Vicar’s Blog

Commitment and Respect

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I’ve always been interested in words – and when I talk with couples who are preparing for marriage we usually have a discussion about the word ‘commitment’. In modern day life, people much prefer to opt in or out of things according to how they feel on any particular day. Long term pledges are often seen as restrictive and less morally binding than was once the case. Commitment may continue to have the same dictionary definition – but, in almost every sphere of life, it doesn’t seem to carry the weight that it once did.

Just recently, following the tragic tower block fire in Kensington, I listened, until I could stand it no longer, to a disgraceful television interview with the Environment Secretary on early morning television during which the interviewer rudely harangued and pilloried the Minister and constantly refused to allow him to respond to the invitation he had been given to appear on the programme. It was at that point that I realised there was yet another word in our language which seems to be daily losing the definition it once had. That word is ‘respect’.

Of course, the interviewer, like all other right-thinking folk was angry, appalled and upset at the tragedy which had occurred – but his rudeness and seeming inability to allow any reasoned response or level-headed discussion demonstrated a complete lack of respect for a fellow human being.

And, of course, the shocking terrorist activities which have taken place recently in London and Manchester are an extreme example of a complete lack of respect for the sanctity of human life.

Whatever faith is followed, a basic tenet of existence has to be one of respect for the world, its environment and its people. The ‘commitment’ to which terrorists and suicide bombers pledge themselves is tragic and the lack of ‘respect’ which such people have for peaceful co-existence both devalue words which once had great influence on the life of our society.

Jesus said that he had come so that we might have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10). Perhaps a re-examination of what we understand by ‘commitment’ and ‘respect’ might help us to find that abundance once again.

In the meantime, people of faith and goodwill everywhere must surely commit themselves afresh to do whatever they can, no matter how seemingly insignificant, to respect all life in order to experience the abundance which can be freely ours.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Election Thoughts

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

As Jane and I returned from the polling station to elect our County Council representatives, the postman was delivering our polling cards for the General Election which is to be held on 8th June. These were followed by some further post – a ‘Pastoral Letter’ from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with some ‘guiding principles’ as we approach this somewhat unexpected opportunity to vote once again for a new government.

Should you wish to read the full contents of the letter, it is available on both the Church of England and the Diocese of Newcastle websites. For those who don’t ‘do’ technology, there is a copy on display at the back of St. Michael’s and I would commend it to you.

In a nutshell, the archbishops remind us that we should set aside all apathy and cynicism and ensure that the Christian virtues of love, trust and hope guide and judge our actions and the actions of those who are elected. They then go on to suggest that cohesion, courage and stability are required from those elected if we are to face successfully all the challenges that lie ahead.

Irrespective of your party allegiances – or who, ultimately, our elected representatives are, the guidance given by the archbishops is very worthy of consideration as election day draws near. And, of course, it goes without saying that we should set the whole activity within the context of prayer for all who are putting themselves forward as candidates and for those who will take on the huge responsibility of being MPs.

All of this set my brain into action on the whole subject of being public representatives and decision makers – and it didn’t take me long to think that all of us who call ourselves Christians (and, particularly, those who form part of a worshipping community) are all, whether we realise it or not, public representatives of Christ – and that each of our actions is being closely monitored.

Never doubt that, as card-carrying Christians, we are being watched from those on the outside: often purely out of interest to see how we conduct our day to day lives – but also, on occasion, to see if we trip ourselves up or do not quite model the lifestyle of some pre-conceived notion of what is acceptable.

So, as we go about our daily living, I ask myself, and each of you:

Have we set aside apathy and cynicism?

Are we ensuring that love, trust and hope are central to our lives and all that we do?

Are cohesion, courage and stability our ‘watchwords’ as we approach the challenges (both small and great) of our times?

Above all else, is calling upon God in prayer – and listening carefully for his guidance – a natural and regular part of who we are?

It has been said that countries end up with the government they deserve. Perhaps all of us would benefit from answering the four questions posed above before we place our X on our voting papers on 8th June.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Looking Down on Creation

                                                                                    St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

What a splendid Holy Week and Easter we had at St. Michael’s.  My thanks go to all who contributed in any way – and it was good to have such positive feedback from visitors and locals alike.

But – it is all very exhausting and so Jane and I enjoyed a little relaxation in the days which followed.  We travelled down to London and fulfilled a long-held ambition by going to see ‘The Lion King’ at the Lyceum Theatre.  Tickets had been booked months in advance and the performance was all that the reviews promised it would be.

Something much more ‘last minute’ was a trip to the top of The Shard – London’s tallest building with the top viewing platform being over 800 feet high.  We treated ourselves to a glass of champagne and spent over an hour simply marvelling at the impressive views in every direction on a clear, bright morning.

I was reminded of the famous song of the Carpenters ‘I’m on top of the world looking down on creation …’

Looking down on thousands of visitors and business people milling around as well as ordinary folk going about their daily routines also reminded me of the way in which God looks down on each of us, knows each of us by name and loves us with an everlasting love.

As God continues to look down on the whole of creation his view is far more complete that that which we had from the top of The Shard; his view takes in every aspect of humanity and he places himself alongside each of his beloved children no matter what circumstance they find themselves in.

The great message of Easter is that God’s love is expressed most fully in the sign of the empty cross.  Having died for our sins on the cross of shame, that same wood becomes the cross of glory through the power of the resurrection.

As we continue to celebrate the triumph of Christ’s resurrection in the fifty days that lead us to Pentecost perhaps, each day, we could, metaphorically, imagine ourselves looking down on God’s creation and praying for its well-being – giving thanks for all that is good and praying for improvements where things have fallen short of God’s purposes.

The month of May includes Christian Aid week when the sad plight of much of humanity is brought more clearly into focus.  Giving ourselves a mental glimpse of all that our loving God looks down on will, I hope, stir us to generosity that might help, in some small way, to improve God’s view.

Remember, at the completion of creation, God looked down and the view was very good ….

With every blessing,

Paul. 

Despair, Hope, and Peace

 

Dear People of Alnwick,

This letter will come to you just as Holy Week and Easter approaches.

In the few short days between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, we experience just about every possible human emotion. From the ‘Hosannas’ of Palm Sunday, through the poignancy of commemorating the Last Supper and the footwashing on Maundy Thursday and the heart-wrenching desolation of the events of Good Friday, right through the rejoicing of Easter itself with the victory of Christ’s rising again and the assurance of new life which that brings. A ‘rollercoaster’ ride if ever there was one!

Each year, as Holy Week comes along, we try to put ourselves in the place of those early disciples who experienced all these events as they happened. But, try as we might, we cannot be truly authentic in our experiences since we travel though those days in the knowledge that Easter Day, and all the attendant rejoicing, will come at the end of the week.

How much it have been for those men and women who had no idea of the final victory, but only the sorrow of watching their leader, their inspiration and their anchor in life maltreated, persecuted and humiliated before being cruelly put to death?

It is, of course, a question which none of us can answer. We know, from the Gospels, that Jesus tried to get the message across to his followers that there was hope and victory beyond what they would experience but, like so many of us today, they simply didn’t hear. Truly, they were without hope.

I am writing this just a few days after the terrible events in Westminster which led to death and to a very serious injury for innocent people going about their work and their daily lives. The actions of (seemingly) one man have had a devastating effect not only on those who have lost loved ones and the families of the injured, but on countless others who are horrified and sickened by such an atrocity.

Jesus’ post-resurrection message was one of peace. “Peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” Isn’t this really what, deep down, all of us want?

Perhaps the answer, for some, is “Yes – but on my terms.”

That simply won’t do. Human life is sacred and priceless.

Some of you may have read Archbishop Justin Welby’s words in the House of Lords. I’d like to share them with you.

“I want, in terms of values, to refer to something that seems to me to go deeper, to something that is really at the foundation of our own understanding of what our society is about, and to do that in three very simple, very brief pictures.

“The first is of a vehicle being driven across Westminster Bridge by someone who had a perverted, nihilistic, despairing view of objectives of what life is about, of what society is about, that could only be fulfilled by death and destruction.

“The second is of that same person a few minutes later, on a stretcher or on the ground, being treated by the very people he had sought to kill.

“The third is of these two Houses, where profound disagreement, bitter disagreement, angry disagreement is dealt with not with violence, not with despair, not with cruelty, but with discussion, with reason and with calmness.

“My Lords, it seems to me that those three pictures point us to deep values within our own society – deeper even than ones that have been mentioned, quite rightly, in the Prime Minister’s statement and in other statements – which is the sense that comes from (and you would expect this from these benches) a narrative that is within our society for almost 2000 years.

“That speaks of – at this time of year as we look forward to Holy Week and Easter – of a God who stands with the suffering, and brings justice, and whose resurrection has given to believer and unbeliever the sense that what we do is right; where we behave properly; where that generosity and extraordinary sense of duty that leads people to treat a terrorist is shown; where that bravery of someone like PC Keith Palmer is demonstrated, that there is a victory for what is right and good; over what is evil, despairing and bad.

“That was shown yesterday. That is shown not just in our expression of values, but in our practices which define those values. And that is the mood that we must show in the future.”

May these powerful words help us, in our dismay, to work and pray for the true peace which Jesus, even in his trials, but especially in his victory, sought to bring.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Bishops’ Report on Marriage & Same Sex Relationships

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I write this letter just days after the decision by the General Synod of the Church of England not to ‘take note’ of the Bishops’ report ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships’.

Elsewhere in this edition of ‘Gateway’ you will find the text of a letter issued, jointly, by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York almost immediately after the decision was taken. It gives information about the proposed way forward in this long journey of discovery. Please do read it and recognise the enormity of the task of trying to seek consensus.

(Note: this letter originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of our parish magazine, ‘Gateway’, along with the text of the Archbishops’ letter. To read this online, please visit the Diocesan website, where it appears along with an introduction by Bishop Christine)

Doubtless every shade of opinion on this subject will be represented in a town with as wide and diverse a population as Alnwick and, in this short letter, it would be impossible to capture every nuance of the arguments for and against and so I don’t intend to try.

Rather, I would urge all of us to do two things: one quite specific and the other, as Lent begins, rather more general.

Firstly, let us not sweep this issue to one side but, instead, let us pray – regularly and earnestly – for all who are involved in the decision-making process: the bishops and the lay and ordained members of the General Synod as well as those whose lives are, or could be, dramatically affected by the final outcome. (We should, of course, also hold our own Bishop Christine particularly in our prayers as she leads the newly-established Pastoral Oversight group referred to by the Archbishops in their letter.)

Secondly, I want to draw your attention to the sentence which the Archbishops see as the basis of a way forward: ‘The way forward needs to be about love, joy, and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’

As we begin the season of Lent and, I hope, engage in many of the particular things which will be happening at St Michael’s, let all of what we do and think and say recognise that way forward – not only for a process of legislation on the issue of human relationships but for the whole of our life in Christ.

If Lent is about growing in faith, in making progress in our own spiritual lives and in broadening our understanding of who we are in Christ, then let us take those words from our Archbishops as a ‘way forward’ both individually and as a Christian community here in Alnwick.

At the risk of being predictable, I want to share with you once again words that many of you know to be at the heart of my own understanding of the God who loves us – all of us, without exception, without exclusion – so much that he sent his Son to be among us, to die for us and to rise again so that we might have life in all its fullness:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own
and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he would not own.

With every blessing,

Paul

No Doom or Gloom!

St Michael’s Vicarage,
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Christmas may now seem a distant memory – but I want to share with you some good news.

In less than twenty-four hours between our Christingle service, Midnight Mass and the 8.00am and 9.30am Communion services on Christmas Day, almost 600 people crossed the threshold of St. Michael’s and thus ensured that Christ was part of their Christmas celebrations. Add to this our parish Carol Service and St. Michael’s School Carols and well over 1,000 people joined in recognising the life-changing significance of the child who ‘came down to earth from heaven’.

Looking back over records from previous years shows that Christmas 2016 saw more worshippers in St. Michael’s than for well over a decade.

I share this information with you, not because I want us to feel smug or self-satisfied but, rather, to counter-balance the notion which the media seems determined to convey – that all is doom and gloom in the church and that we now have little or no relevance in today’s secular society.

There is, I would argue, great cause for celebration and so I ask you all to give thanks to God that the people of this town still recognise a need for Christ in their lives. And, as we pilgrimage through 2017, this ‘boost’ should also give those of us who worship week by week confidence in all the things that we do at St. Michael’s to further the Kingdom in terms of worship, study, fellowship and outreach.

Lest you should be one of those people who are inclined to be taken in by the negativity of the press and the television, let me remind you that, on a ‘normal’ Sunday, around 160 people are to be found at worship in St. Michael’s; a recent Advent Study Group found 25 folks happy to give up their Monday mornings and eager to learn more about the scriptures; the course which Julia is currently leading on Bishop John Pritchard’s book ‘Something More’ is giving opportunity to consider the relevance of our faith in the simple day to day business of getting on with our lives; Mini Michaels continues to flourish beyond our wildest expectations and St. Michael’s Messy Church is now well-established and providing a real sense of fellowship for parents with young children.

Let me remind you also that we continue to have, as a priority, the welfare of those who need our prayerful and financial support and who work at the ‘sharp end’ of society not only locally but nationally and internationally. And so we continue to help where we see great need – most recently with our raising of awareness of what happens and our fundraising for the Gallery Youth Project and Alnwick Community Centre near home and, further afield, with our special and long-term relationship with the people of Spitak in Armenia.

I could go on – but won’t! The above is just a ‘flavour’ of the good things – of God’s work – which, as a praying and worshipping community, we are able to do through the power of the Holy Spirit who is daily at work in our midst.

So, my plea is that you will not succumb to doom and gloom but that you will take heart from everything that God enables us to do in his strength, in his name and to his glory.

With every blessing,

Paul

Make Room

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

By the time you read this letter our “Posada” project will have begun again for another year. The figures of Mary and Joseph will have started out on their journey around the homes of our parish, accepting the gracious hospitality of those who will give them shelter for a night and, in so doing, prepare not only their homes but also their hearts for the coming of God’s only Son at Christmas.

There is something so simple, and yet so profound, about this business of “making room” which “Posada” helps us to understand.

In my student days in Sheffield the Organist and his wife at the church I attended kept “open house” for many young folk who, like me, were away from home for the first time. On a Sunday evening, after Evensong, a whole crowd of us would be invited back to their home for supper together with their own large family and their respective spouses or girlfriends/boyfriends. No matter how many turned up – and often it was quite a crowd – the greeting was always the same: “Come in, we can always make room for one or two more!”

Our lives can often become “crowded out” with the many and varied pursuits of 21st century living. At times, even the things we do for pleasure can begin to overwhelm us and we wonder if we can possibly fit anything more into the day or the week that lies ahead.

Sometimes we simply can’t and then the quality of our life begins to deteriorate. That, of course, is the signal for us to take stock, to sort out our priorities and to make some difficult decisions about what is and is not important in our lives.

God the Father saw that the lives of humanity were completely “crowded out” with sin and realised that he needed to send his Son to earth to save us from our own destruction.

Down the years succeeding generations of Christians have been brought to a realisation that making room for Jesus in their lives is the most life-enhancing decision they ever make.

So, as Mary and Joseph make their way around the parish during Advent we need to give some time to thinking about how much room we have in our own lives for the things that really matter. As the busyness of the coming weeks invades every corner of our lives we could all do much worse than pray in the words of that lovely hymn:

“O come to my heart, Lord Jesus
There is room in my heart for thee.”

If we do, how much more meaningful will be the words of Phillips Brookes that will be sung in thousands of places of worship this Christmastide:

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel”.

With every blessing for a Christmas with room for Christ,

Paul.

A Lesson in Thankfulness

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Last Thursday afternoon I spent a wonderful time at St Michael’s Primary School.

I’m very used to being there on a regular basis – particularly to lead school worship – but, on this occasion, Mr Johnston had specifically asked if I could come to worship not to lead, but to listen. Naturally, I was intrigued.

When I arrived I was asked to sit in a very comfortable armchair at the front as the whole school assembled in their usual orderly and well-behaved manner. It was then that Mr Johnston informed me it was “Thank you, Vicar” week and that the whole school wanted to celebrate the splendid relationship that exists with St Michael’s Church.

The children seemed to know a huge amount about what a Vicar does. Obviously they knew that I was in school for worship and meetings. The older ones knew that I was a Governor, too. But then I was delighted to hear that they knew I took lots of services in church – including the special monthly School Eucharist when each class in turn joins our regular Wednesday morning congregation. They were aware that vicars christen people, marry people and take funerals. They knew that we do what we can to visit the poorly and the lonely and that we try to share with others God’s love for us all.

The next part of the occasion was really moving. The children said that they realised a vicar does lots to care for and look after others and that they wanted to let me know they felt I should be cared for too. Apart from the lovely comfortable seat I was sitting in they presented me with a lovely cup of tea, a pair of toasty warm slippers and (rather than a bunch of flowers) a large box of ‘Roses’.

I was then presented with a beautiful handmade card which included a page of good wishes from each class in school. And then, as if that were not enough, they sang ‘Thank you, Lord, for this fine day’ with an extra verse ‘Thank you, Lord, for Reverend Paul!’

I am telling you this because, from time to time, we all need to feel ‘special’ – even the Vicar!

We do take so much for granted, don’t we? God treats each of us as ‘special’. After all, Jesus told his followers that his heavenly Father even counts the hairs of our head…Perhaps it’s time you did something to make someone you know feel special. It would be an expression of God’s love too and, in a paradoxical way, that sort of recognition makes the one doing the recognizing feel better as well!

Gratitude is a wonderful characteristic: there really should be more of it in our world – and the good news is that we can make it happen.

So, give thanks for all you have and for all the blessings you have been given – and remember to thank others when you know that they are enhancing your life or making some little part of our world a better place.

At the risk of sharing with you once again one of my favourite quotes from George Herbert:

“Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.”

With every blessing,

Paul

Rest in the Lord

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Recently, Jane and I were hugely privileged to spend a week in the south of France. It’s a part of the world that I had not previously visited and I was overwhelmed by just how beautiful it was.

We had made a conscious decision not to rush to a different place each day but, rather, simply to enjoy our surroundings in a way which normal day-to-day life often does not allow. Strolling at a gentle pace and taking in the Anglican church where, for that rare occasion, we could simply be a part of a congregation with no duties, expectations or responsibilities. It was wonderful!

Our journey by train (all the way from Alnmouth to Nice) was equally rewarding – but most definitely at a different pace. London in just over three hours, Paris by Eurostar in no time at all and then a most amazing journey on the high speed ‘TGV’ sitting ‘upstairs’ and watching fields of sunflowers whizzing by.

But, despite the high speed of our travel, we were still completely relaxed because, apart from making sure we were on the correct train, we had, for a short time, left all responsibilities behind. We were able to enjoy each other’s company, slow down and simply ‘be’.

Coming home was a rather rude awakening for both of us as, within four hours of getting back to the Vicarage, we were both sitting in our respective Parochial Church Council meetings and well and truly ‘back to business’!

We were, however, ‘back to business’ having been refreshed and renewed. We had taken the opportunity to ‘Rest in the Lord’ without the strain and stress of everyday life.

This is something we all need to do – but it takes effort and determination. We don’t need to travel great distances; in fact we don’t need to leave Alnwick! We do, however, need to make time for God and for each other.

Each person’s lifestyle is determined by individual circumstances but if we cease to ‘Rest in the Lord’ on a regular – even daily – basis our lives and our relationships with God and with each other will suffer.

‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden’ said Jesus. That invitation is offered to each and every one of us and is renewed each day. It is up to us to accept or refuse at our peril.

Yes, the south of France was lovely – and we would certainly repeat the experience but, more importantly, finding a regular pattern of renewal in God and resting on him is one of the greatest challenges of our modern age.

I speak as much to myself as to all of you when I make a plea to you to take as your guide this lovely prayer from the ancient office of Compline and make it yours each day:

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Running the Race

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I am writing this letter as the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro draw to a close.

As they began on 5th August I have to admit to having a heavy heart at the prospect of seeing virtually nothing else on our TV screens! But, as the days went by, I became increasingly drawn into the wide range of sports which took place and even stayed up well beyond my normal bedtime to see Andy Murray secure his gold medal in the men’s tennis finals.

Leaving aside the political and economic arguments over the wisdom of the venue and the ethics of spending such vast amounts of money in the midst of great poverty, there is something incredibly uplifting and satisfying to be gained from witnessing such talented people indulging in a wide variety of sports and being in healthy competition with one another.

I suspect I will not be the only clergy person taking this opportunity to write in their parish magazines about St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Philippians where we are reminded that we are ‘runners in the race’ and that we should ‘press on towards the goal’ – but that the prize we run for is an imperishable one.

Well, my running days (such as they were) came to an end many years ago – but I hope I still ‘press on’ and have not lost sight of the finishing line…

When the Great North Run takes place on 11th September all sorts and conditions of folk will be participating. They will go at varying paces but their unvarying aim – the prize – is the finishing line.

However ‘sporty’ (or not) you may be, the image of the finishing line can be useful. We do not need to be aiming for a gold medal – or even a silver or a bronze – but we do need to recognize that, along with all our companions in faith, we are, through the love of Christ, assured of a reward which is greater than any earthly prize.

And we do need to keep up our training! For the Christian that comes from the fellowship of ‘running’ alongside other Christians, from keeping regularly in contact with God our ‘trainer’ through prayer and constantly honing our skills by reference to the ‘guidelines’ laid down in the scriptures.

Maybe you have not enjoyed the Olympics; maybe you are looking forward to other competitions – the ‘Great British Bake Off’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’…

Do notice, though, that each of these also offers a group of people who are aiming for the prize.

As you (and I) continue to ‘run the race’ may we have always before us the prize which is no less than life in all its fullness through the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

With every blessing,
Paul.

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