Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Sound of Silence

Well it may be one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel tracts but this week as I reflect on the phrase ‘The Sound of Silence’ I’m not thinking of this 1964 classic, written in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, but of a comment made to me at the serving hatch of our church hall one day this week. It was the day we received a number of welcome visitors from the Tuesday group at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.  Instead of meeting in their church hall for lunch we were their final summer outing destination for 2013 so they joined us for lunch in ours.  One of their number said to me just how much he was enjoying the lack of background noise in Amersham compared to central London.  He said it was refreshing to hear the sound of silence!

After lunch that experience became even more intense as we gathered in The Sanctuary for a talk by Alison MacTier, Director of The Retreat Association, who actually concluded her time with us by leading a short – and silent – meditation.

We often long for silence when our lives are crowded and noisy. Whether we know what to do with it is another matter.

I, like many people, have tinnitus which means silent retreats are never totally so because there is always a high pitched ringing in my ears.  I remember being diagnosed and the rather down to earth consultant, after examining me, said ‘Well looks like you’ve got tinnitus, I’ve got it, my wife’s got it and now you’ve got it  – none of us can do anything about it so you’ve just got to live with it’.  I actually found that rather helpful!

The point of meditation in the Christian tradition isn’t just to find the silence.  That very process often brings lots of other thoughts and worries into our minds and maybe these are the current issues that we need to be addressing prayerfully.  To that end retreat leaders, when settling a group down for say half an hour of quiet or silent prayer, actively encourage retreatants to listen to the noises coming in from outside the building or the thoughts filling the empty space we’re trying to clear in our minds.  The idea is that slowly, and with a consciousness of God that can be all too absent from our usual rushed routine, we linger with these thoughts and tease out what they may be saying to us about our journey through faith and life.

Over the years retreats, quiet days and silent prayer have given me tools to hone down what I believe to be the really important things in life.  They have been the tools I’ve often used to separate the dross from the gold and begin to see with a greater clarity what matters.  They are, I believe, effective tools in our pilgrimage with Christ – giving him the space to speak into the silence.

A lady I once knew, now in God’s nearer presence, called Phyllis used to come along to Thursday Morning Prayers every week without fail.  She was a very, very quiet lady whose main ‘ministry’ was, I think, essentially that of praying for our church.  One morning after the prayer group the only ones left were Phyllis, myself and another lady and we got on to the subject of favourite hymns.  I was touched when she suddenly, and I thought uncharacteristically, burst into song singing with a lovely sweet voice her favourite hymn.  All the words she knew by heart and the middle verse went like this:

Ev’ry day, ev’ry hour, ev’ry moment
have been blessed by the strength of God’s love.
At the turn of each tide he is there by my side,
and his touch is as gentle as silence.

Now that, I reckon, is as good as any Simon and Garfunkel number!

With best wishes,

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Buildings that Speak

The new Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon Theological College
I don’t entirely buy into the idea that Church isn’t a building.  Of course I understand the point that’s being made – that essentially the Body of Christ is a community – but to those ‘outside’ such a community the church building is often their first contact.  So what our buildings feel like and the message they convey is, in effect, an extension of us and of our limited understanding of God.  In my view church buildings are important signposts.

This year’s Royal Institute of British Architecture’s Stirling Prize (the Building Community’s equivalent of Literature’s Booker prize) has the new Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon College, Cuddesdon on its shortlist – hurray!  (The BBC website featured it this week at )

This new chapel costing over £2m has been made possible because the Anglican Sisters of Begbrook in Oxford have recently sold their property and moved into Ripon College.  This small religious community of nuns brought with them the finances that have made this architectural masterpiece possible. 

I became interested in this story because about three years ago the Baptist Union Retreat Group stayed at Begbrook with the sisters and they were just beginning to contemplate a different future having put their extensive Priory up for sale – so it was fascinating to catch up with this stage of their journey.

So what, I wonder, have the five church buildings I’ve had the privilege of working in had to say to both worshippers and passersby? 

Fuller Baptist in Kettering where I began is an imposing Victorian non-conformist ‘preaching station’ able to seat a thousand.  It has a ten foot high pulpit which means the preacher is at eye level with folks sitting in the gallery.  In many ways it’s a challenging Sanctuary today simply because it is so vast and was built for a different time.  I wish the congregation all the best as they apply for the necessary permission to re-fashion parts of the worship space to suit a more contemporary style.

Walsworth Road Baptist Church in Hitchin just had the most wonderful location. It grew out of a
Railway Mission Chapel into an imposing neo-gothic building situated at a cross-roads just off the centre of the town.  With its beautifully kept garden I always thought it made a very positive statement to the town – enhanced by the recent addition of an imaginative vestibule connecting church and hall.

Possibly the most beautiful church I’ve served in has been Malvern Baptist in Worcestershire.
It was built in a liturgical crucifix form once again in the neo-gothic style.  With its timber roof and stained glass I always felt ‘enveloped’ whenever I entered it – there is a very special atmosphere at Malvern.  However, this beautiful church building had one great disadvantage – Lady Foley, the lady of the manor and a staunch Anglican, agreed for it to be built as long as it was constructed up a long drive away from the road – it’s almost as if she wanted it hidden! Her Christian generosity only went so far!

Yeovil Baptist couldn’t have been more different, occupying as it does a central position in the town for over three hundred and fifty years.

Ten years ago it was completely rebuilt.  However, its ‘Listed’ status meant the Georgian roof and Victorian frontage had to stay in place.  What resulted is something of an architectural curiosity in that one side of the church is nineteenth century and the other is twenty first century – when I was there none of us had really worked out what was the front and what was the back!  Yet it works and I well remember talking to one of our Boys’ Brigade fathers from the community one Wednesday evening and he said to me he thought our church was the most spectacular building in town – praise indeed!

And now it’s Amersham Free Church – a building that owes a great deal to The Revd Neville Clark’s ministry – a pastor/theologian who wanted this building, constructed in 1962 at the height of the Free Church Liturgical Renewal Movement, to say something about what we believe.
The soaring beams in the Sanctuary pointing upwards, the splendid space around the communion table dedicated to the celebration of The Lord’s Supper, the gold band on the floor that encircles table, baptistery and font – emphasising the Sacraments of the Church, and the pulpit and prayer desk still in use every Sunday fifty one years after the opening .  Along with our newly refurbished church hall this is a building that ‘lives’ and ‘speaks’ of welcome and worship.

So ‘well done’ to the architects and sponsors of Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon – not just for being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize but for continuing that worthy tradition of striving to fashion space we might dare to call sacred.

With best wishes,



Thursday, 12 September 2013

Church in The Market Place

George Carey didn’t get much of a good press during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury but he did, in my book, have one advantage over some others who have held that office in that he had actually served as the minister of a local church before his ‘elevation’.  In particular he pastored St Nicholas’ Parish Church in the centre of Durham in the 1970’s.  These became significant years for this congregation – years of growth with a developing sense of identity in being a ‘Church in The Market Place’.  George Carey even published a book under that title detailing something of their journey together.

Some rather exclusive theologies have historically advocated that The Church should be separate from ‘The World’.  Although I would understand that in terms of having a different agenda and set of core values – I’m more and more convinced that the only way we can live out our calling to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ is if we fully accept the concept of being a ‘Church in The Market Place.

Last Sunday Amersham held its Town Show on the King George V field opposite the civic offices.  From what I saw it was a success.  On stage it drew together singers and choirs from across the area and along the ‘corridor’ of gazebos one charity organisation after another rubbed shoulders. During the afternoon I bumped into so many people from our congregation involved in all these different organisations - and that's a healthy sign for any church - to have people involved in the community.

I was also pleased to see COTHA (Churches on the Hill Amersham) and CTACB (Churches Together in Amersham and Chesham Bois) have stalls next to each other playing a full and much appreciated part in this community day event.  It’s where we need to be – out in society – as a Church in The Market Place. So ‘well done’ to everyone who helped make it happen.

However, that concept of being ‘part’ of the community isn’t limited to a town show – it’s part of our everyday ministry.

Whilst on holiday in the Austrian Tyrol recently I was struck by the ornate onion shape domed church in the village of Kitzbuhel where we were staying.  It was just off centre and surrounded by a fascinating and large graveyard.  Walking through this hallowed space was a salutary and, I think, slightly overwhelming experience.  In keeping with local custom most gravestones had pictures of the departed on them – spending fifteen minutes reading the inscriptions and looking at the photographs was enough for me.

Our church at Amersham – like most in which I’ve served – isn’t quite as ‘pretty’ as the one in Austria and is surrounded not by a well kept graveyard but by a well used car park.  I confess I prefer the later!  I like the sense that around our building cars come and go bringing people to our services and meetings and those put on by our user groups.  There is something about that sense of momentum which chimes in with an understanding of ourselves as a ‘Church in The Market Place’.

Best wishes,


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Meetings Meetings Meetings!

After almost a month’s absence from the world of blogging and spending the last fortnight on a family holiday in Austria it’s well and truly time to ‘come down from the mountain’ and return to the world of routine which September always beckons.

To ease me into that pattern yesterday I attended a training day for Trustees of The Retreat Association at St Philomena’s Convent, Euston Square in London.  Fitting the ecumenical nature of the day our trainer was a wonderfully engaging Jewish lady – who promptly finished our time together mid afternoon so she could join with others at her local synagogue to celebrate Jewish New Year.
Our day was organised because as Trustees we have to be increasingly aware of our corporate responsibility and the manner in which we should strive to conduct our meetings – the phrase ‘cabinet responsibility’ kept cropping up yesterday.

In August there is something of a moratorium on meetings at church but in September our diaries often bulge with them.  People either seem to love ‘em or hate ‘em! I cannot work out whether it was a compliment or criticism when a lady from a previous church once described me as a ‘Committee Man’ – not actually a title I would readily award myself!

It’s been more than a little familiar to observe the process by which governments have recently made decisions about Syria.  This ongoing tragedy which has so far produced thousands of needless deaths and two million refugees hasn’t been an easy one for national leaders to respond to – and in any case each leader operates within a different protocol in their countries.  So the American and French Presidents can authorise military action without consulting their democratic institutions because that power is retained in their office.  The British Prime Minister, whatever his personal views, had to allow Parliament a vote.  That seems to have made President Obama think twice – so now, although it’s not strictly necessary, a vote will be taken in Congress next week.

All of this, it seems to me, isn’t just pedantic bureaucracy but a recognition that corporate responsibility is usually preferable to idiosyncratic personal leadership.

The truth is that building consensus and giving opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard is just as much a mark of strong leadership as riding off on a white stallion crying ‘For England and St George’.

The reason this recent debate about the need for parliamentary approval seems so familiar to me is that it rings true in church life also.

Amersham Free Church has a combined Baptist and URC tradition (all be it with a good dollop of Church of Scotland thrown in for good measure!).  All of these traditions – in their Church, Elders’ and Deacons’ Meetings hold to the idea that church life isn’t about being directed by a Bishop, Synod or even Minister – but by the people of God gathered prayerfully together seeking the mind of Christ – the technical term for that (but not one that I think the Charity Commission are too aware of in their advice to Trustees!) is ‘Congregational Government’. 

So I’m pleased it’s September and the return of ‘The Meetings’ – it’s not just about minutes and agendas – but travelling together, listening to one another, sharing the burden and, pray God, hearing Christ speak to me through my fellow Trustees, Elders, Church Members and friends.

Oh, and to our lovely trainer yesterday and her Jewish Community at this time of Rosh Hashanah ‘Shanah Tovah’ – have a good new year!

With best wishes,


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