Reimagining Ministry

8C3B8173-0ED1-42FE-A82D-97FF6E9B3C2E_1_201_aLast week my elder son Gethin fell ill with a dry cough and was duly banished to his room for a week. Tough gig. He celebrated his thirteenth birthday this way, poor lad. We weren’t just being mean.  My 89 year old dad also lives with us and is vulnerable to COVID 19. He’s banished to his room too. The rest of us have settled into a 14 day lockdown, as per Public Health England guidelines. A family home is challenging enough at the best of times. But somehow it works, even in these times. Gethin has recovered. I caught his cough. It has settled in as a new member of the family. 

Church has completely changed. Barred from the church building, unable to leave home, ministering to a dispersed church community brings challenges and opportunities. I’ve been doing what most of my colleagues seem to be doing. Building a more connecting church community. Garnering missing phone numbers and email addresses. Creating a better network of pastoral care. Finding who needs help: phoning, video-messaging, listening. Setting a church WhatsApp group so we can share with each other (that’s been a revelation). Zoom meetings with colleagues, sharing. In so many ways we are addressing our isolation and separateness, as best we can. And then there is prayer. Especially there is prayer.

64401DF3-1E2B-4EAE-987E-52317356DA2D_1_201_aI am reimagining ministry, learning new things. I now live-stream church services. Wouldn’t have believed this just two weeks ago. So much has changed. Mind you, it wouldn’t have been possible without hours of help and technical support. (Thanks Brian!) Nor without Rosemary (another member of the congregation) saying why a streamed service was helpful to her. To be able to shape the week with a familiar pattern of worship, when so many of the usual boundary markers have been removed. We are now working towards making our Way of the Cross service on Good Friday to be streamed through YouTube. Another new challenge, 

I haven’t live-streamed the Eucharist. I’m not convinced I can. My understanding is we become the body of Christ when the bread and wine is blessed and shared. This is not possible across the internet. It feels faintly mediaeval to me to see a priest celebrating these holy mysteries and being unable to participate beyond watching. But others have a different theological understanding of this. And for this and for them I thank God. We each do what we do. 

b7-logo1There are other opportunities to make connections, different kinds of connecting. I love being able to video-call with Messenger. Didn’t Blake’s 7 (BBC low-budget 1970s Sci-Fi  series, just fabulous!) come up with this, all those years ago?  Even memes open up connections and possibilities. After I shared one with several people – I had simply laughed out loud when it popped up on my phone – the messages that followed opened up questions of grief, loss and a postponed marriage. A wedding blessing may result from that shared meme. 

Life continues within its new parameters. To be human is to communicate, after all. How and what we communicate shapes our world and our imagination of what is possible. Lots of other people realised this years ago, of course. I am only just waking up to something of that this means in my life and ministry. 

This story of COVID 19 connects us on so many different levels. It’s personal. What’s happening in my own body, my personal space, my head?  It’s communal, social, political. The sacrifice and ministry of the NHS. Boris Johnson in intensive care. The Queen addressing her people. its about the world we share – one huge web of interconnectedness – with the many, many other people of our planet.

And shot through it all for me, is an ongoing story of faith. What it means to be human. So I place our new unfolding story alongside that older story of what happens to Jesus. (It is Holy Week.) I look at these two stories – the story of our world responding to the Crisis of COVID 19, and the story of the krisis of Jesus last days. There are new connections to be made. But they need to be made slowly, with a great deal of patient and attentive listening,  I think. For the kind of wisdom that will emerge will not be rushed. First of all, it must be lived. And that is always a challenge, even at the best of times. 


Found Liturgy

A couple of years ago I came across a book about prayer. Only it wasn’t. It was better than that. It wasn’t about prayer as such. The closest I can put this into words is saying the book was prayer. It didn’t simply help me pray. Instead it opened up prayer in me. Giddy, disorientating, centring prayer. Walls coming down deep inside me, water flowing, cascading, eyes opening: soul filling, deep laughter. That kind of prayer.

The Book? Approaches to Prayer  (SPCK 1991 ISBN 978-0-281-06091-7) edited by Henry Morgan, Spiritual Director. Morgan has shaped a collection of prayer exercises from many sources – things people have used and found helpful. There are about 43 contributors. The book reads like a rhyme bag for the soul: place your hand inside, rootle about, and take a treasure out to explore. 

One looked promising. A pattern of music framed by silence. A good five minutes worth after each piece. I thought, here is something I can share. Then I looked at his choice of music. It felt older than me. Each piece looked suspiciously religious too. Was there another way to approach this?

In my ministry I teach how Jesus changes our conversation about God. He told stories of God in terms of what his neighbours are up to, the difficulties they lived with, the world they lived in. Encouraging a sense of God in the here and now and a glimpse the holy in the everyday. So why not blend the sacred and profane in worship in such a way that it opens us to what Jesus keeps on asking of us in the gospels?

The result was a ‘Found Liturgy.’ A Meditation through Music and Silence, like Henry Morgan suggests. Only sacred music sits alongside contemporary and not necessarily ‘Religious’ music. It’s interspersed by long, still silences, about five minutes each. When we have done this at All Saints Keighley, the silence hasn’t been particularly quiet, but it is very still. Sounds drift in off the street outside into our prayer. Neighbours call to each other. A car revs up at the junction, music set to Bangla (default loud), then quickly gone. And quiet. In the distance church bells ring, faintly heard.

Last time, for the beginning of Lent,  I used the following pattern: 

  • Gathering reflection, The Feeling begins  from Peter Gabriel’s film score for  The Last Temptation of Christ
  • Confession: Sam Smith’s marvellous and challenging Pray.
  • Forgiveness: Duruffle’s Ubi Caritas, just pouring our grace and divine compassion.  
  • Prayer: Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble’s extraordinary setting of O Salutaris Hostia, with the saxophone soaring above and through the warm harmonies of the choir. 
  • Adoration: Miley Cyrus’ Malibu – imagine she’s addressing God… 
  • …and for the Sending Out?  Dilly Parton’s Shine

We were going to do something similar to mark Palm Sunday. I’ve also used JS Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor Second Movement, Largo. (Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque and Bojin Cicic ) as a gathering, centring piece of music. Its a wonderful piece of music, which I’ve also taken into Primary schools and used for a meditative Assembly. But the days have gone strange, the church building shut, and church a dispersed expression of the Body of Christ. Maybe you can find a use for this service at home?

One day we will gather again. I look forward to those days in hope.



The church as building is now closed. A notice pinned to one of the dark stone pillars that flanks the main entrance reads: Public worship is suspended in loving response to our neighbours because of the Coronavirus Outbreak.’ Not even open for private prayer. A shut up empty space left for God alone.

The church as community is somewhere else. Dispersed not gathered. Each in our private space – you in your small corner and me in mine. Just like everybody else. Occasionally, some of us venture out to buy food. Our local supermarket is less busy by the time I get there, mid afternoon. Not busy at all, in fact. The car park less than half-full.  A few souls brave the aisles, giving each other the necessary space to hurry by, two metres please – and do try not to breathe on me. I talk with the staff – I generally do. Ask how they are. Last week they were pretty stressed. Most people were fine, they said. But some were rude and aggressive. It was clearly taking its toll on them.

I had never seen so many empty shelves in Sainsbury’s. The local Asda was the same. I don’t understand the urge to hoard toilet rolls. Most of the tinned goods had gone too (more understandable). And eggs. All that was left of the hand gel section was something masquerading as hand gel. It was fooling nobody.

The challenge to the church is same challenge we all share. How do we respond well? I was at a meeting last week organised by Bradford District Council, chaired by one of the local District Councillors. It was all about responding well to the emerging crisis. What will each of us (and the different organisations we represent) offer?  I find it very encouraging.  

The challenge for my church community is the shift in imagination the Coronavirus Outbreak calls for. We are used to Church being something that gathers. The liturgy draws us closer to one another and to God. The Body of Christ made present to the congregation in blessing the bread and the wine – and the congregation made present as the Body of Christ through sharing. The Coronavirus Outbreak blows this away. Where is the body? It is dispersed – but not scattered.

We have been here before as church. My brother Simon – who is also a priest – was talking to me earlier today about saying Morning Prayer in the porch of his ancient church. Puzzling over the relationship of the Bible Readings set for the day to our current crisis – but intensely aware of the priests who had walked through that porch and into that church through famine, plagues and wars since Saxon times. We are part of a deeper story and an older confidence.

We organise our pastoral care, take the opportunity to make it better than before. We keep talking with people – in the church and beyond it –  with the sense of love and faith that has caught hold of us and shapes us.

There are other possibilities. We have started using Zoom for our staff team meetings. I am wondering about shaping worship through a zoom conference call. It would be more interactive than live-streaming. Someone giving the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in Low Utley, another from the New Testament in Shann Park, intercessions from Braithwaite, and a talk from the Vicarage. A Lent group could work the same way. Worth exploring.

But the main thing I am doing is getting in touch with people. Phoning. Occasionally Facetiming. Conference calls. Praying.

We just voted to leave…

Well, it’s been quite a few days. A roller coaster of emotions and reactions. I am still a bit shocked by our Referendum. I’m not quite sure what to think of it all. Of course, life goes on. And we celebrate it, in all its tensions and difficulties. This morning I took the funeral of a 92 year old woman who’d married a Displaced Person after the war. She had committed herself to supporting her husband’s community preserve its cultural heritage here in Keighley. Passionately, tirelessly, generously. A remarkable life.

I came home feeling encouraged but tired. I needed to put some space between the funeral service and the Sunday sermon I still hadn’t started writing. I had about an hour. I needed to pick up the boys from school at 3:15pm.  So I went into my local Curry’s/PC World store. As I was chatting to Jo who was serving me, I mentioned how I wasn’t sure what I would preach about on Sunday. Straightaway, she said there’s loads that need preaching on today. We’re so very divided, she said. Twitter and Facebook are in ferment. Families and friends having a go at each other, falling out over the referendum with a passion. Saying such hurtful horrible things.

And she’s right.  I thought about the Gospel reading, and my heart sank. Three shocking sayings of Jesus didn’t seem to have very much to say to Social Media. They could easily have been part of the problem. Then I remembered the bit I skated over: the bit where Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem and a Samaritan village is unwelcoming because they don’t like his choice. Then the disciples just respond with bigoted bile: rain down heaven’s wrath upon these miserable people for their ungenerosity of spirit, their hostility, their antagonism, and their benighted racial and religious prejudices! Isn’t this what we are doing today on Facebook. Wanting to pour down wrath upon people who don’t agree with us. Dividing into mutually antagonistic tribes: insular, self-righteous, opinionated, full of verbal violence. And to people  just exercising there democratic responsibility to vote. Its depressing and unsettling. The referendum or social media hasn’t made us like this. It just brings it to the surface.

Jesus rebukes his followers. Not heaven’s way. Not the Kingdom of God. Of course, he doesn’t quite say those words. We have to work out why the disciple’s response is just so wrong.

As I think about this, I’m reminded of a blog I occasionally dip into for a bit of religious sanity. Nadia Bolz-Weber (Church of All Saints and Sinners in Colorado). ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through life’ … That’s about right. We need a better way to get through this.  One that directly addresses the kind of violent bile and division that shocks Jo on Social Media. Jesus approach, his way of getting through life, is to change how we respond to others by recognising our need of the people we disagree with, demonise, or ostracise. Inviting us to treat other people the way we would wish to be treated ourselves. Seeing in people we don’t like (for whatever reason) the image of God – an image that longs to grow and flourish in that person if only we will respond to it with grace.

Leavers and Remainers are both saying something important that the other needs to hear about the world we actually live in. A deep listening  is called for, not succumbing to the temptation to shout others down. A commitment that isn’t prepared to give up on the others. This is the outworking of grace among us. The commitment of God at work within us and through us is urgent and immediate. And it takes us outside our normal and habitual comfort zones, our habits of thinking and belonging, no matter how reasonable and understandable these may be. It takes imagination and faith for a world and nation sore in need of this kind of faith.

And this is what my 92 year old saw when she fell in love with  a Ukrainian Displaced Person after the War. And what a remarkable life she led.

PS Did I say how I voted? It doesn’t matter any more, but what  I wanted to vote for wasn’t on the ballot paper. A more reformed EU than is currently on offer.

Snow in May (almost)

It’s been trying snow here for days. Threatening to settle on the too warm ground. I woke this morning, looked out and saw the garden white with snow. Suddenly, all the gardening jobs I had planned for the Bank Holiday weekend look unlikely to happen. The boys are excited though; but there is no time to build a snowman. Today is a school day. It’s a day for dressing up warm too. Trying to find that school fleece Gethin swears blue murder he brought home last night, the two he says he brought home. But he didn’t; so we find a long forgotten school jumper that has fallen out of favour. He has to make do with that. But he wants to wear shorts. And sandals. ‘I hate shoes!’ he proclaims with a passion, as if it’s the most reasonable thing to say in the circumstances. I smile inwardly. Once I’ve started wearing sandals I don’t want to wear shoes either. But it is cold outside, and still snowing. And he is nine years old. We compromise. He wears long trousers and sandals, but takes his school shoes and socks with him. We set off into the snowy spring day.

It’s not as bad as the April snowfall I remember from when I was 17. A blizzard with a foot of snow in Sheffield where I was living, still at home and still growing up. Only I wasn’t at home that weekend. I was walking in the Lake Distict with a group from Church. It was Friday or Saturday when the snow stuck, I don’t remember which. We had left the Youth Hostel with the prospect of snow before us, and it was hard enough going on the road up to Hardknott pass. And then we came to the snow drift. And from there onwards the snow just got deeper. We did not pass. Defeated, we retreated down the hillside, found the hostel shut and the pub open. No choice really. We spent most of the day in front of a blazing log fire, drying out and warming through. There was a support van waiting for us in the neighbouring valley. With the Youth Worker who assured us it would be OK, and who, with a cheery ‘see you at lunchtime,’ had waved us off into the snow-threatened day. He was still waiting in the gathering cold with the blistered walkers who could not walk any further. Waiting for walkers who never would appear out of the gathering storm.  It took us hours to get a message through to him – this was in the days before mobile phones and instant messaging. 

Gethin and Gwynfor get to school, almost on time. The roads are slower but not impassible. We go down the familiar country roads in their unfamiliar clothes. Daffodils asserting themselves through the snow, cows huddling together for warmth, sheep standing out in their dirty woollen fleeces. By lunchtime the snow has vanished, just a memory, as springtime reasserts its rights over winter. Maybe I will be able to garden this weekend after all. 

Shakespeare and church stuff

I was listening to the radio on Sunday morning and was delighted to hear a friend’s voice.  The Radio 4 service was from Holy Trinity Stratford upon Avon. It marked  the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Patrick is the Vicar of Holy Trinity Stratford, where Shakespeare is buried – and has a lovely voice for radio and leading worship. I wasn’t as impressed by the sermon (it wasn’t Patrick’s). It tried too hard to make connections between Christianity and Shakespeare. Claiming him for us. But it just left me feeling Shakespeare had more to say than the Church. And say it better.

It got me thinking about the problem here. I don’t think you can translate Shakespeare’s plays to a sermon so easily. They are doing different things. The connections are there, but need to be approached in a different way. 

What I wanted to say  to this preacher was that Shakespeare was writing from a deeply Christian culture, exploring very human experiences of living and asking some of the searching questions it raises for him and us. That Shakespeare isn’t a religious writer as such and the plays aren’t sacred texts, in spite of how some people approach them. But they do draw us deeper into a better understanding of living, in such a way that affirms the sheer joy and wonder of being alive without being afraid of looking into the darkness of what we are capable of; and find how redemption may be present to us. That is a Christian framework. Not a confessional Christian framework, doesn’t tick boxes about belief in God. But it is a Christian response nonetheless that is universal in its resonance.

His plays move from telling the story of the recent past (Histories), to generous comedies about love and its many misunderstandings. The tragedies embrace the darker experiences of being human. How we are entangled in all sorts of moral dilemmas, and how we often can’t cope with the decisions we make.  Like Macbeth after he has murdered Duncan and the two guards; Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of his agonised bewilderment in the Shakespeare Live performance from Stratford  on Saturday was simply extraordinary. Problem plays like Measure for Measure are fascinating because they show how legalistic and moralistic responses to issues like sex and morality are themselves deeply problematic. To do justice to life and the extraordinary rich tapestry of issues, relationships, bad decisions, hope, love, all the deep questions we have about ourselves and the world we are part of, have to be rooted in an understanding that life is embodied – incarnational if you like – and about the qualities of our relationships.  

This became the basis of what I preached in my own church in Keighley on Sunday morning. 

Yorkshire Dales (part two)

Another day’s walking. This was harder going. Up hill and down dale. When told the man in the walking shop where I was walking, today he said (with Yorkshire understatement) it would be a pull. I left Kettlewell at 11am and headed up the hill. 

At the top I was faced with a drystone wall. It felt bizarrely surreal. Reminded me of something in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy: a wall of stones separating the land of the living from the land of the dead. Would I dare climb over the stone wall and enter the Land of Silence? On the other side there was simply another dale, intersected by yet another valley. I remembered driving there eight years ago, after Gethin was born and our new car opened up the land for us here. We’d parked on a remote road above that valley, with Gethin asleep in the car. As I got out I realised I hadn’t put the hand break on. The cold feeling of horror is still with me as I remember what might have happened. In my mind’s eye the car is slowly rolling down the hill, gathering speed… Thank God it never happened. But I pray for forgiveness nonetheless for what might have been. 

Later in the day I’m struggling up the same hill further up the dale, this time leaving Littondale for Wharfedale. It rains. It hails. A sharp wind tries to find a way through me. I am grateful for the shelter of another drystone wall that accompanies me up the hill. As are a couple of Swaledale sheep. At the top the sense of perspective is exhilarating: the land opens up with hills as far as my eye can see. And the gift of another dale if I take the path ahead. I walk downhill, glad of an easier path. But it isn’t. I slip and fall several times on the waterlogged way.

Walking is hard. Sometimes I wonder why I do it. But not to walk is harder still. Not to face the physical and the spiritual challenges. I feel the pressures that have seeped into the physical structure of my body begin to ease away. An unexpected exhalation catching me by surprise as I let go of something. By body aches at the end of the day, and into the following days. But I feel better for it.

On the way back to Parcevall Hall I keep passing cyclists. Mainly men riding in packs. Few women. Big men on ill-fitting bikes, slender youths. The one at the back struggling to keep up. All in garish colour. None seem to be enjoying themselves much, all are struggling uphill. And then I pass a party of smiling cyclists, just leaving a pub… 

I return to read, reflect and share good company on my retreat. It is good to take time away from the usual pattern of my life, glimpse other patternings, pray a little, and drink a bit more deeply of what my soul needs. 

May 30th 2015

Yorkshire Dales (Part One)

Well. It didn’t work out quite as I’d planned. I was meant to be walking Lady Anne’s Way from Skipton to Hawes in Wensleydale. Only I couldn’t get the logistics to stack up. Three days of walking could have got me there; but no further, as I’d miss the connections to get me home in time. Or I could have driven to Hawes and walked South, abandoning my car. And then the B&Bs were in the wrong places. And I’d agreed to take the boys and to Brimham Rocks. We had a great time, but I lost a day’s walking. It just wasn’t working out.

Still, I’d arranged to be on retreat. So on retreat I would be. I rang up Parcevall Hall, the diocesan Retreat house: I’d been many times, it was very familiar. Too familiar? Perhaps that was why I hadn’t thought of them. They were so helpful. I drove up later that day. 

Today I went walking. There and back. 11 miles of there and back. Grassington to Kettlewell. (And back.) I have really enjoyed walking there, where there leads on to another there, and the countryside changes imperceptibly and inexorably and I look back at how far I have come simply by placing one foot after another. There is real purpose in this kind of walking. It helps me get over my initial inertia and reluctance: if I don’t walk I will have nowhere to sleep that night. There and back is different. It is undoing the hard graft of getting there, it is unstitching the tapestry. It is a different discipline and a different learning. But it is still walking in the deep countryside, it is still blowing the dust and cobwebs from my soul, still reminding my body that it needs this kind of exercise every now and again. So I accept its challenge, buy a couple of walking sticks, and stride out on the Dales Way, OS map in hand. 

The Yorkshire Dales is a desert. It’s beautiful: an austere landscape of green fields intersected by a maze of grey limestone walls. The land mirrors the immense clouds hurtling across the heavens, with shadows or drizzle. But it is a desert nonetheless. Immense forces of ice may have carved out these dales in the last ice age, but the biggest impact upon the land we now see is much more subtle. It’s going on all around us. Sheep eating grass. 800 years of ovine munchers has destroyed the ancient woodlands that would have once covered these bald hills. And we barely perceive it. Sheep have become a natural and intrinsic part of The Yorkshire Dales. They are embedded in the landscape. When the sheep were slaughtered during the dreadful Foot and Mouth epidemic here over ten years ago the eeriest sound was the absence of bleating. We have shaped the land here. For good or ill humankind creates the world we all live in by a myriad of personal choices. Like grazing sheep upon the fells. 

When I reached Kettlewell I headed off in search of a Tea Room. It was crowded with children and their parents on half-term holiday, and cyclists. Clad in brightly coloured cycling lycra, old and young alike exuding health and wellbeing, all tucking into their cream scones. The Tour de France has done much for tourism in the Dales. But it’s the interplay of humanity that really strikes me. A young couple discuss their cycling strategy and perhaps their relationship. He says he was shielding her from the wind, she tells him she’s a faster cyclist than he is and doesn’t like working as a team. On another table a little child is the focus of her parent’s attention.  A group of older women are discussing weddings. One table is silent. Whilst round the corner children play noisily, and a mother tries to keep them engaged.  And the service is slow, very very slow.

I head back out into the wind, and retrace my steps. 

May 28th 2015

Trains, planes and automobiles

One of the evocative sounds of America is the train. That long loud blast followed by a deep rumble as the train slowly thunders along. There’s a train line near where we are staying. At night the sound starts slowly, a faint suggestion of some strange nightmarish animal approaching from somewhere in the distance. Then the full roar of the horn fills the room as the goods train trundles by, full of coal. And these trains are long: Gethin counted 68 trucks on the first train we saw on the way here from Roanoke.

But it’s unusual to have a train line nearby. If train lines once connected the US as a continental nation, the US is now the land of the automobile – and the plane. The delightful Virginian suburb we are staying doesn’t have pavements. The expectation is that you drive, not walk. And if you don’t drive? Well…

The car continues to change and shape life round here. Shopping Malls on the edge of town fed by cars have drawn shops from the heart of the town. The T220 road now splits between with a bypass loop that avoids the town of Martinsville and a business’s T220 on the edge of town full of restaurants, fast food joints and other businesses – and adverts crying out to the passing trade. But the bypass loop means that big companies don’t have to come into Martinsville.

Driving for me is beginning to be a pleasure once again, as I grow used to driving on the left hand side of the car. The roads have taken us up into the Blue Ridge mountains and two State Parks – Fairy Stone Park and Hanging Rock in North Carolina earlier today. Where we had a picnic… Gethin was reading the so-called legend of Fairy Stone – fairies told about the death of Christ when he died, weeping and their tears forming the cross like stones from which the Park gets his name – when he abruptly said, ‘This is just a made up story’. He’s happy with myths and legends that tell deeper truths – but saw through this one as mere sentimentality. Well done, my son! (Mind you at the Visitor Centre at Hanging Rock today when Father Roy showed Gwynfor two fox pelts to stroke, he gently asked, ‘Are they sleeping?’ Gethin quickly replied with the crushing honestly of an older brother, ‘No. They’re dead.’)

There are deeper meanings here in Virginia just below the surface. It is a changing landscape shaped by people living out each day. There are many churches scattered across this landscape that are part of this ongoing story, with wayside pulpits that proclaim their sense of God and Gospel. They often seem more unyielding than the hills. But the hills themselves speak of change, it’s just the much slower rate of geological change across millennia: these mountains were once as mighty as the Rockies, now a plucky three year old can walk to the top of one. And yet. Somewhere here there is a story which embraces our changing present with a perspective that speaks the grace of eternity. The land around us, physical and human, hints at this deeper truth for me.

The beauty of the Fall invites us to pay attention to the changing rhythm of the year in this landscape. And maybe just sit on a rock in the middle of nowhere pausing and wondering in the midst of such abundance.