Thursday, 23 June 2022

14. St James', Piccadilly, London: 19th June 2022

 It’s a weird sensation to be in central London having an al fresco coffee on a Sunday morning because there is hardly anyone about! 

Well, that was our experience last Sunday as we sat opposite St James’ Church in Piccadilly.

At 11am we made our way into this beautiful Wren church that sits in its own courtyard.  We were joined by around 80 other worshippers.

The music before the service was provided by piano and cello and created a great atmosphere in the building.  During the service the congregational singing was somewhat ‘muted’ as I suspect the two Iona hymns we sang, although they had excellent words, were accompanied by unfamiliar tunes.  The last hymn was Sing Hosanna and that went with a real swing!

During the service the liturgy was often sung by an impressive choir called The Lay Singers, these were conducted by a very able (and happy!) musician and at some points we were led by a wonderful tenor cantor.

From the very first word spoken, by the Rector, The Revd Lucy Winkett, it was clear we were being led by very warm-hearted and positive clergy.  Their use of language, which was both inclusive and contemporary, was exemplary and it was soon clear that certain bits of Iona liturgy had been skilfully woven into the service.  Everything that was said, sung and done at St James’ on Sunday felt life affirming.

The sermon was preached by one of the churches Self Supporting priests, an American academic from one of the London colleges.  His text wasn’t easy as it was the healing of a ‘demon possessed’ man and the subsequent mass stampede of a herd of pigs.  However, this was a good sermon (in my view at least!).  I may not have agreed with every point being made, yet I was both challenged and inspired by the way these issues were dealt with, ranging from what it means to be made in the image of God when we have mental health issues, to the care and good husbandry of animals.  And that, for me, was one of the most important lessons I learnt from Sunday.  The preacher said some really challenging things, even controversial, yet the way he said them, with an obvious gentleness and positivity, made me engage with him, travel with him and willingingly think about the issues.  I’ve always ‘hoped’ that a sermon could both challenge and comfort, and on Sunday I personally experienced that.

The outstanding feature, I felt, of St James’ Piccadilly is that, although it is in the centre of a capital city, enjoying the company of tourists (like us!), it has a ‘real’ sense of community about it.  I suspect that, in no small part, is due to the inspiring ministry of The Revd Lucy Winkett (who was educated here in Amersham at The Girls’ High School!).  Nothing at St James’ is ‘dumbed down’ or in the least bit ‘gimmicky’.  In many ways it is quite a serious church, alongside being one that shows great commitment and practical compassion.  It obviously offers the warmest of welcomes to the LGBT community and twice a week provides 150 hot breakfasts to rough sleepers.

This church has a big challenge in front of it as it seeks to raise no less than £16m to refurbish and update its buildings.

We came out of church very much uplifted by the service on Sunday, sensing we had found a congregation in central London that is seeking to live with integrity, one whose life together is inspired by a God of love and compassion.

Thanks be to God for a church like St James’, Piccadilly and the excellent ministry of The Revd Lucy Winkett.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

13. St John's, Buxton, Derbyshire: May 2022

On the first full day of our half term holiday in Derbyshire we attended Morning Service in the spa town of Buxton, at St John's church, in the centre of the town opposite the Opera House.

St John's is a Regency Church, funded and built by The Duke of Devonshire from nearby Chatsworth House.  It is much used during the annual Buxton music festival, when the BBC Radio Four morning service is often broadcast from the church.

These days a lot of thought is often given to church entrances, sometimes doors have been refurbished in glass to make a porch more appealing and accesible.  This is important in a day and age when actually entering a church, for some people, takes a bit of courage.  So, it was significant that we had to walk around St John's, doing a full circuit of the building before we found the entrance door.

About just over forty of us gathered and in the notices we heard that nine of us had been identified as 'visitors'.  Actually, once inside the building the welcome could not have been warmer.

We were told that this service had been put together by a 'Creative Worship Team' from the church - that meant an alternatiove reading (a poem) had been selected to replace the Old Testament lesson, a lay member of the congregation led the intercessions, the work of a new member of the church, a stained glass window maker, was featured and a new setting of the Sanctus was introduced.  As part of this 'Creative Service' were were ushered into the front four rows of chairs rather than spreading out throughout the large nave, and the service concluded with Cheese and Wine.  These services, planned by a lay team alongside the vicar, are now scheduled to take place every month when there is a fifth Sunday.

So many parts of the service were done well such as: the sermon on the the theme of Ascension, the beautiful singing from a choir of just six members and the real sense of friendly welcome.

It must be something of a challenge for St John's to run this church at the centre of the town with a fairly limited (in terms of size) congregation.  So, ten out of ten to them for trying something 'new' in their service. We left hoping they will remain a beacon of Christlike integrity at the centre of this spa town for many years to come.

Friday, 6 May 2022

12. Great Malvern Priory, Worcestershire: May 2022


On the first of May we worshipped at Great Malvern Priory in Worcestershire.

Between 1999-2007 we lived in Malvern with our boys going to Primary School there.  During this period, I was minister of Malvern Baptist Church.  We had good relations with The Priory but, in truth, it was a busy and fulfilling time at the Baptist Church, so my association with them was somewhat limited.

It sits in the centre of Great Malvern, rather like a mini-cathedral on the lower slopes of the Malvern Hills; and it’s been there, in one form or another (initially as a monastery church), for over a thousand years.

Today it has a congregation of around two hundred.

On Sunday morning we attended the 10.30am service of Holy Communion.

As we took our place (on very comfortable seats) there was a definite pre-service ‘buzz’ about the place.  The atmosphere felt friendly, welcoming, and alive.

The vicar, (a new appointment since my day in the town) spent a few minutes before the service pinpointing visitors, like us, and shaking hands.  I was impressed by his welcome to the man in front of us; ‘Ah, you’re the man from the hotel, why don’t you come and sit here next to Pam and Richard’. This, I thought, is a minister with a warm pastoral heart.

It was impressive to see the entry of such a large (all-age) choir during the opening processional hymn.  Indeed, during the service three new girls were welcomed as full choir members.

The sermon was preached by a Lay Reader in training and was excellent.  The Priory is well off for preachers with both a vicar and curate, alongside no less than four Lay Readers (or as they are called these days LLMs: Licensed Lay Ministers).

Although it has something of the atmosphere of a cathedral the Priory is essentially ‘Low Church Anglican’ in the way it does things.  Lots of voices were heard during the service with laughter and a ‘light touch’ characterising the vicar’s welcoming style. Even at the end, when the curate got the order of service completely mixed up, the only response was supportive and empathetic laughter from the congregation.

We came out of the service to a rousing organ voluntary played by Piers Maxim, the Priory’s Director of Music, a truly gifted musician playing a seriously fine instrument.

Now, to balance all this ‘soft grandeur’ of the morning service we went back at 6.30pm for The Gathering – a more informal and contemporary service.  Every month, on a weekly rotation at 6.30pm, the Priory hold two services of Choral Evensong, Choral Communion and The Gathering.

About 30 of us gathered at The Gathering.  The vicar 9impressively) welcomed us with the words: ‘Lovely to see you, you were here this morning too!’. The chairs in the nave had been re-arranged, so we worshipped ‘CafĂ© style’.  The excellent Praise Group band led us in some contemporary songs, we listened to a reflection and then had a couple of discussions around the tables.

It was great to see this breadth in the Priory’s provision, from traditional hymns to modern worship songs (all be it not in the same service).

We left feeling refreshed and uplifted by these two, highly contrasting, services.  Both were beautifully and thoughtfully put together, and in both God was central.

I’m really pleased to have included Great Malvern Priory in this list of Sabbatical Churches.  At both services we encountered integrity, a warm welcome and an obvious desire that God should be honoured in every aspect of these services.  And, perhaps, above all, I cam away (for the first time on this journey) with the impression that here was a church that valued both traditional and contemporary expressions of worship.

Monday, 4 April 2022

11. St John's, Lewisham, South London: April 2022


We must plan our trips into London better!  This last Sunday our destination was St John’s, Lewisham in South London, on a day when no trains were running from Amersham station.  Undeterred, we drove to Stanmore and picked up the Jubilee Line!  Arriving in time for Morning Service at 10.30am.

St John’s has something of a family connection for Rachel because her 3x Great Grandfather not only helped build it in the mid nineteenth century but also served as its Beadle for forty years!

Today I think it would be fair to call St John’s a ‘Black Majority’ church, set within an Anglican context.

Upon our arrival we were given a warm welcome and that continued throughout our time there with many people introducing themselves.  We were pleased to have a short conversation with The Revd Chris at the door, especially as this was his first Sunday as St John’s new vicar, having only been ‘instituted’ last Thursday.  It was obvious the congregation were delighted to have him in post, and equally obvious how much he valued his appointment – interestingly not calling himself their new priest or minister but ‘pastor’.

St John’s still operates in a loose Anglican framework with a service sheet that had various congregational responses.  Alongside that the words of the worship songs were projected and, on this Sunday at least, accompanied not by an organ but piano.

This sabbatical is good for me in that I’m listening to more sermons than usual!  I noticed on Sunday that whilst I may not have remembered all of Rev Chris’ sermon, I do recall a telling phrase he used that ‘life may sometimes be painful but not pointless’.  I suspect that it’s often the ‘one liners’ that linger most in our minds from a twenty-minute sermon!  (Note to self!!!)

It was fascinating to observe that the congregation started out, at 10.30am, at around 30 people yet kept on growing (actually until about twenty minutes to the end) and finished up at 60!

The service lasted an hour and a half with the second part departing most from an Anglican norm.  In this section time was given over to the intercessions, notices, testimonies, and presentations.  This time simply came alive with lots of spontaneous participation as folk went to the ‘open mic’ to share a story of faith.  I found it immensely moving to hear these narratives, spoken with such warmth and dignity.  St John’s is blessed to have such a sincere congregation.

One contribution in this second half were two girls singing a worship song.  One of them had a deep, rich voice and the other broke off halfway through into a few minutes of ‘rapping’!!  Wonderful!

We left feeling we had been part of something truly ‘beautiful’ and honouring to Christ.  There is a beating heart at the centre of St John’s and I’m sure that the Revd Chris and his new congregation will form a good and fruitful partnership.

A few years ago one of the former Principals of my old theology college, Spurgeon’s, wrote a book about church leadership and addressed the issue of what we should call our inter church leaders.  Should they be bishops, moderators or regional ministers?  He concluded that it hardly mattered.  All of the structures were fine as far as they went, but they are only a framework.  What really mattered, what counted more than anything else, was the type of person who filled those structures.

I felt something similar as I left St John’s on Sunday and walked out into the spring sunshine of South London.  The Anglican structure of this church felt loose and comfortable.  Structure is obviously important for so many reasons.  Yet, more important are the people who fill the structure.  And at St John’s Rachel and I encountered such committed and sincere people filling the structures of their local church. 

It was a joy and a great privilege to be among them.

Monday, 14 March 2022

10. Oxford: Magdalen College Choral Evensong and St Aldate's 10am Service: March 2022


Last weekend we visited Oxford on two sunny spring days.  Saturday was the last day of Hilary Term, students returning on 24th April for Trinity, so, perhaps, there was something of a ‘demob’ happy atmosphere in the streets!

On Saturday evening, at 6.00pm, we attended Choral Evensong at Magdalen College.  The chapel, both inner and anti-chapel, was packed and we were fortunate to sit alongside the choir in this utterly beautiful, candlelit setting.  Throughout the fifty or so minutes we were able to follow the service in a clearly presented booklet that contained both the ancient words and rubric instructions telling us when to sit or stand.

Of course the language was quite specifically ancient, almost five hundred years old.  This liturgy was put together during Cranmer’s time, an Archbishop of Canterbury who wanted the nation to pray in English and hear the bible read extensively in ordinary services.  What may sound archaic to us today was revolutionary in the 1540’s!  What is still so wonderfully apparent is the sheer amount of scripture in Evensong, with both the singing of a psalm and readings from both Old and New Testaments.

On Saturday we heard the choirs of Magdalen College and the Consort of Voices, that is a collection of girls from other colleges. This meant there were no less than 36 in the combined choir and what a clear and strong lead they gave.  Youthful voices have a very specific and inspirational beauty about them.

Maybe the packed nature of the service had something to do with it being the final occasion of term, along with the last outing of the old organ, due to be replaced by a brand-new instrument over the next few weeks and months.  Yet, it was clear that for many worshippers that evening this was a deeply moving service into which they entered with immense sincerity.

It was odd to learn that no services will be held in the chapel until Maundy Thursday.

Maybe for me the most uplifting moment came in the final hymn we sang together: Abide with me. As a packed chapel combined with a large choir the music simply soared, especially in the final verse with a stunning descant.  I felt my voice break with a certain unforced emotion, glad to share such a truly beautiful moment in a glorious setting surrounded by so many young people.

On Sunday morning we attended one of four services being held that day at St Aldates, opposite Christ Church College.  This is a flagship Evangelical Anglican church.  Today in England 40% of Anglican worshipers would describe themselves as ‘evangelical’ along with 70% of current ordinands.

We could not have wished for a warmer and more sincere welcome from everyone.  I suppose we knew exactly what to expect because St Aldate’s website is so informative and its weekly webcasting so professional.

After a brief welcome by the young rector, before we went ‘live’, we stood for some twenty-five minutes of worship led by the band.  These six singers and musicians filled the chancel area and were heavily amplified.  I knew just one of the songs and enjoyed their musical leadership of it.  It was interesting to observe that probably half the congregation joined in enthusiastically, some using all the body, whilst about half simply stood without singing.  In truth the amplification was such that the contribution of the congregation hardly registered any extra decibels anyway.  I was left pondering what is to me a new phenomenon, that some (and these were younger people) are happy to be led in song rather than sing themselves.

It was lovely to see so many children present.  We were told by our neighbours that students usually attended the evening services, so the 10am was very much for young families.  The children and early teenagers left after about ten minutes and there must have been way over 100 of them going to their own dedicated time.  How wonderful to see such a ministry flourish in a city centre.

Indeed the service was, basically, attended by ‘first half of life’ adults.  Anyone over fifty was in the minority – and that, surely is the inverse of what we find in most churches.

There was, at various points in the service, quite an emphasis on giving, especially as the previous week was the church’s Gift Day.  With 38 full time members of staff and a budget of £1.6m this is a church that needs a very committed congregation.

The sermon, on the theme of praying in a time of war, was beautifully and thoughtfully delivered by St Aldate’s Pastor for Theology.  It was brilliantly crafted, and although it rather left the question (perhaps understandably) unanswered as to what happens if prayer doesn’t stop a war, it was clear that in those 25 minutes many helpful and insightful truths were shared with a congregation eager to listen and learn.

There was around 400 of us at the 10am service and there were three other services that day.  Later, on Sunday, I glanced at the webcast and saw that over 700 had tuned in.  St Aldate’s ministry is clearly a great blessing to thousands of people, many of whom are young and at the start of their faith journey.  It is a church with a real sense of love for Jesus Christ at its centre and a deep desire to serve the city of Oxford. 

So, what do I conclude from our forty-eight hours amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford?  Well, in a sense Magdalen had the aura of Canterbury about it, whilst St Aldate’s was probably more Glastonbury.  The amazing thing is that both churches, so diverse from the other, belong to the same denomination: The Church of England.  And therein probably lies a great strength, that such diversity can be accommodated and used so positively to reach out to different types of people.  Yet, at the heart of both expressions this weekend I felt a deep sincerity, based in a desire to honour God, that I found inspirational.  I also discovered that 20-year-olds (all be it not the same ones) can and do enjoy both Cranmer and Stuart Townend!

Thursday, 3 March 2022

9. Greyfriars Church of Scotland, Edinburgh: February 2022


During our February half-term break in Edinburgh I attended the 11am Sunday service at Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town; a church made famous by its association with Greyfriars Bobby, the tale of the dog who refused to leave his master’s grave in the kirkyard.

Scotland, at least on February 20th, still had the Track and Trace policy regularly in force, so I duly gave my details to the very welcoming young man at the church’s reception.

Greyfriars was the first church to be built in Edinburgh after the Reformation.  Therefore, unlike St Giles Cathedral just a stone’s throw away, it has never had a previous life as a Roman Catholic church.  Today it is beautifully maintained and has, in recent years, been ‘re-ordered’ with the installation of a circular Communion Table, behind which the grey robed choir sit, and to the other side the congregation is seated.

Nothing much happened before 11am, but as the hour chimed so the bible was brought in and placed in the pulpit, followed by the entrance of the minister as the organist played the opening voluntary on the splendid new instrument installed in the gallery.

Being a Church of Scotland service, we began with a Welcome and Call to Worship.  In truth, I was entirely at home as the liturgy was basically the same we use at AFC.  It reminded me of just how much Amersham Free Church reflects the worship traditions of The Church of Scotland.

Greyfriars has a very well maintained and informative website, so I had ‘seen’ the service many times before.  I’ve also had the delight of listening to its minister, The Revd Dr Richard Frazer on both the Sunday and Daily Services on BBC Radio 4.

The welcome I received was very friendly and the hymns were carefully chosen (although I was surprised by the lack of volume coming from the congregation, who seemed to rely heavily on the choir leading the worship).

For me, I confess, the most inspirational part came in the sermon.  The minister’s style was gentle yet authoritative, he took his theme from scripture and worked hard at applying it to life.  He preached a brave sermon, full of integrity, warmth, balance, and insight.  Richard Frazer is a gifted preacher, and it was a real privilege to hear him.

Greyfriars was far from full that morning.  Indeed, I attended this service having just come from an earlier one at St Gile’s Cathedral that was equally empty.  Maybe Edinburgh just has far too many churches for the dwindling numbers attending.

On Sunday morning, at Greyfriars, I attended a service where every word, in both liturgy and sermon, had been thought through with such meticulous attention and care.  The city is blessed to have such a fine church and such an inspirational minister.  Indeed, if it were my city and home, I would be in my seat every Sunday at Greyfriars at 11am, thankful to God for such a community of faith.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

8. Farm Street Roman Catholic Church, Mayfair, London: January 2022


Over the Christmas/New Year holiday we called into Farm Street Church (we were just passing) and felt we had discovered a much-loved building.  One thing that struck us straight away was the huge painting by the church’s artist in residence, Andrew White.  It’s a modern depiction of the Last Supper and it had me transfixed; I love it.

So, we decided it would be good to join the congregation on one of my Sabbatical Sundays and so we visited them for their 11 o’clock service (one of six they hold every Sunday) on 9th January 2022, a sparkling, blue sky mid-winter day in London.

We’d already discovered a very helpful website and so we appreciated that this would be a service held in Latin with the professional choir in attendance, as opposed to the 9.30am service which was a Family Mass in English, and the 5.30pm service with ‘informal’ music.

Farm Street (incredible to think this area of Mayfair was once Hay Hill Farm!) is a Roman Catholic Church and was established in the mid 1800’s by the Jesuits, around the time when the Roman Catholic hierarchy was restored to England after years of discrimination, even persecution.  It makes a bold statement even today with its very powerful neo-gothic architecture.  I found it a very welcoming space, one that ‘envelopes’.  On this occasion it was still rather beautifully decorated for Christmas.

I confess that at 10.55am it did all seem a little last minute!  People were arranging service books and communion vessels in the chancel, the choir only just managed to get to the gallery by 11 am and only about twenty people seemed to be present.  However, by 11am, although not a minute sooner, everything was in order and the congregation had at least tripled!  From that point on this was an utterly seamless and well-ordered service.

I appreciated the service book which doubled as a hymn book (with 80 hymns at the back) because alongside the Latin text, clearly loved and appreciated by the congregation, there was an English translation.

We sang just one hymn during the entrance procession and to be honest not many people did!  Obviously in Free Church worship hymns are foundational to worship, on Sunday it was clear that the liturgical responses, mainly sung by the choir, took their place in this service.  And the choir, ten of them, were great!  The music (organ and voice) was so uplifting.

We had a super American reader who led the lessons and intercessions from the pulpit.  She did so with warmth and great poise.  The intercessions were relatively short and consisted of Bidding Prayers.

The priest, one of seven connected with the church and living in the Jesuit community next door, gave a really helpful and warm-hearted homily of six minutes on the theme of Christ’s baptism and related it to all those seminal moments that come our way when God is close, and we discover something of our place and mission in the world.  Here was a pastor gently encouraging his flock and doing so with such gentle sensitivity.

The service proceeded without announcements, everyone seemed to know exactly what to do at the right time.  After the prayer of consecration, I looked up and realised only Rachel and I were not kneeling!  The sense of deep sincerity was palpable.

Although predominately ‘retired’, there was a mix of ages with a number of children present.  I looked at one little boy, so excited to be going up for communion and cupping his hands in anticipation with a big smile on his face.

One of the interesting ministries at Farm Street is called ‘Landings’.  A programme designed to help Roman Catholics ‘return’ to church if they have been away for some time.  These meetings are run both by and for ‘returning’ Catholics.

Another significant ministry, set up with the blessing of Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is that Farm Street actively reaches out and welcomes members of the gay catholic community.  They are encouraged twice a month at the 5.30pm Mass to ‘contribute’.  Surely this is to be commended.

Personally I have attended very few Roman Catholic services, and I’m in no position to make any specific critique of the Church’s traditions.  However, on Sunday at Farm Street I came away with one overriding impression.  SINCERITY!  I think we encountered a community that so desired for Jesus to be at the centre; indeed, at one point the priest said: Your personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important thing in the world. 

The folks on Sunday may have been expressing that relationship in a tradition with which I am unfamiliar, but I came away in no doubt that the love of God in Jesus had been very evident among us as we gathered.  We both felt it and walked off to lunch pleased to have shared in worship with such a sincere congregation in the centre of Mayfair.

I felt I learnt a lot about my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters on Sunday and I was very glad to be in their company.

14. St James', Piccadilly, London: 19th June 2022

 It’s a weird sensation to be in central London having an al fresco coffee on a Sunday morning because there is hardly anyone about!  Well...