At the end of last summer I went to stay with my friend Steve in America. Steve runs what in this country we would call ‘Forest Church’ – a congregation that gathers in the middle of the forest and is learning to engage with Christian spirituality through nature. I went along for one of the Sunday services. We met together, gathered around a tree stump which formed Steve’s altar. We prayed and opening prayer, listened to a couple of readings – one from scripture and also a beautiful poem. Instead of a sermon time, we spent time simply enjoying the forest – contemplating nature. Some drew, others wrote, others sat and meditated. One of the children created a ‘sculpture’ of Forest Church, with leaves and stones and things he had found in the forest representing all of us who gathered there. It was a peaceful, sunlit Sunday morning, and through our activities and prayers, God was worshipped.
It is hard to believe as I enter my third year here as Rector (three years in February!) that we are at the start of another New Year. It is a time when many of us take opportunity to reflect on the past and look towards the new. There may be things from this last year we need to leave behind, and there may be things we are excited about carrying on into the new season. It is always good to pause a moment, on the threshold of the turn of the year, to gather our bearings. We can never know what the year holds for ourselves, our nation and our world. But we can orientate ourselves and determine those things we wish to do or be differently this year. There is a sense both that we have come full circle, and that we can begin again, learning from and being enriched by the past.
Since the clocks went back in October, we have been watching the darker winter nights draw in. Part of me finds winter difficult: I miss the sunlight and warmth. But there are evenings when the fire is lit, and a different mood prevails. Somehow the firelight creates a cosiness and safety. The darkness outside doesn't disappear, but it keeps its place. Those wonderful words from John's Gospel come to mind, 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never put it out.'
When I was a child, I was once summoned to the staff room, and told I'd been selected to have some violin lessons. I was duly presented with a violin and allowed to take it home. To this day, I am not sure why! I assume a peripatetic teacher offered some free lessons to a school to encourage interest in taking up a musical instrument - or perhaps funding had come in and I was lucky enough to be chosen. I thought it the most beautiful instrument. I immediately loved its shape, its feel. I remember fingering the bow to feel the texture and stroking the body of the violin, hardly daring to believe I had been trusted with such a thing of beauty.
Over the last couple of months, I have been thinking about human dignity. I recently went to visit my friend with whom, a few years ago, I went out to Tanzania (do come and hear more about my trip on 21st October when I shall be sharing stories and photos in the Amberley Parish Room as we enjoy a curry together). She had just returned from a six-month stay, and was discussing with me how it was so important that second-hand clothes which are shipped out are of really good quality, and of the issue of choice. We have so much choice, and can try things on in different sizes until we get the exact fit, she said, but there was a temptation to think 'anything goes' when it comes to charity. Sometimes things are so desperate, that yes, it can feel that way. But one of the joys in the work we did in Tanzania - and it was the poorest part of Tanzania with dreadful poverty - was that we helped to clothe some of the children in bright newly-made clothes that made them laugh with delight. It's a message that says, you are not second rate, but deserve the best - as the advert used to say, 'because I'm worth it'! For me, human dignity is very important and part of what every human being should have - the right to be treated with dignity, no less than anyone else. This is the Gospel - good news that supports the flourishing of all human beings and all of creation. God's love which wants each of us to know in God's eyes 'we are worth it'. We are worth the very best.
It is honestly true to say that each day when I wake, I have the sense of what privilege it is to serve as a priest within our communities. Part of that, is recognising there is a joy and trust in being able to walk alongside others, hearing others' stories - hearing your stories. Within that sharing of fellowship, it is so important we are able to encourage one another in our general day-to-day life, but also in our spiritual lives - fanning the flame of faith alive, and holding it out as light for one another when our own flame perhaps flickers. That deep connection with one another, within our shared deep connection with God, is what brings me the greatest joy. It is why I love our worship together, our regular quiet offices of morning prayer at Amberley and evening prayer at Minch, our shared planning and laughter, as well as tears and pain, as we 'walk the walk' together. I will share with you that one of the most special moments for me is that moment when you come and stand or kneel at the altar, and we may both know something of what has gone on for you that past week - and I offer out to you the bread and wine in a shared moment of Holy Communion, praying and knowing and wishing that it might be for you such an encounter of nurture and feeding, as, in faith, you receive Christ. It is a moment of almost tangible love. It's there, in the bread. It's there, in the wine.
As usual, our three churches will be celebrating Harvest with their own morning Harvest Festivals. In the late afternoon, we will come together for joint benefice Harvest Evensong at Amberley at the earlier time of 4.30pm. This will be followed by a Bring and Share Harvest Supper. This is always a wonderful occasion, and has seen the relationships across our churches grow with the fun, fellowship and food! Do come and join us for a wonderful celebration - put the date in your diary now!
In addition, that Sunday is also the culmination of our Stewardship Appeal - which has run for several years at Minch and Box, and which was re-introduced last year at Amberley. It is very appropriate that, as we think of the Harvest being gathered in and give thanks for God's provision to us, we in turn think about our own giving, and how we give back out of all that we receive.
A VACANCY IN THE TEAM
As you know, in July we said goodbye to the Revd Brian Atkinson, and so now I hope to keep you updated with the vacancy process and what is happening. The first thing of which to remind ourselves is that it is not a vacancy at Amberley; it is a vacancy within the team. We will be advertising the House-for-Duty post as a vacancy within the team to support the mission and ministry of The Rector and the team within the benefice, with special responsibilities at Amberley. In practice, this means the person appointed will spend much - but not all - of their time at Amberley, living in the house available at Amberley, and working for three days within the week (which includes Sunday). Whilst there will inevitably need to be flexibility on occasions as to how these hours are worked across the week, it seems important that we look at moving to fixed days of work, by and large, to make it clear for everyone in the parish who it is they need to contact. It may be that there are three set days in which the House-for-Duty will be contacted and the remaining four days the first port of call for contact will be myself as Rector. The person appointed will also preach and preside on occasions at Minch and Box, just as myself and the rest of the team will preach and preside at Amberley.
Both in ministry and in life, saying our goodbyes and letting go of one season before we can be ready to embrace the new, are two of the hardest demands. Yet if we can do it well, we will find it is those difficult aspects that liberate us to be open to fresh possibilities. I think it is the key to living well. Change is often painful at the time, or at least unsettling, and needs time given to it, before the new clearly emerges.
I have recently been writing and talking a lot about vision, mission and ministry - what these are and how we are seeking a fresh vision for the churches in our benefice, as we consider where we want to go from here. I hope by now you have the date, Saturday 2nd July, well and truly in your diary, for our Vision Day, to be held for all the benefice in the Amberley Parish Rooms, with coffee and tea available from 9.30am, and the day's first session beginning at 10am.