There is a story told of a young executive type from Surrey who came down here to rural West Dorset for a weekend break. Sitting in one of our quaint old country pubs he got chatting to Old Tom, one of the locals, who had never set foot outside of West Dorset in all of his 75 years. The posh executive type had only recently come back from a holiday in Italy, where he had encountered the well known lethargy for work displayed by a number of Italian workmen. Recounting something of his experience, the young man posed a question to Old Tom. “The Italians have an expression: ‘Domani! Domani!’ (‘Tomorrow! Tomorrow!’) … Do you have an expression like that down here in Dorsetshire?’ he asked. Old Tom, pondered for a while, and then replied slowly: ‘No … I don’t think we have a saying down here that expresses such a sense of urgency!’
Well, after five years down here in rural Dorset we are making the reverse journey up to Surrey. Julia has received, and accepted, an invitation from Knaphill Baptist Church, Woking, Surrey to be their new Pastor. Knaphill is a suburb of Woking, although it is in fact an urban village in its own right with a population of around 9,000 people (which would be quite a large town in Dorset!). It has a real community feel to it, with lots of shops, schools, surgeries and dentists, its own football and cricket teams, a community web site, several local churches (that work together in a good way), and so on. Knaphill Baptist Church itself has a fascinating history. Founded in 1867 as a ‘Church of Christ’ the church grew steadily numerically for a number of years but by the 1960s had began to decline in numbers. As this steady decline continued the church took the brave decision in 1974 to leave the Churches of Christ and join the Baptist Church. Since that time the church, although remaining somewhat small numerically, has made steady progress and today is a warm and welcoming, close-knit and friendly community of around 35 people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Having received an extremely warm and enthusiastic reception we look forward to becoming an active part of this community in the near future.
Reflecting on our journey to Knaphill no one could describe it as having been accompanied by ‘a sense of urgency’? Having ‘washed up’ here on ‘Rodden shore’ some five years or so ago (after leaving Elm Road, Beckenham) Julia quite deliberately took ‘a year out’ before even contemplating returning to the Baptist Ministry. She wanted to be quite sure that she had fully recovered from the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that had haunted her during the last couple of years at Beckenham. For myself, primarily I wanted to be sure that Julia herself felt sure (if you follow my drift) that she had recovered enough from her CFS/ME to once again take up the reins of ministry. Personally I have never had any doubt about Julia’s God-given ability and calling. She is an excellent preacher, a sensitive and inspiring worship-leader, a caring pastor, and a very prayerful person. For me it would have been a tragedy if all those gifts had simply been left dormant rather than be used for the glory of God and the blessing and encouragement of others. The important thing, however, was that Julia should be convinced in her own heart and mind that ‘God had not finished with her yet’ and that he was calling her to return to ministry.
For myself, I also wanted to take some time to prayerfully reflect on the future. Some 24 years ago now, God spoke prophetically to Julia and myself concerning returning to pastoral ministry. The exact phrase was that there would be ‘a step, to a step, to a step’. The intervening years between then and now saw this prophecy exactly fulfilled with calls to first, Far Forest Baptist Church, Worcestershire; then King’s Heath and Moseley Baptist Church, Birmingham; and finally Beckenham Baptist Church, Kent. In our time at each church we saw considerable numerical and spiritual growth. For me, these respective ministries were a confirmation that ‘God hadn’t finished with me’ either, and for Julia they were the ‘launch pad’ into her own call to the Baptist Ministry. On reflection, I think I always knew somehow that Beckenham would be my last pastorate as a ‘Senior’ Baptist Minister, and that the ‘mantle’ was slowly but surely passing on to Julia in her own right. Initially we had thought (and hoped) that this ‘transfer’ of roles would take place during our time at Beckenham, but sadly this proved not to be. Quite what my role will be in the new set-up, is not clear as yet? I will obviously be supporting Julia in her new ministry as best I can, and if unofficial ‘assistant to the Minister’ is to be my future role I will undertake that role to the best of my ability. I do have a strong sense, however, that God still has something significant for me to do in terms of ministry, so I wait patiently for this to unfold in due course. It is probably true tom say that Baptist Ministers never really ‘retire’ … they just fade away quietly (or not so quietly in my case)?
Our journey to Knaphill has been as interesting one to say the least. When Julia re-entered the ‘settlement process’ nearly four years ago now, we initially were looking for a church within an hour or so from Rodden so we could continue to care for Julia’s elderly mother. If truth be told we could actually have ‘settled’ two or three times during this early period. None of these situations turned out to be ‘right’ for us however (for varying reasons), but we were able to expand our search area when Julia’s younger sister Livy (together with her husband Jack) decided to move down nearer to Rodden so that she could take over the responsibility to be the main carer for Julia’s mother. In fact the whole family have been very supportive of the idea that Julia should return to the Baptist Ministry when the time was right. Once again several opportunities for settlement came Julia’s way but, for one reason or another, none came to fruition although she came close on one or two occasions. Whilst it is true that we did encounter both sexism and ageism from the odd church or two, and the occasional church ‘stifled’ by a dominant Deacon or Elder, the majority of churches that we talked with were all genuinely prayerfully seeking to discern God’s will for the way forward. In addition we can only speak highly of the genuine concern, support, and patience of the various Regional Ministers who month by month have the unenviable task of seeking to match Ministers seeking settlement with churches looking for a new Pastor. We also cannot speak to highly of the leaders and good folk at Dorchester Baptist Church, who took us to their heart and have supported and cared for us over the last five years since we ‘washed up’ on their shore feeling rather battered and bruised after leaving Beckenham.
We were advised some years ago (by one of these Regional Ministers) not to settle at just any church but always to prayerfully seek to know that particular place where God was clearly calling Pastor and people together for whatever his plan and purpose for them both held. We certainly feel that Knaphill Baptist Church is indeed that special place for us. One of the many biblical promises God has given us during the last five years has been, ‘You will hear a voice behind you saying: This is the way, walk in it!’ (Isaiah 30:21). We believe that in receiving, and accepting, the call to Knaphill, that promise from God has been fulfilled.
We will be sorry in some ways to leave West Dorset although we will be coming back every couple of weeks or so, for a day or two, as part of our own personal responsibility for caring for Julia’s mother. Rodden is only a couple of hours drive away from Knaphill. No doubt there will therefore be other ‘Dorset Tales’ to be told as we continue to discover the various delights of rural Dorsetshire. But for the time being it (to paraphrase the Two Ronnies TV programme) ‘It is goodbye from her … and it is goodbye from me!’
So, back in our quaint old Dorsetshire country pub, our bright young executive is not too sure of the way back to Surrey after his weekend away, so he decides to ask Old Tom for directions. ‘I say, old fellow’ he says, ‘could you possibly tell me the quickest way to Surrey?’ Once again Old Tom (whom you will recall has never set foot outside of Dorset in his entire life) pauses thoughtfully for a minute or two … and then replies in a rich Dorset country accent, ‘You driving or walking, lad?’ The bright young executive quickly replies, ‘Driving.’ Old Tom nods wisely, and says, ‘Oooh aargh, lad … that certainly be the quickest way!’