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ALL NATIONS & THE CUNNING MAN (Sabbatical Sundays 06)

After a few Sabbatical Sundays travelling various distances to visit various churches, last Sunday Julia and I stayed closer to home and visited All Nations Christian Centre right here in Reading. All Nations is an Elim Pentecostal Church, that lives up to its name with more than 30 nationalities gathering for worship together each week. The church is led Pastor Billy Fenning who has been the Senior Pastor since moving to Reading in 1985. We like Billy. He is yet another of the local church leaders who has been so kind, supportive and encouraging to us since our own arrival at Abbey in 2018. A typical garrulous Northern Irelander, Billy is a good communicator, a winsome preacher, and engaging conversationalist, with always something positive and encouraging to say.  He has a vision to see the kingdom of God extended locally and globally, and has been instrumental in setting up schools of education and helping churches in different nations of the world. His heart is to see people come to know Christ and to enjoy life now. All Nations is a numerically large and active church with an impressive range of holistic activities geared up to minister the love of God to the wider community.

Their Morning Worship Service starts at 10.00 a.m. and we arrive early to make sure we get a parking space. The church building itself is fascinating. A former High Anglican Church building, it retains it’s wonderful stained glass windows, some of its elaborate carvings, and the various ‘stations of the cross’ around the walls. Apart from that it has been totally refurbished with extensions to the rear, a remodelled entrance area, and the former Chancel has now been partitioned off to become the church lounge.  The Sanctuary itself is now more like a concert arena with a large stage area, chairs instead of pews, a mega lighting and sound system, TV screens attached to the pillars, and the whole thing dominated by a huge cinema-like screen above the platform area. It all looks very impressive when we arrive with subdued coloured lighting and a friendly welcome. We surreptitiously find a seat towards the back.

We don’t know quite what to expect. In a former life I was a Pastor in the Assembly of God wing of the Pentecostal Church. Back in those days the Sunday Morning Services were always a ‘Breaking of Bread’ (Communion Service, for the uninitiated) and a bit of a ‘free-for-all’ with lots of singing, sharing, praying, prophesying, speaking in tongues (with interpretation), testimony, and Bible teaching. Would it still be much the same, I wondered? A very nice lady came over to us, introduced herself, made us very welcome … and warned us that since it was a Pentecostal Church the worship would be very loud! We tell her not to worry, we are actually ‘Bapticostals’ ourselves – she hasn’t got a clue what we are talking about?! In the event she didn’t have to worry. The worship was fairly loud – the musicians leading sung worship were all miked-up – but it actually wasn’t that loud. Intriguingly it wasn’t at all like the Pentecostal worship I was used to from 40+ years ago. Essentially it was a combination of sung worship and powerful preaching with a great testimony and a little bit of intercessory prayer thrown in for good measure. No breaking of bread, and no manifestation of the vocal gifts of the Spirit (apart from a prophetic edge to the preaching perhaps). Having said that, it was still good, and we enjoyed it, and benefitted from being at All Nations.

Our time together began with a welcome from Tibebu Berhanu (one of the Elders) followed, somewhat unusually, with a short time of intercessory prayer (particularly for the situation in Turkey-Syria following the recent tragic earthquake). We soon launched into a time of sung worship, however, led by the band. I didn’t really know any of the songs but they were all very Jesus centred and it was quite a sensory experience – strangely somewhat akin, in that sense, to our experience of attending a High Church Mass the previous Sunday, or worshipping with thousands of young people at Taizé in the summer (singing their wonderful repetitive chants). It was actually quite therapeutic. There were no contributions ‘from the floor’ so to speak – but it would have been difficult to do that given the cavernous nature of the building and a numerically large congregation – unless they installed standing microphones in the aisles or established a ‘people’s lectern’ (aka Edward Irvine style) where members of the congregation could go and share ‘a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation’ (1 Corinthians 14:26) or whatever. The congregation was quite sparse when we began but slowly gathered as the Service proceeded and we were full up by the time we got to the sermon (I estimate around 200 people of all ages and ethnicities). Apparently they have seen quite an influx of friends from South India lately (but no Iranians or Hong Kongers as far as we could tell). They also live stream all their Sunday Services.

After about 30 minutes the children left us for their various groups, Billy shared some news of upcoming events, and (recognising us sitting there in the congregation) introduced us and said some very nice things about us and the exciting things happening at Abbey (which was very kind of him). We then had a great testimony from a member of the congregation sharing how, despite an extended period of illness and incapacity, God had used that time to deepen her experience of himself, and enabled her to write some inspired and moving poetry (which is soon to be published). Great to hear someone testify to how God is with us in times of adversity rather than some of the ‘triumphalist’ stuff that  usually just makes us feel worse about ourselves.

Another song, and it was time for the ‘preach’ – a brilliant 45 minute exposition of Habakkuk 2:1-4 – by All Nations new Co-Pastor Keith Jackson. Keith is actually from Reading (but has travelled around the world quite a bit) and has recently returned to Reading with a view to becoming the Lead Pastor at All Nations (when Billy retires in a year or so).  A well-crafted, winsomely preached six-point sermon, full of good and godly stuff, and well-illustrated, may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but Keith held the congregation’s attention throughout and clearly drew his hearers in to the message. We felt, blessed, encouraged and challenged by the message. We would certainly go and hear him again. He belongs to the new generation of Pentecostal preachers who don’t despise theological education, holding a Master’s degree in theology from Regent’s College.

After the Service (which lasted the best part of two hours) we stayed on for coffee (unfortunately it was instant coffee – just to prove that Pentecostal Christians are not perfect) where we were once again greeted warmly and made to feel very welcome.  And then – following our now well-established pattern – it was off for Sunday lunch at a local eatery. Julia had booked us in at The Cunning Man, a rather nice pub in Burghfield Bridge by the Kennet and Avon Canal. The pub’s name comes from a local legend of a ‘cunning man’ – a good wizard who would help to protect people from dark spirits and witches. I’m not sure what Billy and Keith would make of that – probably join us for a meal, I guess! The original building was destroyed following repeated flooding; however the newly re-built pub-restaurant has been impressively restored in its original style – complete with thatched roof. We are 20 minutes early so we go for a nice walk along the canal in lovely sunshine admiring all the canal boats as we go.

The restaurant is packed but we are shown to a nice table for two right in front of a roaring log fire – we move our table out a bit otherwise we would be roasted ourselves as we eat our roast dinner. The service is excellent, the food is fantastic, the ambience is delightful – we will definitely come back here again. I am denied a pudding or a coffee by ‘she who must’ – apparently we have puddings in the fridge back home and a really good coffee machine – so home it is, via a nice drive along beautiful country roads, still discussing the finer points of the sermon as we travel!

Jim Binney  

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