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.