Thursday, 28 April 2016

Shakespeare - how do you spell that?!

Next Tuesday, 3rd May, sees the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare in 1616.

So much about the Bard of Stratford is a mystery. 

Recently I enjoyed reading Bill Bryson’s book on our nation’s most famous playwright.  Bryson tries to unravel the age old theories about ‘who’ he was – addressing the claims that maybe all these wonderful words actually flowed from the pens of men like the 17th Earl of Oxford or the 6th Earl of Derby.  In the end Bill Bryson puts his money on Shakespeare – no one else!

Another mystery is the spelling of his name.  We have six signatures in his own hand and each one is different!  Amazing isn’t it – the man who wrote Hamlet couldn’t remember how to spell his own name!  Actually it isn’t as simple as that – as some of these are just abbreviated signings – even so, none of them are in the form we use today!  They range from W.Shakp to W.Shakspeare.

His death is another puzzle.  He reached the age of 52 – which was quite an achievement in 1616 when the average Londoner died around 35years.  The Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, said:
"Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted." It’s now thought that was a case of the clergy putting two and two together and coming up with five – not the first time that’s ever happened!!

I loved reading Shakespeare  at school and I’ve always been grateful that my ‘O’ Level play was the Merchant of Venice with that wonderful speech about the double blessing of mercy spoken by Portia.

It’s the power of words I like so much.  Shakespeare’s ability to encapsulate wisdom in the most memorable of one liners!  I wonder if he would have made a good preacher – perhaps not, he was I suppose the writer of the words said by others.

Here are just a few of my favourites:

All the world a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances  

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven
(A comment I think about us sometimes needing to answer our own prayers!)

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go
(Maybe a commentary on the nature of prayer?)

And one I love very much:
The man that hath no music in himself
Let no such man be trusted

Words matter – they matter a very great deal.  So many of our aspirations and values can be expressed in art and music yet we often (not always) feel we need to make a verbal commentary on these.  Words speak for themselves – well, apart from the fact that we can interpret the in a myriad of ways!

I’m so glad Jesus was a preacher.  The words that speak of his message in say, for example,  The Sermon on The Mount or The Parables are priceless, beautiful, comforting and provocative.  Us preachers spend a lifetime seeking to reflect their truth and inspiration to our modern day congregations.

It was a later playwright to Shakespeare, one Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1839 gave us that wonderful phrase: The pen is mightier than the sword – and I, for one, believe that wholeheartedly.

So, what of my favourite lines from Will Shakp – or however you spell his name!!

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself

Thank you Mr Will Shakespeare for leaving us so very much in your gift of words.

Best wishes,


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Happy Birthday Ma'am!

Today it’s the Queen’s 90th Birthday and fifteen miles down the road from here, in Windsor, she has just completed her walkabout.

This celebration feels different to the recent Jubilees.  They were celebrations commemorating her role as Sovereign – and also a time to pat ourselves on the back as a nation maybe.  This special birthday, it seems to me, is more about her as a person and, possibly, her as a mother and grandmother.

That certainly seems to be the case in the delightful photos that have been released this morning showing her in one surrounded by her young grandchildren and great grandchildren and in the other sitting on a sofa in a very informal and loving pose with her daughter. 

I have forgotten who said this (you see I get ‘Senior Moments’ at 55 so what am I going to be like at 90?!!) – that a birthday is not a time when others congratulate us because of what we have achieved but simply for being us – for sharing this part of life’s journey with our family and friends.  I like that – not ‘well done’ for passing this or that but ‘thank you’ for just being here and being you!!

That said last weekend’s papers and today’s TV programmes are full of reflections on the Queen’s long, record breaking reign – often asking the question ‘how has she done it?’  One commentator, in my view, got it spot on when he wrote: ‘She simply believes in what she is doing’.

Not bad advice for any of us.  How can we be good, faithful and committed Christians, Parents, Husbands, Wives, Doctors, Bankers, short how can we be good human beings – by simply believing in what we are doing.

Happy Birthday Ma’am!
Best wishes,

Thursday, 14 April 2016


Last year's Elders' Social at AFC
This Sunday at Amersham Free Church we have the joy of ordaining one new Elder and recommissioning the rest of the team.  We do this once a year after the 'elections' which took place at the March AGM.

For over twenty five years I worked in a 'Baptist' context where we had Deacons - now in the ecumenical environment of AFC I'm getting used to Elders.

There is, I think, no blueprint for Church leadership in the New Testament.  Although it may be a rather simplistic conclusion there is probably some truth in the notion that Greek speaking churches had Deacons whilst Hebrew speaking ones opted for the title Elder.

One of the things I'm getting used to here is that in the URC tradition an Elder is 'ordained' for life.  That means there is a delightful custom that although you may now be a 'retired' Elder you will still have the privilege of serving the bread and wine at Communion.  I just love seeing that Communion Procession at AFC and noting the many members coming up the aisle who, although no longer on the Eldership, once gave up loads of time to attend meetings and take part in this side of church life.

Whether we call our ordained leaders: priest, pastor, minister or bishop - and whether we designate our lay leaders as elders or deacons it seems to me the essence of leadership within any church is that it is best when it is 'collegial' - that is the exact opposite of 'one man band'!!

It's as we serve as a TEAM that I hope we best sense God speaking to us through each other.

I've never been one to despise and ridicule committees because I'd much rather make decisions alongside my fellow leaders than in glorious and lonely isolation.

That came home to me once when I was Moderator of a Baptist Regional Association.  We were travelling through the choppiest of waters with lots of people getting hot under the collar and I was due to be in the chair at a big Association General Meeting.  To be truthful I, along with all my fellow Trustees were dreading it.  But in our preparations one of the Regional Ministers gave me such good advice.  'Ian', he said, ' If you are presented with an impossible proposal from the floor next week, pause the meeting, ask the trustees to come up to the front, gather around you and TOGETHER we'll decide how to deal with things.'  I've never forgotten those wise words - I didn't have to face that meeting alone - of course God was with me and he had given me colleagues with whom I could share the burden.  In the end it was a much easier meeting than any of us could have anticipated!!!

So I'm deeply grateful for teamwork and the way God works through that.  I'm deeply grateful to those Elders who stepped down at the AGM and those who accepted the affirmation of the Church Meeting and will commence a three year term of service on Sunday.

Collegiality - for me it's been one of the joys of local church ministry.

All good wishes,


Thursday, 7 April 2016

Exclusion to Community...something about Easter on Spinalonga

Spinalonga - outside 'Dante's Gate'
We have just returned from a sun drenched week on Crete and one of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the island of Spinalonga.

This is a place with a story.

Greece has some 6,000 islands scattered in the Aegean and Ionian seas and Spinalonga is one of them,  recently made famous by the novel based on its history as a Leper Colony by Victoria Hislop - and soon to be made into a Holywood film!

This is a small island yet it has in its past sustained an Ottoman fortress and at the beginning of the 20th Century a significant independent municipal population.

Yet it is probably most famous for the years 1903 through to 1957 when it served as an isolated 'sanctuary' for those afflicted with leprosy.

Boat trips from Agios Nikolas where we were staying were not yet running to Spinalonga so we took a bus ride through the hills to Elounda, the next port along the coast and immediately opposite the island, and caught one of the first boats of the season to make the journey.

Today Spinalonga is something of a Ghost Town, a rather spooky place with an atmosphere which is slightly disturbing.

Upon landing and paying your entrance fee you walk through a dark archway called 'Dante's Gate' knowing that many hundreds of people walked nervously this way in times gone by as they started a new life in a strange place literally 'cut off' from all they had known before.

In Victoria Hislop's novel Eleni first makes that journey, lasting only a few years on the island.  It's a harrowing read as she discovers she has leprosy and leaves her family in the town of Plaka opposite the island.  Imagine being able to see your house yet be so separated from your family.  In the end her daughter Maria is also 'exiled' to the island - yet she has the joy of living at a time of new medical treatment and eventually leaves Spinalonga to start a new life once again on the mainland.

This small island has so many stories to tell: the tragedy of  hundreds of people living with a disease that at one time meant certain death, the campaigning of 'significant' lepers who ensured that residents received social security, could live independently for as long as possible and have fresh food delivered, the dignity of that community which over the years developed shops, businesses, churches and even a cinema, and the 'happy ending' when multi-drug therapy eventually meant that every resident could return home and the last person to leave the island was a Greek Orthodox Priest in 1962.

Of course I couldn't help remembering those wonderful gospel stories of Jesus encountering lepers in his country and astonishing people by the way he treated them with so much respect and warmth.  In these accounts we encounter the Compassionate Jesus.

I think one of Spinalonga's main stories is the way that people who thought they were going to a life of cruel exclusion actually found a place of supportive community.

Of course it wasn't easy, it wasn't always optimistic, it had so much tragedy at its heart....yet...yet... something of the Easter message could even be found on Spinalonga, found through the triumph of the human spirit which made community out of exclusion.

Yet another example, I believe, of the divine all mixed up and made manifest in the human.

Best wishes,


Friday 29th May 2020

People have been doing remarkable things during these last two months - often via Zoom and other 'platforms' which have enabled grou...