May I begin by saying what a privilege it is to be the vicar of this church community. Liz, Alicia, Isabelle and I are so grateful to you all for the welcome you’ve given us. We feel so much at home here, like we’ve been around for so much longer than nearly 8 months.
When I first saw the parish profile of the parish back in January 2012, I was tremendously excited both by the work that had been done here, and also the huge potential for furthering Christ’s kingdom in Allesley Park and Whoberley. It was clear that the new person coming in would be able to build on some very solid foundations, and I want to pay tribute to the ministry of Graeme during his twelve years here, and also Lynnette who did a brilliant job of leading the church through the vacancy. She was ably helped I know by Pauline and Mike as churchwardens, the PCC and others, during this time.
The collation service at the beginning of September was one I will always remember. It was wonderful to be welcomed in such a special way. I knew then that, as one of the congregation affirmed just a week into my time here, that I was the right man, in the right place at the right time. Having the parish weekend away very early on in my time here was fantastic, because it enabled me to begin to get to know you all, and the subject of spiritual gifts was so appropriate – we’re still looking to build on the work that was begun at that weekend.
Although I’ve only been vicar here for such a short time, much has been achieved. We have taken the bold but necessary step of moving to a weekly pattern of worship of two morning services, which enables traditional worship and contemporary worship to take place each Sunday. It also allows more room for growth in our worship space. Thank you to all those who have worked to make this transition possible – all of you who have compiled and filled various rotas – our musicians, who have responded excellently to the extra demand, and our children’s workers, who have enabled us to have children’s work at both morning services, which is tremendously exciting. I believe that this decision to make this change will bear great fruit, although it may take time and patience, although early signs seem to be encouraging. It’s important to honour our relationship with the uniformed groups, and so Parade services have continued to be an important part of the worshipping life of our community. These services also allow the whole church community to worship together once a month.
Of course, life hasn’t always been easy since September – it’s been full of challenges as well as joys. It’s at times like these that we need encouragement from the Scriptures. One of my favourite Bible passages states, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19). These verses have always been important to me. They tell of a God whose creative ability to bring new life to barren places and new hope to desperate situations, light out of darkness and life out of death, will never cease. For our God is the God of the resurrection, the God of new beginnings. We need to cling to this hope when times are hard and when death is a very present reality. John played a massive role in the life of our church community and we will miss him in many different ways – for the person he was as well as the work he did. Others among us are experiencing the pain of grief. It’s at these times that we need each other. I think this church family has shown itself to be very close. We’re here for each other and we’re the principle means by which God will bring restoration and renewal.
God is the God of new life, but the thing about new life is that it never takes the same shape as it used to. There’s no going back to the good old days. We need to move on. God wants to do a new thing among us. He calls us away from the past into his new future. I discovered a wonderful illustration of this while I was away on an Arrow residential. During a walk I came across the wreck of an farm building. This building is no longer fit for purpose. The walls have fallen down, and it looks dead. But look at the life that’s springing from it – Nature has taken over. In many ways it’s more alive than ever. I believed then when I saw it and I believe now that this is an illustration of what can happen when we let go of our own pre-conceived ideas of how things ought to be and let God envision us and begin a new work among us.
I felt then that it was of particular relevance to Whoberley Community Church. While there was much to celebrate about the life of that family over the years of its existence, it got to a point where a weekly meeting was no longer sustainable. While I don’t believe it’s right to say here and now that there won’t again be a church plant in Whoberley, to make such a venture work, there needs to be a clear vision for the work of the church there, but most of all, a heart of mission for the people who live in Whoberley.
William Temple, Archbishop of York, then Canterbury, once said, “Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” This the case for all churches, but particularly for church plants. Church plants need to listen so carefully to the community around them, and be willing to be shaped in response to them. It’s not for us to dictate what sort of church community might spring up, if and when we believe it’s right to make such a leap of faith – and everything we do needs to be led out of a clear sense that this is the way God is leading.
But, although one form of life has come to an end, at least for the time being, new life has sprung up in Whoberley. Messy Church is wonderful. It’s fantastic to see families coming together, a good proportion of whom aren’t part of our, or indeed any, church community. More Messy Church events are planned for May, June and July, and we will hopefully continue on a monthly basis. We do so in faith that new life might spring up. So, watch this space! Thanks to the team who have made this happen – your hard work is greatly appreciated, and I’m so excited to see where this ministry will lead.
Going forward, what are my priorities? In some ways it’s incredibly simple, but not at all easy! We had a very helpful presentation by Morris Rodham (Archdeacon Missioner), on the 8 Essential Qualities of Healthy Growing Churches. He explained each quality in turn then at the end asked us to assess the areas of greatest strength and then greatest weakness. Those present believed that our strengths lie in the qualities of “Loving Relationships” and “Holistic Small Groups” – clearly good relationships are at the centre of our church community, and I believe that’s true. As for our weakest area, those present identified, “Needs-oriented outreach” as the area we need to grow most in. Again, I think that’s right. While I believe that the Hub, which is a wonderful, exciting ministry, is making a really positive impact in the community, we need to step out of our comfort zones, into the community. We need to spend time listening to God and the community in order to discern where God might be leading us, and then step out and reach out with God’s love to those who need it. My role in all this can be summarised by verses I believe are key for me, particularly here –
“Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
My principle role is not to do all the ministry, which is why day to day pastoral visiting is not a personal priority – although I am incredibly grateful to Ann and the team for the ministry they do. But rather, my principle role is to equip and empower all of us to reach our God-given potential, that we may all be able reach out with God’s love to those who need it. Preaching is an important part of this role, and we’re going to be spending a significant time from September until Easter next year focusing on Mark’s Gospel seeking to reconnect with Jesus and why he is such good news for everyone.
In summary then, my priority is mission: Jesus came to seek and save those who are lost, and he calls us to do likewise. How we do that is something we need to discern together, which is why we need to make prayer a priority corporately and individually as we seek to discern God’s will for us here. Each of us has an equally important role to play in working for the growth of God’s kingdom here in Allesley Park and Whoberley. Together, in God’s strength, anything is possible!