Police on the wall: “Justice with Courage”.  To me, that just about sums up our Community Constable.              Jannette Meek

A Time to Listen

We are living in changing times.  Some change is for the worse but some is also for the better and as Christians we live in hope.  The world is changing and if the Church doesn’t change as well it will become (if it is not already) a museum piece: in which case some people may find it curious but most will write it off as irrelevant.  The challenge to us is to be true to what it has always meant to be the Church whilst at the same time keeping up with the times and maintaining (or regaining) our relevance.  The PCC has decided to conduct a ‘Feasibility Study’ of our life, as a Church set within its local community.  The basic idea of the study is to do the following:
  Research and Describe:  Ourselves as a Church and the local community round about us.

  Analyse:  What we discover about both and the relationship between them

  Make recommendations:   on how to move forward
A small ‘steering group’ (myself, Andrew Hill, Lynn Beardshall, Edna Kaye, Greg & Dawn Nicholson) has begun meeting to think how we can go about this.  We will be receiving help from Rachel Ross, the Diocesan Social Responsibility Officer.  In the long run the more people who get involved the better.  It is about all of us: living as God’s people, and interacting with the wider community.
 ‘A time to listen’ sums up what we need to do.  Listening to ourselves and to each other: what do we believe, what is important?  Listening to people that aren’t regular members at church or who wouldn’t ‘darken our doors’: what impression do they have of us, what image do we present?  Listening to God: how does he want us to move forward together?  So, watch this space and listen out for further details.  Make your point of view known to the steering group.  And above all LISTEN: find out what your family, friends and neighbours think.  Listen carefully and reflect on what you hear.

Monday, 1 March 1999

The Hardest Question?

A Jewish theologian called Hessel recalls a story of an old Jewish Rabbi.  The Rabbi was telling his young students about Abraham and Isaac – how God told Abraham to offer up his own son Isaac as a sacrifice.  The Rabbi had his class on the edge of their seats as he built towards the climax of the story and the old man was about to plunge the dagger into the boy … “but then in the nick of time the Angel of the Lord came and saved Isaac.”  There was a pause.  Then one of the boys spoke up, “But Rabbi, what if the Angel of the Lord had come too late?”  “The Angel of the Lord never comes too late”, replied the Rabbi.

Yes (comments Hessel) the Angel of the Lord never comes too late … except at Auschwitz … there the Angel of the Lord came too late six million times.

The problem of evil and suffering, especially unjust suffering, will always be the biggest problem for those who believe in God.  If God is good and God is powerful how can God allow such suffering as there is in this world?  Why does he not step in and prevent it?  Many books have been written to excuse God and resolve the problem, and some are quite plausible, but the power of that simple question will always remain.

Having faith doesn’t make these questions go away unless it’s a faith that has closed eyes and ears.  But, on the other hand, having these questions doesn’t exclude us from the possibility of coming to faith.  No one can prove beyond doubt that God exists, but then again even the problem of suffering isn’t proof that he doesn’t.

So, if having faith seems hard sometimes or if you have questions that aren’t yet resolved, don’t conclude that you can’t be a Christian.  It’s the same for all of us.  Real faith will always be a struggle and a journey of discovery.  If we set out on that journey then through the doubts and difficulties we will keep coming back to the conviction that there is someone there, someone who loves us, someone we can trust.

Monday, 1 February 1999

The Shape of Things to Come

Churches come in all different shapes and sizes, and so do people.  What shape are you are and how is it changing with time!
Shape fascinates us when we are young – trying to find the right shaped piece to complete the puzzle; looking through the right shaped window to see the story unfold ...  Maybe we tend to take shapes more for granted as we get older but they are vital nonetheless.  If you buy shoes that are the wrong shape you soon know about it; if your key is not cut to just the right shape you’ll end up locked out of the house; if you get ‘out of shape’ its very hard to get back in again.
The Diocese of Sheffield is working on a strategy for the next five years.  In it there are lots of recommendations.  Surprisingly, only one of them relates directly to church members: “That all church members seek so to shape their living and worship together as to attract at least one new person to their faith community over the next 5 years.”
How does that sound to you?  I think it is vital.  It needs to be worked at and needs our careful thought.  To those who have been to church regularly and have done so all their lives, church might seem to have a comfortable shape – perhaps too comfortable and easily leading to sleep!  To those who come in for the first time I think it appears very different.  It probably seems to be a spiky shape that is not very welcoming or easy to understand.  We need to learn to put ourselves in the shoes of these people and find out what it’s like for them.  All churches are different but our church-life must be shaped in way that attracts people and makes them want to come.  We must get on and do this instead of bemoaning the fact that people don’t come.  It applies in the same way to us as individuals (and it’s got nothing to do with fitness of fatness).  Do people look at us and think “That person goes to church – it obviously doesn’t work!” or “That person goes to church … could there be something in it after all?”. 
Anyway, we’ve got nothing to lose by taking the recommendation seriously.  One person in five years – it doesn’t sound over ambitious – but think of the difference if it actually happened.