Friday, 30 September 2011

Cathedral Worship

Attendance at Anglican services is generally static or falling slightly, but cathedrals are bucking the trend, recent research shows. Midweek attendance, particularly, has doubled over the past decade. There is an increase in the number of adults and children coming to worship regularly. The research singles out St David's cathedral in Wales where visitors said they found the cathedral 'spiritually uplifting' and gave the 'sense of peace' as a reason for their attendance. So I was interested to read the following passage in Alison Pearson 's novel How Does She Do It? about a harrassed working Mum with two children and a high powered career (recently made into a film featuring Sarah Jessica Parker):

 [p.133] Cathedrals are built to inspire awe. Sacred fortresses, they look as though they have been lowered from heaven onto a hill. St David's is different....I love this place. The ancient chill that fills your lungs when you push open the door - the trapped breath of saints, I always think...St David's is one of the few places that bids me be still. And here in the nave I realise that, these days, stillness is an unaccustomed, even an uncomfortable sensation.. The cathedral is timeless and my life.. my life is nothing but time... I find my mouth forming words no one can hear: 'Help me.' 

The value of stillness may be underestimated by churches. Are services sometimes too irreverent, too noisy, too geared to standards generated by the world of entertainment when what many people long for is space and stillness in which they meet God?
Just a thought - maybe we should make sure that, in every church, there is a regular service for those who are drawn to quietness, simplicity, silence.  

St Mary's, Dunsforth 1861-2011

Last Sunday, St Mary's, serving Upper and Lower Dunsforth, celebrated 150 years. At an evening service of Holy Communion in a packed church, Bishop James preached and a new and very well written history of the church was launched. An altar frontal depicting the countryside around the Dunsforths was dedicated, along with a new wedding kneeler. The altar frontal was designed by Emily Sutton and made by J & M, in Newcastle. It features the white horse at Kilburn, so visible from the village, and also the tree of life found in the book of Genesis and in Revelation, where the leaves are said to be 'for the healing of the nations.'  Michael Wildblood had master-minded the project.

Pictured here with the Bishop of Knaresborough are the Revd Philip Smith, current Vicar, Mr John Moss, Reader, who regularly praches and takes services, the Revd Canon Richard Cooper, Vicar 1990-1999, and the Revd Suzanne Jukes, recently Associate Priest in the parish. St Mary's is a hub of village life, maintianing regular worship and hosting events such as the annual Yuletide supper and many musical performances and concerts. Recently, the church has started CAMEO 'Come and Meet Each Other' evenings at Ure Lodge with prayers, discussions and refreshments. The church wardens are responsible for the life of the church and offer a warm and hospitable welcome.

Contributions to the building of the church in 1861 included public subscritions of £1,334 0s 3d and donations from Queen Victoria (£75.00) and the then Bishop of Ripon (£50.00)! The church is in the Decorated Gothic style so loved by the Victorians and was designed by Mallinson and Healey, based on the design of mediaeval churches from the 1300's. It was built on the site of a Chapel of Ease which appears in Saxton's 1577 map of Yorkshire but which probably dated back to the twelfth century.

A wonderful buffet was served in the churchyard in the setting sun and a memorable evening was had by all! Thank you, Dunsforths!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

From Ripon to Rydal; SSM Conference

Today has been one of those days when you think, 'I wish I'd brought my camera' about 20 times! Leaving Yorkshire in bright sunshine at about 7.30 this morning, I drove over to Rydal Hall in Cumbria.

Skirting Ullsawater at about 9am, I watched gorgeous sun give way to thick, low cloud. By the time I started to climb up into the Kirtstone pass, I could scarcely see a few feet in front of me. Never having been to Rydal before, the journey began to feel like a bit of an adventure, especially after I took a wrong turn and ended up accidentally discovering a short cut through to Ambleside on a single track road above Lake Windermere (well, I assume the lake was below but I couldn't actually see it!) On the way back - lo and behold, glorious sunshine again with just a dusting of cloud on the hills! I wound my way up an aptly named road called The Struggle (20% gradient most of the way) and dropped down the Kirkstone pass, this time enjoying the wonderful vistas, getting into Glendinning just in time for tea and a scone before the cafes shut! And this is work?!

The purpose of the journey was to attend the regional conference for Self Supporting Ministers (clergy who give their time in order to minister in parishes and many other settings.) The main speaker was Revd Dr Teresa Morgan who has recently published the results of a national survey of SSM clergy. As well as telling us about her findings, she also gave a key note lecture about faith as it's understood in Paul's letters in the New Testament. Faith encompasses many things; if you look at the uses of the word in Greek and Latin, you begin to see how the original NT writers and later theologians invested a whole range of meanings in the word - trust, faithfulness, hope, confidence, a binding relationship in a legal sense. Stories where faith is exercised and spoken about show that in the NT the opposite of 'faith' is not generally 'no faith' or 'unbelief', but 'little faith'. Doubt and wavering faith seem to be on the same spectrum as enormous leaps of faith or indeed the faithfulness of Christ Himself to God and to us. Faith can be intellectual and propositional; it can also be emotional and invested in intuitive action. (The woman who touched Jesus' garment is a good example of how propositional belief and intuitive action can both be part of a single demonstration of faith - she thought, 'If I can only touch the hem of His garment, I will be healed' and she instinctively reached out and touched Him.)   

Dr Morgan, who is a fellow in Ancient History at Oriel College Oxford, showed her versatility in both inspiring us as to how we go about our ministry and giving us an analysis of the facts and figures about the shape(s) of Self Supporting Ministry in the Church of England. I'm going to need some more time to digest the implications of some of the things we discussed. However for those of you who are particularly interested in the findings of her research, she suggested some directions for future development. I was moderately cheered to find that we have indeed been trying to work towards some of these things (or are currently doing so) in Ripon and Leeds Diocese.
  • Audit SSM skills and interests in the diocese.
  • Plan and describe posts needed by Deaneries (we're just starting to do that.)
  • Think about distributing SSM posts across the diocese so that we use SSM more in places where there are a good number of SSMs and liberate stipendiary time where there is less ministry. 
  • SSMs running parishes as a team or group (and before anyone says that isn't legally possible - that's exactly what we did in Nottingham in 1994!)
  • SSMs choosing to specialize in managing vacancies.
  • Functional working agreements (lots of discussion about how to achieve these in MSE situations.)
  • CME and MDR offered to all SSMs (we do that already.)
  • Encouragement for SSMs to develop their ministry and move posts from time to time.
  • Senior posts could be open to SSMs.
  • An SSM's ministry may change over time - the focus shifting from parish to workplace to diocesan life and back again.
  • Think about vocations - especially among younger people.
  • Survey employers of MSEs. 
(Sorry - there's a lot of jargon in that!) All food for thought and probably further blogging!  

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Bible in a Digital Age

Codec (n) co'dec:  A device for coverting data from one format to another, esp. from analogue to digital format. In communications engineering, an integrated circuit or chip. The term is an acronym for 'coder/decoder'.

Research Centre in Biblical and Media Literacy
Durham University

What difference does the digital age make to the ways we think and do things in our churches and faith communities? We're living through a revolution that will have as great an effect on society as the printing press did - probably much greater and more far reaching, in fact. Whether we understand the digital world and use socia networking media or not, they are having an impact on our lives all the time. Life is speeding up, information about us is held in ways that we don't know about but which shapes our lives, relationships are formed differently and are less embodied, our real and digital identities may not be the same, so questions of authenticity and truth arise. I could go on... The other end of the spectrum leads to the realm of the really quite mind blowing. What does theology have to say about brains that have been digitally enhanced and can therefore out-think everyone who has only a 'natural' brain? It makes in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering seem a bit tame, really! Then there are the justice and power shaped questions about who is included and excluded from the digital world. And the questions about sacramentality in a disembodied world.  

I spent a fascinating day in Durham, yesterday, hearing all about CODEC, a research project based at St John's College, Durham University. It was established in 2008 to develop a national survey of levels of Biblical literacy. Since then it has gone on to gain a national and international reputation in the whole area of Christian communication in the digtal age. The project is asking
  • How does the 21st century world interact with the world of the Christian faith and vice versa?
  • How do we communicate our faith with its ancient roots in a digital world?
  • How do we allow the insights born of faith, discipline and wisdom in a Biblical sense to help us be properly critical of a digital world in which the impetus to react to everything out there, or as much of it as possible, is very strong?  
CODEC has done work for a number of agencies and individuals such as MPs and peers, the Church of England, the Methodist Church, Premier Christian Media, the Bible Society and SPCK as well as contributing to TV and radio in the UK and abroad. It has worked with the Faith and Globalisation Porject at Durham University and the Tony Blair Foundation to establish Faith online 0.2 We benefit from it locally because of the North Yorkshire Dales Biblical Literacy Project which has a project worker, David Wood, working in Swaledale and Wensleydale to promote understanding of the Bible and to reserach how it has an impact on community life in rural communities. 

The Revd Dr Pete Phillips, Director of CODEC
 at Durham University

You might be interested in looking at the BigBible website which has a mass of material about the Bible - events, stories of social action inspired by the Bible and projects focusing on the Bible, including Tom Wright's The BigRead12 - Lent group resources on Mark's gospel.

CODEC also hosts preaching conferences which concentrate on apologetics in a digital age and the use of imagination in preaching. The conferences make use of research and material by some of the leading Biblical scholars. You can find details of these on the CODEC website

The Revd Kate Bruce,
Research Fellow in Preaching,
CODEC, Durham University
This is a wonderful (and very practical) resource for us in North Yorkshire, especially those of us who preach, teach, blog and use other social media. This is the up and coming area of hermeneutic study - the study of interpretation across languages, social groups, media which is at the heart of incarnational theology.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

British Religion in Numbers Report

YouGov-Cambridge carried out a survey earlier this year which has been published by British Religion in Numbers. The group surveyed were 'representative British adults'. 55% said they were Christian though there was a marked difference between age groups. 38% of the 18-34 year olds said they were Christian while 53% were 'not religious'. Contrast this with the over 55 age group of whom 70% said they were Christian and 26% reported that they were 'not religious'. The survey shows a slow decline in affiliation to all the major religions but, interestingly, the older age group were more nominal, and the younger age group more actively involved in their allegiance to their religion if you go on factors such the percentages reporting that they pray at least once a month.

Read the figures for youself on  
For the BRIN  commentary, see

Charles Simeon

The 24th September is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Simeon who was one of the great preachers of the late 18th and early 19th century. He is part of my inheritance as a Christian. He was Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for 54 years (from 1782-1836) and his influence was still felt there when I was a student in the 1970's. What was so great about him? Well, he inspired generations of students to a living faith in God at a time when gospel preaching was often scorned, even by the clergy and members of the church. His teaching brought many to worship and to a lively faith that led to service overseas, ordination and commitment to some of the great campaigns of the 19th century such as the abolition of slavery and housing reform. Holy Trinity church followed (and still follows) in this proud tradition; in my time there I remember wonderful after-sermon discussions, prayer meetings and fellowship meals that attracted scores of people.  Many of my generation committed their lives to God's service at that time as well as making life long friendships that have sustained us in our faith. 

But the really remarkable thing about Simeon was, I think, the fact that he combined being a truly great preacher of the gospel with a staunch love for the church (not always found in evangelical Christians.) Although critical of the luke-warm and sometimes corrupt nature of the church of his time, he set out to serve the church with devotion and, in the words of John Moorman in his book A History of the Church in England, he 'did much to strengthen the bonds between those influenced by the religious revival and those who looked on it with some misgivings.' It can be difficult to be an evangelical who loves the church (was it Robert Runcie who famously said that evangelicals have no ecclesiology?) but Simeon showed the way. For that and for his humility he has always seemed to me a worthy exemplar.

He was a founder member of the Church Missionary Society and one of the first supporters of the British and Foreign Bible Society and, famously, inspired Henry Martin who translated the whole of the New Testament into Urdu and Persian. His legacy to the Church of England included the formation of the Simeon Trust; he used his own family wealth to acquire the patronage rights of many churches, often in strategic places in cities and towns around the country. The Trust is charged with ensuring that these churches are served by clergy who are faithful in prayer and in living and preaching the gospel. In Simeon's time patronage was often exercised in a manner that allowed men to be appointed to livings in the church who were of doubtful calibre as ministers of the gospel and priests. Simeon's charge to the Trust urges...

First that they be very careful whenever they shall be called upon to fill up a vacancy which  they must invariably do within three months of a vacancy occuring, that they elect no one who is not a truly pious and devoted man, a man of God in deed and truth, who, with his piety combines a solid judgement and a perfectly independent mind....Secondly, that, when they shall be called upon to appoint to a living, they consult nothing but the welfare of the people for whom they are to provide and whose eternal interests have been confided in them. 

A marvellous set of principles, I would argue! The clergyman Simeon is looking for is  someone devoted to God, loyal to the church, independent of mind, willing to care for and serve the community - and the Trustees are to get on with it! None of these long vacancies which, as Bob Jackson's research shows, are not good for the health of parishes! 

For more information about the Simeon Trust       

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Autumn Crocuses Provide Hope of Cancer Cure

Scientists at Bradford University are developing a drug which is capable of destroying the blood vessels that supply malignant tumours. This is a very hopeful pharmocological breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. Clinical trials will be carried out at St James' University Hospital, Leeds, so it can truly be said to be a Yorkshire contribution to progress in oncology. The research team is led by Professor Laurence Patterson, Director of the Bradford Institute for Cancer Therapeutics. The new drug will not have the awful toxicity of many of the drugs used currently to destroy cancer cells; most anti-cancer drugs attack healthy cells as well as malignant ones and therefore have devastating side effects which can often be more unpleasant than the symptoms of the disease itself. The researchers have so far carried out tests in mice on sarcoma and on lung, colon, breast and prostate cancer with very promising results and a marked lack of side effects. It is early days yet and this drug will not be generally available for a number of years. (Some reports are suggesting possibly 18 months, depending on how the trials go; other scientists are less optimistic and are talking of years as the laboratory trials are still at early stages and have only included studies on mice.) However this does seem to be one real breakthrough among others in the treatment of solid tumour cancers and the scientists carrying out the research seem to be optimistic that this is indeed a significant development in the whole range of treatments available for cancers. The drug is based on a substance called colchicine (normally highly poisonous) which is obtained from autumn crocuses.The colchicine is chemically 'capped' so that it can travel around the body without causing harm until it reaches a tumour; it is then 'uncapped' by the action of proteins  present around a tumour called matrix metalloproteases and it and destroys the blood vessels supplying the tumour so that the tumour withers and dies.   A walk through Thorp Perrow Arboretum last weekend provided ample evidence that we are indeed in the season for the autumn crocus, so this seems a particularly appropriate time for this interesting anouncement.

For further information and measured comment see Henry Scowcroft's article    

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Nine Eleven

Everyone has their own memories of that beautiful early autumn day ten years ago with a clear blue sky and a smiling sun and the promise of glorious days ahead before the cold weather. I had a student living and working with me in the parish and we were just putting things away after a toddler service in church when one of our regular congregation rushed in and said, 'Go home and put your television on. Something is happening in America.' She couldn't tell us any more.  We rushed home to put the telly on. I remember seeing a plane crash into a building and thinking, 'Ah, wrong channel, it's a film.' So I hopped to another channel and saw the same image. It was at that point we both realised this was seriously not normal. I remember the next few days as a time of confusion with people desperately trying to find out what had happened to friends in the USA - it seemed everyone, including my student, knew someone who might have been in New York - and a time when people came to church in large numbers to express their shock and outrage and sorrow. The church was packed two nights later as we met for prayer and to light candles and remember those who had died. Somehow Vivaldi's Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera  and Barber's Adagio had already become almost synonymous with the event, much as some of Gorecki's music, such as his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is bound up with the forced migrations across Europe in the 1940's.

People say the world changed. It undoubtedly did for those who were immediately involved and certainly the political scene shifted, but I find myself wondering about how much real change there has been in terms of international relationships and human attitudes. My mother commented that the images from New York gave her the same feeling of total unreality that she had experienced when watching the bombing of London from Greenwich during the second world war. The West had experienced terrorism and terrorist attacks before but what seemed to be new about this was the scale of it and the fact that the USA had been under attack on its own soil and had, for a few brief hours, wondered if it was going to suffer something much worse and much more widespread.

Reflecting on it ten years later, we still feel revulsion at the fact that terrorists chose to squander their own lives in order to destroy, almost at random, thousands of innocent people. As a result of 9/11, we, in Britain, are more aware of the attitude of the rest of the world to the USA and to Western Europe. I remember travelling to Asia before 2001 and feeling anti-American, sometimes anti-British currents which were seldom then reflected in our media but were prevalent and forceful. But has very much changed for the better in the last decade? There does not seem to be a qualitative difference in understanding between cultures and world views.  Many thousands of innocent citizens and service men and women have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; people have been unjustly imprisoned in attempts to save us from the effects of further, more wide-spread terrorism. Power has changed hands; oppression, liberty and anarchy have danced uneasily around one another, jostling for the upper hand in locations far from America and Britain. The influence of religion for both good and evil has perhaps persuaded Western governments to take the insights of religious communities more seriously. The imbalance between rich and poor has not improved - in fact, it has worsened. Despite the many acts of heroism which it has inspired and from which we draw strength and hope, I don't think 9/11 did very much more than show us, again, that human beings can engage in stupefying acts of evil and that it is very difficult, even among people of good intention, to prevent one evil action from leading to another.

It is appropriate, tomorrow, to remember quietly all those who died on 9/11 and who have died because of 9/11 in the years since and their loved ones; to remember the emergency service personnel who gave their lives to try to save others; to pray for those whose lives were changed for ever on that day by personal loss or by the responsibility to take certain actions required of them by their office or role. It is appropriate to pray for the efforts of all who, anywhere in the world, will sit down and listen and talk to those who are different from themselves or whose world view appears to threaten theirs. And  perhaps the most important thing we can do is  to search for reconciliation in our own lives wherever we can. Broken relationships create the potential for evil; a deeper understanding of those who are not like us and who challenge or even offend us holds open at least the possiblity of opposing evil and finding healing and reconciliation.  

Vivaldi's sacred motet challenges us, 'Can there be peace in the world?'

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Comment on Obedience and Freedom

Here is a very insightful post by Maggi Dawn which explains for me something of the tension between obedience and creativity.

Maggi's well known blog has a new focus because she has just moved to New Haven, USA . For those who don't know her, Maggi is an author, priest, theologian and song writer who has been blogging since the early days (prehistoric and therefore a leader in the genre!) She's also a very good bass player! I look forward to hearing about life, church and theology in the USA. She has already written movingly about worship with 'Chapel on the Green' - out of doors worship which includes people from a number of denominations in New Haven, some of whom are homeless or disadvantaged - see her 'After Irene' post.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Lead Theft

Last week, I visited a church where the wardens were at the end of their tether! They had suffered three successive thefts of lead. This is a Grade 1 listed building in a deeply historic setting with a small band of dedicated people who put a huge amount of time and energy into caring for their church building and supporting those who wish to worship and celebrate baptisms and weddings there. Not only have they made many improvements recently, but they are determined to make their church a place of welcome and hospitality for worshippers, visitors and pilgrims. Indeed, as I walked round the church and church yard, there were visitors from Scotland and Australia enjoying the quiet beauty of the place, praying and looking at the various points of historical interest. But there is, quite simply, an end to the amount of money PCCs and villagers can raise to keep replacing lead taken from church roofs - and there is that sinking feeling in the pit of everyone's stomach - not again!  Insurers will no longer cover anything more than a first incident of theft; after that, parishes receive only a nominal sum towards what might turn out to be repeated replacements of lead. The experts and the amenity authorities such as English Heritage are beginning to look more favourably at the use of alternative substances in some places.

It makes us all very angry, frustrated and sad that so much completely unnecessary effort goes into just keeping a watertight roof on the church.

For information about how to prevent lead theft go to

There is a very good check list for churches to use which helps you assess how at risk of theft your church may be. You can download this from the Norwich Diocesan website at

You can also help by signing an e petition asking the government to amend the Scrap Metal Merchants Act 1964 to prohibit cash transactions in the scrap metal industry. Because so much of the trade that goes on in the industry involves cash-in-hand transactions, it is very difficult for the police to identify and trace those who may be involved in selling or purchasing stolen metal. Also, always make enquiries about where lead that is going to be used on your building has come from!

And finally - if you see anyone on the roof of a church, contact the local priest or church warden straight away (telephone number usually on the church notice board) to make sure they should be there. If you can't get hold of anyone and you suspect they should not be there (it is dark or you know that workmen were not expected) note down the number of their vehicle and ring the police immediately. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Localism Bill Ushers in Neighbourhood Plans

Churches ought to be aware of the new Localism Bill which is currently working its way through the House of Lords and will become law before the end of the year. One of the most important features of the bill is the provision made to allow communities to come together to develop a Neighbourhood Plan which will set some parameters for development in their area. The plan will have to meet certain criteria in order to do this. It would be worth all PCCs (parochial church councils - the 'governing body' of each church) finding out whether such a move is afoot in their neightbourhood and making sure that they are part of it. It might be that, in some places, it would be appropriate for the PCC to take the lead in setting up such a process or campaigning to get one going. 

The idea of Neighbourhood Plans is that they ensure that local communities are able to take an active part in developing their own area in the light of the concerns and priorities of residents. The needs and aspirations of the local community will be key drivers - for example planning for new housing, relevant types of housing, 'joined up' transport services, conservation and ecological issues, bridal and cycle ways and footpaths, development of community space and policies regarding the kind of development allowed in the area can all become part of the Plan. Communities who have Neighbourhood Plans will have some access to funding such as the New Homes Bouns and the Community Infrastructure Levy and this will help to finance local activity. To quote the Newsletter of Rural Action Yorkshire, 'Used positively, the neighbourhood planning  process could give you significant leverage to ensure local authority co-operation in your neighbourhood's prefered development priorities. Rural Action Yorkshire is working in co-operation with the Prince's Foundation and other bodies to make sure that rural communities in Yorkshire are able to access the new government-funded support for neighbourhood planning.'

All sounds a bit dry? Or maybe you are sceptical? On the other hand, it could be just the opportunity your community needs to get something done, to reverse a trend or to bring people together to find mutually beneficial ways forward. It's too early to know how the bill will work in practice and whether it will deliver even part of what it claims, but churches should be aware of what is being proposed and should, I would suggest, be contributing in places where communities decide to create Neighbourhood plans.

For more information go to

and click on 'Community-led Planning'.