Thoughts from our Priest in Charge

Christmas Message

December 2017

When does the unusual or unfamiliar lose its power to surprise? If we go by the stories we often hear on the news or read about in the papers it is persistent reporting which takes the novelty away. We quickly lose the capacity to smile or to be shocked when something occurs more and more frequently.

I heard someone say recently that this is a problem with the Christmas story. It has all become too familiar because it has been endlessly repeated. Yet as a film title once reminded us, it is ‘the greatest story ever told’.

Maybe this Christmas we are being asked to look and listen differently as we come to the familiar scene of the stable and the shepherds, the angels and the Christ Child? To look not at the cosiness of it all but at the crisis it represents?

This was brought home to me last year when I visited a Children’s Home on the Algarve in Portugal. I was taken into a little back room and introduced to the Mother of a profoundly handicapped child. She was about seven years of age and totally dependent for everything. Unable to communicate she was despite this cared for and loved. This brought home to me what should be at the very heart of our Christmas celebrations. It jolted me back to reality. In this very homely act I saw afresh the difficulties that many families are facing today as they try to re-discover the true meaning of the birth of this Most Holy Child..

So looking again at that familiar story. What chance of survival did the baby Jesus have? Everything was stacked against him and even troops were sent out to find and kill him. The miracle is that he did survive and became the one through whom God would rescue human beings and set us on the road to peace. Looking at the Christmas Crib this year causes me to wonder that God took such a risk. And to be thankful that the gift of this child is still able to be received by us all. A very Happy Christmas to you all! 

Mark
 

Christmas Letter from Rev Sue Webster

December 2017


The coming of autumn each year confronts me with emotions I don’t feel at other times. I feel a conflict between admiring the stunning colours of the leaves before they fall, and the knowledge that winter – cold, dark and often bleak – is just around the corner. I have a little seasonal ritual to help me through: first my birthday in October, followed by a few days at our caravan in Pembrokeshire where the sea soothes my soul. Then, Bonfire Night (I just love fireworks and the bright lights they bring to the darkening sky!) and then ….Advent. Despite our antiquity, my husband and I always have an Advent Calendar (sometimes with chocolate too!). We also have an Advent Candle which we try to light daily but inevitably life gets in the way and we have to have ‘catch-up days’ when we carefully watch the wick burning to ensure we do not overrun the day we are on! Then, halfway through December we put up our Christmas tree, as big as we can get into the lounge and brightly lit. Finally, just before Christmas there are more candles, lights outside the house and a lit Nativity scene. It’s as if the darker the month becomes as we head for the Solstice, the more light we need to accompany us on our way.

The Church season of Advent begins around December 1st (December 3rd this year) and runs until Christmas Eve. It is the start of the Church’s New Year and in every way possible, it begins in the dark. Outside we head for the shortest day of the year; inside we are encouraged to face the ‘dark’ parts of ourselves, our fears, our anxieties and unresolved problems. Dark and Light. From the earliest of times human beings have always sought to explore within themselves what the elements outside have to teach us. Very often we fear the Dark – outside or within – yet it has just as much to teach us as the clarity that comes with Light; perhaps at this time of year more so. In the darkness of winter, the trees take their rest, getting ready to burst with life once more in springtime. In the darkness of Advent we await the coming of the Christ-child who will illumine human consciousness so that in the darkness of our lives, we can yet come to experience our fears and sorrows as pathways into new hope and understanding.

Advent gives us a much needed space in the dark, to rest, re-group, to reflect and to learn something new about ourselves and about God. If we can use it aright, Advent can be a time to explore (like winter itself) what the terrain of our lives look like when they are barren, bleak and with no obvious path discernible. It is a safe space for our exploration because we know it will end at the Solstice and on Christmas morning when the Light returns to reassure and provide for another year.

So, this season of Advent I invite you (and myself!) to take some time in the dark. Honour what life gives to us all, the sad and painful as well as the hope-filled and joyous so that when the Light does burst forth at Christmas we might all be able to truly appreciate the Life we are all offered.

A peaceful and quiet Advent to you all and a very Merry Christmas!

Sue

Some thoughts on how Churches Grow  

November 2017

When we think about church growth we seem, I think, almost always to be asking the wrong set of questions. Much of what I read about 'church growth' in fact explores the reasons for church decline. Commentator after commentator asks, 'What are the reasons people are not coming to church?' This leads to huge amounts of hand-wringing, guilt and fear, perhaps especially among clergy who work in situations where there is serious decline. It also leads to too much concentration on 'being welcoming' without any research to show what in fact people find 'welcoming'.

Instead, why don't we ask, 'Why would people come to church?'  Organisations that have energy and the power of attraction are usually focused on what they do believe and what they do offer, not on the stumbling blocks to engagement. They are communities of hospitality gathered around shared values and purposes. In a recent survey people were asked why they might consider attending church. The answers went like this.

To take a bit of space out of my hectic schedule.
To participate in something that takes you beyond yourself.
To learn about Christianity - to ask some of the really deep questions I have.
To be with people who are searching for God or love or something.
For a bit of peace.
To find some strength to carry on.
As a resource for inner light and peace.
To help me find ways of explaining things to my children.
If I felt the other people wanted to get to know me I might go.
I'd hope to discover the wisdom I need to tackle things that are going on in my life.
I'd like to know more about how you can pray and what happens when you do.
I'd like to be able to go just for a bit - if you could come and go like we did here.
I need to see forgiveness - I need it for myself but I need to see it in other people's attitudes too.

If that's what some regular non-worshippers would come to church for, what shape would worship need to take, how would it look and what attitudes and behaviours would need to be in evidence? What language would be accessible? 

The clear message is, I believe, that churches must focus on positive questions like 'What are people looking for?' 'Why would they come?' and 'What will they find that is good here?' 'What will they understand?' 'What is meaningful?' As we discover answers (which we will), we must do more of those things. The question for us here in Walbury Beacon is, can we respond to this and can we do it quickly enough and in sufficient depth? 

Best wishes,

Mark
 

During the Vacancy members of the Ministry Team have written the monthly Parish Letters below.

September 2017

For months now people have been asking, ‘When is the new priest coming?’  Sometimes, it seems, our communications aren’t as good as they might be, or, perhaps, people aren’t in the right place at the right time to hear announcements: again, reading magazines and bulletins, we may miss a crucial part or, indeed, a whole issue.

Anyway, at last, the wait is nearly over and Mark will be joining us this month with his Licensing and Induction on the 27th of September at St Mary’s in Kintbury.  As I am, I am sure that you are really looking forward to welcoming Mark Wilson into our parishes all across the Benefice.  Having met him twice, I know that he will be a huge asset to us as we look towards the future of our churches and their service as God’s disciples in this small part of West Berkshire and beyond where we have parts to play.

One of the things that he will bring with him is a question that I hope informs all our lives.  The question is, ‘What would Jesus do?’  It’s an intriguing question one that grounds us in the very self of Jesus and his mission in the world.  It’s a question that will make us pause and consider carefully what we are to do and how we are to do it.  It will help us audit, if you like, how our share in God’s love, his distribution of Charity toward his Creation, is effective and how real it is.

How we share in God’s preferred and promised future for the world is so important.

Anyway, that is some of my thought on the matter and I don’t want to pre-empt or guess anything that Mark has in mind as he prepares to come and join us.  It has been a real privilege to pray for him over the last few months and to realise that he too will have been praying for us.

So, here is to the 27th and the start of a new and exciting era in our Benefice.

Matthew.

August 2017

It is, I suppose, inevitable that after a lifetime in education, the rhythm of the academic year has become embedded in my bio-calendar.

Thus, September is New Year for me, with shiny classroom floors, crisp, blank exercise books and sharp pencils, new names and faces – while the approach of August heralds a huge sigh of relief and the vista of empty days stretching ahead (it never actually quite worked out like that in practice, but I was ever hopeful).

A previous incumbent I worked with used to encourage all church-based activities to press the pause button at the end of July; August, she said, should be a “fallow month” for everyone.  Of course, if you are a parent with school-aged children, that is probably not quite how you experience it.  But the idea of “fallow time” – down-time – is increasingly important I think for all of us, as the pace of life seems to increase daily and the TO DO – TODAY list lengthens inexorably, no matter how many items we scramble to tick off each evening; I had a university friend who always started her reading list with the books she had managed to get through in the previous few weeks, just for the relief of having something she could cross off.

For some people, down-time will come in the form of a holiday, away from home; for others, a “staycation”; some people find that going on a retreat, or a Quiet Day can allow the batteries to recharge and renew energy and a sense of self and purpose; those of us with dogs, who have to walk them regularly, may be lucky enough to receive a daily reviver from that.

The Jesuits don’t always get a good press; but their founder, St Ignatius Loyola, born in 1491, was perhaps one of the earliest proponents of a spiritual mindfulness, creating a procedure for daily reflection which is now called “examen”.

The idea is that every evening, it is good to spend a few minutes reviewing the past day and preparing for the morrow; for those with a faith, the god in whom they believe will be a part of that.

Ignatian examen is a five-step process:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

Although this grew out of a Christian faith (in fact a conversion experience when Ignatius was around thirty years old, and recovering from a battle wound), it is, I think, truly ecumenical in its application suiting equally, committed believers and the many who feel a personal spirituality, but hesitate to call themselves “religious”.  Most people have a sense of something / somebody greater than themselves, whether or not they choose to call that “God”; and for many people, prayer and meditation are inextricably entwined or indistinguishable.

For us here, in Walbury Beacon, this month offers us time to draw breath, as we prepare to welcome Mark into our midst on September 27th. 

So this August – fallow time or not for you personally – take some time; find something from each day which is good and should be celebrated; listen to yourself, your concerns, your joys, your hopes, your sorrows; accept the day that has been and look gently forward to the morning.

I call it prayer; perhaps you name it differently – but however you choose to recognise it, try it for yourself. 

Here’s to a fruitful and fallow August for us all – in preparation for the not-quite New Year in September.

Jenny

 

July 2017

I don’t know about you but I am currently feeling tossed around on a sea of uncertainty and change. As I write this, we are all still reeling from the terror attacks in both Manchester and London, from the appalling fire at Grenfell Tower flats in London and with the snap General Election bringing less, rather than more, security for the future is it all surprising that we might be feeling somewhat unsure of what lies ahead?

In the wake of all this I have been asking myself what is the Christian response to uncertainty and insecurity? Where is God in the ‘changes and chances’ of this world and our experiences in 2017?

Like many young people raised in the 1960’s and 70’s I was a passionate teenager who thought my Christian belief meant dedicating my life to changing the world! I truly felt that poverty, injustice and inequality could be swept aside around the globe by the love of Christ. Well, the passion of youth can become the disillusionment of maturity when the complexities of life finally dawn on us and we, like everyone else, become caught up in the challenges of our own lives – earning a living and raising a family for example.

It seems to me now that the challenge of maturity is to understand that the only thing in life we can ever really change is ourselves! Our attitudes, behaviours and priorities are ours, and only ours to own and to hold or change. The trouble is that it’s hard work to challenge ourselves, to face up to our short-comings and to change. It’s much easier to judge and blame others for the problems that beset our world, whether it is individual politicians, whole governments or indeed, terrorists that stir our anger and fear.

Jesus understood only too well the propensity humanity has for closing our eyes to our own faults, while blaming others. “Why then do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, and pay no attention to the log in your own eye” he says, in Matthew chapter 7. The truth is that we cannot change the world except insofar as we can change ourselves. We can only offer to others what God has shown us to be true. There are no answers ‘out there’; we must each be the answer and step up responsibly to our part in the unfolding of the world’s story.

Years ago a beloved mentor first taught me a truth from the wisdom of the Native American people: learn to walk in another’s shoes and we will also learn to understand rather than judge, forgive rather than condemn, feel compassion rather than revenge. This is strong stuff because it’s never easy to realise that all the conflicts and contradictions of life must first find a resolution in us before we can resolve anything outside ourselves. But paradoxically, it’s only when we do this ‘inner work’, when we face our own issues with honesty and a willingness to learn to be different that we experience  an inner peace which is not so easily shaken by the insecurities and troubles of our world and our own lives. The Prayer Book calls this ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’, a peace that holds the pain of the world without falling into despair and meets each new day with hope and a desire to live in trust whatever might befall. My prayer for all of us is that the experience of this Peace might truly be our own.

Sue

 

June 2017

It is sometimes thought, and said, that politics and religion should not be mixed.

This may well suit politicians of all or any persuasion, as a way of side-lining a type of challenge which does not sit comfortably within the norms of political debate.

It probably also suits those who would like to enclose religion safely inside the box of the church walls - something "they" do which has no connection with the "real world" - or, viewed from inside the box, something "we" do which should remain entirely private, hidden away.

"Compare and contrast" - as those awful essay titles require - these attitudes with that of Jesus himself.  He was right out there - full-on - all through his life- and world-changing ministry and, indeed, through the action of the Holy Spirit, after his death, resurrection and ascension.  He was out there, in the market-place, on his soap-box, mingling with the crowds, stirring up unrest, visiting the riff-raff and righteous alike, touching the hearts, minds and bodies of the untouchables, bantering with the Pharisees, confronting the "establishment" at every turn.  He turned their own words against themselves; he left them speechless with the speed of his responses and he allowed them to dig themselves ever deeper into the pits and traps they thought they had prepared for him to tumble into.  He would have been a whiz at Prime Minister’s Question Time.  No wonder they hated him.

You can only change the world if you are part of the world and when you interact with the world.  A world which is ruled, governed and organised - politically.

And that brings me to Pentecost (Sunday 4th June) - the extraordinary event that took place in Jerusalem less than 2 months after the political turmoil which resulted in the Crucifixion.  The disciples were told to wait . . . after the Ascension - Jesus' return to his heavenly father.  They didn't know what they were waiting for - but they waited.  And when they were all together, still waiting, the Holy Spirit came to each one of them - visibly in flame and audibly as a great wind rushing through the house.

Straightaway they rushed outside to proclaim their incendiary message – the Gospel – to all the random passers-by, who were miraculously enabled to hear and understand – whatever their mother-tongue.  This event is now recognised and celebrated as the birth of the Church – a Church which was immediately in conflict with all the Authorities as it sought to bring about the total change which is the Kingdom of God.  And that is of itself a politically charged title, carrying the same sort of politically recognisable message as the tri-lingual notice Pilate hung over the crucified Jesus – “The King of the Jews".

If you are a Christian, who wants to change the world for Christ - you are politically engaged - you can't help yourself.  And if you are an honest politician, who honestly wants to change just one small corner of the world for better, whether you are of any faith or none . . . . then you are engaged in something which should never be described as "mere” politics.

 Finally, two brief excerpts from the recent Electoral Communication from the Archbishops:

Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief.”

“All of us as Christians, in holding fast to the vision of abundant life, should be open to the call to renounce cynicism, to engage prayerfully with the candidates and issues in this election and by doing so to participate together fully in the life of our communities.”

 

Jenny

 

 

May 2017

During Lent, we raised £516 for Christian Aid through our Lent Lunches and the joyful meal with Bishop Andrew at Inkpen on Good Friday – frugal meals, generously provided and paid for generously. Frugality our choice, not our necessity.  And generosity we ae blessed, in this part of the world, to be able to afford.

Christian Aid is running a campaign www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns/climate-change-campaign  with plans for how individuals and churches can combat Climate Change.  They preface their campaigns with the following vision statement and caveat:

‘We hold a vision of a better world, free from poverty and climate change. Where everyone has enough to eat, and can live without fear of their home being destroyed.

But right now, millions of the world’s poorest people are feeling the worst impacts of climate change, and experts predict more floods, drought and extreme weather patterns to come. For those living in poverty, this means more hunger, conflict and insecurity, and a more uncertain future for us all.’

So, what has that to do with us, our financial contribution apart?

I have really been enjoying the recent warm sunshine, and the unusually early Spring flowers; I think wood anemones are my favourites - they seem especially abundant and the first bluebells in the first week of April.   There are already a few swallows about, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and fledgling blackbirds and song thrushes in the garden – just don’t mention the pigeons!  We can all share the joy of the rebirth, after a dull winter, of our beautiful part of Creation.

I have missed something though.  Do you remember the Flanders and Swann song about the calendar with the couplet:

‘April brings those April showers;

rains, and rains, and rains for hours’.

But not this year: minor annoyance to gardeners – or major symptom?

As I think of these, I am reminded of the Lambeth Declaration 2015 on Climate Change (CofE website) issued prior to Climate Change talks in Paris, calling all people everywhere to respond:

"As leaders of the faith communities we recognise the urgent need for action on climate change.

From the perspective of our different faiths we see the earth as a beautiful gift. We are all called to care for the earth and have a responsibility to live creatively and sustainably in a world of finite resources.

Climate change is already disproportionately affecting the poorest in the world.  . . . . We have a responsibility to act now, for ourselves, our neighbours and for future generations.

 . .  . We need to apply the best of our intellectual, economic and political resources. Spirituality is a powerful agent of change. Faith has a crucial role to play in resourcing both individual and collective change.

We call on our faith communities  . . . ."  Here follows a set of priorities signed, amongst many others, by Archbishops Justin and John.  The document concludes with these words:

. . . we urge our Government to use their influence to achieve a legally-binding commitment at the international Climate Change talks in Paris, and with the continuing programme beyond.   . . . . . We are faced with a huge challenge. But we are hopeful that the necessary changes can be made - for the sake of all who share this world today - and those who will share it tomorrow.”

Some may disagree, but for me, and it seems for our Archbishops, faith, politics and climate change are irretrievably combined.

We should be proud that here, in West Berkshire, having already made a financial contribution – may ask ourselves “So what else can we do?”

Matthew

 

April 2017 - Revd Sue Webster

When I was eighteen I left my hometown of Malvern to train as a nurse in London. For six whole weeks I was ensconced in the School of Nursing, undergoing the initial theoretical training before being allowed anywhere near the wards. After that first six weeks we were allowed a few days holiday and I returned on the train to Malvern to be greeted by my parents at the station. I remember so vividly alighting on the platform and looking up at the hills beyond (if you don’t know Malvern, it has rather a lot of hills!) I saw them as if for the first time. It was such a shock. I had grown up with those hills all my life but it took an absence from seeing them daily to make me really notice their existence at all!

Forty years on I still remember the shock of that moment as if it were yesterday. Perhaps you too have had similar moments when, quite suddenly you see something familiar anew, as if it were the first time ever. Moments like this tend to linger; sometimes they can be life-changing.

I wonder what Easter means to you? What comes to mind? Memories perhaps, of youthful Easter Egg Hunts, of making Easter greeting cards at school with artistically placed chicks or fluffy bunnies adorning the front cover. Perhaps you welcome the longer days and time in the garden. Perhaps the start of the holiday season puts a spring in your step or maybe it’s the sudden burst of flowers in bloom that lifts your spirits.

It is no coincidence that Easter occurs in the springtime. From the depths of winter, when everything around looks dead, we suddenly notice signs of renewed life. Snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and primroses herald the leaves which, as I write, are bringing the trees alive all around me. If I stand still long enough I feel I can almost watch nature waking up.

Yet, in the hurly-burly of everyday life, one day looks remarkably like any other. The changing of the seasons can pass us by and with them the opportunity to witness the mystery of life from death which occurs each year as winter gives way to spring.

Of course, for Christians, Easter is centrally about the death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ. Put simply and starkly like that, this cornerstone of Christian doctrine may strike us as an impossibly antiquated belief that has no place in twenty-first century thought or life. Yet, all around us, nature is quietly and in amazing abundance, bearing witness to the annual resurrection of life out of death - from the depths of winter into the new possibilities of spring. A little like my ‘new’ encounter with the Malvern Hills, Christ’s resurrection certainly caught his disciples unawares even though Jesus himself had often told them it would happen. They were never the same again.  It was as if their lives, only ever experienced in black and white became full of new possibility - and in vivid technicolour.

So may I make a suggestion to you? If so, it’s this. Take a moment simply to open a window and allow your senses to take in the renewed world around you. Watch the trees open their leaves; hear the birds sing; smell the sweet scent of newly mown grass; touch the petals of the flowers blossoming all around you and taste the early morning air. Experience the mystery of New Life around you and encounter something of the Mystery of new life that is Easter.

God bless, Sue