Vicar’s Blog

Stages on the Journey

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

The other day I dipped into a book which Jane had recently purchased. Entitled ‘Re-enchanting Christianity’, it is by the author Dave Tomlinson who is well-known for an earlier book, ‘How to be a bad Christian…and a better human being’.

Reflecting on the way in which a considerable number of people who were formerly regular churchgoers have become disenchanted, Tomlinson says:

“Church is not supposed to be a place of theological ‘purity’ or rigid conformity to certain beliefs and conventions, but a mishmash of believers, doubters, dissenters and malcontents, each of whom is grappling in his or her own way towards a mystery that is God.”

It seems to me that St Michael’s is a microcosm of Tomlinson’s description of what the church should be – and for that I’m hugely thankful. Whatever stage each of us may be in our pilgrimage of faith, we’re all ‘in the soup’ together and we’re all loved by God equally!

At this stage in the life of the Church – and not least in Alnwick – we need to recognize that all of us are at different points in our understanding and in the intensity of our faith but that God is calling us to be his followers at this time and in this place.

Within the vastness of God’s unbounded and unchanging love and mercy, we can find ourselves unnerved by change and disheartened because ‘things aren’t the way they were’. I was, therefore, really heartened to read these words in a section of the book entitled ‘Behind the mask of certainty’:

“’When I was a child,’ St. Paul says, ‘I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways’ (1 Cor. 13:11). We are not meant to remain the same, to stick with the same outlook on life or to hang on to the same beliefs and attitudes, come what may. We are meant to grow as people, and as that growth occurs all kinds of change will come about in the way we go about interpreting and applying our Christian faith. This can be exciting and stimulating, but it can also be unnerving – both to ourselves and, more especially, to those around us.”

So, recognizing that, as followers of Christ, we are called to be taken out of our comfort zone, let us embrace this ‘adventure’ which is membership of the body of Christ and do all we can to bring about his kingdom and earth (and especially in Alnwick) as it is in heaven.

As we do so, I would draw your attention to the information in our ‘Gateway’ magazine on the ‘Bishops in Mission’ programme entitled ‘Pathways’ which is being planned for September next year. It feels as if this will be a splendid opportunity to celebrate our diversity as individuals and communities alongside all we hold in common in and through Our Lord.

A prayer from Eric Milner-White, a former Dean of York, seems fitting:

O Lord God,
who called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown:
Give us faith
to go out with a good courage,
not knowing where we are going,
but only that your hand is leading us,
and your love supporting us;
to the glory of your name.  Amen.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Disasters and Blessings

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Following hard on the heels of all the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, we are now beginning to get stark warnings of the havoc that Hurricane Maria is likely to bring.

As I write this letter, predictions are that Maria will move roughly along the same path as Irma, badly affecting many of the Caribbean islands and parts of the US once again.

Neighbourhoods have been flattened, lives have been lost, and one correspondent described the damage as “something you see in images from the First World War”.

I am not qualified to explain, nor do I understand fully, all the likely causes of these natural disasters but the one thing we know for certain is that the devastation which they leave behind will create a legacy from which some people will take years to recover – long after physical restitution is made.

This sort of news – particularly when one terrible experience is followed by another in such quick succession – made me think how fortunate we are in this part of God’s world and, more particularly, how, as we pray and do what we can to support those in such adverse situations, we should remind ourselves of our basic responsibility to give thanks for all the good things we receive in this life.

By this I do not mean that we should simply be relieved that such awful things have not happened to us but, rather, to look at our lives each day and realise, despite the odd ache or pain, despite a few minor irritations that ‘things have not gone our way’, we do indeed have so much to be thankful for.

At each baptism service the candidate is presented with a lighted candle and all who are gathered say:

“Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.”

Just imagine, if every baptised person took that request seriously, what a different place our world might be.

Of course it would not prevent natural disaster – but a world filled with gratitude for all that God has given us would go a long way to counteract the negativity of a ‘glass-half-empty’ attitude.

There is no avoiding the fact that life can be complicated at times. Sometimes this is of our own making and sometimes we can merely be ‘victims’, but hearing one of the women of Barbuda, who was left only with the clothes in which she stood, speak with faith and massive hope following her life being turned upside down made me realise that many of us (myself included) need to reassess how good God has been to us and shine as lights in his world.

Although the words may seem trite amongst all that has happened in our world of late, there is a very simple message in an old hymn which might be worthy of reflection as we pray for the victims of Irma and Maria and consider how blessed we are.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done,
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

With every blessing,

Paul.

All Are Welcome

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

What a wonderful event our Flower Festival proved to be!

St. Michael’s looked absolutely splendid with over forty amazing displays beautifully arranged by a band of incredibly talented floral artists – and all based on the theme of ‘Leisure’.

There was a constant stream of visitors through the doors and lots of them left highly complimentary comments in the visitors’ book, not only about the floral art and the beauty of the building – but many more about the warmth of the welcome and the quality of the hospitality they had received.

Welcome and hospitality lie at the very heart of our Christian presence and witness – and, in a church like St. Michael’s, where there is hardly a Sunday in the year when we are without visitors at our worship, it is vital that we remain constantly aware of our need to excel in this department.

In my experience, it is often when being with a group of like-minded folk who all know each other well that the newcomer or the passer-by can feel most isolated. Churches can particularly fall into the trap of celebrating what a welcoming group of people they are without realising that they confine that welcome to those they already know.

Of course, some people are naturally shy and particularly reticent at making conversation with folk they don’t know but, in church, we all, friend and stranger alike, start from a common understanding of the love we have recognised in God through Christ – the Christ who reminds us that in welcoming the stranger we are welcoming him (see Matthew 25: 34-40).

So, as we give ourselves a pat on the back for the affirming nature of many of the comments in our visitors’ book, let us not rest on our laurels for too long but, rather, keep up the good work so that in our town and locality, as well as in all the places to which our visitors return, St. Michael’s may continue to cultivate the reputation of having welcome and hospitality as an ongoing priority in our corporate ministry.

Perhaps the words of a hymn we’re just beginning to get to know might help:

Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Weddings Galore!

Dear People of Alnwick,

Weddings are featuring large in my life at the moment!

We have more weddings booked at St Michael’s this year than I have known in the past five years – and that is really good news. In July, five sets of Banns were called at the same time – something I’ve not experienced before in my ministry.

People come to St Michael’s to be married for all sorts of reasons and, with a true sense of hospitality, so far as we can, we try to welcome couples and give them a good experience of church. Many in our congregation, I know, make wedding couples feel welcome and valued as they sit alongside them on Sunday mornings.

These encounters are greatly appreciated by many of the couples as they build up ‘connections’ which would not naturally occur if the wedding was taking place in a secular setting – be it in a stately home or on a Caribbean island.

Statistics certainly seem to reflect an upsurge in church weddings and when I talk to couples in preparation for their big day I sense, more and more, an understanding that they are inviting God into their relationship and that his blessing on their union is both real and important to them.

A photograph of a man and a woman, dressed in white albs in a highly decorated chapel

Vicar Rev’d Canon Paul Scott and his wife Rev’d Jane Scott in Bavaria. (Click to enlarge)

Associations of a different kind resulted in Jane and I being invited to a most beautiful part of Bavaria in mid-July to officiate at the wedding of Lord Max Percy and his fiancée, Princess Nora of Oettingen. This turned out to be a really happy and memorable occasion and a splendid mixture of Bavarian and Northumbrian customs and celebrations. I hope that you can get a flavour of the occasion from the photographs which are included in this month’s edition of ‘Gateway’.

In a rather different context, Jane was recently asked to bless a civil marriage in a celebration held on the beach at Bamburgh – and which was followed by a fish & chips lunch in Seahouses!

However different the Bavarian and the Bamburgh celebrations might have been, they and all the other weddings that are taking place in our own church this summer, illustrate a growing recognition of the need to have loving relationships transformed into holy relationships in which God dwells with the couples in every aspect of their changing lives and wherever they may go.

So perhaps now, as greater numbers return to the church for a blessing on their relationships, is a good time to pray for marriage and family life. They are, after all, the foundations of stable communities.

Let us take the opportunity, too, to pray especially for those relationships which find themselves under undue strain or pressure – that love will find a way to renew and re-energise, that ‘commitment’ may be valued and upheld and that gentleness and forgiveness might win the day.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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

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