Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Workhouse

The former Amersham Workhouse
This week, on my way to visit a member of the congregation currently staying at Amersham Hospital, I passed the former Amersham Poor Law Institution – commonly known as ‘The Workhouse’.

Two things struck me as I walked along – both slightly ironic.  The first is that this building once set aside for those who were financially destitute is now a tremendously smart address with a price tag to match.  The second is hinted at by the Workhouse’s new name of ‘Gilbert Scott’ Court.  So even though this was the most functional of buildings its architect was the same man who designed the splendours of St Pancras Station, The Albert Memorial and The Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Maybe this isn’t so strange.  The Victorians had a high view of civic architecture which meant that even power stations and sewage plants ended up resembling either a mini cathedral or country house.

Amersham Work House was in this tradition.  It was completed in 1839 at a cost of £5,750 and was one of a number designed by Gilbert Scott at the beginning of his career. 

I wonder if there is a modern day equivalent? It would be rather like having Lord Rogers, designer of the Pompidou Centre and Lloyds building, cutting his architectural teeth on a social housing project.

Although the world has changed beyond recognition since Scott’s time we still have to make judgement calls about how much energy, enthusiasm and commitment we put into a project or relationship.  I suppose the vital question we ask in that respect maybe – ‘is it worth it?’

Is it worth turning out every Friday evening to run my Brownie Pack?  Is it worth keeping interested in the work of Christian Aid?  Is it worth staying on the Governing Body of my local school?  Is it worth keeping that appointment with God and my fellow pilgrims at church Sunday by Sunday?

Christ seemed to shock his community more than once by giving people the sort of value and respect which others thought was thoroughly misplaced  - be that in meeting a woman ‘with a past’ at the well, taking tea with a fraudulent tax-collector or helping ten lepers literally living on the margins of society.

We sometimes talk of the topsy-turvy values of The Kingdom of God – those inversions of expected norms such as the ‘last being first’. 

All of this makes Christianity potentially counter-intuitive and counter-cultural – a risky business some might even say.

So Gilbert Scott’s stunning Workhouse here in Amersham has prompted me once more to reflect that no task for God is too small and no act of love for my community is too insignificant to merit my best.

Such inspiration comes not only from a young Victorian architect but from the example of the wandering preacher from Nazareth who showed us what it really means to give our best.

Perhaps Steve Turner’s poem puts it as stunningly as Scott’s architecture:

Like your landlord becoming your lodger
Like your managing director up before you for an interview
Like Beethoven queuing up for a ticket to his own concert
Like a headmaster getting the cane
Like a good architect living in a slum built by a rival
Like Picasso painting by numbers -
God lived among us.

With best wishes,

p.s. Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The View from the Pew

Until I came to Amersham I hadn’t spent much of my ministerial life in the pew – instead I’d be in the ‘pulpit’ most Sundays at most of the services.  That’s changed a little here.  Once a month I have the privilege of listening to our Associate Minister preach and on Sunday evenings I sometimes take the opportunity of sitting in the pew of some central London churches.  That means in the last twelve months it’s been a joy to attend services and listen to sermons at Bloomsbury Central Baptist, Westminster Abbey, St Martin in The Fields and All Souls, Langham Place.

However, over the last few days I’ve sat in pews closer to home.

On Wednesday last, along with about three hundred others, I sat in Chesham’s Broadway Baptist Church listening to the engaging ‘teller of stories’, Cardinal Cormack Murphy O’Conner – the emeritus Archbishop of Westminster.  He told us of his friendship with Pope Francis and the events, in which he took part, at the Vatican just prior to his election in the spring of this year.  You could have heard a pin drop as he spoke because something about his mix of gentle, respectful humour alongside profound spiritual insight caught all our imaginations that night and sent us home with that inner sense that we had been in the presence of God.

Then last Saturday my own church hosted a Bible Teaching Day as we looked at the Gospel of Matthew under the direction of Professor David Catchpole of Exeter University and Sarum College.  Once again it was great to be in the pew – or in this case sitting on a comfortable chair!  David’s extensive New Testament scholarship helped us appreciate many new insights into why Matthew put his gospel together in such a Jewish way and I suspect those of us preaching from Matthew next year will refer to David’s notes often.

And this ‘pew sitting’ of mine goes on -  because come Sunday evening I had the delight of listening to Liz preach at our monthly evening communion.  It’s a regular feature at AFC that we invite one of our seven ‘lay preachers’ to share in the evening services this way. 

On Sunday Liz took ‘pilgrimage’ as her theme and spoke of that ‘inner’ journey we all make with God and each other.  It was a delight to listen to such a well thought through and delivered sermon.

And my last ‘pew’ experience of the week?  Well, actually, it was neither in a pew nor a church but at least I was sitting – this time in front of my computer watching a clip from last Sunday’s Andrew Marr’s show – this clip:

In it Malala Yousafzar, the sixteen year old girl from the Swat District of Pakistan, was being interviewed.  She spoke of that day, a year ago this month, when she was shot by the Taliban whilst travelling on the school bus.  This crime was carried out because Malala had ‘blogged’, under a pseudonym on the BBC, speaking out against the Taliban’s opposition to education for girls.  Malala was flown to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where she recovered from her wounds and this year, as well as addressing The United Nations General Assembly, she was nominated for the South African Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.  I was so moved by the grace and eloquence she showed during her interview with Marr and thank God for this young ‘prophetic’ voice to come out of such a bleak situation and episode.

So, even though I have the responsibility and privilege of speaking most Sundays from a pulpit – it’s been an equal privilege over these last few days to sit, listen and learn.

With best wishes,

Ps I heard on Sunday that my former church in Yeovil has appointed a new minister – my prayers and very best wishes go to Simon and the congregation at South Street as this new partnership in ministry begins.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Past is Another Country

Being still ‘newly’ arrived in Bucks we continue to be in something of a discovery mode taking opportunities, especially at the weekend, to go out exploring.  Last Saturday was no exception so we made our way over to Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, the one time home of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

As we approached this grand, yet intimate National Trust house we were surprised by the number of cars having to use the overflow parking places and the queues at both the entrance reception and tea room.  We soon discovered last Saturday was not a ‘normal’ one for Hughenden but a ‘1940’s’ theme day.   This no doubt reflected its use during WWII as a special operations centre code named ‘Hillside’. 

So we wandered through a field of brown tents erected on the front lawn full of war time memorabilia, bumped into ‘Red Cross’ nurses, Wing Commanders, Chaplains, humble Corporals and swanky American Marines in full uniform.  I half expected Captain Mainwaring, from the Eastgate Home Guard,  to come round the corner ordering us to take up our places at the Novelty Rock Emporium ready for the invasion with our one machine gun!

Well we did the tour and that was fascinating and we wondered around the grounds and that was beautiful – and we lingered by the 1940’s fashion show and had tea sitting near a ‘General’ wearing his Home Staff red lapels and that was just plain bazaar!

I suppose we got a ‘feel’ of the 1940s – especially when we heard the gun practice starting on the south lawn – but it was fleeting and momentary – soon we were back in the car returning from the world of yesterday to the present.

None of us can go back – even if we’d like to.

I sometimes think I would – and if granted those imaginary three wishes I’d at least use one of them spending a day meeting my relatives of a hundred years ago and another travelling a hundred years into the future!

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of our life is the deliberate valuing of today rather than longing for yesterday or hoping for tomorrow.  There may be very good reasons for the later two yearnings but we don’t do today justice if we over romanticise the past and place unreasonable confidence in the future.  Spiritual writers call it ‘the sacrament of the present moment’ – the idea that here and now – today – God is present – offering us love, life and hope.  Being consciously aware of that reality comes close, for me, of what it means to pray.

Last weekend I enjoyed Hughenden and the colliding worlds of Disraeli and Churchill – but today beckons. For as L.P.Hartley said in his novel The Go-Between: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

With best wishes,


Thursday, 3 October 2013

Life, Faith and Monopoly

With the autumn leaves beginning to fall here in Amersham our church’s housegroups (which we call Life and Faith Groups) have begun to reassemble for a new term.  Each group develops its own theme and even comes up with its own study material.  They are a great addition to our life together and it’s been a joy this week attending two of them.

The first one is revisiting the Lectionary passages we use on a Sunday morning – so having preached the sermon I thought it would be interesting to attend a group discussing it!  But I was in for something of a surprise for this group is one that likes to do things differently.  It’s led by folk who have super gifts of creativity – so one member told me as I left ‘every week we meet we do it differently’. So yesterday morning we played Monopoly!  We did so after reading the passage from Luke about the Dishonest Manager – a tricky passage which challenges our attitudes to money and its management.  Soon after we settled into the game it became apparent that our leader had doctored the Chance and Community Chest cards so that every time they came our way we had a financial/moral dilemma to discuss.  What ensued was great fun – gentle participants turned into unlikely capitalists, competitive players suffered early and swift bankruptcy whilst others with an open heart stayed in character throughout the game responding to any dilemma with exemplary generosity of spirit.  And amid the laughter there was much profound discussion about personal, national and international finance and the relation of faith to wealth. 

Now if the learning style of yesterday morning’s group was Kinesthetic – that is ‘by doing’, the group I attended in the evening was more Auditory – that is ‘by listening and conversation’.  This night time gathering have taken as their theme this term ‘Jesus The Jew’ and their sessions are based on a Bible Society booklet – yesterday we looked at Jesus and The Law – especially how it related in his day to divorce and wealth.  Once again we were ably led by folk who had done excellent preparation.  Although neither of these issues is easy the group batted around ideas and teased out the issues with each contribution being respectfully received and then developed.  I came away glad to have been in their company – sharing in this honest struggle for truth and insight.

Call them what you may: Housegroups, Study Groups, Life and Faith Groups, Fellowship Groups, Cell Groups or Bible Study Groups – they have the same characteristics of meeting together with a smallish number, often in homes so with a greater informality, to be led but also to participate and contribute develop friendship as we have time over coffee to talk of those inconsequential things which actually mean the world to us.

So this week I thank God for Life, Faith and Monopoly!

With best wishes,


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