Sleaford Parish Church
|Posted on December 15, 2020 at 3:50 AM|
A voice cries out in the wilderness…’ I wonder what you think of when you hear the word ‘wilderness’. There are few places in the UK that qualify aswilderness – Ranoch Moor is one of them. ‘Bleak’ and ‘inhospitable’ are words that come to my mind. The ancient Near East may be known as the fertilecrescent but the fertility of the land is in comparison to the desert and harsh Canaanite Highlands that surround the fertile plains. It was on the bleakuplands that you found the shepherds, moving their flocks from one patch of scrubby grass to another. The reality of the good land flowing with milk and honey to which God had led the people of Israel is always viewed against the harshness of the wilderness – the long years of wandering after the exodus from Egypt until the finally arrived in the fertile plains of Canaan. The Old Testament (almost) begins with years in the wilderness, but it (almost) ends with years in exile – both times of harsh testing.
So, the wilderness wasn’t just a physical reality. The wilderness hasmetaphorical significance: anxiety, uncertainty, vulnerability, these are all part of the wilderness experience. For many, this year has been a wildernessexperience – and the prospect for next year isn’t much improved. The hope of the lockdown being eased on December 2nd has been dashed by the reality of ‘Tier 3’. A review date is set for the 16th, but will the move to the (slightly) freer ‘Tier 2’ actually happen? Will the five days of (relative) freedom over Christmas result in a tighter lockdown in January? What will be the impact on local businesses? Schools? Medical services? I am a trustee of a charity that provides relief to those in need and the last few months have seen asignificant rise in applications for assistance – a trend that I can’t see changing any time soon. The restrictions on physical contact and social interaction are taking their toll on mental health and well-being. Anxiety. Uncertainty.Vulnerability. We are all in a wilderness.
But the prophet Isaiah spoke into such situations. He reminds us that God is with us and prepares us for the incarnation, but he goes much further. His message of hope is also a direct challenge to the wilderness. The Canaanite Highlands will become like the fertile plains: that which is bleak and inhospitable will become habitable and pleasant. We may not know what the world will be like the other side of this pandemic but the message of Advent and Christmas is that we will not be in the wilderness for ever – the rough place will become plain.
|Posted on November 18, 2020 at 4:00 AM|
At the time of writing my last piece for the Coronacle I knew that Remembrance Sunday would be different this year. I had not expected that the country would be back in Lockdown. I am not the only one to notice that this lockdown feels very different to the one that began in March. The first lockdown was marked by clapping for the NHS, traffic missing from the roads, birdsong, and other signs of nature in spring bloom. We are now deep in autumn: trees are shedding their leaves and the nights are drawing in. Lincolnshire, which first time round seemed to be largely unaffected by the pandemic, is now on the front line. Our hospitals are struggling to cope. We expect the lockdown to be eased on 2nd December but what that actually means is still uncertain. I am formulating plans for how we might celebrate Christmas, or to be more precise, how we can enable as many people as possible to receive Christmas Communion. Midnight mass, assuming that public worship is permitted, will be very different. There will be restrictions on the numbers we can accommodate, and I do not expect that we will be allowed to sing carols.
The mood of this advent and Christmas will be very different, but perhaps more realistic. We tend to forget that Advent has a parallel in Lent… both are penitential seasons. Although through Advent we often focus on the theme of hope we could equally focus on death & judgement. During Advent we are encouraged to reflect on the dire state of the human condition and the world we inhabit. Climate change activists make many headlines but it took the first lockdown for many to realise to what extant modern human life has suppressed the natural world… we noticed birdsong and wildlife in our gardens to a far greater extent than we have for years. This year has caused many to re-assess their proprieties. But we have also watched politicians, presidents and others try to cling on to power; we have seen the vulnerable suffer and the weak grow weaker. Injustice and inequality abound.
Somethings never change. It took the sacking of Jerusalem and 70 years of exile in Babylon for the children of Abraham to realise how far they had wandered astray from walking in the ways of God. But it was during that exile that the prophetic voice of hope reached its climax. When they were at their lowest ebb (By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept! How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?) they learned again what it meant to trust in God and walk in his ways. When everything seemed like doom they realised that God was still with them and had not forsaken them. But it was in that metaphorical darkness that prophets spoke of the Light of Hope. This is the message we hear throughout Advent and it come to fulfilment at Christmas. We hear it in the Gospel reading for Christmas day – the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Perhaps the pandemic and experiences of this year will get us closer to the true meaning of Christmas.
|Posted on November 11, 2020 at 2:30 AM|
All Saints, All Souls, Remembrance… and onwards to Christ the King and Advent. In recent times this period from All Saints to Advent has been termed the Kingdom Season. The gospel readings are all about the Kingdom of God, but I always notice the emphasis on death. As the nights draw in and autumn gets ever closer to winter we mark All Souls Day – the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. In normal years we invite the families of all those for whom we have taken a funeral service over the past year to our family remembrance service. Obviously, this year, that will not be possible. We will mark All Souls in other ways for it is a time when we collectively remember those whom we have loved, those who inspired us, taught us the faith; those now parted from us and for whom we grieve. The text I have chosen for this month is from St Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessalonica. It talks about grief and hope. Paul does not say that we should not grieve when someone we have loved dies (although I have heard it interpreted that way!). What Paul says is that there is a significant difference between grief without hope and grief with hope. Both types of grief are real and painful, but they are different. However, to understand the difference we must understand what the hope is. For Paul, the hope is specific. It is grounded in the story of the cross and resurrection and Christ’s victory over death. It is because of this, and only because of this, that we can have a sure and certain hope in the resurrection of the dead… and it is this that makes the difference to grief.
A few days later the nation gathers for another act of collective remembrance:
Armistice Day. This year there will be no military parades or mass gatherings, but we will remember. The Great War is now all but beyond living memory; those who fought in the second World War are rapidly diminishing… but we still remember. They have been other conflicts in the intervening years… and we still remember. And the reason it is important to remember is that our hope for the future is based in no small part on our remembrance of the past. We remember not only the great sacrifice counted in lost lives, but in what they fought for. If we forget then we will make the same mistakes again. Power is seductive and there will always be those who seek to rise to power though belligerence and tyranny. There will always be those in power who maintain their position through violence and terror. There will always be those who extend the range of their power through oppression and unjust systems. The collect for Remembrance Sunday paints a different view of the world… a view of the world that is closely aligned with the images of the Kingdom of God which we read in the gospels. We yearn for the day when the whole world will be free from war and terror, when all peoples will be able to know justice and freedom… Every day we pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Your Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’ – this too is our hope. It is not a reality yet. We must remember the horrors of war to strengthen our courage to work and pray for the Kingdom of God to come… or to use the Latin word – Advent. Fr Philip
|Posted on November 11, 2020 at 2:25 AM|
This is the 10th edition of the Coronacle! What was intended as a short term means of communication has become a new ‘normal’. This is normally a busy time in the church’s calendar: Harvest, our Patronal Festival, St Luke, All Saints, All Souls, Remembrance, Christ the King… and before we know it,
Advent and Christmas. All these festivals will be marked but this year will be very different from our ‘normal’. Although Harvest will feature in church the main celebration of harvest will be on our YouTube channel. Most of it was recorded on a farm! Remembrance Sunday will be marked but we are still awaiting guidance from the Royal British legion as to what might be possible. Our All Souls service where we invite all those for whom have taken funerals over the past 12 months will not be possible this year, even though it is
probably more needed this year than ever. What might be possible for the Advent - Christmas season: Christingle?? Carol services??? Midnight mass?
Perhaps a crib service recorded for YouTube in a stable?
So much of what we would normally do seems impossible. The text for this month is from one of the readings from our Patronal Festival. Paul reminds the church in Corinth of the difficulties and hardships he and his companions faced. When we look at the life of St Denys and his companions we find a similar litany of difficulties and hardships. In fact, the entire story of the
early church could be summarised as one of challenges, struggles, and
difficulties. The ‘good news’ that they proclaimed stood in stark contrast to the reality of their everyday lives: imprisonments, beatings, executions… and yet, they continued to proclaim the good news of God’s love made manifest in Jesus. The story of St Denys reminds us that even after Denys was
decapitated he continued to preach until at last, through loss of blood, he fell and died. The Basilica of St Denys in Paris marks the spot of his death… some distance from Montmartre, the site of the execution.
This year we face significant challenges, but we will continue to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. We will be more creative. The way we do things will have to be different and we may feel a sense of loss about some
services we love. However, the message is still the same: God is with us and loves us more then we can tell.
|Posted on November 11, 2020 at 2:25 AM|
Well, that was the Summer holidays! I don’t think the holidays lived up to my expectations but then I’m not sure that I knew what my expectations were. I might have an idea of an ‘ideal holiday’ but fantasy and reality do not often align. And this year was always going to be different!
However, when I wrote at the beginning of the summer I did not imagine that my wife and family would be caught up in the mad rush to get home from France (she had been visiting her parents) within the 36 hours’ limit before quarantine became compulsory. Neither did I imagine that an easyrelaxing day in the Lakes near Buttermere could turn so quickly until I witnessed a major cycle crash with serious life-limiting, if not life-threatening, injuries. Some 2 hours later the casualty was airlifted to hospital while I continued to give a statement to the police regarding how the accident had occurred. If we add to these incidents the generally wet and windy weather – this was not the summer I had expected!
But we move on into September and at the end of this month we celebrate the feast of St Michael and All Angels. The text I have chosen for this month comes from the readings for that feast – Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder from heaven. The passage ends with Jacob’s realisation that God is with him – that God is physically in that place. How easy it can be for us to forget that God is in this place – that God is with us! Times may be difficult, the future uncertain but God has not abandoned us – God is still with us.
I was reminded of this most poignantly on the lakeside fell as I administered first aid to the cycling casualty and awaited help in the form of paramedics. I asked her various question both to ascertain concussion but also, if her condition did deteriorate, I would have more information to pass on to the professionals. I also identified myself by name and that I was a padre in the reserves. She responded to this with joy (well as much joy as you can show when in severe pain and drifting in and out of consciousness) saying that she was a Christian and asked me to pray for her. What a poignant reminder that even in the midst of major trauma and tragedy God is with us.
|Posted on July 22, 2020 at 3:55 AM|
The Summer holidays are here at last! The schools have broken up! apart from the fact that many children have not been to school for months. I took part in an online leavers service for children from the William Alvey School – a very strange way to end their years at that school. None of the secondary school prizegiving’s took place. In fact, so much of what fills up our usual summer diary has either been cancelled or is happening in such an odd way it bears little relation to what we usually do. Summer fayres have been cancelled (ours included), outdoor theatre and concerts likewise – no brass bands will be found on a park bandstand this year. Cricket has started but a Test Match against the West indies without a crowd of spectators is surreal. Summer holidays – it is possible to get away but unless you are camping it will be a very different experience… and if you try to go abroad it’s possible you might not get back quite so easily!
One thing that hasn’t changed much is the idea of holiday reading – various newspapers and periodicals are publishing their reading suggestions for summer as they always do. As I like books, I generally peruse these lists to see what I have already read and to see if I can spot something interesting that I might otherwise have missed. Choosing the books I will take away on holiday is more important than choosing the clothes I will take! One big difference this year is that my holiday reading has started a bit earlier than usual – mid-March to be precise. Throughout lockdown I have been reading even more than I usually do! My book of the moment is William Hague’s biography of William Wilberforce (who is commemorated by the CofE on 30 July along with fellow anti-slavery campaigners Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano). I was inspired to re-read it because of the events around the toppling of Coulston’s statue in Bristol. Two things have struck me reading this book: the length of time it took to change the hearts and minds of people and the parameters that Wilberforce set for the Parliamentary legislation. Rather than abolish slavery, he sought through Parliament to stop the Trans-Atlantic trade (the Middle Passage) in the hope that once this was achieved slavery itself could be tackled. I was struck by his wisdom in this matter.
In our days when there is so much call for change (some of it radical) I am reminded of the need of Rienhold Niebuhr’s prayer from the early 1930s – a prayer that reminds me of Wilbeforce.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
|Posted on July 10, 2020 at 4:40 AM|
It's Church....but not as we knew it.
For many, being locked out of church for three months has been difficult. Communal worship is for many an essential part of their spiritual well-being. We have tried to provide a variety of resources to compensate but it is not the same as gathering around the altar as a community to celebrate the Eucharist together. I have been thinking recently about persecuted Christians, imprisoned for their faith, or the stance they have taken against a corrupt government, cut off from the life of the church and having to rely on hymns and portions of the Bible they could remember by heart for their spiritual sustenance. Driving through the country lanes and looking at the fields coming to harvest I see crops that are not doing as well as they often are due, in part, to the abysmal weather of winter and spring. I thought of the parable of the sower and the fate of seeds landing in different places. I thought about the quality of the roots that they are able to put down. I wonder about our own spiritual roots and what we have been able to tap into that has helped sustain us through these barren months of spiritual wilderness…
But the end is in sight… well, the beginning of the end… possibly. We hope to open the doors for public worship (a communion service on the 12th) but it will be very different from what we are used to. The service will not be too dissimilar from the midweek communion that used to be on Wednesday mornings: it will be short (about 30 minutes), we have to record contact details of everyone who attends the service for the purposes of ‘test and trace’ should someone develop symptoms, we are not allowed to sing, only the bread can be received in communion… and that in silence!, seating is limited and socially distanced, and the service will be recorded on video so that those who, for whatever reason, are unable to come to the service can continue to join us via the YouTube channel. I suspect the new way of doing church, that is necessary at present, will feel very strange and remind us that we are still in the wilderness.
|Posted on June 26, 2020 at 5:00 AM|
About 10 years ago I visited Ghana with a group of teachers as part of a British Council educational exchange. At the end of the trip we were taken to Cape Coast to visit a slave fort. We saw the lodge where the fort commander lived. We saw the dungeon where the male slaves were kept before transportation. We saw the area where the female slaves were held. At first sight this area was a bit better than the men’s dungeon as it had an open courtyard. In the centre of this courtyard was a large stone with a manacle fixed to it. A balcony on the commander’s lodge overlooked the courtyard. The commander would observe the naked female prisoners from his balcony and regularly choose one to take for his pleasure. If she refused, or did not satisfy him, she would be manacled in the centre of the courtyard, flogged, and left to die as a warning to others…
We left this area of the fort and entered the garrison. At the centre of the garrison was a church. The Commander and garrisoned soldiers would regularly attend mass there. And so to the difficult question: I was asked by one of the teachers, ‘How did I, as a priest, make sense of the presence of a church in this fort… where was God in the midst of this inhuman abuse?’
I struggled to answer. I said something about culturally conditioned outward acts of religion (it was what they were expected to do). But I thought that shouldn’t apply to the priest… had he closed his eyes and ears to what went on in the rest of the fort? I said something about the Christian reformers like Wilberforce who fought for the abolition of the Slave Trade. I may have satisfied my questioner, but not myself… I have grappled with that question for years.
My thoughts have returned to Ghana as we have seen statues of slave traders torn down. I have never been one for token gestures (let’s take a knee to show our support… or keen on the ubiquitous apologies companies and organisations make about past errors whenever the news prompts it, not least because we never seem to get much beyond the gesture or apology…
I wonder how many realise just how complicit the Church of England was with the Slave Trade. Codrington College, Barbados, e.g., is an Anglican Theological College. Christopher Codrington owned sugar plantations in the West indies, two of which he left in his will to a missionary society (that society still exists as USPG) for the formation of a college.
The world today is very different from 200 years ago. Racial inequality still exists (although the historic slave trade is not solely the cause). Our history is far from pleasant, but we must face it and wrestle with it. Token gestures and apologies might assuage some sense of historic guilt, but they are no substitute for wrestling with the difficult past. It is only when we learn from our past that we will truly understand what it means to live in the present and to live for tomorrow. I have grappled with my ‘most difficult question’ for ten years. I have read much and still have questions e.g. about the trade in Africa. But it is so easy to say ‘sorry’ for a slave-trading past we do not fully understand whilst simultaneously ignoring the plight of many modern days slaves trafficked to this country to work in the sex industry, to give but one example of many.
|Posted on June 26, 2020 at 5:00 AM|
The Bible verse I have chosen for this edition comes from the principal reading for the Feast of Pentecost. It is one of my favourite Bible verses! You might think that a bit odd but let me explain. To put the verse into context, the disciples have left the safe space of the upper room and gone into the streets telling people about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. If that wasn’t hard enough for the townsfolk to get their heads around the disciples were proclaiming this message in a wide variety of languages – it must have been a babble of noise, a cacophony of sound. Luke (who wrote the Book of Acts) records two very different responses by the people on the streets. The first response is what we might expect: ‘What does this mean?’ Here we perhaps detect awe, wonder – a desire to understand: all the things we might expect. The second response is different: ‘They are filled with new wine.’ This may remind you (as it does me of Beaujolais Nouveau – and the annual festival when the new wine arrives) but it doesn’t really help us to get to grips with what was really implied. A good English colloquial translation might be to say that they have ‘had a skin full’ – in other word s they were drunk. The fact that it was ‘new wine’ implied that it was unmatured hence sweet and easy to drink and drink to excess before you realised how much you had drunk (perhaps not so dissimilar to the Beaujolais Nouveau festival I went to a few years ago!) Just in case his readers hadn’t got the point Luke tells us the people who said this also sneered.
The reason I love these verses is that they say so much about humans – they remind me that we haven’t changed much over the last 2000 years. Over the last few weeks we have seen this dual response time and again: some people stick rigidly to the lockdown guidance whilst others sneer and flout the rules assuming it doesn’t apply to them. Some believe we are all doomed whilst others believe it to be a great conspiracy theory. Some do all that they can to support the NHS (clap on Thursdays, sew scrubs or face masks; others act recklessly putting greater strain on health services (this week mountain rescue teams have been called out to numerous incidents involving climbers or mountain bikers who injured themselves in the hills).
It is so easy to sneer or ridicule. Is it any wonder the disciples hid away in the upper room for fear! Who would listen? Who would take them seriously? But perhaps the reason we sneer or ridicule is that we don’t want to listen, for if we listen we might be challenged about the way we think or live. For many this period of isolation and lockdown has been a time of re-appraisal; a time to reconsider our priorities about what is important, a time to look at the world around us through fresh eyes. As we begin the long, slow journey out of isolation it will be so easy to be cynical about what we can or cannot do. When we do feel like that let us remember those who sneered at the early disciples and take a second look at ourselves.
|Posted on May 18, 2020 at 3:40 AM|
This weekend is rogationtide. It is part of the church’s agricultural year – along with plough Sunday and harvest. One of the ancient rogationtide traditions is to beat the bounds, that is, to walk the boundaries of the parish. This might have been a grand procession with crucifer, acolytes, statues of the Virgin , Mary or the patron saint, robed clergy etc…, or a more modest affair where choirboys got into skirmishes with the lads from a neighbouring parish… Whatever the scale, the purpose was essentially the same: to pray for the parish, encircling the fields that would provide food for the coming winter. The people would ask God’s blessing on their fields and so acknowledge their dependence on God for the coming harvest and, by extension, their well-being.
This year I will probably not be beating the bounds of Sleaford (as I have occasionally done). Even with the slight relaxing of the lockdown and the possibility of unlimited exercise (one friend commented to me that of all the things they might wish to be unlimited, exercise was not one of them!) which means beating the bounds is possible, my thoughts about rogation have gone in a different direction this year. The text for the week is from the Old Testament reading for rogationtide. The people of Israel have been in the wilderness for 40 years but now they are about to enter the promised land. The wilderness experience is a major theme in Israel’s self-understanding. It was in the wilderness that they learned about God and their dependence on God.
For many the last 8 weeks have been a bit like a wilderness: a spiritual wilderness, a social wilderness, an employment wilderness. These past few weeks I have been thinking about what it means for the doors of the church to be locked. I’m not so concerned for the regular congregation but I am concerned for those who often popped into the church to find a quiet place to think and prayer and find peace and sanctuary in the midst of busy (and sometimes confusing) lives. I am thinking of those unable to work – furloughed on 80% of their salary – and the financial insecurity that goes with it. I am thinking of those who are isolated, lonely, unable to get out, unable to see family or friends.
This rogationtide it is more important than ever that we pray for our town and community, and ask God’s blessing on us all, that by his grace and mercy our community may one again flourish and that through this wilderness experience we may have learned more about ourselves, our priorities and our need of God.