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.