Thoughts from our Priest in Charge and Ministry Team

Revd Sue Webster - Christmas Message

Even in this oh so secular age, it remains true that Christmas still draws the crowds to church – particularly when compared to other church festivals! Anyone who has ever watched a school nativity play will have glimpsed why. Watching our young children grow, change and explore their world; being rightly proud of new skills learned, new experiences shared - isn’t that what life is about? Robin and I now have two young grandsons (and another grandchild on the way!) Watching Jim and Cameron begin to master their individual worlds has been extraordinary for us to witness. They are simply small (and wonderfully exhausting) bundles of unfolding potential. Isn’t that what we see and what excites us about every child? Isn’t it this that we see implicitly in the child of Bethlehem also - His potential and maybe even our own?

But potential for what? Every parent secretly or otherwise harbours the hope that their child will be someone special, a bit brighter than the average, or faster, or more beautiful than other children around. It’s natural to want the best for our offspring. But even if they are all those things, and maybe more importantly if they are not, what is it all for? The world is clear on that question: a good job, wealth, status, power – these are the things we are encouraged to aim for and attain. Perhaps it’s little wonder that so many of us have poor self-esteem.

And even if we do achieve these things, there’s still this nagging reality that one day, despite it all, well, we are going to die, and none of our worldly achievements will count for anything then. We all want Christmas, few are willing to face Easter.

What the Christ-child offers us I believe is potential on a much bigger scale. A potential to grow, not just the worldly parts of ourselves; our intellect, social skills, sporting or musical talent….but all of us, mind, body and spirit. We wouldn’t get far in this world without the first two, but without our spiritual growth, we are lopsided at best, disabled at worst.  I believe our true potential rests in our ability to look through the eyes of the Christ child to see our importance for eternity, and not just for our lifetime. We may well be tiny specks of dust on a tiny blue-green planet, lost in a vast galaxy amongst vast numbers of other galaxies in this universe, but look into the eyes of a new born baby, and the whole Universe looks back.

The child born so long ago in Bethlehem continues to draw us because he speaks not to our intellect where we tend to want to process everything but to our spirits, to our emotions and to our hearts. We want to know we are here for a reason, that whatever befalls us in this earthly life, our potential is recognised, nurtured and matters. The cross of Calvary might seem a million miles away but it was a destiny this Bethlehem baby chose so that, in his resurrection, we might all see the bigger picture: every child counts, now and forever, and that means you and me too.

I wish you a holy and fun-filled Christmas time!

Sue Webster

December 2018

 

Revd Mark Wilson

There cannot be many people today whose ancestors were not touched by World War One in some way. Despite the passage of 100 years, it’s a war many of us are familiar with. There are memorials in every village, town and city, acts of remembrance are followed every November to mark its conclusion, and its necessity or futility is still keenly debated.

While images of British Tommies fighting in the mud and trenches of the Western Front remain vivid, and hugely powerful, the First World War was fought on many other fronts which we may not know so well. It was fought across the continents, at sea and in the air. It was fought by servicemen from Asia, North America, the Caribbean, Australasia and Africa. It was also a war that gave rise to technological innovation and scientific discovery.

The centenary gives us an opportunity to explore and discover the unfamiliar stories about a war we think we know.

Of the just over 1,000 people surveyed in the UK, more than half know that it was in Sarajevo that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated – the initial spark that led to the outbreak of war. Almost 70% know that at Christmas 1914 a spontaneous truce between British and German soldiers took place in the no man’s land between their trenches.

But the report highlighted how knowledge of the conflict is largely limited to the fighting on the Western Front in Europe. Less than half of the Britons asked are aware that North America and the Middle East played a part in the war, and less than a quarter know that Africa and Asia were involved. Yet more than 40% of the world’s population in 1914 lived in countries taking part in the war, and with one in five men serving, New Zealand had a higher proportion of men at arms than Britain, France or Germany.

Almost three quarters of all the people surveyed, in Egypt, India and Turkey, as well as France, Germany, Britain and Russia, believe their country remains affected by the First World War. For 31%, it triggered more conflict; over a quarter see the war as contributing to their country’s identity, while 28% think the war and its outcomes have had a lasting effect on their country’s international relations, and the way it is viewed by people in other countries.

Reflecting now 100 years on, we will gather to remember all those who gave their lives and endeavour to take their courage and live our lives with conviction.

With every blessing,

Mark.


Letter from Jenny Veasey

Come ye Thankful People, Come

In the Book of Common Prayer, used, though not quite continuously, in the Church of England since Tudor Times, there is a section of “general prayers and thanksgivings”.  The first of these is a prayer for Rain: Send us, such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort.  The second is a prayer for Fair Weather:  . . . Send us such weather, as that we may receive the fruits of the earth in due season.  The third and the fourth are both prayers for times of Dearth and Famine: Grant that scarcity and dearth may be turned into cheapness and plenty.  Only after these come other prayers for times of war, sickness etc; and in the specific thanksgivings which follow – yes, you’ve guessed it – the first three are thanks for Rain, for Fair Weather and for Plenty.  In 1552, the date of the first version of the BCP, Archbishop Cranmer obviously wanted the Church and the people to value and acknowledge our universal dependence on the natural world.

The very first Christians, like Jesus himself, were Jews.  The Jewish religious calendar has three harvest festivals, reflecting the seasons of the different crops (our dates for Easter and Pentecost still relate to the Jewish festivals from which they sprang); in Anglo-Saxon and mediæval times in England, a “Lammas” loaf was baked from the first grain crop, and given to the local church to use in the Mass;  but it was not until 1st October, 1843, that the Reverend Robert Hawker, of Morwenstow, held the first Harvest Thanksgiving Service as we know it, in his parish church in Cornwall.

Rural villages and communities have celebrated the end of “Ingathering” for centuries – in “Far from the Madding Crowd” Thomas Hardy includes an account of a drunkenly over-the-top Harvest Supper and Dance which almost ended in disaster when the weather abruptly changed – I wonder why Harvest Festival took so long to make it into the Church’s repertoire.

As a child, growing up in a small village on the edge of the New Forest, Harvest Supper was one of our most important social events – with much slightly competitive home-grown entertainment (I wrote a play one year, for my reluctant family and friends to perform) – and you’ve never seen anything like the competition over producing the lightest pastry for the traditional apple pies, variously baked by local housewives (yes, I’m afraid that’s how it was in those days).  We all knew to try and avoid Mrs H’s pies – she was blessed with a very firm touch in everything she did, from dealing with children playing too noisily on the Common, to rolling out pastry . . . .

Harvest Festival is one of the most loved and well-attended events in our churches – it is right and good, surely, to offer our thanks for that most basic, most necessary of gifts, the food to nourish and sustain us.  It is right and good that, with our friends and neighbours, church and community together, we should celebrate God’s goodness in sending us “the fruits of the earth to our comfort”.  And perhaps it is also right, if we have the means to do so, that we should celebrate our good fortune through a gift to one of the many charities which work to share some of our plenty with those who have little or nothing.

Do check the date for Harvest Festival in your local church, and Come, ye thankful people, come.

Jenny

 

If only - Rev Mark Wilson

We all know the old joke about the tourist looking for directions. One day he asks a local for directions to a town. The local replies: “Well sir, if I were you, I would not start from here.” How often do we wish we did not have to start a journey from where we are?

If we want to see our local parish grow, reach more people in the local community or do anything new, we can always think of reasons why this cannot happen. Not unlike the local speaking to the tourist, it can be a case of “if only we could start from somewhere other than we are now, then it would work.”

It is too easy to compare our church with others. We covet their parishioners, their money, their ‘luck’! Looking at what we want to do, we can see the resources needed in terms of time, money and abilities.

However, before considering what skills and resources we wish we had, it is healthier to acknowledge what is already in front of us. It is important not to despise what God has given us in the here and now.

In the ‘Parable of the talents’ (Matthew 25:14- 30), the master goes on a journey. Before he leaves, he shares out his resources according to the ability of the workers. On his return, he finds two who have used the talents well and one who has not. We remember well the
words spoken to the diligent servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things.” The lesson can apply to anything we want to achieve. It is best to begin where we are – not where we would like to be.

Moving away from the ‘if only’ mentality – if only we had more money/different people/ different clergy/different buildings – always has an element of difficulty about it. It is tempting to stay in the secure place of wishing we were starting from somewhere other than we are. Otherwise, there is the danger of being so fixated on where we wish we were that we miss the opportunities that are here now.

Best wishes,

Mark

 

Introduction of Children's Benefice Services - Rev Mark Wilson

I would like to use this month’s letter to let you know that we have decided to introduce a Children’s Benefice Service. Initially this will be on an experimental basis with each of the Church’s hosting one of these over the next year. They will be held once every two months. A leaflet with dates and times is included with this letter. The first of these will be held in Combe on Sunday 16th September at 0945. At the suggestion of the congregation there it has been decided to invite children to bring along their pets to have them blessed at the service. Here are some quotes about Children’s worship that you may be able to identify with:

The elderly gentleman was adamant. Including a children's message in the worship service, he said, distracted other worshipers from focusing on God.

An equally elderly gentleman leaned forward to emphasize his disagreement. He said he was thrilled to see that finally the lambs as well as the sheep were being fed at the worship service.

A mother added her viewpoint. She said that she sometimes got more out of the children's message than the sermon."

Well," said a father, "When I was young, children were expected to sit quietly through a service. So why don't we keep things the way they were? Then there would be no problems." "I'd have a big problem accepting that kids in my family of God are being treated like that," responded a single woman.

Does this sound like a conversation you might overhear at a PCC or Worship Committee meeting? If so, you're not unusual. People have very different points of view about how to include young children meaningfully in the worship service.

An important way of meeting children's needs is to have a worship service that is intentionally more visual, invites more movement and action from the congregation, and is more dramatic in its presentation.

For example, children generally enjoy a praise and worship time in a service. Although it is not especially geared to them, they, along with the rest of the congregation, can clap, move, and feel free to express themselves in song. Using liturgical colours that change with the church year, banners for special occasions and having open microphones for prayer requests are other ways that the worship service can be more inclusive for children.

I believe it is vital that we involve our children in worship and commend these services to you all.

Mark.

Message from Rev Mark Wilson

In 1962, four nervous young musicians played their first record audition for the executives of the Decca Recording company. The executives were not impressed. While turning down this group of musicians, one executive said, "We don't like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out." The group was called The Beatles.

In 1944, Emmeline Snively, director of the Blue Book Modelling Agency, told modelling hopeful Norma Jean Baker, "You'd better learn secretarial work or else get married." She went on and became Marilyn Monroe.

In 1954, Jimmy Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry fired a singer after one performance. He told him, "You ain't goin' nowhere son. You ought to go back to drivin' a truck." He went on to become the most popular singer in America, named Elvis Presley.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, it did not ring off the hook with calls from potential backers. After making a demonstration call, President Rutherford Hayes said, "That's an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?"

When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried over 2000 experiments before he got it to work. A young reporter asked him how it felt to fail so many times. He said, "I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2000-step process."

In the 1940's, another young inventor named Chester Carlson took his idea to 20 corporations, including some of the biggest in the country. They all turned him down. In 1947 - after seven long years of rejections! He finally got a tiny company in Rochester, New York, the Haloid Company, to purchase the rights to his invention, an electrostatic paper-copying process. Haloid became Xerox Corporation we know today.

Wilma Rudolph was the 20th of 22 children. She was born prematurely and her survival was doubtful. When she was 4 years old, she contacted double pneumonia and scarlet fever, which left her with a paralysed left leg. At age 9, she removed the metal leg brace she had been dependent on and began to walk without it. By 13 she had developed rhythmic walk, which doctors said was a miracle. That same year she decided to become a runner. She entered a race and came in last. For the next few years every race she entered, she came in last. Everyone told her to quit, but she kept on running. One day she actually won a race. And then another. From then on she won every race she entered. Eventually this little girl, who was told she would never walk again, went on to win three Olympic gold medals.

The moral of the above Stories: Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved. You gain strength, experience and confidence by every experience where you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you cannot do. And remember, the finest steel gets sent through the hottest furnace. A winner is not one who never fails, but one who NEVER QUITS! In LIFE, remember that you pass this way only once! Let's live life to the fullest and give it our best.

Mark.

Rev Matthew Cookson - retirement

I first began to worship with parishes that are now a part of the Walbury Beacon Benefice in, I think, 1994 and have been a part of the Ministry Team serving the six parishes since 1996.  I have seen at least three separate configurations of Benefices and have been licensed to the whole of the current Benefice since its inception.  During the last twenty-two years it has been a pleasure to get to know the six villages that constitute this very beautiful part of West Berkshire.

As a minister It has been my privilege to share not only worship in the seven churches but also to be an assistant at weddings, baptisms and at funerals.  I have met and shared these special times with many of you: the joys and the sorrows.  This has been a significant and very special area for me.

Now I feel it’s time for me to retire, which I will do at the end of June. 

For our churches, this is a time of change.  With the arrival, in September, of our new Priest-in Charge, Mark Wilson, a new and very different chapter in the life of the Anglican Benefice has begun, offering to all our neighbours, Christian and Non-Christian alike the support and care that we all need.  It has been a pleasure to work with him during the first nine months of his ministry here.  From a priest’s point of view, it has been an enjoyable experience, allowing the consolidation of pastoral practice and inspiring confidence in the future.  I believe that good, useful and practical steps are being taken to involve all the church community in discovering how it may, more effectively, represent God and Christian values (a sensible expression of charity) in our villages.

I will be sorry not to be a part of this as it develops but for all of us there are times and seasons. I delayed my retirement due to the Vacancy, through the selection of Mark, his arrival and the start of his ministry here. Therefore, now seems the appropriate time to go, having enjoyed this year’s spring flowers, the arrival of the summer migrant birds and with the prospect of summer ahead.

So, to those who know me, I say thank you very much for allowing me to share so much that has been important for you.  To those I haven’t had the chance to get to know, I am sorry: it would have been good to have done so.

To all of you, I say fare well.  Please, be assured of my prayers as you move closer toward God’s promised and preferred future for the, rather splendid, six parishes that make up the unity that is the Walbury Beacon Benefice.

Matthew.

WBB21 Conference Report from Rev Mark Wilson

Over 50 members of the Benefice met at the Donnington Grove Hotel on Saturday 10th March for our Benefice Conference. The day began with coffee at 10am followed by a short service lead by myself & Archdeacon Olivia.

Following this the day was handed over to Jane Myers our facilitator for the day. The calm way in which Jane conducted the conference was appreciated by all who were present. There were three opening addresses by myself and the two Clergy who had conducted the earlier meetings around the parishes. All agreed that this had been a very useful process in terms of identifying where the parishes were and as a way to begin various conversations on the subjects that had been allocated.

Following these talks Jane took over and indicated the way the day would unfold. Each group of parishes was given a table covered in wallpaper and plenty of markers. For about thirty-five minutes they were asked to begin a conversation and to record their conversation on the wallpaper. Following this they were asked to circulate around all the tables and to again write down what they felt about what others had written. By about twelve noon all the sheets were covered with comments of various kinds. Just before lunch we began to distil these comments into useful areas that the Benefice could focus on going forward.

Following lunch we had a ‘POST IT’ session. This centred on four questions. What are we doing well? What could we do better? What are the amazing opportunities we have going forward? What threats do we face? Once again our flip charts were covered with hundreds of suggestions.

Our final session was to divide all into six groups made up of representatives from all the parishes. Jane then posed three questions.

1.      What can I do?

2.      What can the Parish do?

3.      What can the Benefice do?

People seemed to find this the most difficult session of all. However some wonderful suggestions were made and some offers were made by individuals in terms of specific actions that would come about as a result of conversations that had taken place.

Needless to say there is now a great deal of work required in order to take what was a very positive day for the Benefice and to harness the enormous goodwill that has been generated. I would hope that all of this initial work will be ready to present to all the APCM’s in April.

I thank all who were present for making the day such a success and I look forward to working with you all in the months ahead.

Mark

Letter from Rev Matthew Cookson

Writing this in the middle of January, I am going to give in to the temptation to indulge in a gardening metaphor.  I used to have an allotment and hoped at this time of year for the quantities of rain that have recently fallen.  Field damp is an expression that some gardeners find attractive: it indicates a proper saturation of the soil that will help make it workable as the spring develops.  So, a cold, wet January, however dispiriting at the time, can be promising, redolent of new growth to come as the weather warms up and then, along comes February!

I have never liked February: it seems to be the coldest month of the year and to be nearly as bleak as November.  Is it just me, or do we really have some of the coldest, nastiest weather in February?  After the exhilaration of celebrating New Year, it’s back down to earth with a bump as we face up to the reality of trying to live with any resolutions we may have foisted upon ourselves at the end of December – did I really sign up to a dry January and February, with the promise of Lenten abstention so close at hand?

There is a temptation to be gloomy.

Overall, though, it is good to have some ideas about how we are going to try and improve our lives.  It is good to resolve to try and be a little more positive, considerably more charitable and certainly clearer headed.  Above all, it is good to be clear about what we can get better at and to be careful not to set impossible goals that we will fail to achieve.

So, January and February, early March too, is a time to consolidate and determine how we will move forward in the year ahead.  It is a time to lay the foundations upon which our December/January resolutions will be built.

Churches are wonderful places.  They provide a focus for their communities.  They are places we go to celebrate – for baptisms, marriages, Christmas, Easter, Harvest.  They are places where we go to mourn – funerals, Remembrance Day, All Souls.  They are, I hope, places we recognise as being serious and offering a context to our lives.  In a poem called Church Going, the deeply agnostic Philip Larkin talks about hovering outside a church until he is ‘…sure there’s nothing going on’, before he goes in.  He writes about wandering about in the building, its atmosphere and accoutrements.  He even scans, aloud, a few lines from its Bible.  He describes its ‘…tense, musty, unignorable silence…’ and takes‘…off his cycle clips in awkward reverence’.

It is a good poem that both recognises the importance of church and the fact that for many it doesn’t hold the significance it does for those who gather together there and worship regularly.  ‘A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognised and robed as destinies.’

Such experience poses a deep question for churches: churches that frequently ask themselves how they are to increase their involvement in their communities, encourage growth.  Should they concentrate on getting, as they are teasingly accused of doing, ‘more bums on pews’?  Or, should they be asking how they can find better ways to meet their communities’ needs?

If you are someone who doesn’t find what you need from our ‘…serious house on serious earth…’, we must ask the question: What do you want from us?  How can we make our attention to God and his generosity more meaningful to you?

Yours, in Christ,

Matthew.
 

New Year Message - Rev Mark Wilson

Entering a new year with all its potential for good or ill and all its uncertainties, is a good time to ask: What is the purpose of life?  Why are we here? The Bible tells us that we are very special beings: we are “made in the image of God.” That means we aren’t just higher animals. We are creative beings, we appreciate beauty (in sight or sound). We are capable of great love. Above all, we are spiritual and eternal beings.

One excellent old definition of the purpose of life is this. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This gets forgotten, or ignored. Christianity is also about loving your neighbour. But first and foremost it is about loving God. I firmly believe that you are here, first and foremost, to glorify God, i.e. to worship him, please him and serve him. Maybe you haven’t realised this. However, it isn’t only about glorifying God, it is also about enjoying him forever. 

Like many Christians, I really enjoy God. I look up at the universe on a clear night and enjoy knowing, and perhaps even speaking to, the Creator. I walk alone in the country and sense God looking down at me. Sometimes (not always) in church, the worship lifts me out of myself, so I feel (as the Communion Service puts it) I am worshipping “with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.” Sometimes when I am preaching in church or teaching a group, I experience a deep happiness that far transcends any other happiness because I am helping them understand God’s Word.

Anyone who says that real Christianity isn’t enjoyable is greatly mistaken. Yes, there are difficult times too, as in all human life. We are created to enjoy God for ever. That’s why the Bible speaks of eternal life. What is the secret of enjoying God forever? Well, it isn’t a secret actually, it’s been well-known for 2000 years. It is by building a relationship with his Son, who came as a baby to live, die and rise again to make possible our forgiveness, and to bring us into a lasting relationship with God our Father. Why not do that now, at the beginning of a new year. Then I shan’t need to wish you a happy new year: you’re bound to have one, no matter what may happen in 2018.

A very happy and blessed New Year to you all.

Mark


Christmas Message - Rev Mark Wilson

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 - Rev Mark Wilson  

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