Freedom Course attendees enjoy a fun end-of-term session making mocktails!
After a month of sabbatical, it’s good to be back with you, and also - finally - for us to be able to start emerging from the restrictions of the last 15 months. As I get back into the saddle, though, I thought that you might like to know what I’ve been up to!
Firstly, the chance to step back from parish duties and take time to retreat, study and rest is a great privilege, for which I want to express how tremendously grateful I am.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of sabbatical, because it can be so difficult to switch off from pastoral ministry when it engages you at a deeply personal level and surrounds you 24/7, as a safeguard against the rising spectre of ministry-related burnout, clergy are offered a 3-month sabbatical every seven-ten years, during which they are encouraged to seek refreshment and restoration through whatever pattern of retreat, study, rest and recreation will best serve their needs.
As many of you will know, my sabbatical was due at the time when the first lockdown struck. As well as having prepared a detailed agenda for study (expanding my reading into the way that we are made in God’s image, with particular reference to the way that our brains are designed to function to reflect that image), Emma and I originally had plans to retreat together for part of the time and also to take the family on an extended visit to New Zealand and Tonga in the South Pacific. The trip that we’d booked was peripherally related to my study plans, but also intended as a holiday, visiting places that had been special to me in the past - I spent nine months in New Zealand in 1991 when I’d just left school, and 3 months in Tonga in 1996 as a medical student (Emma had wanted to join me at the time, but it hadn’t seemed practical, and I’d always since regretted not taking her!).
Initially we thought that we’d push the whole thing back from 2020 by a year, but I rapidly realised that I really did need some time out last summer, so - having spoken to the Bishop - decided to split the sabbatical into different parts. I therefore took a few weeks away from active ministry in July last year, walking part of the Darcy Dalton Way with Emma and trying to engage in some directed study in my Shepherds Hut. I hugely appreciated the gift of that time out, but being restricted to staying at home, with Emma still fully involved with our escalating outreach ministries, and the height of our Covid-response all going on around me, I confess that I found it impossible to disengage fully from the parish and focus on my study plans.
That lesson led me to approach the second month of my revised sabbatical very differently. I therefore booked time in three different places to get me out of Chippy for the whole month (coming back to see the family at the weekends). I spent the first week in Dartmouth (on the edge of a golf course!), the second week on silent retreat at St Beuno’s (a Jesuit retreat centre in North Wales), and the remaining fortnight staying in college at Christ Church, Oxford (and spending many hours in the incredible and inspiring environment of libraries such as the Bodleian, Radcliffe Camera and Taylorian).
This time, rather than setting myself study ’targets’, I chose C.S.Lewis as my travelling companion and loaded myself up with as many of his publications as I could get hold of, and have simply loved immersing myself in his writing for the last few weeks. Most of you will know him for his Chronicles of Narnia, but alongside the imaginative writing for which he will probably be most widely remembered - as an Oxford academic and former strident atheist, who came to faith in his early thirties through a painstaking process of logical, rational investigation, he was actually one of the most prominent and effective Christian apologists of the last century.
I was drawn to him because of the way that - in contrast to many atheists today - he insists on combining deliberate logical and rational analysis with what he calls our ‘imaginative' faculties for us to exist fully as the human beings that we are. He critiques scientific materialism for its blinkered and narrow world view or perspectives, which dismiss out of hand the part of our existence that makes us most truly human (because it cannot be measured and observed in the same way as the purely physical) and therefore reduce us to the level of sub-humans.
I started with ’Surprised by Joy’, the autobiographical account of his early childhood in Northern Ireland, his schooling in England and his conversion from atheism to Christianity in Oxford in the years after he had served in the trenches in the WW1 (if you’ve not read it, I would highly commend it). What grabbed me and drew me in from the start was the resonance that I felt with his descriptions of the stabs of ‘joy’ that led him so powerfully and compellingly to conclude that we are part of something bigger. He writes of experiencing, at times (such as when pricked by a moment of nostalgia, or when struck by something of transcendent beauty), "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a techical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again."
As I read through and digested other works of his (including 'The Abolition of Man', ’The Screwtape Letters’, ‘Mere Christianity’, ‘A Grief Observed’, ’The Four Loves’, ’The Weight of Glory’, and particularly ‘Letters to Malcom: chiefly on prayer’), the many recurring themes and his emphasis on engaging both our rational brains and our ‘imagination’ (as he uses the term) restored and refreshed me deeply.
Combined with the time that I’ve had simply to be with God in prayer, and in looking for his fingerprints in the natural world around us, I hope that my time of reading will now enable me to step back into church life in Chipping Norton with a new spiritual spring in my step, once again excited about the journey that God is leading us along, so I look forward to trying to share some of that renewed enthusiasm with you in the weeks and months to come.
My experience of the difference that the last few weeks has made to me, personally, also makes me recognise how important it is that Emma can, herself, now find the right moment to step back and rest from her Outreach Ministries for a few weeks, so please do pray for wisdom for her as to when that might be possible. Lastly, it makes me look forward all the more to the concluding third of my sabbatical next summer, when we are very much praying that the borders will have opened up to allow us to travel as a family in the way we had been hoping to do last year!
"It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side. It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me... It seemed to have always been with me..."
C.S. Lewis - Surprised by Joy
PICTURES OF THE WEEK
Last weekend youth from St. Mary's, along with others from the North Cotswold Gospel Partnership, met for Gladiator activities, wet games and a barbecue. Activities were supplied by former TV Gladiator, Warren “Ace” Furman who also gave a talk. Come along to our service this Sunday (or tune in by livestream) to hear more.
Who are those mysterious people who lurk at the back of church? It's the Tech Team!
We're a small, friendly team with ability levels ranging from "very techie" to "can press buttons". Our mission is to help people worship and meet with God - including anyone attending church on Sunday, and the 150 or so people who watch from home each week.
We're always welcoming of anyone who would like to help or to find out more. We'd love to show you how it all works!
Here Tim gives us a guided tour of the equipment and explains how the team have met with the challenges of the last year or so.
A HUGE thank you goes out to the Tech Team for everything that they've done behind the scenes over the last year or so to make sure that people can continue to access services. You've done an amazing job!
COVID: NEXT STEPS
From next week (i.e. after the 19th July) we will be trying to walk the tightrope between enjoying the freedoms that we’ve been missing for so long, and - at the same time - trying to ensure that people feel comfortable if they’re still erring on the side of caution.
Although I’m sure we’ll also have guidance from the Diocese in due course, our current plans are to embrace being able to worship together and to sing again without wearing face-masks (although, of course, we fully recognise that some people will prefer to continue wearing their face-masks for a while longer). Because St Mary’s is large enough for us still to maintain a good degree of social distancing, we will continue to use alternate pews as far as possible in the immediate future, and will ask people still to sit 2m apart from other people/bubbles, respecting their personal choices, unless they are specifically invited to sit closer.
We will obviously be feeling our way with this, but hope that this strikes the right balance.
PERSONAL DISCIPLESHIP PLANS
Identifying your gifts and developing a Personal Discipleship Plan
At St. Mary's we're running "Personal Discipleship Plans", a chance to meet with a mentor from time to time, get to know ourselves better and unlock those gifts and passions that we all have, tucked away.
If you're interested in joining or finding out more, please email email@example.com.
Click the button below to hear how the scheme has worked for Rachel and Ben.
Book: Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis - recommended by James
This unusual book is C.S. Lewis's autobiography, in which he recounts details of his childhood, his (somewhat disturbing) time at school and his eventual decision to embrace Christianity.
Lewis shows how his writing and his ability to imagine other worlds began from childhood. As always, his descriptions of human experience are touching and incredibly relatable.
Lewis's journey to faith was very different to many of the testimonies we typically hear, and the book shows how God can use the most unlikely of experiences to reveal himself to us. Lewis also shows how - like the cat/lion in "The Horse and His Boy" - God had "always been with [him]", travelling alongside and showing glimpses of himself.
In recent months at St Mary's, God has been extending our vision to serve the town in an exciting, ambitious and creative way at a time of substantially increasing need for many within our community...
So many people in our community feel the weight of debt, and we are passionate about helping to release anyone we can from a life sentence of debt and poverty. At St Mary's we are working with Christians Against Poverty to bring good news, hope and freedom. If you need support, we'd love to hear from you.
Everyone has questions about what life is all about. We believe that everyone should have a chance to share those questions, explore the Christian faith and give their point of view.
Alpha is a place where you can ask those questions in an honest, friendly and open environment. We'll be running a course again in the Autumn, but in the meantime, find out more here...