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Do you have a favourite Christmas film? It may be a version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, of course), or Irvin Berlin’s White Christmas (starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, or The Sound of Music (which is not strictly speaking a Christmas film but is on TV every Christmas nevertheless), or … well 101 other possibilities … there are so many to choose from!?

My favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life (considered by many to be the best film ever made). It is the story of George Bailey (played by James Stewart in the film), a man who has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never taken the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents Potter from doing so is George’s modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy loses a substantial amount of the business’s assets while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking that his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George (with the promise of earning his wings). He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. The whole story turns on a moment when George (contemplating suicide by jumping off the town bridge) – realises that God had a plan and purpose for his life after all – prays: ‘I want to live again! I want to live again! I want to live again! Please God, let me live again!’

What has all this to do with the Christmas Story, you may well ask? Well, at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. This particular birth, however, was not simply the gift of yet another new life born into our world but the gift of someone very special – the birth of God’s ‘one and only Son’ (John 3:16). At his birth the angelic messenger announced that this special child would have two particular names – “Immanuel (meaning ‘God with us’)” and “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21,23). There is a famous Renaissance painting by Lorenzo Lotto called The Nativity which shows Jesus in a manger with a shadow of a cross over it. We must recognise that Jesus came in order to die on the cross in order to atone for the sins of humanity and open up a new and living way back to God for sinful people like us. We must move beyond the concept of Jesus as a baby and see the Passion as well as the Incarnation (John 3:16,17).

Moreover, this remarkable gift of God in Jesus – to the manger and the cross – made it possible for all who will turn to God in Christ to experience what the Bible calls ‘eternal life’ or ‘abundant life’ (John 10:10). The most famous verses in the Bible tell us that ‘God so loved the world, he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16,17). What is more, this eternal or abundant life that is available to us in and through Jesus, is (as someone once put it) ‘a lived for others life’. When the Apostle Peter reflected on what he was most grateful to God for saving him from in Christ, he did not say ‘the power of Satan or sin or death’ (although all that was also true) but rather, ‘an empty or wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). New life in Christ not only satisfies us, but enables us to make a real contribution in this broken and hurting world in which we live.

I spoke at a wedding a little while ago, and after the Service a young man in his mid-30s came to me and asked me a question: ‘Did you say that in order to truly find God for myself … to find God’s plan and purpose for my life … I need to genuinely commit myself to Jesus Christ?’ I confess I was somewhat hesitant in my response … I didn’t want to put off someone who was genuinely seeking God … but in the end I confessed. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘that’s exactly what I said … if you want to find God for yourself, if you want to get into the centre-stream of God’s plan and purpose for your life … you need to lay your all on the altar for Jesus!’ There was a moment of hesitation … and then this young man said, ‘Good! That’s what I have been looking for!’ He then told me his story. Apparently, although brought up in a Christian home, he had rejected the Christian message in his late teens, determined to make his own way in life. ‘I had a plan, he told me, ‘I determined to go to university, get a good degree, get a good job, earn a lot of money, find a nice girl and get married, have two children, buy a nice house … set myself up for the rest of my life!’ ‘And’ I said, sensing that there was more to come. ‘And’ he said, ‘I have done all of that … I have achieved everything I set out to achieve, and there is still something missing … and I didn’t know what it was until today!’

J B Phillips suggests that ‘There is a God-shaped space in our lives which only God himself can fill!’ There is a well-know prayer of Saint Augustine which says: ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and the soul finds no rest until it finds its rest in you!’ The great thing about the Christmas Story is that, in the birth of Jesus Christ, George Bailey (and all the George Bailey’s of this world’ can find life – eternal and abundant life, life with a purpose, life with a capital ‘L’ (as the late Lindsay Glegg used to say)! So, this Christmas, choose life, choose Jesus!   

Jim Binney

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WHAT’S ALL THIS GRACE BUSINESS? (Fourth Sunday in Advent 2021)

A few years ago Julia and I took part in the BBC programme Cash in the Attic. Very popular at the time, the programme purported to find various antiques hidden away in people’s homes which could be then sold at auction and raise money that the participants could then spend on holidays or hobbies or whatever. At the time we were both Ministers at Beckenham Baptist Church in Kent, and we were raising money to build a large Community Garden at the rear of the church. The idea was to create a beautiful and peaceful space that could not only be used by the church but also by the community – a place for reflection and prayer as well as fun.

Someone donated a sapphire ring with the suggestion that we could auction it and put the money towards the Community Garden Fund. This inspired me to contact the BBC, tell them what we were doing, and suggest that they do a programme based on our church, a programme about people attempting to raise money for a charitable cause and not just to fund a foreign holiday. The BBC liked the idea, both the church and the community bought into it, people donated various antiques, and we even discovered various antiques of our own squirreled away in various parts of our church buildings. We ended up with a great programme (that you can still find on You Tube) and raised a lot of money for the project. Although we were told unofficially by the programme producers ‘not to talk about Jesus … the BBC don’t like too much of that’ we ended up having a number of deep conversations with both the presenters and the programme staff about the difference Jesus can make in a person’s life. The programme culminated with a great open air concert at the church in which we were able to display just what a multitalented bunch of people we had in Beckenham. ‘Wow!’ said one of the cameramen, ‘I didn’t think Christianity could be like this!’

A major part of the programme was the actual auctioning of the antiques, in our case filmed at Chiswick Auctions. The BBC filmed the auction element of two programmes on the same day. The other programme filmed the same day as ours featured a nice Jewish couple. I got into conversation with the nice Jewish lady who, when she found out that I was a Christian, asked me if I had been to Jerusalem. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘Did you pray at the Wailing Wall?’ she asked. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘What did you pray for?’ she asked. ‘I prayed for my son’ I replied, ‘he has a heart condition and I prayed God’s blessing on him!’ ‘I prayed for my son, as well’ the nice Jewish lady said, ‘he was still single, and living at home, so I prayed that the good Lord would find him a nice Jewish girl to marry.’ ‘Did God answer your prayer?’ I asked. ‘Yes …’ she replied hesitantly. ‘What is she like?’ I asked, sensing her hesitancy. ‘She is a right shrew’ the nice Jewish lady replied, ‘she is very, very religious … insists that we all keep every jot and tittle of the Jewish Law … its dreadful!’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s partly why I am a Christian and not a Jew.’ ‘What do you mean?’ the nice lady asked. ‘Well,’ I responded, ‘our Bible tells us that as Christians “we are no longer under the Jewish Law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).’ She looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. ‘Grace! Grace!’ she said, ‘What’s all this grace business?’ Good question … and I was able to spend a few minutes explaining to her not only that Jesus was indeed the Promised Jewish Messiah, but also the difference coming to know him as Saviour and Lord makes.

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and traditionally the theme for this particular Sunday is ‘The God of Grace’, and we often think specifically of the role of Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Advent/Christmas story. Luke tells us that when the angel revealed to Mary that she was to be the mother of God’s Son, he greeted her with the words, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). ‘Grace’ is one of the most wonderful words in the Bible, in the Christian Faith. It signifies the unmerited favour of God freely given to weak, sinful people like us. We cannot buy it, we cannot earn it, it is the free gift of God. It is that which carries all the various blessings of God to us – ‘one blessing after another’ (John 1:16 RSV). It was God’s grace, and grace alone, which enabled Mary to go through all that she had to go through in order to fulfil her calling to be the mother of God’s Son.

‘Grace’ is at the very centre and core of the whole Bible. ‘Grace’ is the most important concept in the Bible, Christianity, and the world. ‘Grace’ is the unmerited favour of God. It is the love of God shown to the unlovely … the peace of God given to the restless. ‘Grace’ is God reaching down to people who are in rebellion against him. ‘Grace is the love that cares and stoops and rescues!’ (John Stott). It is most clearly expressed in the promises of God revealed in Scripture and embodied in Jesus Christ! 

Mary was not the only one full of grace. John tells us that at that first Christmas God, in the Person of his ‘one and only Son’, came among us – ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ (The Message) – ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14-16). Indeed Jesus came ‘full to overflowing’ (which is what the word means). So much so, in fact, that we are the beneficiaries of this amazing grace – we have all received ‘grace in place of grace’ or ‘one blessing after another’ (RSV). Common Grace that keeps us all alive – the very air that we breathe. Special Grace that comes to us in the Person of Jesus Christ that enables us to become spiritually alive!

Moreover, God’s grace is available to all who will turn to God in and through Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith (in a sermon entitled Standing Close to the Lightning Strike) suggests that God’s grace is like lightning and transforms whoever it strikes. ‘Martin Luther found that out. Walking through the forest one day, praying and working through spiritual torment, literally, the lightning did strike close by. And he felt that as the summons of God. Luther came closer, and when God sent the lightning strike, it was grace. It was what he needed to turn his life around.

John Wesley found it out. Serving as a missionary in the Georgia penal colony, he was a miserable failure. He sailed home in distress, not sure what he would do with the rest of his life. But in a little chapel in Aldersgate Street in London, listening to someone comment on the Scripture, Wesley says that he “felt his heart strangely warmed, and did know that Christ was his saviour.” Wesley came closer, and when the lightning struck and God got his attention, he found that it was grace, all grace, and hope.

Jim Vaus found it out. As a professional criminal, working for the Cohen gang in New York City, Vaus chose to steal, swindle, maim, or even kill to get what he wanted. But there was a nagging feeling inside that it meant nothing. The things that do not satisfy. The FBI arrested Jim Vaus and he was sent to prison. But in prison he heard the gospel, and knew that it was for him. The last I knew, Jim Vaus, ex-criminal, ex-con, was running a youth ministry in a place aptly called Hell’s Kitchen. The lightning struck, and it was grace.’

‘Grace! Grace!’ What’s all this grace business?’ Well, it is something very special that is available to all of us in Jesus Christ. True, we can read all about it in the Bible, hear about it in Church, learn about it from countless testimonies, biographies and autobiographies … but so much better to turn to God in Jesus Christ and experience it for ourselves!

Jim Binney

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A ‘WEIGHTY’ QUAKER IN THE KING’S ARMS (Sabbatical Sundays 12)

Last Sunday Julia and I should have been in France enjoying a short holiday in the French sunshine in the delightful historic town of Chinon where we had booked a wonderful apartment overlooking the chateau on one side and the river on the other. Unfortunately, due to President Macron, we had to cancel that holiday at the last moment – we might have got there OK, but we were not at all sure that we would have got back OK with all the various strikes, petrol shortages, etc., etc. So instead. we are here in Cornwall, staying in an equally delightful house in Marazion overlooking St Michael’s Mount. Not much sunshine, however … but we are enjoying the wet, wild and windy Cornish weather … in a masochistic kind of way! So, instead of recounting a visit to a Roman Catholic Mass followed by lunch in a classy French restaurant, for our very final Sabbatical Sunday blog … I am writing about a visit to a Quaker Meeting House and another great Sunday roast at a local pub! 

We have tried to use our Sabbatical Sundays over the last three months to visit various different churches, sometimes to say a silent thank you to friends who have been so supportive to us since our arrival at Abbey, but sometimes simply because we were intrigued and wanted to know what those churches were like. I have never ever been to a Quaker Service before, although I kind of knew (or thought I did) what went on – everyone sitting around in silence for an hour or so, only occasional contributions from the floor (so to speak) when ‘moved by the Spirit’.  Marazion Quaker Meeting House is the oldest Quaker Meeting House in Cornwall. It is a Grade II listed building erected in 1688/89 and largely retains its original form, and some original and historic furnishings and fittings. It has strong associations with George Fox, who visited the town in 1655, just before his imprisonment in Launceston gaol. The Meeting House exists today, as it has for the past 332 years, in order to present the opportunity to take part in Quaker worship to all who wish to do so. From this worship there arises the inspiration for many different kinds of social action locally, nationally and internationally and many opportunities for individual and corporate spiritual growth. They have consciously sought to set an example of Christian discipleship within the local and wider community, aiding the initiatives that need to flourish in the creation of a peaceful and caring society founded on the equality of all humanity, regardless of gender, beliefs and social background. In 1960 the ‘Friends’ (as they like to call themselves) Meeting was held twice each month with an attendance of eight to ten, but by 1990 the Meeting House was becoming too small for the worshipping group, and it was decided to form a new meeting in Penzance which flourishes along with Marazion in providing a Quaker witness in West Cornwall. 

We walked from our lovely holiday house through the town – past the other two churches in Marazion, one Anglican and the other Methodist – and eventually found our way to the Friends Meeting House tucked away in the back streets but with an amazing view out over the sea to St Michael’s Mount. We arrived just before the 10.30 a.m. start to find a small group of worshippers already seated around a small central table in silence waiting for the meeting to begin. No welcome, no hymn books or orders of service given out, no nothing … just a small group of largely elderly people simply sitting there. We found a couple of comfy looking seats and joined the ‘crowd’. A few others wandered in after us, so we didn’t feel too much like intruders, and eventually there were 20 of us altogether. After about 15 minutes a lady stood up and read from a book of Quaker devotional readings and talked about the importance of listening. ‘Deep listening’ she called it, and I kind of liked that qualification. A few minutes later another lady stood up and talked about a TV programme she had watched and the inter-action of two characters in it – the gist of which was that God can use us despite all the mistakes we make in life, indeed it is often through these mistakes that he shapes us and forms us into the kind of people he can use to bless others. These two themes – deep listening to others and to God himself, and the fact that God still uses us despite our faults and failings – became the theme of the meeting as various people made interesting and helpful contributions from time to time. There were no hymns, set Bible Readings, formal prayer, as such but nevertheless there was a clear and helpful message that came across – something that seemed to us to be very Biblical and Christ-centred in its essence.

At one point, despite it being my first time in a Quaker Meeting I stood up (I hadn’t planned to do this) and contributed something that seemed to fit in with, and add to, the emerging theme of the meeting, and in doing so – as I was told later by one of the ‘Friends’ – I became what is know as a ‘Weighty Quaker’. This has nothing to do with my size but with the value of my contribution. Weighty Quakers or Friends are those whose contributions are considered to ‘carry weight’ or value.

After an hour exactly the ‘elders’ (or whatever they are called) who sat centrally around the small table stood up and formally shook hands … and then we all formally shook hands … and I really liked it. The meeting was over … but actually it wasn’t because after welcoming us all they started a short ‘after meeting’ where everyone present (who didn’t consider themselves to be ‘weighty Quakers’) were invited to contribute anything that might add to what had already been said. Several did, to the benefit of the rest of us. They then welcomed visitors and asked us to introduce ourselves – which Julia did on behalf of us both, arousing great interest that a couple of Baptist Ministers from Reading should be attending a Quaker Meeting in Marazion. They were a really friendly bunch, kindly, interesting, welcoming … and we really enjoyed our time with them. I read later a comment by another visitor to a Friends Meeting House that he had never ever heard a Quaker be critical of another Quaker. There seemed to be a ‘rule of thumb’ amongst them that accepted one another without cross-questioning everything that was said or believed. How different from many other churches today where the opposite seems to be sadly true.

After the Service we said our farewells and walked down to the seafront planning to return home for some lunch. It was a beautifully sunny day and so we walked along the beach and sauntered through the town … and then we spotted a welcoming looking pub that served Sunday lunches. The Kings Arms is a traditional Cornish pub, located in the centre of Marazion. Dating from the 18th century, it’s believed to be one of the oldest brick buildings in Cornwall. According to the blurb posted outside it has ‘an enviable reputation for serving restaurant-quality food in a friendly environment.’ Julia and I looked at each other. ‘We won’t get a table’ she said, ‘it will already be fully booked for lunch!’ I was already on my way in … and yes, amazingly, they did have a table for two since it was only 12.30 p.m. And what a wonderful Sunday Roast we both had, washed down with a couple of pints of bitter shandy! It was a good job we didn’t delay, however, because the pub soon filled up with customers and the staff had to turn people away. Julia was in her element – lots to reflect upon from a fascinating time of worship, great food in a quaint, historic pub in a quaint historic town, dog-friendly so lots of new four-pawed friends to say ‘hello’ to – and just a short walk home to our lovely holiday house.

Jim Binney

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In its heyday Abbey Baptist Church, Reading, where Julia is the Minister and I am the BOGOF, was responsible for planting somewhere in the region of 25 new churches in and around the Reading area. Last Sunday we visited Carey Baptist Church, planted by Abbey in 1867 on the western edge of the Reading of those days. This Sunday we went to the other geographical extreme and visited Wycliffe Baptist Church, planted by Abbey in 1881on the eastern edge of the Reading of those days. Both churches are flourishing, numerically large, busy, active churches today, doing great work in their respective localities and wider afield. Both churches are numerically much larger today than their ‘mother church’ at Abbey (formerly known as Kings Road Baptist Church when these two church plants were established) although Abbey itself is currently enjoying a renaissance having grown from a handful of largely elderly white Brits to around 120-140 ethnically diverse congregation in the last 18 months).

So, what did we make of the 10.45 a.m. Service we attended in the main sanctuary on Sunday – which Wycliffe now call ‘The Kings Room’? According to Wycliffe’s web page ‘This service is varied, lasts around an hour, comprising of live sung worship, testimony, interviews, prayer, and Bible learning. It is aimed at all ages, with Children, Youth and Families being encouraged to take part, with themed resources provided.’ In reality it lasted almost double that time wise, which meant that we had to rush off at the end because we only had two hours parking on the street where we had parked our car so missed out on the coffee and cake we were promised in the course of the Service. It would be wrong to judge any church on one Service and we know that Wycliffe have a multiple worship approach on a Sunday morning with an earlier more traditional Service at 9.00 a.m. plus a parallel more informal service for all the family in the Sports Hall Warehouse, also at 10.45 a.m., bi-weekly at the back of the main building in which those present worship with the band, discuss a Bible passage together, learn and encourage each other to apply God’s truth in our daily lives as Christians. The strength of the church seems to be in its system of Life Groups together with its amazing day to day work ministering to the surrounding community in a whole host of practical ways.

On Sundays Wycliffe are currently working their way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans under the overall title of Living the Good News. This Sunday the theme was apparently Effective Service (Romans 15:23-33). The Service itself was led by one of the Elders – Wycliffe are very strong on ‘Eldership’ – and it attempted to incorporate a whole host of activities. A nod to the fact it was Mothering Sunday (Julia and the other ladies present were given a single daffodil); an Infant Presentation (led by the Senior Minister); various songs (led by the music group – great drummer by the way safely locked away in his plastic cage); a Prayer of Petition (led by a member of the congregation); a Bible reading (Romans 15:23-33 read by another member of the congregation); an excellent 20 minute exposition of the passage by the Associate Minister (a newly appointed lady Minister) which for me was the highlight of the Service; the reception of several new church members; and Communion (served in the traditional Baptist way). There were probably around 150 people present incorporating a good scattering of ages and ethnicities. Half the congregation left after an hour to go to the various alternative activities on offer returning in time for Communion. We came away glad to have visited Wycliffe but feeling we needed to pay further visits in order to truly make an honest judgment on Wycliffe’s ministry and mission. An incident part way through the Service when a Rasta man caused a bit of a fracas at the door and had to be gently escorted away by the church ‘bouncers’ made me realise what an important work Wycliffe do at ‘the wrong end’ of town in and amongst an area of real need.

Since it was ‘Mothering Sunday’ we hadn’t managed to book a table at any of the local pubs or restaurants – dutiful kids taking well-loved mothers out for lunch – so on speck we drove to Woodley with the intention of grabbing a coffee and maybe a walk somewhere. We like Woodley shopping precinct – it has good parking, some nice shops including even a bank or two, several nice coffee shops, and a Waitrose. It also has a couple of nice-ish eateries and I had my eye on one that I had always wanted to visit, the Bosco Lounge. I don’t really know how to describe the Bosco Lounge – it is not exactly The Ivy, but it is a home-from-home café-bar, a bit scruffy but serves good food and has excellent helpful staff. We popped in for a coffee … and ended up staying for lunch. Julia had an excellent chicken, bacon and avocado salad and I had … a gigantic all-day breakfast would you believe … an all-day breakfast for Sunday lunch! It was yumacious! And afterwards … well we abandoned the idea of a walk and went home for an afternoon snooze!

Jim Binney    

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CAREY AND THE GRIFFIN (Sabbatical Sundays 10)

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!

Jim Binney    

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Last Sunday, for our latest Sabbatical Sunday jaunt, Julia and I had a lovely day visiting Elvetham Heath near Fleet in Hampshire. In the morning we attended The Church on the Heath for their 11.00 a.m. All Together Worship Service, and afterwards we went to my daughter Caroline’s house for Sunday Lunch. Caroline and her husband Simon are members of The Church on the Heath and, until fairly recently, Caroline was on the church’s Pastoral Staff.

The Church on the Heath is a partnership of Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and United Reformed churches (which is pretty unusual) but just one church family learning to love God, serve others and live out their call to be a community where everyone can encounter the transforming love of Jesus. It started its life on, what was then the new housing development of Elvetham Heath, Fleet, twenty-three years ago. It is led by Patrick and Rosie Butler, Patrick is an ordained Anglican Minister and Rosie is a trained teacher by profession although she now works part-time at the church. The Church is around 300 strong and Patrick and Rosie have a small but dedicated staff to help them in the mission and ministry of the church.  They have a wonderful spacious modern building right at the centre of the community, near a large supermarket, the local school, and various other amenities and is a hive of activity throughout the week.

On Sunday mornings they have two Services – a more traditional Service at 9.15 a.m. followed by what they call an All Together Service at. 11.00 a.m. with coffee and cake in between the two. The earlier Service is livestreamed, but the second Service isn’t because of all the children being present. Both Services follow the same theme although they are radically different.  They are currently following a Lent Series entitled Nurturing Faith and Staying Connected, and this week the theme was The Practice of Spending Time with God Each Day. The first Service is more of a Preaching Service, but the second Service is a rather avant garde Family Service, open to all, but primarily for families with children. It is proving very popular, and attracting interest from other churches who are looking for ways to replace traditional Sunday School with something that appeals right across the board.

I have to say that it was excellent. It was different, in as much as there was no ‘preaching’ as such, but it was well planned with appropriate songs, thoughtful prayers, Bible searches, well-illustrated short talks, Bible readings, and some excellent contributions ‘from the floor’ so to speak that were very helpful to us all. There must have been around 80 people there and lots of children (who were remarkably well behaved throughout). The Service lasted about and hour and 20 minutes but was really well led by Rosie Butler and her team of helpers. There were lots of freebies available, that were excellently used to illustrate the various talks … so nice to be with a church (that has its financial struggles, as many churches do) but demonstrated such a generous spirit. We were made very welcome by everyone including the Minister and given a guided tour of their impressive premises by Caroline.

After the Service we drove back to Caroline and Simon’s lovely house in Elvetham Heath for an excellent Sunday lunch and a chance to catch up on family gossip as well as matters of faith and putting the world to rights! Sam, Caroline and Simon’s son, was there as well (they have a married daughter, Hannah, who now lives in London). Sam is studying at the University of Exeter but is living at home at the moment because his course requires him to have a year out on secondment, and he is working for L’Oréal for a year. Simon and Sam are Chelsea supporters so, as a Brentford supporter, I enjoyed bragging rights (Brentford being above Chelsea in the Premier League Table) for a change! We enjoyed an excellent lunch and Caroline had even made apple crumble with custard for pudding (a rare treat for me these days).

So, an excellent day all round. Great church, lovely worship, wonderful lunch … and quality time spent with my favourite daughter (well my only daughter in fact)!

Jim Binney    

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ALL SAINTS AND A SIMPLE MEAL (Sabbatical Sundays 08)

This weekend we are down in Ebbesbourne Wake in Wiltshire once again, visiting Julia’s 96-year-old mother, Olivia. Where to worship this coming Sunday? That is the question? We have to be back in Reading on Monday (although still on sabbatical, Julia has a couple of meetings in preparation for returning to work at the beginning of April) so we don’t want to venture into Salisbury again this visit. We are looking after Olivia this weekend so we don’t want to be out and about for too long anyway.

We decide to go local and visit one of the churches in the Chalke Valley. Julia’s younger sister, Livy (who lives next door but one to Olivia, and who is her principal carer) suggests All Saints at nearby Broad Chalke because they have a 9.30 a.m. Parish Communion. Livy is going to the 6.00 p.m. Evening Prayer at another of the Chalke Valley churches, Holy Trinity at Bower Chalke but that is too late for us because Julia has to make dinner for Olivia around that time. There is no Service this Sunday at St John the Baptist in Ebbesbourne Wake itself so we can’t go there. There was a Methodist Church in Ebbesbourne Wake (but that has recently closed) and there is a United Reform Church at Broad Chalke (but their Service is not until 10.30 a.m.). We would like to go there sometime because it is a great example of a very successful Community Hub Church operating as a village shop, Post Office and Community Café six days a weeks and a church on a Sunday … but this Sunday we have to be back home for 11.00 a.m. for Olivia. So … All Saints, Broad Chalke it is then!   

The Chalke Valley group of Anglican Churches is very interesting. We have actually visited them all at one time or another, but not always on a Sunday. They are a team of 12 communities spread along the Chalke Valley, near Salisbury, passionate about their local church communities, and the role that they play in rural village life, and on a mission to share God’s love and his kingdom both within those communities and further afield. Their declared aim is to ‘deliver high quality worship and develop a range of Christian worship so that all are welcomed and enriched in their faith; Love our neighbours and demonstrate this by giving our time and sharing our resources; Serve and support our village communities and especially those who are disadvantaged; Work with the schools in our valley to support them as they nurture young people early in their faith journey’. We wonder at the practical realities of these objectives given that there are church buildings in every community with all the demands that maintaining those churches brings, with limited human and financial resources.

We arrive at All Saints in good time, park in their large carpark with its magnificent views, find our way to the front of the church (with the aid of friendly parishioner who guides us through the graveyard covered with beautiful snowdrops). We are made very welcome by several people – all hopeful that we have moved permanently into the area, and slightly disappointed to discover we are only visiting – and find ourselves a nice pew where we can remain reasonably inconspicuous. I find my eyes drawn to a large painted text on the wall above the chancel – a quote from 1 Peter 2:17 – exhorting us to ‘Love the Brotherhood; Fear God; Honour the King’. We wonder which King we are supposed to be honouring with the Coronation of Charles III not that far away now?! We hope it is King Jesus!

The church is pleasantly warm (which is not always the case with Anglican Churches) and the Order of Service booklet we are given is easily understandable (which equally is not always the case with Anglican Churches). The Chalke Valley Churches don’t have a Team Rector at the moment, but they do have a couple of other Clergy Team Members who have the dubious task of looking after all these churches and communities. The Parish Communion is taken by one of these – the Rev Dr Ruth Howlett-Shipley – who is fairly new to the Chalke Valley. She is very pleasant, has a good voice and a good manner about her, and leads the Service very well.

There are 30 or so people present – virtually all elderly, white, British – but we all enter into proceedings with that level of enthusiasm one would expect from elderly, white British people. Members of the congregation read the various Lectionary Bible Passages for the day, and lead the Prayers for the Church and the World, and do so very well. The organist is excellent, although one or two of the hymns are somewhat staid, and there is a hilarious moment when we venture in to a sung response (clearly unknown and unexpected by most) where the organist plays one tune and the rest of us sing various totally unconnected tunes … all at the same time).

It is the First Sunday in Lent so the sermon (taken from Matthew 4:1-11) is about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Ruth is very good – expounding the passage well and applying its lessons practically – encouraging us to resist temptation but accept testings, whilst keeping our eyes continually on Jesus. Communion is nicely done, and we feel blessed and encouraged by the time the Service ends exactly an hour after we started. Lots of people want to talk to us – still trying to persuade us to retire to the Chalke Valley – but we eventually manage to say our final goodbyes and drive home to Ebbesbourne Wake and Olivia.

So … there will be no huge Sunday Lunch this Sunday. We are here to help look after Olivia and spend some time with her, so no visit to a local eatery is on the cards today. I do think about nipping up the road to the Horseshoe Inn in Ebbesbourne Wake – they have an excellent reputation for good food – but I don’t think I would get away with it. And … I remember that I have to ‘resist temptation’! Besides, Julia is cooking dinner for us tonight, and she is an excellent cook, so I need to leave room for that! So, a simple meal it is … a bowl of delicious chicken soup and an egg mayonnaise roll, all washed down with a glass of … water!     

Jim Binney    

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This weekend we are staying local once again and visiting our Parish Church, Trinity Church in Lower Earley, for our latest Sabbatical Sunday.  Established in the mid-1950s as a partnership between the Methodist, United Reformed and Anglican church, Trinity is situated next door to the large Asda Supermarket complex in Lower Earley and is therefore affectionately known locally as St Asda rather than Trinity … but more about all that later!

In this blog I am reversing the normal order of my reflection – ‘spiritual food’ followed by ‘literal food’ – because Julia and I have decided to forego a large Sunday Lunch this Sunday. ‘Shock! Horror!’ I hear you say in amazement – a couple of ‘foodies’ like you two forsaking an opportunity to visit yet another ‘eatery’ to sample its wares?! Well, we haven’t suddenly repented of our love of good food … its simply that we went out last night, with my son David, his wife Amy, and their boys, George and Luke, to celebrate David’s 50th birthday. We went to the Horse and Groom, a Harvester Restaurant at Bracknell, halfway between where David and his family live in New Haw and where we live in Reading. We had a great evening, really good food, great service from the staff, and so nice to spend quality time with David, Amy, George and Luke … and they picked up the bill as well!? Well I also have a significant birthday this year. I will be 80 come November, so perhaps they are already into ‘help the aged’?

David’s story is a great one. He was born with a number of serious heart defects and we were warned to expect the worst. At the time he wasn’t expected to reach 5 years of age leave alone 50. A lot of prayer was offered up for him from all over the UK and beyond. His medical records report that quite unexpectedly ‘a spontaneous correction’ took place, and (obviously) he has survived for a good number of years. His healing was not complete – he has subsequently had heart surgery to close replace a dodgy valve and close the hole in in his heart – but at the time we felt that the Lord was saying that that would be the case because David himself would have (at some point in the future) to respond personally to what God was doing in his life. For me this has such a ring of truth about it. As per the testimony we heard last Sunday at All Nations Christian Centre, God is always more interested in us finding him to be present and true and with us in times of adversity than in the shallow triumphalism so popular in too many churches today. David still enjoys good health today, and has become a fine (youngish) man of whom (as his father) I am very proud. He is a good guy, a loving husband, and a great father to his two boys.

So … back to Sunday morning and our visit to St Asda. Although drawn from three denominations, Trinity worship together as one congregation. Anyone, with or without any kind of church background, is very welcome. They are a family church and seek to be truly international and intergenerational. They share a range of Christian experiences and church backgrounds and, as a church, believe in living life to the full – showing and sharing Jesus. An outward-looking church, working within their neighbourhood enjoying strong relationships and partnerships with other local churches, they see themselves increasingly as part of ‘one church’ in Lower Earley and Reading. Amongst their commendable core values are: loving God with all your heart, body and mind and loving your neighbour as yourself. As such they seek to serve the local neighbourhood usefully, practically and spiritually to that end.

St Asda have three Services on a Sunday. A more traditional Service at 9.30 a.m., and Family Service at 11.00 a.m., and a Cantonese Service at 2.30 p.m. We opt for the Family Service, a) because we don’t speak Cantonese, and b) opting for the 11.00 a.m. Service gives us the opportunity for a rare lay in on a Sunday morning (and a leisurely soak in the bath for Julia)! We arrive in good time and join the chaos in the Sanctuary as they dismantle the formal rows of chairs from the earlier Service and set up a more informal layout (with chairs grouped around small tables) for the Family Service and attempt to serve coffee and cake at the same time.

The Family Service starts roughly on time and is very informal. It is led by the Vicar, Jon Salmon. We like Jon. He is another of our fellow Pastors who has been so supportive of us since our arrival in Reading over fours years ago. We are pleased to also meet up with Rod and Laura Eades, two of our equally supportive friends from Transform Reading (formerly known as Reading Christian Network) who have also been so kind to us. There must be around 80 people there, with lots of kids, very mixed in age and nationalities. The Service is very informal but it has all the ingredients we hope for in a Service. There is lots of prayer, and some good songs (but not too many) and a great pianist to accompany them. There is a slot for the kids which they seem to enjoy. There is Communion (with grapes for the kids) and a mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine (for the adults) to go with the bread (we are worried that since we are sitting towards the back of the church all the alcoholic wine will have gone before the servers reach us). There are Old Testament and New Testament Bible readings, and an excellent sermon (20 minutes long) by the Associate Pastor responsible for Youth and Young Adults, Sam Ruck Pender based mainly on Psalm 121 but drawing on John 1:1-5 as well.

The theme is God being our ever-present helper on a day-to-day basis. It was well preached and well-illustrated. I will certainly remind myself of what Sam shared on Monday morning when I get back to trying to write up my doctoral thesis again. At the moment I feel rather like God must have felt at the beginning of creation – surveying the chaos and hoping to create something positive out of it (Genesis 1:1) – only God managed to do just that and I am not God! Hopefully I will discover the reality that ‘My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth’ (Psalm 121:1) as I return to the chaos of books and papers everywhere and a mind full of chaotic thoughts and confused directions. There is time to reflect together in our small groups (gathered round our small tables) on what we learned from the sermon … and there is intercessory prayer for the church and for the world (if we Christians don’t intercede for our broken and hurting society who will?).

The whole Service lasts about an hour and a quarter and we enjoy it very much. Everyone is very friendly and we are pleased to see St Asda thriving and growing in numbers. We feel something of a kindred spirit with them because their journey in some ways mirrors that of our own church at Abbey with a recent upturn in numbers and a sense of positive change on the wind (the wind of God’s Spirit we trust).

So after Service it is a short drive to the University of Reading for a coffee in the sunshine and a walk around the marvellous Harris Gardens to see the snow drops before returning home for a light lunch … and an afternoon sleep. How pleasant it is to actually live a fairly ‘normal’ kind of life for a change?!

Jim Binney    

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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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We are driving past Wimbledon Common, at silly o’clock on a Sunday morning, because the Church Service we are going to starts at 9.30 a.m. Perhaps it is because it is silly o’clock, or because we had a hilarious overnight stay at the Premier Inn, Chessington (involving a somewhat disastrous dinner and equally disappointing breakfast at the Monkey Puzzle Beefeater next door, as part of the package deal) which we learned to laugh about rather than get bitter. Or perhaps it is simply because we are alongside Wimbledon Common … but (whatever the reason) I find myself singing the Wombling Song:

Wombles are organised, work as a team,

Wombles are tidy and Wombles are clean.

Underground, overground, Wombling free,

The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we.

We are on our way to St Matthews Church, an inclusive and vibrant church which sits in the heart of the West Wimbledon and Raynes Park community. They describe themselves as ‘a traditional – in a modern kind of way; liberal – in an orthodox kind of way, and we enjoy music, discussion about the Christian faith, and engaging with our community … our services are both formal and relaxed, engaging all our senses as we joyfully worship God … the home of Soulscape Wimbledon… a monthly space for anyone and everyone to connect with God in their own way through silence, music and meditative prayer’.

We are going to their ‘Mass for All Ages with Baptism and First Communion’ Our friends Serena and Alastair Newman are members there – Alastair is now an ordained Anglican Priest, and Curate at St Matthews. They were members of Beckenham Baptist Church, Kent, when Julia and I were the Senior and Associate Ministers there. We married them, and we are godparents to their two children Sebastian and Genevieve. Genevieve is being baptised today (by affusion not full immersion) and we are looking forward to seeing them (and a good number of their family and friends) at the Service and at their house for lunch afterwards.

In the course of 50+ years in the Baptist Ministry I have seen a number of people (who have sat under my ministry, so to speak) hear, and respond, to God’s call to the ministry themselves. Fascinatingly, quite a few have ended up as Anglican Ministers (I should really be put on commission by the Church of England). I have pondered why this has happened so often? Is it because I have failed to do my job of facilitating, enabling, and encouraging, properly? The conclusion I have come to is that it is because I have always encouraged those under my ministry to think deeply about the Christian Faith (not simply ‘academically’ but in a C S Lewis’ ‘deep church’ way). I suspect that some have embraced a more Catholic Faith as a reaction to what has been perceived as a somewhat shallow, trite, and (at times) quite nasty or ‘nutty’ side, in some forms of evangelical and charismatic approach to the Christian faith. It is therefore not surprising that an increasing number are seeking something a bit deeper, more real, more practical in terms of us Christians truly being salt and light and leaven in this broken and hurting world of ours.

St Matthews is ‘High Church’ but they do it well! Alastair (aware that we missed out on the incense last Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral) has promised us plenty of ‘smells and bells’ this Sunday. I have to confess that I rarely attend such churches without a secret smile as I recall a line from Larry Norman’s poem (c. 1970s), The First Time I Went to Church (about the observations of a group of 18 year-old non-church kids first visit to a High Anglican Service), ‘Holy smoke … Vicar’s handbag’s caught on fire!’  

The church is packed when we arrive. There must be 150+ I estimate. I don’t know if this is normal, or if there are a lot more because it is an ‘All Age’ Mass and eleven children are receiving their First Communion and lots of parents and family are present. The Service is great and we really love it. Somehow the ‘theatre’ of High Church worship lends itself to an All Age Service. There are lots of children there and they really engage with all the drama of the worship. Alastair conducts worship really well – Julia tells him afterwards that she is really proud of him – mind you he really looks the part. Tall, dark and handsome, a great voice, intelligent, a good communicator, he has a presence about him … he even carries off wearing all those robes well. The music is excellent, a good choir (seated in the congregation), a great organist/pianist, a lovely blend of songs and hymns well suited for a family service (we loved the beginning of the Prayers of Confession and Repentance sung to the tune of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’, and the conclusion of a Prayer of Praise to the tune of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’). It was a shame that nothing was sung to the Wombling Song though.

The children participated fully in the Service with Bible Readings and Prayers, gathering around the Vicar, the Rev Dr Helen Orchard (affectionately known as Mother Helen) for her wonderfully illustrated Sermon on the Gospel Reading for the Day, Jesus’ teaching on being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-20). She was quite brilliant with them (drawing us all into her subject at the same time). With skilful use of her props – an egg floating in salty water and a reading lamp that needs to be plugged in to the mains in order to shine brightly – she fully involved the children eliciting positive responses from them about the need to truly believe in Jesus, and demonstrate that through Bible reading, prayer, attending church, taking the sacraments seriously, service and witness in the world. The kids loved it … and so did us adults!

Everyone was really friendly. There was coffee and cake afterwards – the coffee was instant (the unforgivable sin in my eyes) but I will forgive them if they have purchased a decent coffee making machine in time for our next visit. And we will visit again … not just to see Serena, Alastair, Sebastian and Genevieve … but because we really enjoyed the occasion, and received something from God from it. I have no intention of transferring my allegiance to High Church Anglicanism (at present), but I do appreciate the ‘substance’ of a well thought through act of worship, skilfully presented Bible teaching, a meaningful Eucharist … everything impregnated with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

After the Service we all pile round to Serena and Alistair’s house. We are all there – Great Uncle Bulgaria (old and wise), Tobermory (handyman), Madame Cholet (chef), Orinoco (lazy and greedy), Wellington (clever and shy), Tomsk (sporty and strong, Bungo (bossy and excitable) and all the rest. It is so good to catch up with so many old friends (and make a few new ones as well). Although not related, Julia and I feel very much part of the Aylward/Newman extended family as we have all known each other for a good few years now and shared a lot together. It is a lovely time of catching up, swopping news and stories, and just having good conversation. Meeting new babies, laughing at funny stories, and sharing sadness’s as well. I just love being amongst this group of intelligent, interesting people – every single one far more intelligent than me but accepting of me nonetheless – such a rewarding experience. It was such a good time that I forgot to take any photos of our lunch, but I have managed to dredge up a group photo from somewhere … see below.

Jim Binney


FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD (Sabbatical Sundays 04)

‘Food, Glorious Food’, written by Lionel Bart, is the opening song from the 1960s West End and Broadway musical (and 1968 film) Oliver (based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, of course). The song is sung from the point of view of the children of a workhouse for orphans where they are forced to work to ‘earn their keep’, and deprived of proper nutrition while the administrators feast on delicacies. The children arrive for breakfast while fantasizing about delicious food such as sausage and mustard, and sweets including jelly and custard. When the workhouse boys arrive at the front of the serving line they receive only tasteless gruel from the staff. The song is intended as a metaphor for keeping hope alive, despite being mistreated. Last Sunday (29 January), for our 4th Sabbatical Sunday, we visited Salisbury Cathedral for their 10.30 a.m. Holy Eucharist, and afterwards went for lunch at the Cathedral Refectory Restaurant … and what a veritable feast both events proved to be. Food, glorious food, nourishment for both soul and the body!

Once a month Julia and I go down to Ebbesbourne Wake, a small village down the Chalke Valley near to Salisbury. Julia’s mother, Olivia, is 96 years of age and lives in a charming little cottage next-door-but-one to Julia’s younger sister, Livy and Livy’s husband Jack (and the dog, and the cat). Olivia maintains her independence supported by Livy (and a team of carers) and we go down for a few days each month to see Olivia, and give Livy the opportunity to get away herself for a short break. It all works very well. Because we are on sabbatical we had the opportunity to go over a weekend (we usually go down on a Sunday afternoon after the Morning Service at Abbey). This meant that we could visit Salisbury Cathedral on the Sunday.

We have visited the medieval city of Salisbury many times, and the Cathedral many times, but never for a Sunday Service. Sarum College, the Anglican centre of theological learning in Salisbury sits within the cathedral close on the north side of Salisbury Cathedral. We enjoy a good relationship with Sarum. The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward, the Principal, is one of our main Supervisors for our doctoral studies at the University of Winchester, so we often visit Sarum as well (which has links with the University of Winchester).

In reality ‘cathedral worship’ is a genre in itself, and people seem to either love it or hate it. Cathedrals have a life of their own which is very 24/7. As the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, the Dean, suggests, ‘For centuries, this holy place has captivated pilgrims, worshippers, and visitors alike. In its breath-taking beauty, we glimpse the faith and hope of those who conceived and built it and, as we gaze upon their work, we find our own faith and hope restored.’ Sunday Worship in a cathedral can be ‘a bit of a show’ in many respects with the congregation often reduced to ‘mere observers’ rather than ‘major participants’. Salisbury recognises this and unashamedly confesses that ‘music is central to our services and is led by our talented choirs and musicians’ but at the same time it prides itself on being ‘a living Church where God is praised and people grow in faith. We pray daily for our community and the world beyond it.’ It certainly has the buzz of being a ‘local church’.

We arrived in Salisbury in good time, parked in the main carpark, and walked through the quaint mediaeval streets to the cathedral set in its own beautiful grounds. The cathedral itself is aesthetically very pleasing with the most remarkable large central font where water is the predominant feature, its surface reflecting and extending the surrounding architecture. The surface looks like solid black marble rather than water and more than one tourist (I’m reliably informed) has laid their mobile phone on this ‘marble surface’ only to see it sink slowly to the bottom of the font!?

We were made very welcome – I would say ‘warmly welcomed’ but it was a freezing day and I wish I had worn my thermal ‘Long John’s’. The Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’, is the posh way Anglicans talk about Communion) was indeed quite a show … and we loved it. Everything from the winsome notices from the Dean at the beginning to the excellent coffee and chat after the Service was over. We loved the ceremony, the parading in, the excellent choir, the way the Dean conducted the Service, the beautifully read Bible Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, the thoughtful prayers of intercession for the Church and the World by one of the lay members of the congregation. The Eucharist itself was dignified and orderly, as one would expect in the context, but so, so meaningful. Star event for us both, however, was the sermon – fifteen minutes of winsome, well-crafted, exposition of the Story of the Wedding Feast at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) by the Cathedral Treasurer, Canon Kenneth Padley. Quite brilliant, faithful to the text, and Christ-centred – a message for those who wish to reflect on Jesus rather than for the ‘activists’. (You can find recordings of the sermons on YouTube). Interestingly enough was the total absence of incense – perhaps we will make up for it next week when we are going to a baptismal service in another High Anglican Church?!

There were around 300-400 people present (as far as I could tell) although I gather that there are a lot more people, from all round the world, who follow the livestreaming of the Services. The congregation was 99.9% white and (with the exception of the choirboys – yes they were all boys) middle-aged and respectable (as you might possibly expect in Salisbury). Lots of people engaged us in good conversation afterwards – including Canon Padley himself, and we felt very much at home. We will definitely pay a return visit sometime. As someone whose Christian roots are in evangelical faith, Pentecostal experience, and Baptist ecclesiology what do I find of worth and value in such a place as Salisbury Cathedral? I suppose what I found on this particular Sunday was an intelligent pattern to the whole worship event; well-crafted, biblical, winsome, Christ-centred preaching; a sense of dignity and encounter in Communion; well-read Scripture and thoughtful, passionate prayers for the Church and the World; a warmth of welcome (and good coffee) … There is no reason why we non-conformists can’t do all these things well ourselves … but increasingly I find myself getting more and more annoyed by the ‘sloppiness’, the ‘anything goes’ attitude of so much evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Has God become too much the ‘all-matey rather than the Almighty’ for some of us?!  

After the Service we wandered over to Sarum College, to return some books to the college library, and then decided to have lunch back at the Cathedral Refectory rather than wander round Salisbury looking for a restaurant. ‘We will just have a bowl of soup … and maybe I will allow you to have a sandwich … because we are having a big meal tonight!’ Julia said, authoritatively. The Cathedral Refectory Restaurant is excellent – we have eaten there before – and a very pleasant venue. Surprisingly it wasn’t as crowded as we expected (perhaps it was a bit early for Sunday lunch) and we found a nice table. Sunday lunch at the Refectory is (I would suggest) a bit special. We took one look at what was on offer, and how reasonably priced it all was, and … any idea of ‘just a bowl of soup’ went right out the window. The best Sunday lunch we have had so far this year by far! If you ever find yourself in Salisbury visit the Cathedral and have lunch at the Refectory Restaurant.

So it was back to Ebbesbourne Wake for an afternoon snooze … we needed that after such a large yumacious Sunday lunch … and a light supper! A nice piece of fish accompanied by a nice glass of chilled white wine … although I expect Jesus turned the water in the jars at the Cana wedding into a rather splendiferous full bodied red!

Jim Binney     

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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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