Vicar's Letter

 

The Vicar's Letter

My dear friends

I have been counting the number of Vicar's Letters I have written in 'Searchlight' since I became Vicar of Shottery on 22nd July 2001 (The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene) and it must be around 170. The first of these would have appeared I think in the September edition of 2001 but since then I have changed computers (they wear out like all things) and I can only go back to 2004. In September's 'Searchlight' of that year I wrote :

 

“ It remains a privilege for all of us to be children of the household of faith at St. Andrew’s and to know God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us his renewing Holy Spirit that we might discover new treasure amongst the old. Let us follow this God into the autumn to build his church and bringing to mind his new commandment – “ love one another, even as I have loved you”. (John 13.34). “

 

New treasure found amongst the old and building God's church and loving relationships have been themes for me over these rather wonderful years amongst you all. I also notice that I quoted the great Gospel of John (and referred to Maundy Thursday) and these things have become more and more precious to me over my time at St. Andrew's.

 

Well, let's look at “new amongst the old.” For a start during my time as vicar I have not thrown out one of the great treasures of the Anglican tradition, the literary and liturgical treasure we know as The Book of Common Prayer (1662).You might think this an unremarkable statement but I recently attended a clergy meeting in Coventry where many of my colleagues expressed surprise (or was it a thinly disguised disapproval ?) that Shottery still begins every Sunday with the words of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and ends them in the same way. One man said huffily “ I have not held Evensong in my parish for 30 years.”  But for 17 years I have kept the faith and run the race set before me with the BCP and a small and committed band of the faithful (about 35 – 40 people) have kept faith with me. I pray that you will have a voice in the appointment process of the next vicar, which is about to begin.

So much for the “old”. By the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit I have seen a fair amount of the “new”. I suppose the most obvious manifest-ation of newness is our re-ordered building. Back in 2004 I found myself needing to call an Extraordinary Parochial Church Meeting (EPCM). There will be few clergy colleagues who have ever done so. The reason for calling such a meeting was this : the PCC had begun the project known as Phase 2 (to  extend and re-order St. Andrew's) but the money was coming in far too  slowly. In the time of Phase 1 (the building of the Parish Centre) the money had come in like a tidal wave. Now it was down to a trickle – was this a sign that the whole thing was a massive mistake and would saddle St. Andrew's with debt for years to come and impede its ministry and mission ? As a fairly new incumbent I felt the full weight of responsibility on my shoulders to get this right. Some people made appointments to come and see me to express their alarm and their opposition to Phase 2. The storm clouds were gathering over my (much younger and less grey) head ! And so the EPCM met. What people did not know was that the day before, at a funeral, I had been given a cheque for £25,000 for Phase 2. This took the tone of the meeting into new territory and a “boiling point” had been reached. The vote was that we should proceed with the plans and the rest is, as they say, history. Today we enjoy a light and sensitively re-ordered building fit for purpose and which is used by countless groups – but it was by no means easy to create it.

Of course, what really matters is not the physical church building but the body of Christ, God's own people. What is their hunger to go deeper into God ? In my time at Shottery I have seen a congregation where just two people turned up for a six session course based on Margaret Silf's book 'Landmarks' to dozens attending courses at Advent and Lent. There have been amazing pilgrimages to cathedrals on a Saturday and to Walsingham and to Lindisfarne. On Good Friday we have seen a steady growth in sitting before the Cross and on Easter Sunday this year a record 47 people came to the Easter Liturgy (joined by some lovely folk from Holy Trinity). Our prayer ministry has been developed amongst the laity and what a cracking Passion Play we enjoyed this year with many dozens taking part and with many in the audience deeply moved to the point of tears. God is certainly doing new things at St. Andrew's !

I referred 14 years ago in my 'Searchlight' Vicar's Letter to the Gospel of John and the great 13th chapter. Here we find Jesus giving his disciples a new commandment – the Novum Mandatum – that they should “love one another as I have loved you.” Let us be honest here, we can love God whom we cannot see but it is a lot harder to love those who join us in the pews (or in Shottery's case, the nicely upholstered chairs ) on a Sunday or weekday. But there are lots of ways to interpret this command. One way is to take seriously the needs of those in our society who do not share the same advantages we have. I am increasingly convinced that social action is an authentic expression of Jesus' command that Christians should “love one another.” This is why I have participated in Stratford Churches Together outreach to the homeless at the weekends, joined by Anne Challis and my wife, Jill a couple of weekends ago. On a Friday, just before 7.00 p.m. we made our way to Pret a Manger to collect the food that the             company would donate free for the following Saturday lunchtime. Some two chilled cabinets were emptied of wraps, salads and sandwiches to go into  the   Vicarage fridge  and then at 11.00 a.m. on  the Saturday we made our way to the  United Reformed Church.    Anne had prepared a  wonderful soup and the diners turned up right on cue and for the next two hours we fed and watered them and shared something of their stories. They took away every sandwich we had brought and we took away a sense of  human solidarity, which is surely one of the things Jesus wants his church to promote. In a sense they had “ministered” to us, such is the extraordinary way of the Holy Spirit : we are never God's debtors but always receivers.

New treasure. A vibrant church. Loving relationships. All these have been much in evidence for me and Jill since 2001 and yet God is now calling us to a new ministry, so we are moving to the Parish of Winnersh (with Bearwood) in Berkshire and in the Diocese of Oxford. We have made enduring friendships in Shottery, learned a great deal about ourselves and how to minister in the Church of England in a largely materialist society, seen our daughters go to university and make successful careers, and actually enjoyed a great deal of our time here. It has been a good measure, pressed down and running over into our lives but now comes the time to follow God into something new and less predictable. We shall miss you all, your kindness and friendship and support and  fellowship in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. May God go with you and may he be our inspiration, wherever we find  ourselves, now and  always.

Yours in Him, 

James.