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It's Church....but not as we knew it.

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.

Fr Philip


The Most Difficult Question

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.

Fr Philip



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.

Fr Philip


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.

Fr Philip


May Day

Posted on May 18, 2020 at 3:40 AM


from The Rev’d Philip Johnson

May Day is also the feast of St Philip & St James. I have a particular affinity for St Philip, and not just because we share a name. Philip is the disciple who often says what I suspect most of the others are thinking. Jesus has just spoken about his father’s house with many rooms – a text I use regularly at funerals – but the disciples have not really understood what Jesus means. There is almost exasperation in Philip’s voice when he asks to be shown the Father so that he (and the others) might be satisfied.

 I wonder what being satisfied means for us today? This period of lockdown has been hard for many… it has also been a time of questioning and adjustment: what are the most important things for our well-being? Regularly I see people out walking (often hand-in-hand) or on a bike ride with their children – far more often than I ever did before lockdown. Is it happening more often or am I just noticing it because I have more time to look? Last Sunday the air ambulance landed in the field opposite the vicarage. All of the neighbours came out of their houses, not simply to see what was happening but to check on each other – concern that one of us might be in need of this medical service. It is just a small thing, like clapping NHS and essential workers, but these are perhaps symptomatic of deeper changes. The lack of cars on the roads has led to noticeable changes in climate data. This lockdown has forced us to live differently and we will learn something from it – and perhaps that might be a re-estimation or where true worth and value lies.

 St Philip wanted to be satisfied and see the Father and yet failed to see what was right in front of him. He took Jesus for granted, not realising that Jesus was already offering all that he needed. He needed to slow down and reflect on what Jesus said. He had to go through the pain of the crucifixion and resurrection before he realised that in Jesus, the Father was already with them. How easy it is to fail to recognise the value of what we already have!





Easter Message

Posted on May 18, 2020 at 3:35 AM

This has been the oddest Holy Week I have ever known. Someone described it as the ‘Lentiest, Lent they have ever Lented!’ There is far more in that flippant comment than first meets the eye. Lent is not just about giving up things – and we have all been giving up far more than we expected! – it is about re-assessing who we are and how we might change; a lament for our current situation but with the hope before us of knowing more of Christ. The joy of the resurrection on Easter day is the fulfilment of the Lenten hope. But what of this year? Our enforced isolation is set to continue; the church doors, schools, etc remain closed, fear abounds, - fear for health, financial security, well-being…


On that first Easter Day the disciples were locked in a room together, overwhelmed with fear. Their world had fallen apart. Everything that had kept them busy for the last three years was at an end – they really did not know what to do with themselves. Their hope had died on the cross too. And over it all was the shadow of fear. But into this scene Jesus appeared and said, ‘Peace be with you.’


From this revelation of the resurrection hope began to grow. They still faced a difficult future but hope had returned. In recent days I have seen signs of hope in our world: fish returning to the canals of Venice, mountain goats in central Llandudno, wildlife more evident everywhere, the hole in the ozone layer shrinking, a community spirit of helping the most vulnerable, support for NHS workers… the list could go on. These are all signs of hope for our town and our world. This Lent has, perhaps helped us all to re-evaluate what is most important both in the world and in our lives. And that is a good place from which to celebrate the joy of resurrection – God’s gift to us of life in all its fulness.

Fr Philip



Posted on May 18, 2020 at 3:35 AM

CORONACLE – no, we haven’t made a ridiculous spelling mistake! It is a hybrid of Coronavirus and Chronicle and it is our new weekly newsletter to keep lines of communication open during this period when public worship in the church has been suspended. We are in strange and unprecedented times and all of us are learning the essentials of living through it. Things that we have taken for granted are now difficult. Feeling part of a community and having regular contact with others by phone, or some other means, is more important than ever. For those that have access to the internet I am using Twitter to publish a Bible verse for the day. There are also videos of services recorded twice a week. All of these can be accessed through our parish website. Not everyone will be able to access these resources and this weekly digest will attempt to fill that gap. But there is more to being a community than worshipping together. For some the inability to get out to the shops – or find what they need when they do get there – is severely restricting. We do have some volunteers that can help those that need it – with shopping or simply picking up a phone to check that all is okay. Being in lock-down is not pleasant but do remember that after the crucifixion the disciples were in a locked room, but Jesus came and stood amongst them and reveal his resurrection. Even when we cannot get to church God is still with us wherever we are.

 Fr Philip

An Extra Day

Posted on March 6, 2020 at 3:55 AM

If you hadn’t already noticed, this year is a leap year. The past month – February – had an extra day. It happens every four years so you would think we would be used to it by now, but when ever it comes around it causes a bit of a fuss. It is not unusual to find a news story about someone celebrating their 21st birthday on the 29th when in fact they have lived for 84 years!

The problem, that need to be resolved by adding or subtracting days or months) to the calendar every few years, has been recognised for centuries. The ancient Jewish Calendar has twelve lunar months but in every 19 year cycle an additional month is added on seven occasions. It is also possible to delay the start of the year by two days. The reason for these variations is to ensure that the Passover always fall in springtime. The original Gregorian Calendar had 29 days in every February and every fourth year one day would be leaped – missed out.

Even with these additions the mathematics is not perfect and small extra adjustments continue to be made. The crux of the problem is that our lives are governed by both the moon and the sun. The cycle of the moon, from new to full, gives us one measure of the passage of time; the rising and setting of the sun and the solstices, give us another. Tides relate to the moon; season relate to the sun. But these two cycles are not easily reconcilable. Our human construct of the calendar can only every be an approximation – a best fit – of these two cycles. So, every few years we need to make the necessary adjustments.

I think that the leap year should be a moment of humility – a recognition that the greatest human mathematicians cannot construct a calendar that maps the cycle of the sun exactly onto the cycle of the moon. Frequently, the psalmist asks us to consider the sun, the moon, and the stars – the handiwork of our creator. It is a way of helping us to keep a proper perspective on the achievements of humanity and of our place in the created order.

As we approach Passover and Easter the leap year – a year that has been adjusted to ensure Easter fall in Springtime let us consider the sun, moon and the stars and marvel at the beauty and complexity of God’s creation.

Fr Philip


We're all doomed!

Posted on February 7, 2020 at 4:35 AM

Well, January 31st has passed. Officially we are no longer part of the EU. Negotiations will continue for some time regarding what that might mean but the world hasn’t fallen apart yet. In fact, the announcements of doom (economic meltdown) concerning our departure from the EU have been swiftly replaced with announcements of doom about the new variant Corona Virus epidemic. I must admit that I am not too concerned about this new variant Corona virus, perhaps because I was at one time a clinical microbiologist. We have known about Corona viruses for decade – they are one of the causes of the common cold. They mutate regularly – hence why it is nigh on impossible to develop a vaccine for the common cold – and some variants are more lethal than others. Although the death toll from this variant is growing, given time, I believe, we will discover a way to control the virus and limit its lethal effectiveness. This is not the first infection that has caused an epidemic and it won’t be the last. I remember working with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the late 1980s and early 1990s and with patients who were infected with the virus. Many of them died and we found it hard to imagine a day when a diagnosis of being HIV+ could be anything other than a death sentence. Many prophesied that this virus would wipe out the human population. Well, it didn’t wipe out the population and we have thousands of patients who have been able to live a relatively normal life with HIV.

There is something within humanity that finds it very easy to think of the world in apocalyptic terms – we are all doomed – be it deadly infections, economic or political disasters, or climate change. The world has certainly seen some apocalyptic-type events: the holocaust, Hiroshima, the Spanish flu epidemic, the great North Sea flood of 1953… Horrendous as these and many other events have been the planet has not been totally destroyed; the population has not been wiped out… there have always been survivors.

I have been reflecting on these ideas recently and I wonder where God is in any discussion about the state of the world. In Christian theology we speak of a world created by God but marred from its perfection through human greed and disobedience. We speak of a God who has the power to destroy this world but who has chosen not to (read the Noah story). We speak of a God who chose to save humanity and the world for himself (read the Christmas and Easter stories). When I hear people say ‘we’re all doomed’ because of … I wonder where God is in their arguments. The most famous verse in the Bible (John 3:16) begins ‘Go so loved the world that he sent his son…’ Even when this world seems black and that we are all doomed this central tenet of the Christian faith we must hold on to. If the prophets of doom cannot take account of this central tenet of our faith, then their logic must be flawed.

Fr Philip


O Magnum Mysterium - O Great Mystery

Posted on December 20, 2019 at 3:15 AM

O Magnum Mysterium – O Great Mystery

Our season of carol services and concerts at Sleaford Parish Church got underway last week with a concert performed by the RAF College Band. It was a superb concert and for me the highlight of the concert was an arrangement of an ancient Christmas hymn – O Magnum Mysterium. The band played a modern arrangement by an American composer but it retained something of the Gregorian Chant in which the hymn had traditionally been sung. This ancient hymn from the 7th century rarely features in the music we often associate with Christmas but its title is as relevant today as it was the: O great mystery! It takes us to the wonder and joy of Christmas. I see something of this at every infant school nativity play that I watch. I see something of this in the faces of children watching the lights in the town and on the tree turned on for the first time. I see it in the illuminated face of a child cradling a Christingle in their hands. I see it in the acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that bring a moment of joy into someone’s life.

O Magnum Msyterium takes us back to the stable in Bethlehem and invites us to gaze on the baby in the manger with wonder and joy. And as we gaze to also reflect on the great mystery that God loves us so much he gave us his son.

I wish you a blessed and wonderful Christmas

Fr. Philip