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NEW LAMPS FOR OLD (Sabbatical Sundays 03)

Last Sunday Julia and I made a nostalgic trip (for me anyway) back to Greenford, Middlesex, and specifically to my home church, Greenford Baptist Church – a church which has experienced a significant renaissance in recent years becoming a very diverse, lively, multicultural church in comparison to the somewhat traditional very ‘white’ church of my youth. My doctoral research is in this whole area of intercultural, multicultural, multiethnic church so the freedom to travel around and visit other churches on these ‘sabbatical Sundays’ during January to March provided me with the opportunity to make a nostalgic return to Greenford to have a look at what has been happening there since I finally left in 1969 (having semi-left in 1965 to train for the Baptist Ministry at Spurgeon’s College) to take up the Pastorate of Bewdley Baptist Church in Worcestershire.  

‘New lamps for old’ alludes to the deceitful slogan used in the story of Aladdin by which the wicked Uncle Abanazar attempts to wheedle the magic lamp out of the young hero in exchange for an ordinary, new one. This is not the case at Greenford Baptist Church because what has happened there in recent years has involved a complete transition into a warm and welcoming, ethnically very diverse, evangelical, charismatic church far more reflective of the surrounding community than ever before. The new lamp is actually somewhat of a positive development, and advancement, compared to the old.  In the post-electric world ‘lamp’ carries an archaic flavour, taking us back into the world of poetry, but lamps are much considered by poets, not because they are picturesque but because they required frequent attention, and because the alternative was a pervasive darkness. In the Biblical Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) the lamp carefully charged with oil is a symbol of vigilance and readiness.

We set off early from Reading (in freezing fog) in order to get to Greenford in time for their 10.30 a.m. Worship and Teaching Service. I was born and brought up in Greenford and it felt very strange driving through places I knew so well – streets I had lived in, schools I had attended, the firm I worked for. It was the same … but very different. Our prefab had long gone, Taylor Woodrow (where I worked) was no more, even Greenford County Grammar School had a new name and had relocated to the old school playing field. The Baptist Church building, however, was much the same – on the outside at least – although on the inside it had seen a major overhaul. The pulpit was gone, the organ was gone, the old kitchen was gone, the old chairs were gone … the platform area was revamped, there was a new kitchen, new chairs, a new all-singing all dancing sound and vision system … and flags of all the representative nations everywhere (we liked the flags)!

We were made very welcome, although there was no one of my generation left (they hadn’t all died let me hasten to add, just moved away over the years). I first came to Greenford Baptist Church as a 16 year-old. It was here I was converted, baptised, and ordained into the Baptist Ministry. I showed Julia the very spot where I had accepted Jesus as my Saviour and Lord 63 years before (and she took a photo of me standing on the very spot). The Senior Minister, Pastor Warren McNeil, was away for the weekend, so the Service was led by the Associate Minister, Pastor Satyajit Deodhar. There didn’t seem to be many people present to begin with but by the time we got into the full swing of things there must have been 70-80 people present. It was all quite informal with quite a bit of singing (strangely enough there were no musicians – everything was via video tracks on the big screen), and contributions from various members of the congregation. We also split up into small groups for a time of directed intercessory prayer, which was good. There were no Bible readings to speak of, although the sermon was essentially an exposition of 1 John 4:1-6 (the church is working its way through 1 John on Sunday mornings at the moment). Intriguingly Pastor Deodhar didn’t use the screen to illustrate his sermon, although he did involve the congregation quite a bit by periodically asking questions (to make sure we were listening I suspect). It was a good word, however, encouraging us to recognise/rely on the fact that God was living within us by his Spirit all the time, rather than just make use of the gifts of the Spirit from time to time when we needed to make sense of something or needed direction.

Everyone was very friendly and there was a lovely time of fellowship afterwards over coffee to which the majority of the congregation stayed. By then they had sussed out who we were – I feature quite prominently in the church’s history at one point – but we didn’t think that was the only reason why people were so friendly. One thing that did strike us, however, was that the congregation (even though ethnically very diverse) were actually quite British – they has all been in the UK for some time. We felt that they were, as a church, in an interesting place. They have a platform to really go forward into whatever God has for them in their ongoing story … or (dangerously) they could settle for what is? The enemy of the better is the good!?

After church we drove up to Greenford Broadway, parked the car, and had a nostalgic walk through Ravenor Park, past the houses (next door to each other) where my mother and father had lived (and the reason why they met), and along the Broadway, before having lunch at a new restaurant called Super Chef. Everything was similar but very different – in some ways nicer than I thought it would be – in other ways too much had changed about Greenford for my liking. The restaurant was good, however, great food, reasonably priced, and excellent service. For once I managed to eat all the food on my plate (and some of Julia’s as well)! Although virtually all the shops in the Broadway have now changed I am pretty certain that the site of Super Chef was (more-or-less) the site of Howards (The Drapers) back in the day. In the mid-1950s, when I passed the 11+ and secured a place at Greenford County Grammar School the only two places where you could buy the required distinctive green school blazer was either Howards or Abernethie and Sons. Abernethie blazers were cheaper than Howards blazers, but were a slightly inferior quality green … so it was obvious which shop your blazer came from … which was rather unfortunate when, like me, you were a kid from the local council estate (where money was at a premium) rather than the posher side of town?! 

After lunch we drove round various other nostalgic sites for me – the site of the ‘big house’ I was brought up in (now the site of an industrial estate), the Holy Cross Church (where my parents had me ‘christened’), the British Legion Club (with its flat above where we lived when my father ran the bar) – intriguing for Julia to be able to put places to well-known tales I had told her. Too many places had disappeared for good, however, and I am not sure if I could return to live in suburbia again. I will be very interested to see how Greenford Baptist Church progresses though … to be continued!

Jim Binney

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