Tuesday, 30 June 2009

And There's More....

This month's 'thought from the Vicar' as printed in the parishes paper...

Didn’t We Do Well?

After last month’s thoughts, which might have seemed negative but which were not meant to, I thought I would – or indeed should – offer some of the reasons why I find myself constantly encouraged by the Mission and Ministry lived out by our Parishes within the Five Alive Mission Community.

Did you know, for instance, that the national average for population attending Church in the UK is roughly 5%, of which about 3% attend Anglican Churches? In our villages that number is between 6 and 11% of the population attending our churches with some regularity, and when you add in our brothers and sisters of Baptist and Methodist Churches in the Mission community that number rises even more. Not that it is the numbers themselves that are important, but the fact that our church fellowships remain at the heart of our village communities. We are genuine community churches, existing for the benefit not just of those within our walls, but for the whole of our villages.

A wonderful example of this has been very evident for me in some of the funerals I have been privileged to lead recently. The welcome and concern shown for families and friends of those who have died has been moving and inspiring to see, not only that but when there are specific requests made – whether it is playing a clip of someone recorded for a cassette of ‘village voices’ or accommodating 200 bikers – the church communities will go the extra mile in trying to make these things happen.

Also within these church fellowships there is a real desire to be more than ‘Sunday Christians’ – our midweek services, study groups, special events, community lunches, coffee mornings and more all point to a desire to make our faith known day by day and to live out the truth of what we believe. The fact that so many of our church members are involved in crucial roles in our village communities, and that many of them are involved because of their Christian commitment, is a great testimony to the everyday faith we share.

And though I realise I am risking a little too much ego massaging I want to finish with one more thing. Our churches are thinking and doing churches. People ask questions about faith, they challenge and encourage their Clergy, they take part in debates and discussions. This is a sign of what the prayer book of 1662 calls a ‘true and lively faith’ and is very encouraging for those of us who minister here. But it doesn’t stop with words, the Christians in our churches are keen to act out their faith, often in very quiet ways, without fanfare or even thanks in some cases. I am moved to see just how faith is put into action in so many ways in our fellowships.

That is why I feel encouraged by all of the churches in the Five Alive Mission Community, and why I feel privileged to be the Vicar here. Thank you for all you do.

Some recent articles

I have continued my series of articles on 'Demystifying the Church' and think it's time to catch up with what has gone into the local 'Parishes Paper' which serves these five villages. The first one is from February, sorry for delay in posting. Anyway, here goes:

Why are there no flowers in Church for Lent?
Demystifying Church part 2!

The Christian year has a number of ‘big’ festivals – our most important celebrations of special events in the history of the Church. We remember special Saints (such as St Peter, St Paul, John the Baptist, St George, St David, St Andrew etc) throughout the year, we remember the birthday of the Church at Pentecost (Whit Sunday) and we remember important parts of the life of Jesus. The most important festival of the year is Easter, remembering the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus closely followed by Christmas when we remember His birth. These celebrations were considered so important by the early followers of Jesus that they set aside time for preparation before them - leading up to Christmas we have the time of Advent, and leading up to Easter we have the period of Lent.

These times of preparation were called ‘fasting’ because people would stop eating rich foods, such as meat and eggs and cheese and would stop drinking alcohol. This was in order that they might concentrate on the important meaning of Christmas and Easter before actually getting to the big day itself.

Lent is also a reminder of what Jesus went through when he spent time in the desert praying before he started his work of proclaiming the Gospel which we call his years of ‘public ministry’. During this time, which the Bible describes as ‘forty days and forty nights’ we are told he went without any food, and was also tempted to give up on doing God’s work and to do as he pleased but he resisted. This is such a significant story that since the earliest times Christians have tried to follow Jesus example and to have a time of self-discipline and prayer before Easter. Lent was also the time that people would prepare to be Baptised on Easter day, so those who were joining the Church would spend forty days learning about the Christian Faith before they became members of the Church.

Because of this it was thought important that the whole Church should have a more solemn time leading up to Easter, therefore we change the colours of our Altar Cloths and vestments to purple (called our ‘penitential’ colour) and we remove the flowers from the Church. We have this time to remind us of all that Jesus went through in his life, especially at the start of his ministry, and leading up to his cruel death. It means that when we get to Easter, our greatest celebration, we don’t take God’s love for granted but we rejoice that God did love the world so much that he gave Jesus to die to take away our sins.
And the new one for July
Liturgy: services and praying together – Part 1

One of the great treasures of the Church of England is its liturgy, at least that’s what a number of commentators say about the services we use. Though many of us have experience of Churches which don’t use a set form of words for services, the Church has been using ‘Liturgy’ since the first century to give order and shape to worship. The reason we use certain words is not that we learn services by rote and parrot them off every week, but to give space within these structures to pray using the prompts and familiar order.

There are certain elements we find within all Anglican worship. The service will usually contain a form of confession, a prayer for the day or week of the Church’s year called a Collect, readings from the Bible (often accompanied by a sermon or thoughts based on those readings), prayers for the world (commonly called Intercessions), the Lord’s prayer and a form of blessing; either said by a Priest or all said to one another such as in ‘the Grace’. A Holy Communion service – also known as ‘The Eucharist’ or the Lord’s Supper – will contain all of the above plus a prayer over the bread and wine, and other elements which stretch back to the beginning of the Church’s life such as the Peace, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

1662 and all that…

Many of us would consider the prayer book of 1662 a gem amongst the written forms of worship that the Church has used over the centuries. In itself it created for hundreds of years a sense of identity and order in worship that was uniquely Anglican. In the past fifty or so years, however, much more research has been done by all of the major church denominations into the foundation of worship stretching back to the early days of the Church. One of the concerns of Liturgy is to ‘proclaim afresh’ the belief of the Church in a way that people understand and relate to, whilst being true to our roots in faith. Whilst beautifully written and still very much at the heart of Anglican Tradition the 1662 prayer book lacks many important elements of worship. Archbishop Cramner, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, was adamant that worship should always be in ‘the vernacular of the people’ and shouldn’t alienate worshippers with arcane or archaic words. The revisions of the BCP which took place over the next hundred and twenty years were often as much to do with making statements about politics – within both church and state – as with theology. Amendments were made to the shape and content which Cramner himself did not wish for, and the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which made the BCP the sole prayer book authorised for use in England was as much concerned with stamping the authority of the re-established Monarchy on the Church and of subduing the non-conformists as with binding the Church of England together.

Modern Times!

In the 1960s and 70s members of the mainstream denominations began working together to discover how worship had shaped the early Church. Using manuscripts of worship services stretching right back to the beginning of Church they found certain elements which were considered crucial to certain services, particularly Holy Communion. The prayer invoking the Holy Spirit at Communion (epiklesis) and the sharing of Peace were two things which had been dropped from the BCP, the first because it looked too much like the Roman Catholic Rite the second because the rich refused to touch the poor in Church and wouldn’t share the peace with them. These were quickly brought back into general use as they were considered Biblical practice, indeed the first letter to the Thessalonians had instructed Christians to ‘greet one another with the kiss of peace’ – which soon became a handshake in British tradition!

These revisions in worship were, and are, concerned with bringing the Church back to the practices of our forebears in faith, whilst at the same time making worship accessible and relevant for a 21st century Church. Though there is much more variety available within our services, the shape is constant between all types of service. Rather than having one form of prayer following the BCP 1662 our services have what liturgists call a ‘family resemblance’ which gives a feel of Anglican worship whilst also having a sense of local identity and making allowances for local practise. If you look closely, though, you will find that similar shape within all of our services, Holy Communion, Morning and Evening Prayer (both contemporary and traditional), Morning Worship, Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals and even Family Services all contain the elements which make our services Anglican in such a way as to express our common life and faith.

So next time you take part in worship, look out for those things which make up our worship, and remember that in sharing these words and actions we share the faith of our brothers and sisters stretching back over hundreds of years, even as we carry on their life and witness in our daily lives giving glory to God in all we do and say!

Monday, 29 June 2009

St Peter's Day Sermon

Muck Models...

I am not in the habit of hanging around with Bishops or Archbishops – I have a healthy (Biblical) respect for those in authority, but I don’t make a thing of trying to meet up with them, or catch their attention. In my last Diocese there was a Bishop’s annual garden party where I would always say hello and make small talk with the Bishop for a minute then make myself scarce and chat to colleagues. I did have a tremendous day yesterday listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury speak at the Dioceses’s 1100th anniversary, but more of that soon, I didn’t actually get to talk to him or chat to the many other Bishops and Archbishops around in Exeter yesterday.

There is one exception to this – I used to know an Archbishop quite well. He was a very unprepossing man, diminuitive in stature, though very much great of heart. I knew him in the last years of his life, having been the Archbishop of Uganda, predecessor and friend of the African Martyr and Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum Bishop Leslie had returned to the Uk and became Bishop of St Edmunsbury and Ipswich before returning to Cambridge.

Bishop Leslie Brown had done a huge amount in the reform of liturgy in the Anglican Church, he had been the first Archbishop of Uganda and oversaw the foundation of the province there and led it in its early years. In his later years at Westcott House, where he was a part of the worshipping life of the College, his eyesight was failing and a number of us had the joy of reading to him on a regular basis and chatting over pretty much anything with him. He was a sensitive, intelligent, wise and spiritual man, and a man of great humility.

A story which sums up this humility is one that he told at his enthronement as Bishop of Eds and Ips (as St Edmundsbury and Ipswich is known). Leslie told of a time when in Kampala he went to the Cathedral and found a young boy playing with the mud near the Church. The boy was very involved in moulding and shaping the mud and Archbishop Leslie was fascinated so he asked what he was doing. ‘I’m making a procession for the Cathedral’ the lad said – then pointed to the figures made of mud – ‘there’s the choir, there’s the dean. there’s the vergers, there’s the clergy’. ‘Oh,’ said Leslie ‘Where’s the Archbishop?’ ‘I haven’t got enough muck for an Archbishop’ replied the boy. This response, said Leslie, kept him humble!

We all need reminders every now and then of what we are made! We are a collection of elements that – through some great process divinely inspired – has evolved into living, breathing, speaking people. As the words for the Ash Wednesday Liturgy say ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.

And yet, out of these unlikely elements God is able to do great things. We may not be perfect, we may not feel we are very special, but God thinks we are amazing! In many ways, its not believing in God that is important in the life of a Christian, but the knowledge that God believes in us!

This evening we celebrate the festival of St Peter, though strictly it is tomorrow (we are allowed to move some festivals of the Church to make a big thing of them), it is the patronal festival of this Church (which for those of you who, like me, don’t know these things and need to look them up, I will save you a job – its a celebration of the day a Church was dedicated and (I think) consecrated for worship). In the past few years St Paul has also been honoured with St Peter at this time, as we consider two of the founders of the Church, two martyrs, two apostles, two men used by God to change the world. And though Paul was very keen to stress that all God’s people are Saints, we call Peter and Paul Saints in a special way as we recognise and give thanks for the contribution they have made to the life of the Church and the importance of that contribution even up to today.

Today we consider St Peter in particular. We remember that Jesus said of St Peter that he was the Rock upon which the Church of Christ would be build. We remember that he was told that he would carry the keys to the kingdom of God – hence the popular image of ‘St Peter at the Pearly gates’ so beloved of cartoonists and writers. Peter is the one who, in our reading for this evening, confesses Jesus as the Christ, a startling revelation that is the basis for Jesus statement that Peter is the rock that Peter will turn out to be!

This is also the weekend around which many begin their ordained ministry as many Dioceses around the country will be ordaining Deacons and Priests to serve the Church of God. It is the anniversary of Ordination for both Anne and Myself and we celebrate our calling as part of the ministry of the whole people of God.

So it’s a bit of a special event today! We celebrate lots of different things, the Church of St Peter here in Dalwood and our part in the Five Alive Mission Community and God’s worldwide Church, the ministry of the Church exercised by all God’s people amongst which we have our Orders of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, and of course St Peter himself.

But over and above all of that, we celebrate Grace, God’s life and love poured out on us. Something which I heard Archbishop Rowan Williams talking on yesterday, with a warmth and graciousness that I found profoundling moving, and some of which I want to share with you now. And I must give the Archbishop credit for leading me to what I am about to say, and apologies if I have misrepresented anything!

In order to do that I want to share a bit of Peter’s story with you. From the Gospel of Luke Chapter 5 – not part of the set texts for this festival, but the beginning (in many ways) of Peter’s journey with Christ; the background to this is that Peter had taken Jesus out from the shore of Lake Gennesaret in order that Jesus could preach to the crowds:
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’

What a strange reaction, it seems! Here we have what is often referred to as ‘the miraculous draft of fishes’, so many that the nets break, and Simon Peter’s reaction...

“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.

Eh? Perhaps its one of those stories that we have heard so many times that it loses its impact upon us. I don’t know about you but the sight of fish, even a lot of them, doesn’t immediately bring me to my knees in penitence. There are lots of things which do, and more that should, but not fish! This seems a strange way to respond to a miracle.

But perhaps not. This miracle is not really about improving the fish catch, or about showing Peter new skills as a fisherman. It’s a sign of grace. Jesus is sharing God’s abundance, God’s desire to give beyond our wildest dreams. This miracle is not about fish, but about grace. It says, to quote Archbishop Rowan ‘this is a gateway to a new world’. And when Peter glimpses this grace, this life, this wonder he falls before Jesus recognising his unworthiness to be a part of it. Peter is then drawn into this new world, and continues to share in this grace as he shares in a new life being someone who fishes for people to invite others into a relationship with the love and grace of God seen through Jesus Christ.

The stories of this great saint are not celebrated each year to make us feel worthless in comparison.. We remember Peter as a deeply flawed human being transformed by the power of God and called into his grace in order that he might change the world. And we remember that in the same way we are called to transformation – to leaving our past behind, to recognising that God wants to use us, and being open to that touch of Grace that can turn everything around!

We may feel that we are ‘muck models’ of faith, but in the end it us up to God to make us who are were meant to be, to make us more than the nothings we may convince ourselves we are. God chooses the most unlikely people to work for him – just look at your clergy if you are in any doubt of that – and he calls us all to be open to his transformation, in order that through us the world may be changed. Through our prayers, our worship, through our action and through our own faithfulness God can and will do great things.

I suspect that when Peter began his journey in faith he had little idea of where God would lead them, as he grew in faith he grew also, it seems, in the knowledge that what God required of him was faithfulness and the willingness to go where he led, no matter what it cost.

May we have that same faith and be faithful to God. May the examples of Peter and Paul and all the saints serve not to create a sense of unworthiness, but a sense of partnership in the work and life of Christ which has stretched from the first followers of Jesus until now. May we allow God to reshape us, and through us reshape the world. Amen!