Last Sunday, in the latest of our Sabbatical Sunday jaunts, we paid a visit to Carey Baptist Church in Reading. The church was founded in 1867, a plant from our own church, Abbey Baptist Church, and was named after William Carey, a famous Baptist missionary from Northamptonshire, who went to India in 1793, and who is still highly revered in India to this day for all he did for that great country particularly in the field of education and social care. A scholarly man, Carey translated the Bible into numerous Indian languages. A Godly man he is known for that great saying: ‘Attempt great things for God, expect great things from God.‘ He played a significant part in the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society, or BMS World Mission as it is known today.
Today Carey Baptist Church is an independent, evangelical church that seceded from the Baptist Union following the infamous incident of the Michael Taylor address at the Baptist Assembly in 1971 in which he appeared to question the divinity of Jesus Christ. The church is now affiliated to the FIEC Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. It is numerically one of the largest churches in Reading and is well known for its vibrant integral ministry and mission in Reading, and around the world. Although of Victorian origin the church premises have been beautifully modernised and extended to incorporate additional premises including the Carey Centre nearby, and what was the Oasis Public House next door. The church building is on Carey Street (Anstey Road) in central Reading, close to the Inner Distribution Road, Oxford Road, and The Hexagon.
We knew that the parking around the church was limited so we parked in the Hexagon Car Park and walked in from there for their 10.30 a.m. Service. We were amused to see a pub on the corner and joked about that obviously being the place where the Pastors went immediately after the Service. We didn’t know at that time that we were not that far from the truth, the church having bought the pub in 2009 to operate it as a drop-in for the local community (and not a pub) although still retaining the name, Oasis.
To be honest we were a little nervous as to what kind of reception we would receive. Would it be another case of Daniella in the Lion’s Den? As a FIEC church, Carey Baptist Church hold a complementarian view of the male-female relationship which means that churches belonging to the FIEC should not have a woman Pastor-Teacher or women Elders. Sadly we have had some bad experiences in the past when visiting such churches simply because Julia is an ordained and accredited Baptist Minister. I would point out here that, in contrast to FIEC churches, most mainline denominations and other Christian groupings (including Baptist Union Baptist Churches) shifted from this position many years ago and hold what is called an egalitarian view which understands men and women to all be on an equal footing in the sight of God.
In reality we had nothing to worry about in this direction and were given a very warm welcome by everyone we met including several of the Carey Elders and their Pastors despite Julia’s role at Abbey. Indeed, we were even able to joke with some of them about how God could allow a church like Abbey to grow in 18 months from about 20 (mostly) elderly, white Brits to around 140 people of all ages from a variety of nations, under the leadership of a woman Pastor?!
We really enjoyed our time at Carey and it was really good to be in what we would call ‘a proper Baptist Service’. The church was packed, including the gallery, and I would estimate that there must have been about 300 people of all ages and ethnicities there. Especially impressive was to see about 30 teenagers sitting attentively in the gallery throughout the whole Service, including the 30 minute expository sermon. None of this mollycoddling of teenagers by allowing them to go out with the younger children to their own group halfway through a Service.
The Service was sensitively led by one of Carey’s two lead Pastors, David Magowan (the other Pastor James Muldoon was sitting in the congregation) and followed a very simple familiar pattern for those of us brought up in traditional Baptist Churches. The church itself was largely ‘unadorned’ without even a cross on display (although they were obviously very tech savvy and made good use of a large screen and a couple of TV sets to display the words of the hymns and songs and points from the sermon) and the Service followed suit. The church is currently working its way through 1 Peter on Sunday mornings and the theme for this Sunday morning was ‘Following Jesus in Doing Good, Whatever the Cost’ (1 Peter 3:8-17).
An opening extemporary prayer of praise was followed by a good old hymn beautifully played on the pipe organ, a great family talk – they call it a ‘Bible Bite’ at Carey – by one of the church members, a lovely lady called Paula, well-illustrated and engaging, all about following Jesus as our example. I had a wicked thought that this lovely lady was actually ‘preaching’ us a mini-sermon, but I didn’t dare suggest that too loudly – perhaps ‘teaching’ is OK and its really about women being in authority that’s taboo? This was followed by another song – beautifully played by the church’s excellent music group – and then the younger children left for their own groups. The only Bible Reading was the passage from 1 Peter, followed by a longish Prayer of Intercession (led by the Pastor), another song led by the music group (there were thankfully only four hymns/songs during the whole Service) and then it was sermon time. David Magowan proved to be a good preacher (you can catch the whole Service and/or just the Sermon on YouTube by the way) and we enjoyed his winsome and helpful exposition of 1 Peter 3:8-17). A closing hymn (back to the organ for that), a final prayer, and it was time for coffee (instant coffee once again, I’m afraid) at the Oasis. The whole service lasted just an hour and a quarter.
Once again, we were warmly greeted by several members of the church and congregation including several of the Elders and by Pastor David Magowan himself. Despite our heretical approach to women in ministry we were made very welcome and enjoyed some stimulating conversation. Despite our differences we had a lot in common, and they seemed to know about what has been happening at Abbey over the last 18 months and appreciated what we were seeking to do. We have visited a whole variety of churches during our Sabbatical Sunday excursions and none of us (including Abbey) have got everything right. Every church we have visited is imperfect, has had its own funny ideas, beliefs, and ways of doing things, but God is good and still uses us despite our much valued idiosyncrasies. Carey continues to grow numerically and they are considering planting another church in Woodley because they already have a number of people who travel in to Carey from there on a Sunday. It is inevitable that a church like Carey, that has a particular identity as a conservative evangelical church, will draw from well outside its immediate locality. Carey recognise that this is both a problem and an opportunity.
After our coffee and conversation, it was time for Sunday lunch, so it was off to The Griffin, a popular pub-restaurant in historic Caversham on the north bank of the River Thames close to Caversham Bridge where Julia had booked us a table. Pilgrims, merchants and even armies have crossed the Thames at Caversham Bridge for centuries, and there has been a tavern on the site of The Griffin since at least the 1800’s. Rebuilt to meet the needs of modern travellers in 1916, The Griffin is perfectly located for Thames travellers and Reading residents alike. Sometimes you just know what you want so it was time to try their traditional Sunday roasts with a huge a Yorkshire pudding and unlimited gravy … and yumacious it truly was!