YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - February 2019
Every one of our four parish churches in the benefice have significant causes for concern with respect to the fabric of the building, and a church is a big building to look after. When faced with the needs of our church buildings I think it is quite easy to become discouraged, so I want to say a couple of important things about sustainability, as this is a word I have heard used more than once in recent months in conversations with church members.
In terms of a parish church, what sustainability often means is whether or not the building is sound, the bills paid and the services well attended. I recognise those 3 criteria well, as each of them has been a concern in all our 4 parishes. They all matter a good deal, and a parish that pays little or no attention to one or more of them is making a serious misjudgement. But you can develop the idea of sustainability a little further, to say that it reflects on all aspects of our current practices, habits and beliefs as a community of Christian worshippers. In those terms, when the sustainability of our parishes comes to be doubted, what people probably mean is, “If we carry on the way we are, then decline will continue, leading to consideration of closure.” While this response to challenging circumstances is perfectly understandable, and in many ways quite rational, I want also to say that it ought not to be the final word for a community of Christians. There ought to be a positive outlook too, founded on the promises of God. Let me offer a couple of suggestions along this line.
We are part of a wider church, which can and does offer advice and practical support in a good number of ways. God promises “Life in all its Fullness”.
There is in each parish a substantial number of households with goodwill towards the local churches. This is very evident in the major efforts already made with many local projects.
Charitable resources, by means of “Friends” groups and in other ways, can become very effective in gathering support through grants, donations, fundraising and manpower.
When God is at work, as well as maintaining the tried and tested forms from the past, his people ought from time to time to be led to new initiatives for purposeful change.
God promises to comfort his people. His word shows very many examples of just that, in both Old and New Testament. Tradition and innovation should go hand in hand.
One of the meanings of faith is to believe in the power of God to achieve difficult things.
In our modern world sustainability has come to mean a concern for the environment in all its complexity. This is essential to life itself. I believe Christian people, wherever they live, ought to make consistent efforts to sustain and nourish the worshipping heart of their own community. It is a responsibility we all share.
Best wishes to you all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - January 2019
The new year often brings to mind a few lines from a poem by Minnie Haskins, published in 1908 and often known as The Gate Of The Year. It was used in public most notably in King George V1’s Christmas broadcast in 1939, then again 65 years later at the funeral of his widow, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The most frequently quoted lines were about trusting God in times of uncertainty, putting our hand in the hand of God. But the poem also contains these lines, about God’s plans:-
So heart be still! What need our human life to know If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife of things, both high and low, God hideth his intention.
That is rather a bleak perspective upon God’s dealings with us, but I am sure it matches the way many of us respond from time to time to the traumas of life. We read and speak and sing about the love of God, but life’s events can easily make us feel alone, either angry or afraid or both. In truth there are many aspects of life, personal, national or global, that might fill us with foreboding for 2019. No doubt many will not turn out as badly as we fear, but of course one or two may be worse. Our mood from day to day, and our mental health, can both be affected by the way we respond to life’s events. It is good to remember therefore that God acts, so Christians believe, rather as a loving parent in these things. Our temptation, faced by any sort of crisis, is to ask “Why?” until we get an adequate answer. On the other hand God reveals only as much as we can handle, as much as we need to know, but not everything. This is a reflection of our status in the world He has made.
If we knew nothing about the way the world works, and simply followed rules and regulations blindly, then that would make us something like a slave, and unable to reason. If we knew everything, then we have turned ourselves into God. Most Christian groups would say that the truth of our situation is somewhere between these two extremes, something like a partnership with God. Yes, it makes sense to abide by God-given expectations. It also is encouraging to find the course of life revealing to us more and more about how things fit together. Many of the man-made problems of the world are caused by those who are willing to act as slaves or as Gods, in either case removing a large slice of accountability from their daily choices. I tend to believe that God-given curiosity and ingenuity will allow us to find out much more than we expect, often deploying this knowledge for the benefit of future generations. This applies in all sorts of spheres of life, from medical treatment to plastic pollution. The key to it all is in that word “belief”, which is the means God uses to reveal to us piece by piece his truth and wisdom.
May the peace of God bring stillness to our hearts this New Year, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - December 2018
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be an angel…….?
I watch quietly as Mary shapes the dough into a nice round loaf. Stepping out of the shadows, I speak, trying to keep my voice gentle and even. “Hello Mary, please don’t be scared. I am Gabriel, a messenger from God. He knows all about you. He knows that you love him. He listens when you talk to him, and he enjoys spending time with you. God has chosen you to be the mother of his son, Jesus. He will be the one who shows the world what God’s love is really like.”
Mary is astonished. She sits down at the table and pushes the flour around with her finger, not looking at me. “It’s not possible. I’m not married yet, so I can’t be a mother!”
“God’s spirit can do anything, Mary. Even your cousin Elizabeth, who is really too old, is going to have a baby,” I explain.
Mary’s fingers rest across her stomach, fluttering like butterflies. I wonder if butterflies are racing around inside her tummy too? Then she lifts her head and looks straight at me. “I love God,” she says. “I talk to God, I enjoy spending time with God. So let this happen. I am ready to do whatever God needs me to do.”
I retreat back into the shadows, just as mysteriously as I had arrived. My angel work is done for now. My next job, in a few months, is to find a bunch of shepherds. Mary’s work is just beginning….
The text above is adapted from a piece written by Joanne Wetherall. It describes what has been called The Annunciation, or “announcement”, when Mary received something of a surprise. It is clear from this account, and the more traditional ones we are used to, that God talked to her because she talked to him and enjoyed spending time with him. One question for all of us this Christmas is, “What surprises might be in store for us if we did the same?” After all, if angels are angels, you would think they probably still bring good news from God…...?
Best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas to you all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - November 2018
The season of remembrance is with us through November, where the main focus is often on military aspects of sacrifice and loss. I spoke about these in the magazine last month, so I would like to focus a little this month on the more immediate and personal ways in which loss strikes us. There is a strong connection here to the All Souls service on Nov 4th, to which everyone is welcome. It is a service of quiet contemplation, reflection and prayer, to which anyone may come, especially if you have particular loved ones to remember. Invitations have been sent to those connected to recent bereavements, but not all our contact records are complete. I would like to ask everyone to ensure that this service is as widely publicised as possible, so please would you all pass the invitation on, wherever you think it might be helpful. The service is at 3pm on Nov 4th at Westbury Church.
Many years ago I spent some time on Shetland, where my favourite place was the northernmost island of Unst. Hidden amongst the shingle and dunes at the back of a north-east facing shoreline, I came across an arrangement of large boulders, shaped into an oval with points at each end. I soon realised I was looking at a Viking ship burial, utterly unadorned by any noticeboard, fence or other tourist paraphernalia. It set me thinking about the community that had buried their honoured son in such a place, directed back towards the point of origin of their previous arrival, perhaps generations before. Every time I conduct a funeral I think for a moment or two of that Viking ship sailing away, eventually dropping below the horizon. You know it is still a ship, unchanged in size and shape, but perspective, curvature and time remove it from view. It has gone, and yet not gone. It still exists, yet at the same time does not.
To bear the loss of a loved one is part of life. The longer we ourselves live, the more times it will be part of our experience. Sometimes that loss will approach slowly, with sufficient warning, but on other occasions it may be sudden, traumatic, even premature. Whatever the circumstances, it is impossible to anticipate how we may feel as we learn to live with that loss. It is also very difficult to find words of comfort for a bereaved friend. But a place of quiet and peace can sometimes offer a step towards reconciliation with the harsh realities of life and death. It can bring a moment of thanksgiving, along with permission perhaps to shed further tears. Most miraculous of all, it may bring to our attention once more an awareness that God himself is no stranger to the experience of loss. It is that kind of opportunity that we seek to offer at our All Souls service for the whole benefice. Please come along, if you are able to, at 3pm on Nov 4th.
In conclusion I would like to offer sincere thanks to all those who worked so hard for the success of the remembrance events on October 14th at the church and the hall in Westbury.
Best wishes to all in this season of remembrance.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - October 2018
On November 6th 1919 King George V sent a special message to the empire: “I believe that my people in every part of the empire fervently desire to perpetuate the memory of that great deliverance and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.” He went on to propose the proclamation of 2 minutes of silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, so that, as the King put it, ”in perfect stillness the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”
I wonder what these 2 minutes of silence mean to us? Perhaps many things….
One meaning is the silence of respect, another that of thankfulness for those who gave so much, many who lost their lives, many others who survived with life changing injuries to mind or body. Another reason for the silence would be the continuing bafflement and anger that heads of state and governments proved unable to find ways of avoiding the sacrifice of so many hundreds of thousands. Some, perhaps many standing in silence would do so in anguished prayer for the avoidance of such events in the future. But perhaps the strongest desire in this precious two minutes is to identify ourselves as closely as we may with those who died, resolving once more to maintain for the sake of generations to come the memory of all who in the past have made for us the supreme sacrifice. They did not shirk their duty, nor will we ever shirk ours, though it be by many degrees less arduous and painful.
And there is yet another meaning of the silence. It is the sound of a flower growing, a poppy in the mud of the Menin road, in the hell of High Wood, a poppy that has been for many generations the symbol of remembrance. The poppy is a thing of persistence and courage in the midst of scenes of violence and pain. It is the colour of love, of blood, of sacrifice. It is in itself a thing of great beauty and a symbol of hope in the ugliest places of the world, a sign that the greatest challenges of life must be faced, but that we do not face them alone.
So as the season of remembrance is upon us once more, let us all take every opportunity to gather and give thanks for all those who gave so much for our sake. Every parish will continue the regular pattern of remembrance on November 11th, but this year there is a major event planned by the British Legion at Westbury on October 14th, of which the details are listed on another page. I commend this event to you wholeheartedly, and would encourage all to come along and share in the commemoration of the Armistice Centenary.
Best wishes to you all. Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - September 2018
The season of Harvest is upon us once more, with the usual accompaniment of farm machinery and manpower hard at work. Although we all see the fields and meadows around us, there are fewer of us who actually work the land, but it is to that number, the landowners and farmworkers, that we owe a great debt of gratitude. Crops and livestock have to be raised, which are year round tasks, offering little opportunity for time off. The whole community has much to be thankful for, both to God and to those who work the land.
I recently drove to Nottingham and back, mostly on A roads because the motorways were too busy. I was struck by two things after my journey was over. The first was that I had seen a surprising number of flatbed trucks, some with trailers, fully stacked with bales of hay. Clearly there is a large amount of feed being bought and sold to supply livestock in areas where the pasture has stopped growing. One wonders where the feed will come from if the coming winter is severe? The second thing I noticed was that my windscreen had far fewer insects on it after 250 miles than I would have expected, an indication, as we know, that many insect species have declined steeply in numbers over recent years. If this decline continues how will plants be pollinated? How will organic material be rotted to enrich the soil? Clearly we should not take farming for granted. We should all be willing to understand more about agriculture’s dependence on climate and environment in complex ways, such that we have the frightening capacity to destroy that on which we so closely depend.
The modern world offers many and various ways for each of us to channel our energies. Some of what we do is paid employment, a great deal is voluntary work, and all of us are involved in the responsibilities of maintaining a home or caring for one another. The ingenuity and creativity of men and women of every age group is very good evidence, I believe, of the work of God in our midst, creating the fabric of our communities. This means that Harvest is a good time for each of us to do a bit of self-evaluation, asking ourselves a few Important questions: Has my contribution to the community increased or decreased over the last 12 months? Are there opportunities I have missed, which could be taken up in the year to come? Do I have skills or talents which could be more fully used? I can’t say what the answers to such questions might be, or where they may lead you, but I can be sure they are good questions to ask. And, just as we thank our farmers, we should also thank everyone who, even in the smallest way, contributes their time and energy to the fabric of our community.
Best wishes, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - AUGUST 2018
In many ways August is an unusual month. We are used to the pattern that schools, colleges and universities are closed for the month, and many families are able to take holiday from work. But there are also many jobs that continue through the summer, providing the services, such as hospitals and surgeries, which we all need. This means there are many people who cannot take holidays, despite the appealing summer weather, and it should remind us of the debt we all owe to those who are involved in work that cannot just be left, while the rest of us go to the beach.
And talking of beaches, let me offer a couple of unusual perspectives on what a beach represents. It is a frontier, a boundary, an edge to the territory we know, beyond which threats may lurk or opportunities may await. An Anglo-Saxon villager near the coast in the late eighth century would probably have been puzzled by the appearance of many large sails in the offing. He might not have known the Vikings were arriving, still less the disturbance that arrival would cause, stretching as it did over almost a century, and recurring in the late tenth century too. He might have been curious or frightened by what he saw. He would surely not have imagined the perspective on the Viking invasion adopted by his distant descendants of the mid-eleventh century. By then intermarriage and assimilation had rendered the English into one people, the shock of initial contact being nothing but a distant memory.
We know that beach sand moves with the wind, waves and tide, but it is a surprise to find how quickly the works of man can be buried and lost. In the early nineteenth century a forgotten church was rediscovered on the Cornish coast, having been completely buried by sand. It was excavated and became the focus of a minor revival of interest in early English architecture. As well as being a frontier, a beach can also act like a blanket.
I mention these two aspects of a beach because I wonder if they represent helpful perspectives on our ordinary lives? When we find ourselves in an unusual place in life, then perhaps God is encouraging us to go further into new territory than we expected, to meet the opportunities there. Perhaps we are also being invited to think more deeply about some everyday matter, and maybe to uncover a helpful new perspective, reminding us of God’s presence, where we may have begun to take Him a little for granted.
Best wishes to you all, and may you find some rest this month. Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR"S LETTER - JULY 2018
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those in our communities who supported the Bank Holiday Roadside Stall at the end of May, in aid of Westbury Church. Many were involved in preparing and running the stall, and a great number of you came along to support. We are very grateful for your generosity. The total raised was over £2200.
I wonder if you find politics as interesting as I do ? If you do, then perhaps the recent months have made you quite as fed up as I have become with the content and standard of political debate. In particular I am heartily sick of the topic of Brexit. I make no comment about the rights and wrongs of different opinions on the question, I just want the debate to stop and the issue to go away and get sorted out. I am also frustrated by the standard of current debate in the media, where there seems no willingness to acknowledge the value of contrasting opinions or to accept responsibility for your own words and actions. I spent 35 years working as a teacher in schools, and I have to say Question Time reminds me often of a playground argument. It worries me greatly that the current fashion of Brexit preoccupation risks obscuring a good number of real issues that are in serious need of attention in our country. I can’t be the only person who thinks that a competent government, no matter the colour of the rosette, would do and say more about care for the elderly, about potholes, about rail chaos, about the environment, about mental health, and so on.
From time to time issues emerge that the church gets wrong too, though I don’t wish to single out any particular one. When that happens, if it does, then church leaders need to step up and take responsibility for the mistakes of the past or present, be they at local, national or international scale. Sometimes the errors arise from a church that simply moves more slowly than the society it seeks to serve, but sometimes the decisions of a church can actually be mistakes. Healthy apology is becoming more common in our day.
But at the end of the discussion, in the bar, the kitchen or the TV studio, there should be some things that the church proclaims, which never change. What would you say those things are? Perhaps that all men and women are made in God’s image? Perhaps that everything we do, however harmful, can be forgiven ? Perhaps that we all have a responsibility to look out for our neighbour ? Perhaps that the best example we have of love is Jesus Christ himself ? Perhaps that there is more that unites the world’s faiths than divides them ? Perhaps that the smallest stone can be used to help fill the biggest hole ? Perhaps that clergy should spend less time thinking in clichés ?
May God be with you all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - JUNE 2018
In June there are many commemorations on the church calendar for men and women in various ages who have been involved in taking the Christian message to new places. At the end of the month, on June 29th, we remember Peter and Paul, the founders of the Christian church, and their ministry in the eastern Mediterranean world almost 2000 years ago. I wonder, if we were to try to write down what a modern version of that Christian message should say, what we would include. We might say that everyone has the stamp of God upon their life, the imprint of God’s workmanship. We might say that the desire to remove pain and suffering is a godly one. We might say it is a good thing to build bridges, not walls. We might say only God himself has power to rescue humanity from our own mistakes. We might say that the instinct to talk to God is very healthy. We might frame all sorts of other ideas to summarise the place God could have in our lives. The really interesting thing is that the ideas I have listed, with which you may or may not fully agree, match up quite well with the state of the world today, and also with what the four gospels tell us about Jesus himself and his teaching. Easter makes us all witnesses, not only to what happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, but also to our own experience of God today, to the place of faith in our lives.
A few days ago, someone asked me, “Steve, what is faith?” I thought for a few moments, then said something about faith being what prompts you to turn towards God, not away, when things get difficult in life. I could also have said faith is what encourages us to talk to God in prayer, or that it is what makes us believe in the power of God being active in the world, to sustain and renew. Most important of all, I should have said that faith is a gift of God, and founded upon the life and work of his son, Jesus Christ. However you look at them, faith and prayer matter very much today.
Last month our two Archbishops, of Canterbury and York, issued a call to the nation to engage in prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. Perhaps it might be helpful if I offered a few pointers as to how this could be done, although the number of ways to try praying is equal to the number of people alive today. It’s individual, unique and there for you to experience on your own terms, in your own way. I believe it is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, so here are a few ideas: controlled breathing can help, as can the deployment of smiles or generosity; think of others before yourself, or look for a sensory focus of some kind, to encourage stillness; don’t give in to bad news, but look for signs of God at work in the world, often in human creativity; develop the habit of thanks; use your own words or those written by others; treasure silence; above all remember that God is with you, so listen carefully. I hope some of these ideas are helpful, as we continue giving prayer and faith a place in our lives.
Best wishes to all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - MAY 2018
All four of our parishes have held their annual meetings since Easter. These meetings conduct a variety of important business: reports are received; appointments are made; thanks are recorded for service given. I would like to draw your attention to one particular piece of business: the electoral roll. This is the list of those people who have asked to be included, and serves a number of important purposes. It is subject to three important qualifying conditions, which can be read in full on the Church of England website. And joining the roll costs nothing.
The first purpose served is to demonstrate loyalty to the local parish, which could come from family connections, from your own worship habit, from historical or community interest, or a number of other reasons. The second purpose served is to allow the people on the roll to take part in the decision making processes of our church. It is often said that the church is slow to decide things, or that it drags its feet. Well, the best way to improve matters is to join in with the decision making. The third purpose served by joining the roll is to counter the apathy increasingly discernible in our communities. If it matters to stand for what we believe, then the electoral roll is part of the range of available means for doing so. And to do so costs nothing.
As to the qualifications, they are that you must be baptised/christened and over 16. You must also be willing to declare yourself a member of the local church, either through being resident and/or worshipping locally with some regularity. This last condition allows us to welcome people with strong links to other denominations as members of our parish rolls. One thing the electoral roll is not is a shortcut to responsibility within the church. And, did I say, it costs nothing ?
If anyone is in doubt about joining the roll in any of our parishes, let me encourage you to investigate, perhaps by talking to me or to someone else in the congregation. To our regular worshippers, may I invite you to ask around among your friends and neighbours, looking for those who might be interested to join. The truth is that our 6 churches in our 4 parishes each matters very much to the local community in which it is set. The joys of worship, even if only at the major festivals, the challenge of care for all our wonderful buildings, and the opportunities for extending the life and mission of our churches in new ways, all suggest to me that the loyalty I mentioned earlier is still something of great value, something all of us could offer. Perhaps this is a call which a good number might be willing seriously to consider. I pray that might be so.
Best wishes to you all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - APRIL 2018
There is a famous section in one of Paul’s letters which describes the way that the Christian message can appear as foolishness in the eyes of the world. With Easter falling on April 1st, this year is perhaps the best opportunity we will ever have to assess the “foolishness” of what we believe.
What Paul seems to have meant is not that the message appears silly. It is much more likely he meant that it contradicts some of the widely held assumptions in the world. Even the disciples failed to grasp what Jesus was going to achieve, to the extent that they tried on more than one occasion to dissuade him. Perhaps they expected some kind of hero figure to overthrow the worldly authorities, or a convincing reincarnation of King David. The idea that death on a cross could in fact be part of the plan was patent nonsense, at least to their unenlightened minds and hearts.
But we now have the advantage of reading the gospel accounts, and we know how the story continues. Jesus did die an undeserved criminal’s death, he was buried and the tomb was sealed. There is a sense in which even the resurrection on Easter morning is no surprise to us, because we have heard the story many times. It has become part of the background to our lives. But there is still the question of what type of story it is. Is it fiction or documentary?
If it is a story invented by people who simply wanted it to be true, then it doesn’t really matter how unlikely or foolish it appears. On the other hand, if it is a story of real events that actually happened then that makes it much harder to accept. Many today would say you would have to be a fool to believe something so unlikely – which brings us back to Paul and the Easter “foolishness” idea. Let me offer a signpost to an answer, by focusing on a young child’s question, who asked me “Where is Jesus now?” The child was assuming Jesus did rise from the dead, that the resurrection really happened, but the question is still eminently reasonable. So what answers can we find?
Jesus lives in the hearts and minds of those who believe in him. He lives in our deeds and words as we reach out to others in need. He lives in the worship of the living church. He lives in the beauty and the brokenness of the world created through him. He lives beyond our sight at the right hand of God. He lives in the person of the Holy Spirit sent to inspire the building of God’s kingdom in our midst. He lives in the daily mystery of communication through word and sacrament. He lives in the face to face encounter, demanding a response. I hope these suggestions don’t appear too foolish, as they are the foundations of our living faith, to which Jesus still invites us.
May the resurrection life of Jesus Christ speak again to our hearts this Easter. Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - MARCH 2018
The season of Lent runs through the whole of March. During this period there are a number of events running in the benefice to promote the deepening of our faith in terms of prayer, reading and practical action. These events are all detailed elsewhere in the magazine, and I hope we will all consider supporting one or more of them. The events concerned are Friday Compline, the Lent Study Course, and the Lent Lunches. In the ancient church this was a season when candidates for Easter baptism would be trained in their new-found faith, and I see no reason at all why we shouldn’t take the same attitude today. To borrow a different metaphor, now is a good time to spring-clean our faith cupboard. This practice of a new start prompts me also to return to the LIFE initiative offered to us all by our bishops more than a year ago. Every letter of the word means something particular.
“L” is for Leadership. This reminds us that God calls us all to look carefully at the skills and gifts he has given to each of us, and then ensure that those skills and gifts are being used effectively for his glory. April is the month for parish annual meetings, and they give us all a chance to offer help in a wide variety of ways. I usually don’t believe people when they say “I couldn’t possibly…….”.
“I” is for Imagination. Here we are encouraged to think in new ways about the communication and application of our faith. Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad idea. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We ought to believe in a God of surprises.
“F” is for Faith. It is a serious mistake to think that the faith acquired in the early years of our lives is sufficient for the whole of our life. We need to nourish that faith, or else it will, rather like an untended garden, yield less as time passes, and eventually fade to nothing. We should also encourage each other in this aim.
“E” is for Engagement. The suggestion here is that we should make more effort to strengthen the links between the church and other parts of our communities. However good those links are, they can always improve further, making us all more resilient in times of need.
So there we have the whole word: L I F E – Leadership, Imagination, Faith, Engagement. Taken together and applied consistently, these themes will bring us all closer to Our Lord, who said about his life and work, “I am come that they may have life in all its fullness” (John 10:10). May we all find rest, refreshment and renewal of our faith during this season of Lent.
May God be with you all, Rev.Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - FEBRUARY 2018
There is a scene in the latest Star Wars film on a remote rocky outcrop in a raging ocean. The crags and cliffs are fierce and forbidding, the wind screaming in off the wild sea. Hidden amongst the rocks are a few rounded stone shelters, offering the most meagre refuge from the storm. This dramatic scenery is not the creation of a Hollywood set designer, but is a location found off the west coast of County Kerry in Ireland. It is the island of Skellig Michael. A quick internet search will reveal to you how impressive the scenery is, if you have not actually been there. I mention this wonderful place because there is a strong connection between it and the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday (Feb 14th).
Skellig Michael is an extreme example of withdrawal from the world, for the purposes of spiritual contemplation. It was inhabited at least 1000 years ago, at a time of political and religious turmoil in the western world, by a group of monks who would live a single-minded life of prayer and worship through many generations, supported occasionally by gifts of food from the mainland, a hazardous trip across 5 miles of wild water. The island has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and can be visited today, for those brave enough to make the crossing.
The connection for us is that Lent offers an opportunity to step aside from the business of the world and the concerns of ordinary life, to focus a little more than we might normally do on the things of God. In our benefice we will be running a Lent Course every week at Tudor Cottage in Minsterworth, where we will be looking at a couple of themes connected to important ideas in the New Testament. Details of that course are on page … . There is also an opportunity for all to join in the ancient service of Compline, one of the monastic offices from the medieval world. It is a short spoken service lasting a little under 30 minutes, consisting of short prayers and a few readings, along with some intervals of silence. The service will be held every Friday at 6.30pm at Northwood Green Church, and I hope many of you will consider coming along. It is a great thing to gather before God at the end of the working week, so that we might together speak to Him and allow Him to speak to us. It may not be as awe-inspiring as a wild Atlantic island, but the principle is the same. We ought to take time to step aside from the world’s ways, when we have opportunity so to do. I look forward to seeing you there.
Best wishes to you all for a holy Lent. Rev Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - JANUARY 2018
“Resolution” is an interesting word. It is bandied about at New Year, at a time when our hopes and our conscience conspire to make us look at our own lives. Self-esteem can take a battering at any time, and none of us is immune to such doubts or worries. So it is healthy to look honestly at what we do and say, the ways we live, the choices we make. From time to time we might use the phrase New Year Resolution to describe such an effort – a bit like the servicing of a car. My own view is that such a thing can be really helpful, but that there is a big risk of not keeping to the resolutions we make. This in turn, if we are honest, can damage further our battered self-esteem.
Perhaps there is a way through this type of situation if we think of God’s view of our lives. If he exists, then he surely knows all about us. That, after all, is why Christian worship often contains words of confession and forgiveness. If God exists, then he has a better understanding of our lives than we do. So he is in a better position to condemn and criticise us, if that is what we deserve, than we are ourselves. Now take a look at how God actually does treat us, according to the life and stories of Jesus. Christmas suggests that God himself was willing to be born on earth in human form for our sake. The prodigal son story makes it clear that God is willing to welcome us, no matter what we have done. What happened to Jesus on the cross shows clearly the extraordinary lengths God would go to for our sake. All of these things indicate that, far from ignoring or condemning us for our supposed failures, God is in fact intensely interested in our welfare and seeking an active and loving relationship with us. It has to be said that our self-esteem, if it follows that of God for us, ought to be sky-high. We still have a responsibility to live in a godly manner, but, even when we don’t, we should remember that God doesn’t give up on us. Perhaps the best resolution for the New Year might be to keep a firmer hold for the next 12 months on what God thinks of us.
Sometimes our plans don’t go so well, or are frustrated by setbacks of many kinds, perhaps involving severe pain and loss. It is then that another kind of resolution is needed, the kind that speaks of persistence and faith. There is a sense in which Christians are fools, because what we believe cannot be proven with scientific rigour or demonstrated with the certainty of a courtroom. It goes some way beyond the bounds of simple rationality. But the experience of millions down the centuries and across the continents is that this faith is true and real, even in the face of the harsh realities of life. May that continue to be so for you all in this new year, whatever surprises it may bring.
Best wishes for 2018, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - DECEMBER 2017
This letter gives me an opportunity to offer to everyone in the benefice my sincerest best wishes for a peaceful and happy Christmas. The season is always very busy in every church and in each community, but it matters a lot that we also find some time of peace in the midst of all the rushing around. I should also take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has helped with the wide variety of activities that go on from week to week in each of our 6 churches. My particular thanks go to the churchwardens of the benefice for the care and consideration you give to the responsibilities you have taken on, especially if you are new to the post. There is also a long list of others who offer practical assistance and advice, all of which is most valuable. However small you may think your own task is, please consider yourself thanked. I also would like to offer a particular word of thanks to our organists, who give generously of their time and expertise. However many or few services you play for, your skills and hard work are much appreciated.
This is the season of gift giving, when we scan catalogues, shop windows, or market stalls to help in the choice of gifts for those we love. The best gifts are not necessarily the biggest or most expensive, but rather those that betray some careful thought, some degree of concern for the individual. It may be something home-made, or an heirloom from the family’s past. It may be a joint present, given or received by more than one family member. It may be for immediate enjoyment or to last lifelong, frivolous or serious, necessary or unexpected. There is great pleasure in giving of whatever kind. As we give, it is good to remember the gifts in Bethlehem. There were three of them in the traditional story, each of great value and with significant meaning. They were brought from far away to an ordinary situation. The gold, shiny and imperishable, is symbolic of royalty, so why was it not taken to a palace ? The incense, fragrant and ethereal, is symbolic of God’s presence, so why was it not delivered to be burned in a temple ? Most exotic of all, the myrrh, intoxicating and solemn, is associated with a funeral, so what was it doing here at the scene of a new birth ? The Christian faith explains these contradictions by the belief that this baby was the Son of God, the King of Heaven, sent to live here and die prematurely. And if you ask what such a one was doing in a scruffy stable in a frontier town, the answer is that ordinary scruffy situations are what he showed most concern for throughout his recorded ministry. Our faith proclaims that he is still alive today, and that those same concerns are still his. Not only that, but similar godly gifts can still be ours, for by his grace we are appointed royalty and priests in his kingdom.
May the humility of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise men, the joy of the angels and the peace of the Christ-child be God’s gifts to us and through us at this Christmastide.
Season’s greetings to you all, Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - NOVEMBER 2017
This is the season of remembrance. We gather in churches, churchyards, cemeteries, around memorials, gravestones and other places of sacred memory. We bring to those places a whole variety of feelings. Some are still angry at the sense of apparent unfairness in the premature closure of life. Some are still struggling to emerge from beneath the burden of sadness and loss. Others remain unsure about how to carry on. But many have begun to bear with dignity the knowledge that loss is part of life, not to be shied away from, but to be faced. Still more have found that the passage of time has allowed the beginnings of pride and thankfulness for the lost life to grow. This is the healing process that can begin to ease the pain of loss. It works in families and communities alike. It is both a private process, as settlement and adjustment take place in one’s own heart, and also a collaborative process, as memories are shared with one another. It is in the autumn of the year that we mostly do this, though we all know that death may come unexpectedly at any season. Remembrance matters much.
The military aspect of the season is most closely linked to the November armistice in 1918, which makes me realise that 100 years ago, in November 1917, the combatants across the Channel were exhausted. Manpower and equipment on both sides was running out. Motivation to continue the war was fading. Political and economic difficulties were on the increase. It is desperately hard for us, in our comfortable lives, to imagine what life was like 100 years ago, either at home or at the front. No-one knew when the war would end, and courage of all kinds was tested to the limit. Men and women alike were challenged to the depths of their being. Only the surest foundations would hold at such times. As we look back in some amazement at those distant events, many families still cherish memories of wartime courage. The season of remembrance should continue to be, as it ever has been, a season marked with thankfulness for sacrifices made in the cause of peace. War is always ghastly to contemplate, but on many occasions is necessary. Those who still serve today do so in the tradition of all who have gone before. Those who remain at home will ever give thanks and remember them.
The opportunity for private remembrance in church comes at 3.00pm on November 5th at Westbury Parish Church, where I will be leading our Benefice All Souls Service. The following Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, when the regular services and ceremonies of Remembrance will take place, as detailed on the back cover. Please this information on to those who may be interested to attend, especially those who have recently been bereaved.
Best wishes to you all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - OCTOBER 2017
There is much talk these days about our place as a nation in the world. This talk is heard in parliament, in the media and on the airwaves, and much of it is more interesting than such conversations can sometimes seem. Part of the reason for this interest is the way in which the topic strikes at the heart of our identity, and identity matters very much. We realise this most when that identity is questioned in any way. None of us knows what our relations with Europe and the rest of the world will look like in ten years time, but I suspect most of us are more interested in those questions than we expected to be. Apart from anything else, what the world thinks of our country is an important question for us all. We all have something of ourselves invested in our nation.
Our attitudes to questions of faith are also part of our identity, both as individuals, as a community and as a nation. It is true that there is a wider variety of faith communities in Britain today than when each of us was born. You might say that offers each of us a greater choice than we have ever had, but it also raises the question of relative truth, by which I mean how we compare and respond to the contrasting faith stories we hear. I am asked quite often about Christian attitudes to other faiths, so it may be helpful to set down a few thoughts.
In the first place I would agree that every major world faith contains a good number of moral and ethical ideas that match up well to Christian teaching. This is true both of the sacred writings and the followers of these faiths. It is true that extreme attitudes of violence and anger exist on the fringes of many faiths, not least Christianity, but I believe the major world faiths are all helpful for the conduct of life. However, I also believe that, unlike Christianity, other faiths depend for spiritual advancement upon human effort in learning and practising a code of behaviour. By contrast, the Christian faith offers two important things that other faiths are almost silent on. One is the invitation to a living relationship with God, who is proclaimed to be alive in our midst. The other is the establishment of forgiveness at the heart of that relationship, and of our daily lives. The cross of Jesus Christ, which is at the heart of both these aspects of Christianity, proclaims with confidence that what many other faiths aspire to, has actually been delivered and made available to all. To adapt a well worn metaphor, other faiths may approach and begin to climb the same hill, but they don’t reach the summit. Therefore I think that dialogue is vital, partly out of curiosity, but also out of concern. At the same time we are all responsible for the next steps on our own journey towards God, a journey of daily encounter with the eternal in the midst of the ordinary.
May you all find refreshment and peace in each day. Rev. Steve
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - SEPTEMBER 2017
The church calendar for September is full of commemorations of Christian leaders who were involved in significant teaching of the faith: Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, Cyprian of Carthage, Ninian of Galloway, Hildegard of Bingen, John Coleridge Patteson, Lancelot Andrewes and Saint Matthew, to name but a few. Their ministry covered 4 continents and almost 2000 years, and each of them has a story to tell of their own life and times, stories you may find surprising if you pursue them. Without these Christian heroes and their like we would have no faith today. It is the church of today that represents the harvest from the seeds sown by these and other illustrious forerunners, each of whom bore testimony to the essential sowing at Calvary of our Lord himself, and each of whom looked forward to the eternal harvest, promised to those in the community of faith and signalled to all on the resurrection morning.
Now we are entering again the season of harvest, and in a community such as ours that means a deep thankfulness for all the year-round hard work that creates the material harvest from livestock and land. We also give thanks for the benefits of human creativity in every sphere of work, showing as it does the stamp of our generous creator God upon our lives. We truly are made in his image. But we are obliged also to take seriously our need to learn from God as we grow ourselves from year to year. It doesn’t matter whether we are in our teens or our nineties, whether we worship in church regularly or hardly ever, whether we are clergy or choir or wardens or none of the above. Whoever we are and whatever our experience, I believe we are obliged as Christians to take seriously our own Christian learning each year. It should be done regularly, enthusiastically and patiently, as well as with a degree of humility. If done in this way, it will ensure that the harvest we celebrate in our community this autumn will not only be agricultural and social, but spiritual too.
To give an opportunity for us all to taste a little of what this might mean, I will be running another short course this autumn under the umbrella of “Cake and Christianity”. It will take place once a month from September to November at 3 different homes in the benefice, but run by me every time. The course will look at many aspects of our faith, and is designed for all levels of Christian experience together. Details can be found elsewhere in the magazine, or by asking me or your wardens. Many of those named at the head of this letter gave their lives for the sake of the spiritual education of those in their care. I believe our Christian commitment, however faltering it may feel at times, places the same obligation on each of us, for our own sake and for the sake of those who follow us. Please consider joining this course.
My best wishes to each of you, Rev Steve Taylor.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - AUGUST 2017
I recently had the privilege of visiting the Isle of Skye, and from there travelling to the remote island group of St. Kilda. There is a fascinating story attached to those remote outcrops of volcanic rock in the wild North Atlantic.
For around 2,000 years the islands were inhabited by a hardy community who through the generations developed a distinctive way of life, based on subsistence crops, sheep, fish and seabirds. These last were gathered by abseiling from the tops of the precipitous cliffs. A crofting economy was introduced in the early 19th century, allowing the islanders more easily to pay their rent to their McLeod landlords at Dunvegan on Skye. But the attractions of mainland life gradually drew younger generations away, and by 1930 the whole community voted to leave. Their homes were left standing, and can still be seen today. Now the only people on the island are service personnel, National Trust volunteers and construction workers, all of whom are temporary residents, as well as the small number of fine weather visitors like me. So the calls of the islanders which would have echoed around Village Bay have all now fallen silent.
….. well, not quite. The former life of the islands is preserved ephemerally in the place name used around the world, in locations where the islanders made their homes, perhaps most notably in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, where there is a successful Aussie Rules football team named St. Kilda. And even the islanders’ voices still echo today, with the recent publishing of a CD called “The Lost Songs of St.Kilda”. This is a group of piano tunes played in a Glasgow care home by an old man, who learned them in his youth from a musician exiled from St. Kilda to the Scottish mainland. And just occasionally, even today, folk with a connection to St. Kilda ask to be buried there in the remote cemetery.
All of this reminds me of how important it is to hold on to our roots. It is true that God deals with us as individuals, and our relationship with him should be first hand. But it is also true that we are made, in some measure at least, by the generations that have gone before us and the places where we and they have dwelt. None of us can be entirely separated from the stories of our forebears. This theme is crystal clear in the ancient stories of men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their wives, households and children. And that in turn gives each of us a responsibility to share in the care of our local community resources. I hope many of you can be persuaded through the holiday month of August to accept the invitation to Sunday Afternoon Tea at the parish church at Westbury, as well as supporting initiatives in the other 3 parishes. This is one important way in which we can all contribute to the upkeep of our magnificent parish churches, of which we are the custodians.
Best wishes to you all for a peaceful month, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - JULY 2017
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those in our communities who supported the Bank Holiday Roadside Stall at the end of May, in aid of Westbury Church. Many were involved in preparing and running the stall, and a great number of you came along to support. We are very grateful for your generosity. The total raised was almost £2000.
July is a month when there are no major Christian festivals, so the focus of our thinking can fall on the various commemorations that occur during the month. Two that catch my eye are St.Thomas (July 3rd) and St. James (July 25th). They were both among the group of followers we call Disciples, though neither of them gets a very large part in the gospel story. But they both have something important to teach us.
Thomas is best known for refusing to accept the second hand reports of the resurrection, until he himself has an encounter with the risen Jesus and can examine at first hand the crucifixion wounds. That kind of healthy scepticism is entirely appropriate even today, because there is so much in our life and society that would tend to lead us away from spiritual considerations. So don’t be anxious if you find yourself sharing some of Thomas’s doubts, even to the extent of wondering if Christianity is true at all. But then have the courage to take the next step and seek God out, to test for yourself the truth of Christian claims. And don’t test those claims by looking at so-called Christian people, but look at Jesus himself. Do it by reading, by praying in whatever way suits you, and above all by an honest search for the truth, as Thomas himself did. If you wish, I can help.
By contrast with Thomas, James was something of an organiser in the young church in and around Jerusalem. He took a prominent part with Peter in arranging the business and conduct of the Christians as they gathered, and he also wrote a long letter which is included in the New Testament. He was central in the discussions with Paul, as the mission of the church spread beyond the Jewish community. His life and ministry remind us of the importance of unity among God’s people, a message still needed locally and nationally today. I have a feeling James was a good listener, though also confident in the faith that had been so central to his life since Jesus called him from his fishing nets. Just like Thomas, he too had as the foundation of his faith a life changing encounter with an intriguing man on a Galileean shoreline. I believe it is still true that we can be somewhat lost amid the storms of life, without the security of that self-same encounter.
May God be with you all, Rev. Steve.
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - JUNE 2017
Babies and toddlers are fascinating, aren’t they? It is a great deal of fun just to watch them struggling to overcome the challenges of life. Will that tasty mouthful actually make it all the way to the mouth? Will all that twisting and rocking result in any forward movement at all? How many different wrong ways are there to put that piece in the jig-saw, before the right way is found? I mention these few examples, and there are many others we could add, because they put me in mind of the progress that we might each like to make on our spiritual journey – but there’s a difference. Once we have learned about talking, or eating, or walking, those skills become second nature to us, so that we don’t forget them. We do them all the time. Our spiritual progress is a little harder to define, and it is perhaps a bit risky to take it for granted, the risk being simply that we stop making progress, without noticing that we have stopped.
One basic method of making spiritual progress is to pray, which is another word for conversation with God. Contrary to some contemporary opinion, this is a sign of maturity, not madness. But it is not helpful to think of prayer as one size fitting all. Every baby finds its own way of crawling or talking. So it is with prayer: each of us will find a way that suits our own temperament and pattern of life. The only mistake you can make with prayer is to avoid it, which is rather like cleaning and repairing your car, but never actually driving it on the road. There is a simplicity about prayer that may fool us into thinking it is only for children. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that an adult life without prayer is a life with an essential part missing. I am by no means the first one to have had this thought – our two Archbishops have issued a call to the nation to engage in prayer between Ascension (May 25th) and Pentecost (June 4th). Perhaps it might be helpful if I offered a few pointers as to how this could be done, although the number of ways to try praying is equal to the number of people alive today. It’s individual, unique and there for you to experience on your own terms, in your own way.
Controlled breathing can help, as can the deployment of smiles or generosity. Think of others before yourself, or look for a sensory focus of some kind, to encourage stillness. Don’t give in to bad news, but look for signs of God at work in the world, sometimes in human creativity, and develop the habit of thanks. Use your own words or those written by others, but also treasure silence. Above all remember that God is with you, so listen carefully. I hope some of these ideas are helpful.
Best Wishes to you all, Rev. Steve
YOUR VICAR'S LETTER - MAY 2017
It has not struck me before, but in May there are many commemorations in the church calendar of leaders or teachers in the church, in various parts of the world and at various periods of history. They include the following: Athanasius of Alexandria (May 2nd), English Reformation Martyrs (May 4th), Julian of Norwich (May 8th), Dunstan of Canterbury (May 19th), Alcuin of York (May 20th), John and Charles Wesley (May 24th), Augustine of Canterbury (May 26th), Josephine Butler (May 30th). In their own time each of these men and women responded to God’s call to play a particular part in the direction of the church as it sought to follow God’s way in the world. But these individuals were not a race apart. Each of us has a responsibility to listen to God guiding us, and then to follow in obedience along the path to which we are called. One thing that makes that quite difficult is when circumstances suggest we should change our plans. At a moment of such uncertainty there is often a temptation to cast doubt on our original call, to deploy an unhealthy scepticism.
Such a moment happened right back at the beginning of the church’s life, when there was a need to replace one disciple who had died. Up until then, despite Judas’ occasional critical comments, everyone had assumed he would continue as a disciple. But events proved otherwise. Did that mean Jesus’ call to him in the first place was a mistake ? No, I don’t think so. As the 11 remaining disciples reflected on what had happened, they probably recognised in themselves the same risk of misunderstanding. They went through a selection process for a replacement, Matthias, and got on with the ministry and work of the young church, in continuing obedience to God. Through this experience my guess would be that they all had their spiritual ears sharpened, and their sensitivity to God’s leading substantially refined. They also learned by experience that God’s will was greater than the limited scope of human imagination. It might be very healthy for us to remember, when we commemorate Matthias on May 15th, that God is not frustrated by our false starts, re-evaluations or changes of plan. The history of God’s people has abundant examples of them being led through difficult circumstances in faith, though not without surprises.
There is an old prayer which speaks of us as victims of the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”. Those are beautiful words, and they point us towards the “eternal changelessness” of God, which does not mean that God is a statue, but that he is always faithful, in every circumstance you and I may meet. Is that not a precious thought to carry with you into tomorrow?
Best wishes to you all, Rev. Steve.