Reflections on New Year’s Eve

2020 the year the world changed beyond measure and a new era dawned. 

My thoughts and feelings revolve paradoxically between hope and despair.

Hope that out of the tragedy and the challenges of the present there may come affirmation of the things that truly matter: our relationship with God, our neighbours, ourselves and the world we live in. Hope that we might find new ways of living that bring greater justice, peace and compassion to the world. Hope that the remarkable global collaboration that has seen nations run the race together against the ravaging enemy of Covid-19 will fuel a greater sense of belonging and solidarity across the world. Hope that in the fields of science, economics, the environment, education, technology, community and the beleaguered arts, new ways may be discovered that bring life to many. Hope that lessons learned during lockdown will lead to wiser choices, more life-giving patterns of working and relating to others and the environment. Hope that people of faith will be bearers of the Good News and play their part in shaping the future with the values and virtues that serve the good purposes of God in bringing wholeness and peace to the world. Hope that churches and Christian communities will engage in the reimaging of what living out faith means in a changing world, being co-creators of a new age rather than curators of a past age with its religious museums and memorabilia. 

Despair arises from the failings and calamitous handling of the crisis by various Governments, not least our own. No one would have wished upon any governing body what has emerged with this global pandemic which continues to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands and continues to cause a major global recession. The complexities and challenges are immense and there are no easy answers or quick fixes. The first definition of leadership is to define reality and the reality is that we are living through a major crisis that is by no means over. The paucity of wise and honourable leaders is stark. There are few leaders who bear the hallmarks of integrity, servanthood and truthfulness. Despair over the lies, propaganda and false promises are portrayed on a daily basis. From the threat of spin, we now have deceit, fake news and foolish bluster. Martin Luther King’s assertion that, ‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity’ continues to resonate deeply. As the USA loses its way and the world sees the emergence of very different superpowers like China and Russia, the prospects are uncertain. Despair over leaving the EU and the ways in which this was engineered and delivered by its chief proponents and architects. Despair over the rise of nationalism, the fuelling of independence and exceptionalism where sovereignty and national self- interest are valued more than solidarity, collaboration and unity in diversity. I will mark our leaving at 11.00 this evening with a very heavy heart and much sadness but I accept that the decision to leave has been made and is now enshrined in epoch changing law. It is now incumbent upon us all, in the words of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “to play our part in rebuilding our common moral foundation”. We have, as believers, the mandate to work for the transformation and blessing of the world, where again, according to Sacks, “a nation is strong when it cares for the weak and rich when it cares for the poor”. Despair and anger that we have cut Foreign Aid, reneged on a firm promise made to the neediest, poorest nations in the world. Despair over the the endemic racism within society and a failure to appreciate the reality of White Supremacy. 

We are still in the season of Christmas and with it the familiar narratives and perhaps more so than ever this year, the prophetic writings that speak of hope amidst despair, of light penetrating darkness, of love conquering where hatred reigned, where a kingdom that promises justice, mercy and compassion would overturn the empires of power, greed, nationalism, exploitation and corruption. 

And it is that Good News story of a God who demonstrates his love and identity with the world that hope is found. In the coming of Christ, hope is born, transformative love is realised and the prospects of the dawning of a new day, a new world era is born. 

2020 held for many of us limitations, pale imitations of what we would truly like to have done. We have been inhibited and while 2021 promises us some hope it is not yet a reality. We face continuing uncertainty and there will be more to lament and grieve before the coming year is over. The enduring story of God’s love revealed in Christ lifts us out of every limitation into an abiding confidence that all things are possible with God. The prospects and potential of a different hope-filled future is possible. Hope can overcome despair. 

In the words of the late Corrie Ten Boom, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God”.

A benediction of peace – the peace of all peace encircle you this day and throughout the coming year. 

Bless you and take care


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I deleted a post on Facebook yesterday. This is the first time that I felt I needed to do this. I did this because of the manner in which some people communicated with one another.

I post, blog and write because I want to encourage people to love and be loved by God, to think deeply and live generously. What I witnessed yesterday were the attritional attitudes, partisan prejudices and the inability to debate and discuss with respect and honour between people who hold different views. 

The Bible says we are to “pay attention to our hearts”, the prayer of the Psalmist is that God would “create within us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us”. Anyone who desires to be serious about their relationship with God, has to address the ‘landscape’ of their own hearts. To understand the ‘passions’ and ‘monsters’, as well as what motivates, informs and shapes their lives, both consciously and unconsciously. This can be seen as Emotional Intelligence. Whatever we call it, it should lead to a deeper life and a transformation of attitudes, words and actions. A lack of self-awareness, so prevalent in the activism of our contemporary society, is a hugely debilitating factor in our ability to relate well with others; in our homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces, churches and wider society. 

It comes as no surprise to me but is nevertheless depressing that Christians can behave as badly as anybody. The disappointing  way in which some people responded yesterday was no exception. All of us who claim to follow Christ, need to remember Jesus words in John’s Gospel, “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. This requires all of us who seek to love God and neighbour to reflect on Christ, who was “full of grace and truth”. 

Christians often claim to be right and to know the truth. Often they don’t exhibit the accompanying grace that we see in Christ.  

Where, I ask myself, is the voice of kindness and respect? Where is truth with grace, debate with dignity, dialogue with respect? Where is there the ability to listen to different voices, opposing views without denigrating, dismantling and attempting to destroy?

Four people have brought me a little encouragement recently. The first of these is Jürgen Klopp. His faith and upbringing has given him an understanding of what life is like for most ordinary people. His compassionate optimism, hope filled messages and acts of kindness have touched the hearts of many. 

Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child poverty, no doubt influenced by his upbringing. Rashford’s attempt to get the government to provide meals for the poorest children in society was defeated in parliament. However in his battle to defeat food poverty, he has invoked the kindness of strangers, a far greater force than the Government has been able achieve. 

Joe Biden, took a call the other day from his granddaughter whilst he was on the campaign trail. This could either be seen as a political stunt or the action of a caring grandparent. You could say that this encounter was orchestrated but I’d like to believe it as authentic. Another incident happened at the Democratic Convention in the summer when he helped a young boy with a stammer., see: What helps me to believe its authenticity is the fact that Biden has for many years helped youngsters who struggle with stammering, something he himself has had to contend with.

Finally, there is Jacinda Arden, who has been portrayed by the satirical programme Spitting Image as Mary Poppins, flying in with her umbrella to dispense a spoonful of sugar, bringing happiness and a smile to everyone she meets. 

Klopp, Rashford, Biden and Arden reveal intellect and emotional intelligence, kindness, decency, a genuine care and concern for people, as well as humility and a willingness to listen and identify with those who they work with and seek to serve. These are attitudes which reflect the character of Christ and the virtues and values which contribute to the common good. They build society where black lives and all lives matter.  Where integrity, kindness, compassion, justice and mercy, generosity, peacefulness and consideration of each other are fused together and bring benediction, not malediction to the world.

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That was the week that was – reflections on the past seven days.

This time last week I was multitasking; simultaneously preaching in Cornwall, Canada and Ireland whilst walking along the banks of the River Wear at Chester-le- Street – such are the wonders of modern technology and pre-recorded sermons and talks!

I feel bereft not being able to be with any of our family, including our two youngest granddaughters, who like everyone else in the north-east are in lockdown. We were with them for the first five weeks of Annabelle’s life and have missed the following weeks and can only observe her and her lovely sister Lyra growing up on WhatsApp and video calls.

Start the Week was not with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 but with my Prayer Accompaniers, valued friends and supporters. I cannot underestimate the encouragement of such a group who I meet with online every first Monday in the month. There followed a lovely mentoring session with Chris Friend, someone who I was privileged to be involved in training at Cranmer and now mentor. I look forward to him and Caroline his wife becoming our pastors when we move back to Northumberland, hopefully before Christmas. 

Yes, you heard it right, the rumours are true; we are going ‘home’ to the North East! Within the last three weeks we’ve sold our house here in Northallerton and have bought a house in Alnwick. With so many changes because of COVID-19 and my extensive travelling now being done by Zoom and Microsoft teams on my laptop, we decided, whilst away in Ireland in the summer, to return ‘home’ earlier than we had anticipated. 

Northallerton has been a really good location with its transport links, lovely house, great neighbours and the church that we have been pleased to belong to. A church that has been very affirming of my wider ministry and one where we have been blessed to be under some brilliant Bible teaching and good leadership. New Life will remain one of our seven Partner Churches, who in return for my doing some work with them, are supportive of my work with emerging pioneers and missional 

The prospect of going home to Northumberland is one that has both delighted and excited us. Back to where I was born, where I was called to the ministry, where Shirley and I trained and where we have lived, founding and leading the Northumbria Community for nearly 30 years, a community where our vocation lies. No longer a leader but still very much a part of as Companions. 

I hoped on Monday to have gone for a walk with Dave Tubby, team leader at Heaton Baptist Church in Newcastle, whose parents now live in Northallerton, but it had to be cancelled because Tyneside is in lockdown so we resorted to an online coffee and conversation. We talked about faith, football and dreaming what a missional, relational association of leaders and pioneers, working in partnership might look like here in the north-east. As it says in Acts 2, “your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”!

The afternoon saw the second of our Baptist Union Pioneer Roundtables; a gathering of key pioneers throughout the regions looking at issues and what we might bring to the denomination. A remarkable group of very gifted, out-of-the-box, imaginative, radical thinkers and practitioners whose prophetic and apostolic giftings are a great blessing. 

A bike ride taking in the beauty of the autumn colours on the trees and hedgerows and the chill air on hands and face as I cycled, a reminder of the changing seasons, shorter days and the prospect of a long and what could be very difficult winter.

Monday concluded with another session with some of our other Prayer Accompaniers and Compline. Closing the day picturing my children and grandchildren as we pray the words “my dear ones are God bless them and keep them in every place where they are”.

Tuesday morning saw me writing and in the afternoon I spent two hours on zoom with my delightful Pioneer Ambassador colleagues, Ali Boulton and Simon Goddard, meeting with our line manager, Diane Watts, the acting Head of Faith and Society for the Baptist Union. Colleagues who have become good friends, colleagues with whom there is a mutual respect, a deepening friendship and care for one another, and an understanding of the dynamics of our pioneering calling that is often difficult to convey to those whose definitions of ministry and mission are different. 

A walk and some time reading followed. I am thoroughly enjoying being part of the Renovare Book club and we are currently reading Pete Greig‘s excellent book, ‘How to Pray, a simple guide for normal people’ and Tim Soerens excellent ‘Everywhere You Look – discovering the church right where you are’. I met Tim a number of years ago at a conference and we’ve been in touch again this week. He is a pastor, social entrepreneur and the founder of the Parish Collective. His book helps us to see how the present and unsettled state of affairs and shaking in the world and the emerging generations who have opted and are opting out of the church in large numbers, provides an opportunity to reimagine or discover what it means to be church without walls, to discover a grassroots movement of ordinary people living life and faith in everyday lives. The book is like a manifesto, one that is simple and profound and speaks of hope to human life in society. Well worth a read.

I dropped a line to our MP, Rushi Sunak, (bless him, he has a lot on his plate at present!). I assured him of my prayers but raised a matter of concern that I trust one of his aides might at least read. I was reading about the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords as peers voted in support of an amendment to Priti Patel’s flagship Immigration Bill designed to protect family reunion rules for asylum-seekers beyond Brexit. The clause, was tabled by four peers including Alf Dubs, who was himself a former child refugee, and aims to ensure that rights under UK law to family reunion, at present covered by EU legislation known as the Dublin III treaty, will continue after the transition period.

Wednesday morning saw me join with a whole host of Eastern European theologians and church leaders to mark a book published in honour of Sergei. I had met or come across many of those on the screen during my European travels and it was a ‘proud father’ moment to see our younger son Joshua, hosting the session. He is a very bright academic theologian, writer (he had co-edited the book) and gifted linguist who welcomed people and facilitated the conversations in Russian, Ukrainian and the language that I still struggle with on occasions, English! He possesses his mothers linguistic genes. 

Every Wednesday, I seek to take time intentionally to pray and reflect, read and write and the day begins, ends and is interspersed by my hosting of our Northumbria Community Daily Offices. It’s lovely to begin the day with Companions and Friends of the Community to share Morning Prayer. Later in the day with another group, gathering online from many places around the world for Evening Prayer and then ending the day with Compline with yet another group of Companions. 

An intentional day of prayer, one that punctuates the business and activity of other days, a day of focus and a reminder of those things that are really important in life; relationship with God, self and others.

It was a day on this occasion that caused me to think through some of my abhorrence of happenings in the United States. The disturbing actions of an autocratic, demagogue of a president whose sociopathic tendencies are ruinous and so divisive and damaging to the country and its relations with the wider world. That he should be endorsed by right-wing fundamentalist Christians is something that angers and bewilders me. Someone who professes faith in a God I simply do not recognise. A leader in whom I see no evidence of Christlikeness in his attitudes, words, actions or policies. Someone who is virtually assured of the Pro-Life movement’s vote whilst he hypocritical he takes a vaccine that has been formulated using the fetus of aborted babies. He will play the Pro-Life card at the same time as decreeing policies that lead to abject poverty for many, incarcerate, lock up children in cages by the Mexican border, sanction military actions that lead to the loss of innocent lives, many of them children. His abhorrent disrespect, bullying and abusive behaviour to anyone who stands in his way reveals his love of power in contrast to the power of love that Christ reveals. I do pray ‘God Bless America’ but not in the way that statement is used on political platforms.  

Most of Thursday was spent writing and preparing for a ‘Bonfire Gathering’ webinar with The Missional Network in North America. I reminded them as I was introduced as the guest speaker that living near York where Guy Fawkes was born had certain unhelpful connotations! I was interviewed and the conversation that flowed looked at the present challenges and their impact upon leaders and how in the midst of these turbulent times, we ask ‘How we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?, What kind of leadership is required? and how we care for our souls and others? in this emerging  new world era.

A very stimulating couple of hours that will feed into some work I am doing with the Canadian missiologist and writer Alan Roxburgh.

A lovely day off on Friday with Shirley and her sister and partner, meeting up in Helmsley on the North Yorkshire Moors. We spent several hours in the delightful walled garden adjacent to the ruined castle. A place of beauty and serenity. We returned home via Rievaulx Abbey and some glorious countryside. Once home, I avoided looking at emails. Instead, we unpacked the vivarium that we bought from the local aquatic centre for our tortoises over the winter. There is nothing more distracting from my usual work than wrestling with a flatpack vivarium, wood glue, mounting the brackets and installing the electric cabling to keep these prehistoric pets comfortable. We’ve had them for years; one since we were first married and at Bible College. On the first weekend with other students we travelled up to Edinburgh, when nearly everybody spent their time purchasing books for the academic studies at the Banner of Truth bookshop, whereas Shirley and I, went next door to the pet shop and came home with a tortoise! Thug, yes that’s his name, (renamed after observation of his behaviour through the years) and Sally, whom we inherited from a retired missionary to China, (again renamed in honour of Sally Gunnel the Olympic athlete!) have remained with us as our children have all left home. We hope Thug and Sally will live for years and will have to be named in our will!

Saturday also marked Mental Health Day / Week and I give thanks to God for Renew Well-being, founded by a remarkably gifted pioneer and friend, Ruth Rice. Ruth is someone whom I had the privilege of meeting many years ago, when her undoubted gifts were evident and which have since blossomed and grown, impacting and blessing so many people within and mostly beyond the walls of the Church in naming and responding with compassion to the mental health issues that effect so many of us in society today. Blessings on the initiative that is growing and touching the lives of so many people for good. 

Saturday was one of those days I love every now and then; doing nothing but pottering; faffing about, tinkering, reading the paper, a book, surfing the net, watching a bit of tv and listening to an evening on Radio 4 dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Parsons whilst drinking a glass of red wine, (something I haven’t done for months).

And now it’s Sunday and I awoke early and thinking over the past week started to pen in my mind these reflections which have been offered in this blog.

I’m mindful of the conversations this week with those who are struggling; dear, close friends who are battling with cancer and other life threatening or limiting illnesses. I am aware of some who have died of coronavirus and several others who have contracted the virus and who are left with varying health issues. Some of them very serious for months and most of them are younger than I am. I’m mindful of three friends, whose close family members are dying and I shall be at a funeral this week of another friend, someone who I baptised many years ago at Portrack. Someone who was a rough diamond but who became a gem to many. 

We watched Gardeners World the other night which featured a conversation with the ITV morning breakfast presenter Kate Garroway whose husband Derek contracted the virus and has been in an induced coma now for several months. She spoke about how her garden was a place of healing and hope for her and her two children as they live with the uncertainty, contemplating a future with or without their husband and father.

I am often awake early in the morning and occasionally listen to Farming Today on the radio. This weeks programmes alerted me to the ongoing Brexit debacle. I guess most people will be unaware of what is trying to be passed quickly through Parliament this coming week; desperate attempts to sign a trade agreement with the United States whilst Trump remains in office; a deal that will flout EU regulations and allow our country to import cheaper food, including chlorinated chicken, dosed with antibiotics and a disregard for animal welfare. These are the so-called benefits of ‘taking back control’ and not having to comply to EU food safety standards and animal welfare issues. The farmers in their tractor driving procession through the streets of Northallerton and Stokesley this past week have been protesting not only about their futures but for the welfare of all of us as consumers. 

It is quite extraordinary how so much gets passed through parliament, with the Government’s majority of 80, measures that would normally find some checks and balances, policies that are rarely picked up by any of the media and brought to the publics attention. Anyone, particularly in the Civil Service who questions or stands in the way is moved, dismissed or forced to resign. 

The General Election handed the government an overwhelming mandate to effectively do whatever it wanted to do. Call it democracy but the fruits of such autocratic, chaotic government, which has handled many aspects of the crisis abysmally. Handing out contracts to private companies, showing a flagrant disregard of other wise voices that could be worked with collaboratively and thereby building trust, an essential commodity during a time of crisis, has led to some terrible consequences. 

Ridiculous claims about being world leaders, belligerent attitudes, dogmatism and the peddling of half-truths and boasting of achievements speaks more of arrogance and a blindness to the realities. Some humility, some willingness to listen across the political divides, to varying economic perspectives and critically to local authorities, those who know their communities far better than those who occupy the corridors of power in Whitehall, might see more progress than what feels like regress in these very challenging times. 

I do pray for the Prime Minister and our government. I do! The challenges they face are complex and incredibly demanding, (there are no easy answers or measures that can be taken) but so many of my prayers for them are shaped by bewilderment, frustration, anger and fear for the society of which I am a part. Perhaps I should simply resort to, ‘Lord have mercy’. 

I listened as I often do to the Sunday Service on Radio 4. How delightful, having prayed our Community’s Morning Prayer, to hear its words used again from the Priory and Pottery in Ewenny, Wales. A wonderful reminder of a key characteristic of our Northumbria Community’s commitment to generosity, ‘to give away that which is not ours to possess’ Love it! Would that we might all love God, think deeply and live generously. Sounds like the subtitle of a book – watch this space!

And now to another walk, a venture out to Masham, a river walk and prep for tonight’s England v Belgium game and thoughts turning to a new week ahead.

Bless you and take care.

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Women of Blessing

Yesterday, in our Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer, we celebrated the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Marking her saints day found me reflecting on the enormous blessing that she was and continues to be through her writings. Reading about her remarkable life I was reminded of the struggles that she had and that so many gifted women today have to contend with in order to have their vocation and calling to ministry recognised. Last year, with joy I handed over the baton of leadership and oversight of the Northumbria Community to three remarkably gifted women leaders. I’ve been privileged throughout my many years of ministry to work with some remarkable women but there are very few who would not testify to the struggles that they have encountered in their calling being recognised. Many now occupy roles and responsibilities, leading churches, associations, dioceses, denominations, organisations and communities but the path they have travelled has for most of them been considerably harder them for me and other men. Policies have changed but disparaging attitudes still remain and I see such attitudes and behaviours played out on a fairly regular basis. I’m encouraged that women are now invited to the tables of leadership but just because they are at the table doesn’t always mean that they are offered the top seat or that that their voice and contribution is really welcomed and heeded. Too many gifted, called by God women, have endured tortuous experiences of rejection or who have had to jump through hoops and over hurdles that their male counterparts have never known. I’ve seen good and godly women have their ministries suppressed by attitudes and actions that are not only unjust but abusive and grievous to the Holy Spirit.I see too many churches and organisations denying or suppressing the gifts of God that women in ministry bring. I observe women in ministry who are associates, team members but rarely senior pastors of a team, regional leaders or bishops. I was in conversation with a lovely group of leaders yesterday who are leading their church through an interregnum and are about to call a team leader. I’m intrigued to know whether they would consider a woman to be appointed as the team leader.Giving thanks to God for Thérèse of Lisieux I hold before God in the quiet of this early morning those whom I know and have been privileged to work with, and who I hope I have been an encouragement and affirming support to. Not an exhaustive list by any means but for each and everyone, named and honoured this day, I pray that they may continue to be blessed, and that any of the wounds they carry may be healed. I pray they may continue to be a blessing in the fulfilling of their God given calling to ministry. The blessing of God be upon; Sarah Pillar, Catherine Askew, Sarah Hay, Lina Toth, Lynn Green, Ruth Rice, Claire Wilson, Linda Donaldson, Anita Burke, Ali Boulton, Beth Rookwood, Jo Penn, Caroline Friend, Kate Bruce, Alison Myers, Selina Garner, Diane Watts, Afi Kirk, Karen Sethuraman, Kate Coleman, Cham Kaur-Mann, Mel Nixon, Jenny Few, Heather Farrow, Olive Drane, Penny Marsh, Lisa Holmes, Elaine Lindridge, Claire Hooper, Julie Bryan, Kathryn Morgan, Jacqui Green, Rachel Holland, Ingeborg te loo, Janet Elizabeth, Karen Gray, Mary Publicover, Sally Nelson, Sarah Fegredo, Ann Chesworth, Helen Roberts, Mary Taylor, Sally Mann, Annwen Stone, Pat Took, Karen Campbell, Kez Robinson, Alison Edwards, Lindsay Caplin, Rachel Hudson, Gemma Dunning, Dora Jay-Jay, Hayley Young, Molly Boot, Beth Powney, Sue Seeley, Margene Vessel, Clara Rushbrook, Angie Tunstall, Marg Hardcastle, Ivana Noble and Oksana Hudak.

Everyone a blessing from God!In remembering Thérèse and honouring these women of God I pray that in every place where we are, they may be honoured.

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Blessed St. Aidan’s Day

Waking in Ireland and returning tomorrow to Northumbria, giving thanks to God for the Celtic saint who among many has been the most influencial in my own life and calling.

Ordained under his statue on Lindisfarne, gathering most Easter Sundays with other Companions and Friends of the Northumbria Community around ‘Aidan’ before renewing our ‘vows’ to God and one another, and mindful of the impact this Irish saint had on shaping faith, this, Aidan’s Day is one of thanksgiving.

I reflect on the goldy life and devotion of Aidan and his companions who journeyed from Iona, settling and establishing a community in the 7th century, whose response to God’s call upon their lives brought life and light, hope and transformation from Northumbria throughout Europe. From the ‘margins’, they carried the light of the Good News, the light of the gospel to the ‘mainstream’. From an out of the way place they went on to shape the church and wider society for the common good.Giving thanks this day, we remember Aidan; for his love of God, his pioneering, gentleness and patience, kindness, humility, peacableness and care for the poor, his courage, love of truth, devotion and gift of building community.

He embodies the monastic calling of seeking God and sharing life. Building a community where prayer and an intentional life of discipleship was nurtured and deepened in the wells of Desert monastic spirituality’s contemplation and Celtic willingness to wander for the love of Christ wherever the Spirit led. Out of the place of solitude and aloneness, of encounter and exposure to God and self, Aidan and his monks journeyed for love of Christ and neighbour to share the life giving, transforming Good News.

Monastic and missional – powerful then and now. Expressing the power of love and not the love of power, (something contemporary political and church leaders should note!) Aidan and those early Celtic followers of Christ came as torchbearers from the North. They brought light and hope in a Dark Age, bringing Good News, not by wielding a sword, by threatening, bullying, beguiling or deceiving but by living humbly before God and one another they shared gentleness, peaceableness and hope. They spoke truth to power, challenged those with secular power and encouraged compassion, justice and generosity.

May the same Holy Spirit that inspired Aidan and his community, inspire us to be seekers of God, builders of reconciled communities and bearers of life, hope and peace in our emerging Dark Age.

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REFLECTIONS 40 Years Ordination Anniversary.

It’s an anniversary; 40 years since I was ordained to the ministry. Prayed for under the shadow of Aidan’s statue on Lindisfarne before going on to the formal ordination service at Castlegate Baptist Church in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Later that summer I was inducted as the Minister of the newly formed Portrack Baptist Church in Stockton-on-Tees. 

I still find it quite ironic that somebody from an unchurched background ended up as a church minister. I struggled in the early days with some aspects of church life and if anything, the struggles have intensified through the years but it has been a remarkable privilege and joy to have sensed a call from God and to have given expression to that calling as a minister of the gospel, the Good News of the Life, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

It’s been a journey of blessings and buffetings; times of enormous joy, pleasure and satisfaction, challenges overcome, opportunities taken, and lives touched and transformed in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. There were also times of great difficulty, painful periods of pressure and failure and worse, the experiences of being misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented. There have been many seasons of hope as well as some permeated with fear; illuminating periods and the contrasting episodes of struggle. 

Reflecting on the factors in the formation and the outworking of my ministry, I am thankful to God for Shirley who has been and is an amazingly supportive wife, and to have had an understanding and great family. I am also profoundly grateful for a whole host of people, places and experiences, that include:

Some brilliant lifelong friends, colleagues and Companions of the Northumbria Community. I am deeply appreciative of Janet Elizabeth my spiritual director, soul friends Rob and Gayle-Anne, the godly example of a former ‘abbot’ and close friend Trevor and the many wise mentors and inspirational people through the long haul of many years of ministry.

Going to Lebanon Missionary Bible College in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which was brilliant for someone who was fairly new to the faith. Although not the greatest academic institution in the world, it was there I learnt from the staff and some students what it meant to love God and allow that love to spill over into mission. This was expressed in carrying the compassion of God for his world and sharing the good news of the Christian faith, encouraging believers and opening the pathways and sharing life with all for whom an awareness of God and his love seemed closed or distant. Etched deep into my soul are the memories of Doc Rigby, our college Principal, who was so moved with compassion that when he spoke about the ‘least, the lost on the lonely’ tears would trickle down his cheeks, not for effect but flowing from a heart that cared deeply.

For the opportunity to do some postgraduate studies at Cardiff University when I was introduced to philosophy, sociology and psychology, alongside familiar theological studies. This laid a foundation for me to later do my Masters in Applied Theology at Newcastle University. 

The gift, challenge and opportunity of what would now be thought of as pioneering with some amazing people in the urban, council estate culture of Portrack in Teesside in the 1980s. From small beginnings, statistically, we were the fastest growing Baptist Church within the denomination, seeing an increase from 18 members to 96 in 7 years, baptising over 50 people, sending 10 people into various forms of church ministry. We also initiated engaging with the local community in a job creation scheme, weaving the rich threads of social justice, charismatic renewal and mission into a Kingdom tapestry that created something beautiful out of brokenness. We were (and the church remains) a remarkably innovative and creative bunch, in a permission giving, risk-taking, down-to-earth and very adventurous community of people. 

It was whilst there that my interest in politics became more focussed. Seeing unemployment rise from 18% to 52% in our ward over four years and witnessing the ravaging of Government economic policy, damaging good people, hard-working people, where many skilled and semi-skilled workers were discarded to the dole queue, resulting in dire consequences for peoples wellbeing. My belief was that to fail to engage with the institutions and political structures would have been failing as a minister of the gospel.

I had always felt slightly confined by a belief, still prevalent in many church quarters, of the expectancy that the pastor / teacher model of ministry would be the one adopted, whereas Portrack allowed my apostolic calling and prophetic edge to flourish and grow. A wider ministry, the forming with friends within and beyond Portrack of Northumbria Ministriesdeveloped. The wider ministry led to receiving a call to come alongside and succeed Frank Cooke at Andover in Hampshire, a church with a vision for planting other congregations from the town all the way down the Test Valley to Romsey. A large healthy, growing church, it was a natural step for somebody who was seen to be ‘successful’ in ministry. However, in considering my response to the church’s invitation, a journey up to my parents’ house in Northumberland, caused me to pull over by the side of the A1, shedding tears as I looked out over Bamburgh, Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian coast and over to the Cheviot hills and the realisation that not only was this the place of my calling to the ministry, it was to be at the heart of that calling to Northumbria. 

In trying to work out what that calling would entail, the developing of a wider ministry continued but with a Northumbrian emphasis and an invitation to join the ministry team at Enon Baptist Church in Sunderland. One of the larger charismatic, evangelical churches in the north-east, its growth was principally from attracting people from other churches perceived to be less attractive. 

The church invited me to help in their engagement with mission. I had hoped that this would have sat alongside my growing commitment and emerging vision for Northumbria. Sadly, things didn’t work out as I had envisaged and within 18 months, I became the Senior Pastor and found myself running the church, feeling the pressure, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, of trying to keep the customer satisfied. I also needed the space to ask the questions that accompanied my disillusionment with the power and control mechanisms, the narrow confines as I experienced them of a dominant combination of reformed and charismatic spirituality. This bordered on fundamentalism and certainly had traces of narrow, confined judgementalism which I found difficult to live with. I was respected as a Bible teacher and caring pastor but the apostolic gifts of creativity and innovation were difficult to exercise. I was good at what I did, and I could do the ‘stuff’ of ministry, but I had lost the heart of what faith is all about; relationship with God, self and others. 

The discovery of monastic spirituality with its contemplative heart, the rediscovery of the Celtic Saints and the rekindling of friendships led to the merging of two groupings: Northumbria Ministries and the Nether Springs Trust, which formed the Northumbria Community. This was then and remains to this day, my place of vocation and up until recently has been the primary vehicle through which my ministry has been exercised. Embracing a Rule of life, of Availability and Vulnerability, has provided the foundation and framework for my life and faith, for my calling and ministry. I have never seen it as incompatible with the promises I made before God and the congregation assembled at my ordination service. For me there is no incompatibility between being part of a new monastic Community and being a nonconformist minister. The three questions that are at the heart of the Northumbria Community, our ‘raison d’etre’; Who is it that you’re seek? How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? and How then shall we live? remain as true for me as an ordained Baptist minister as they do as a Companion of the Northumbria Community. 

Pioneering with the Community in those exciting, exhilarating days, when new ground was being broken were scary and thrilling at the same time. Many mistakes were made, but the joys of the journey far outweighed costly pains, so even with reserves exhausted and bank balances impoverished and our struggles compounded, we nevertheless, by the grace of God, saw something birthed that has gone on to bring life to hundreds and thousands of people now across the world.

My role and responsibilities within the Community have evolved over the years and I am no longer one of its leaders, having handed the baton over to three gifted successors, on this day last year at Old Bewick in Northumberland, a sacred, ‘thin’ out of the way place that holds so many special memories for us as a Community. For many years, people described me as the public face of the Community. This was because of my wandering for the love of Christ, speaking and leading teams throughout the UK and across Europe, networking and connecting and encouraging people beyond our Mother House to embrace and live out the Rule of life ‘in every place where they are.’ 

Alongside this apostolic, ambassadorial role, linking people and forging partnerships with the Community, my ministry saw me establishing the Renovare Board, with its founder and my good friend Richard Foster. I spearheaded a partnership with Bible Society and was very involved with another friend, Neil Crosbie, and people like Martin Robinson and Colin Greene, in seeing the Society moving from a Bible distribution agency to that of a missional organisation radically engaging within the public domains of the arts, politics, education and the workplace. Out of that partnership emerged the Telling Place, a storytelling initiative that was a remarkable creative way of engaging and sharing the Bible in schools, festivals, theatres, churches and communities, while at the same time bringing our Northumbria Community ethos to the project. 

The unexpected invitation to stand for the Presidency of the Baptist Union of Great Britain was met with incredulity upon discovering that I had been elected! One year officially as President but in total three years, combining my role within the leadership in the Community with the apostolic / ambassadorial role of the Presidency. Seeing how the impact of the Community had touched the lives of so many people within and beyond the Baptist denomination was humbling and a privilege to see. 

I loved the opportunity that the Presidency gave me of travelling through Europe and being involved in hosting the Baptist World Alliance Centenary Congress in Birmingham. Meeting and ministering among such diverse groups, preaching and teaching and working with BAME ministers and their churches is something that I have taken great pleasure in doing. 

The partnership with the Community that we were able to forge with the International Baptist Theological seminary in Prague was delightful for both parties and deeply enriching for me. The partnership helped me personally to see the world from a European perspective and my annual lecture trips and a six week study break before the Seminary moved to Amsterdam, forged friendships with people across the continent. Many of these new friends, like me, have become disillusioned with events and happenings here in Britain and are devastated by Brexit and its implications for the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole. 

These European journeys enabled me to share something of the life of the Community with individuals and groups in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Croatia, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Russia, Kurdistan and Lithuania.

My connections with the Baptist Union have continued throughout my many years in ministry. Over these years I have received many invitations from churches, encouragement from others to teach at one of our Colleges or become a Regional Minister or apply for one of the various departments. I was able to turn them all down, even though some of them were appealing  because I knew they would have diverted me from my calling and leadership of the Northumbria Community, where my spiritual home and true vocation lies. 

Having latterly worked for the denomination part time as a coordinator, I’ve come to realise that I can best serve the Baptist movement from its margins, speaking and ministering as I do into the life of individuals, churches and missional communities, associations, colleges, council and the national core group. 

I’m hugely encouraged that as a denomination we have slowly come to recognise that there are ministries beyond that of a pastor / teacher that need to be encouraged and resourced. It is not the only model of ministry but part of the fivefold ministry as outlined in Ephesians 4 which is at last finding some mileage within our Baptist movement. In my opinion we have still a considerable way to go in renouncing and repenting of some of the attitudes that have discriminated against people, notably on the grounds of colour and gender. I’ve encountered people who are bigots, bullies, manipulative and abusive in their attitudes and behaviour; controlling people, lacking in accountability and humility. I believe it is a weakness of our system that we don’t deal sufficiently with such behaviour. Perhaps the recent debates and fallouts may precipitate some positive changes that truly contribute to our desire as a Baptist movement to create healthy churches.

I’m encouraged that we are more and more seeing the need to train and develop leaders, including missional leaders. It is right to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go, but we are beginning to recognise, for example, that pioneers are a gift from God, and have something to contribute by way of challenge, creativity, and encouragement, bringing much needed change and transformation to a movement ‘for such a time as this.’

Building on the above, I long to see a greater emphasis on missional leadership within our local churches, associations and in our colleges. Some of the most dynamic and fruitful people that I have met in ministry have been those that have trained outside of our denominations colleges, equipped in many ways more suitably for the changing post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves. 

It’s been a joy to see organisations like Rural Ministries develop and play an increasingly significant role in the recognition and resourcing of significant ministries within rural contexts.

I’ve always enjoyed the company of people younger than myself. They help me to keep in touch with the world that they understand far better than I do. They keep me fresh and alert to the changes that we are undergoing as a society and as a church. Having pioneered the opportunity for people to train for Baptist ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham in partnership with Northern Baptist College, I now have the joy of mentoring 17 pioneers and missional leaders, all of whom, (actually most of them) are considerably younger than me.

T.J. Russell-Jones, my amazing mentor when I was a student pastor at Bedwas in Wales, who was the preacher at my ordination service took his text from 1Timothy 3:16, Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young but set the believers an example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. I have endeavoured, not always with great success, but nevertheless with genuine aspiration, to embrace the challenge and encouragement of those words. It’s my prayer and hope to continue to impart to those who I am now privileged to mentor, even though I am no longer a young man myself. 

In all these contexts I see the traces of our Northumbrian spirituality weaving its giftedness and life to individuals and the places where God has called them to be.

So in conclusion, as I reflect upon the past 40 years since that hot Saturday in the summer of 1980, I am indebted to God for his grace and goodness and the opportunity that people have afforded me to follow that calling.

For all those who I may have unintentionally hurt and offended, caused difficulties or any distress, I am truly sorry. For all those who have intentionally or unwittingly wounded or sought to undermine or destroy my ministry, I forgive you. Where there has been any malediction, in any quarters, I pray that God in his transforming grace will bring about benediction.

As I journey on into a fairly uncertain future, I echo the words of the hymn that was sung on the occasion of my baptism as a believer, back in Harrogate Baptist Church in 1975;

How good is the God we adore!
Our faithful, unchangeable friend:
his love is as great as his pow’r
and knows neither measure nor end.

For Christ is the first and the last;
his Spirit will guide us safe home;
we’ll praise him for all that is past
and trust him for all that’s to come.

I am currently furloughed by the Northumbria Community since lockdown began and my other part-time consultancy work includes a few days each month working for the Baptist Union as a Pioneer Ambassador. I also have some mentoring, advising, lecturing, spiritual direction, coaching and writing, all of which is now exercised within a very changing environment in a changing emerging new world era. 

I’m delighted to be partnered by six churches throughout our denomination, north and south of the country, with whom I do some work and who in return support me. This enables me to offer mentoring to younger leaders and pioneers who cannot offer any remuneration for my working with them. 

Coming full circle, one of those churches is Portrack, where Shirley and I have continued to keep our connections and in a limited way, our involvement. It is a church we love dearly and remain committed to. What I, with others, were privileged to serve, develop and shape in forming its DNA of welcoming hospitality, of being adventurously missional, and creatively imaginative, expressing an incarnational, generous community, is still evident. The child has grown up and flourished!

As I enter my 41st year of ordained ministry, I am still positive about ministry and whilst letting go and laying down a number of things in this stage of my life and ministry, I remain energised at those things that are becoming more clearly focused and are emerging as priorities for the coming years, not least an emphasis on writing. 

On the same occasion as my baptism, we were presented with a verse of scripture, one that has become a life text for me throughout all the years of my ministry; Proverbs 3:5,6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths straight.

Roy Searle, Northumbria Community, Baptist Union Pioneer Ambassador and Free Church Tutor, Cranmer Hall, Durham, Associate Tutor, Spurgeons College, London.

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The Celts and Lockdown

Transcript of a talk given today for a Baptist Union of Great Britain webinar.

I’ve become very weary of the term unprecedented times, not least because they are not unprecedented or unpredicted. I have ecently returned to a book I first came across in the late 1970’s.  A Distant Mirror The Calamitous 14th Century is a narrative history book by the American historian Barbara Tuchman. The book tells the story of the crisis of the late 14th century and the suffering experienced throughout Europe.

Every century has had its notable, world changing events; from the advent of castles and defence systems in the 11th century, to law and order and judicial systems in the 12th century, from markets and minting in the 13th, the Great Famine in the 14th century including the Black Plague, to the Renaissance through the 14th and 17th centuries, the French Revolution in the 18th, the 19th century communications discoveries, to the 20th centuries technological revolution and a 21st-century, no doubt characterised by pandemics, global economic recessions, famine, terrorism and war. The idea that what we are facing is unprecedented is nonsense. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Eccles 1:9

There is nothing new under the sun and the world has known things like pandemics before and there are lessons to be learned from such experiences.

Today we are looking at the Celtic saints who for people like Lesley and me and, hundreds, possibly thousands of folk like us associated or influenced by the Northumbria Community and other expressions of Celtic spirituality, there are some parallels with our times and those of our Celtic mothers and fathers in the faith from the 4th to the 7th century. 

The context both then and now was one of a significant changing world. A world that lived through the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire. Celtic spirituality was forged on the anvil of struggle and cultural change and I sense that we are on a journey of discovering what faith looks like in a changing Post Christendom society.

For us today, we are witnessing a diminishing of Western democracy, the emergence of populist movements, autocratic, authoritarian dictators and governments and the rise of China as the worlds major superpower. 

There is no going back to normal. We are entering a new era. As people think about the post war years, history, I believe, will record the post-pandemic world that began in 2020. 

The Celts response in the midst of change was the same ethos that was found within desert monastic spirituality, the primary influence upon the Celtic Saints, and that response was to first, to seek God. lets response in the midst of change

For the desert fathers and mothers it was a withdrawing to the desert to seek God, to pray, reflect, find wisdom, ask how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, and to discover a way for living in the new world context.

So in relation to where we find ourselves today, the Celts would encourage us to seek God.

Seeking God in the place of the cell, the place of exposure to the love of God and to a deeper encounter with ourselves. The call to solitude, to more silence than the frenetic activity that has so dominated too much of our contemporary western society. The call to listen, to wait, watch and wonder.

Inevitably given any crisis, our first response was a classic trauma response; to do something, be brave, heroic, to be rescuers and while there is a place for practically responding to the obvious needs, to miss the deeper call is to miss the significance and signs that are found in the midst of any crisis.

I think the Celts would be horrified by the amount of noise that has been generated by the current crisis. It seems as though everybody has an opinion, something to say, post on Facebook, host a webinar, comment on Twitter, with our 24/7 news coverage and no shortage of armchair commentators and critics. Pastors who instead of preaching once a week have become overnight amateur, (some very amateur!) radio presenters, finding an outlet for their many words, and who have become unwittingly, like priests administering daily mass, not the eucharist but daily messages, podcasts, talks and prayer liturgies. 

I am mindful of those words of W. H. Vanstone in his book, Loves Endeavour, Love’s Expense – The Response of being to the Love of God that in a swimming pool all the noise is usually found in the shallow end. It’s quieter in the deeper end. It’s in the subsurface, landscapes of the heart, that we touch the deeper truths about ourselves and the world we live in. It’s where wisdom, as opposed to the accumulation of information, is found.

I think the Celts would remind us that our first call is to seek God and to wait upon him in that deeper place.

In that place of seeking, in the context of learning to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, it would entail an awareness of loss, lament and repentance. 

Contemplation engages the heart and mind in prayer and reflection and exploring the depths not only of the human heart and the impact of happenings upon our own lives but gives the space to discern and critique what’s happening in the world. Not only events and happenings but what’s going on in the psyche of the nation. I sense when I pray that there is a great deal of frustration, anger and anxiety that is fuelling responses and reactions to what we are living through.

And surely any waiting upon God at this time has to call us to lament and repent of those things that we’ve either ignored or failed to see. For example, the poisoning and polluting of the planet. How deep an irony that as we have been locked down, trying to cope with a virus that inhibits our ability to breathe, the rest of creation, the planet has breathed easier. For the abuse and exploitation of the planet – Lord have mercy. For our failure to recognise the key workers in our society, those we are dependent upon, not just the obvious medics but the care workers, the 1.6 million who work in the care sector, many of whom are on the minimum wage, some on zero hours contracts, most without Social Security benefits, those who work the land, pick and pack and distribute the fruits of the harvest, the delivery drivers, the refuge collectors, many like modern day slaves – Lord have mercy upon us. 

The endemic racism, not only on the other side of the Atlantic but in the hearts, homes, attitudes and policies here in Britain. The blindness to white supremacy, privilege, opportunity and power wielded often by the few and rarely for the benefit of the many – Lord have mercy. 

These and other evils, sins and wrongdoings we need to repent of and change our hearts, minds, attitudes and actions to address injustice and right wrongs that we have committed, intentionally or unintentionally.

It has been said that Celtic spirituality, with its down to earthiness, encouraged adherents to play the five stringed harp, not a musical instrument but the employing of all our senses; seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting – deploying not only information of the mind but intuition and the deep feelings in the heart to discover and discern what is happening in the world. e.g. listening. I observed Midsummers day with the birdsong in early morning dawn, yet the day after and since, it’s quieter, the birdsongs have disappeared. Creation knows the summer is passing.

For the Celtic saints, it was out of that place of contemplation, seeking God, out of lamenting that there emerged a reimagining of a different way of living. 

Like the prophetic tradition, there is the acknowledgement of sin and wrongdoing, waywardness and the need to repent, a renewal of love for God and his ways and a commitment to walk in them and out of that comes a reimagined future. Hope is born, a way for living is found.

There is no return to normal, there mustn’t be a conformity to the prevailing culture, which is wayward and contrary in a whole host of ways to the ways of God’s Kingdom. As Baptists it should be second nature to us to be nonconformists, as the Celts were, not for the sake of being odd, which some Baptists seem to excel in doing but rather nonconformity for the sake of the gospel, living out and sharing God’s Good News, as Bede the historian said of the Celts, They lived what they believed.  Thomas Merton said when commenting on the Celtic saints,  We cannot do exactly as they did but we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break off all spiritual chains, to cast off the domination of alien compulsions and find our true selves; to discover our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build on earth the kingdom of God. 

It’s the contemplative calling, that is foundational to Celtic spirituality, seeking God, the one thing necessary. Whatever the season, whatever the circumstances, seek God. Embrace intentionally the rhythm and patterns, habits and practices, appreciate the value of things like a Daily Office, eg. Celtic Daily Prayer.

And it is out of that calling of seeking God, upon that foundation, that the Celts actions and engagement with the world was shaped and formed.

So, for example to seek God, a God who loves the world, who in his mercy reaches out to a broken, bruised and wayward world, inevitably should lead those who love God to love their neighbour. For the Celts this found expression, in their welcome and hospitality towards friend and stranger. They also passed on the skills that they learned within their communities; cultivating the land, looking after the animal stock, fishing, weaving, construction and educating.

The fruits of Celtic spirituality as the Good news of Christ impacted and transformed lives was that things like tribalism, nationalism, sectarianism, sexism were dismantled and the discovery of kinship, friendship, community was realised. 

In every monastic settlement, community, small or large there was welcome, as one would welcome Christ in the strangers guise, wherever a person known or unknown, friend or stranger would come from. There were few demarcation lines and no exclusion zones or people who suffered discrimination.

In periods of plague, Celtic communities would often be the only place to which the suffering would find a place of welcome and healing. Celtic communities had the equivalent of our hospital wards or hospices. When the contemporary world abandoned those in distress, the Celtic monks would welcome or journey into plague villages and hamlets, often at the cost of their own lives, to share and care in the name of Christ.

You don’t get an impression that the Celts primary concern was for their own well-being. There is no record of counsels, meetings, papers or proposals to discuss how they could get back to normal, how they could safe distance, how they could keep their buildings open.

When people today ask when will the church be open again I want to proclaim loud and clear that the church was never closed. In fact the church has been turfed out of buildings and into the neighbourhoods and world and in many quarters the church is alive and well and serving the Kingdom in the world, not locked up in some holy huddle or religious cul-de-sac. The Celts would remind us that it is not about preserving or conserving but proclaiming and sharing the Good news. They began with the Kingdom and the Good News which then shaped the faith communities; churches and monasteries that were formed and established. To begin with church is the wrong starting place and to think first about what the church needs is for us the wrong starting place. Lockdown has provided a great opportunity to think again about what being disciples of Jesus and the church is in a changing world. Many of those things that we, for various reasons, of have been reluctant to let go, have gone with lockdown and perhaps God is asking us not to restore them but to discover the new things that he is wanting to do in and through us. 

I’m part of the Fresh Expressions Pioneering Development hub which gives me the opportunity to meet with other pioneer ambassadors and coordinators of other denominations. When we met recently somebody had the image of the church being like a bike that has had its stabilisers removed; for some churches, the stabilisers are their building and meeting together as a congregation and it’s as though God has removed the stabilisers. I’ve been out this morning trying to teach and encourage my 2.5 year old granddaughter to learn to ride her bike without stabilisers, to discover the freedom of new ways of riding that are not dependent upon those external stabilisers and support mechanisms. Likewise, we, as the Celts had to do, have a great opportunity to learn what it is to be disciples and communities of faith, whether in established, traditional, emerging, fresh expressions, pioneering, missional communities, experimental mission initiatives, with the stabilisers, the structures and supports that we have become so dependent upon, removed. Like the Celts, we are called to, what my Pioneering Ambassador colleague Simon Goddard has initiated, a Missional Adventure. To seize the day, to see the opportunity, of rediscovering something that is there within our Baptist DNA, missionary adventurers, people not trapped by institutionalism, not governed by past protocols or out of date systems but free to be open and responsive to the movements of the Holy Spirit, to take us out of our church buildings.

It was persecution in the early church that caused the church to obey Jesus command to Go and his commission to move out of Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth and it’s a pandemic that has thrown the church today out beyond its walls and into our communities and discovering, as the Celts did, that the Kingdom of God is to be found in the streets, in the world. When they wandered for the love of Christ they discovered that God was ahead and at work in the life of believer and unbeliever. 

Their task, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was to discover and discern God’s presence in the world of which church played a secondary, not primary role. 

They had little concern for building the church, the kingdom of God was their primary concern. They formed faith communities, churches without walls. 

In the early years of Celtic monasticism, if buildings in their settlements were required, they were intentionally constructed in wood. There was plenty of stone around but by building in wood, nothing was made permanent. God was not confined to a building, He could be known and discovered, encountered among friend and stranger, in the midst of every day, ordinary life, in the home, at the hearth, at the roadside, in the workplace, on a hilltop and beside still or raging waters.

Community was a really important component within Celtic spirituality, relationships mattered. As people covenanted together within the love of Christ they lived out their faith, inspired and informed by a monastic rule of life. Organised not on hierarchical grounds or in geographical territories but an organic, spontaneous, haphazard and rather chaotic connectivity between people and places existed within the Celts as they journeyed, formed and founded monastic communities, centres of learning and bases for mission across Europe, shaping the Continent and laying the foundations of the Judaeo-Christian tradition for centuries to come.

Their models of leadership are really interesting; the abbot or abbess of the community were primarily concerned about guarding its ethos, teaching, training and imparting to others a monastic rule of life, discipling. 

The bishops were more apostolic figures, missional, taking the gospel and sharing with people everywhere and speaking truth to power. They were risktakers, adventurous, pioneers, apostles more to culture than the church. In both the monasteries and on the road, they brought blessing and benediction to where there had been curses, fear, superstition and malediction. The beauty and creativity they brought through their appreciation of the arts helped bring light and life, transformation to the Dark ages. With the exception of those who are called to an eremitic a life of prayer, (and even those were connected to some community or other) the Celts did not live in cloistered, closed communities but had that wonderful balance and rhythm of solitude and engagement, prayer and action, withdrawal and involvement.

So, in conclusion, what would the Celts do in Lockdown? 

They would in the words on the sign by the side of the Main East Coast railway line:  Stop… Look… Listen…

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Pentecost Reflections

Waking early and witnessing the dawning of a new day, the heralding of birds summoning songs of praise and the warmth of the sun emerging and beckoning new life and the blossoming of fruit and flowers in the garden. 

Our Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer’s Invocation of the Holy Spirit providing the liturgy of the day.

Most powerful Holy Spirit,
come down
upon us
and subdue us.

From heaven,
where ordinary
is made glorious,
and glory seems
but ordinary,

bathe us
with the brilliance
of your light
like dew

Celebrating the birth of the church, a movement born of the Holy Spirit, an empowering of ordinary men and women, who had come to know, love and follow Christ to be his witnesses, to bring his Good news to the hearts and minds of lands and people throughout the earth. The birth of the church and a world revolution, a movement that brought life, liberty and freedom to the oppressed, good news to the poor and a way for living that was heralded on that Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection.

And how the world means that revolution today. A world scared by its brutality, abused and polluted by its greed and exploitation, divided by its conflict and attrition, poisoned by its toxic politics and dangerous dictators, a world divided by poverty and wealth, injustice and polluting consumerism, arrogance and deceit. A beautiful world being ruined by our failure to respect God and neighbour, lives and land. In the words of the 60’s song, ‘what the world needs now is love sweet love….oh, not just for some, but for everyone”. 

The advantages of social media enabled us to be reminded of the church worshipping God, witnessing and engaging in mission across the world. Messages to friends in Germany, Belgium, Nagaland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Canada and the States. Oh, the States! – hearing further reports of the riots there, I logged onto to see how friends and fellow Companions of our Northumbria Community were in Minneapolis. Margene wrote of waking up to more pain and destruction in her city following the murder of George Floyd and the domino effects of racial injustice. “There are different layers of protest. Those from the black community and their allies are trying to grieve and call to account the injustice of George Floyd’s death. It is for the most part been peaceful. But there is another sinister layer of protesters. They are anarchists and are using this event as a way to destroy. Their pyro supplies are so sophisticated they are burning down banks and post offices. They are using George Floyd’s death as a cover to create anarchy. Pray for our city”. 

The presence of white supremacists, including members of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) in the city and other cities where there are riots is deeply disturbing. I watch another Companion, Ben Tucker singing and praying to God for his city, read about Peter Wohler and Source Ministries holding a Prayer Vigil and an outdoor Pentecost service in the troubled city.

I reflect on the Easter, Ascension and Pentecost stories and reflect that the words of Jesus and the tongues of fire that fell upon those first disciples is such a stark contrast to the incendiary political rhetoric and fires burning in the streets of America today.

I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s words in 1968: “But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

I pray for peace on the streets of America but pray also for the States and for us here in Britain to wake up to the reality of racism in our society and the injustice, evil and oppression it creates that leads to anger and outrage which malevolent groups can exploit to fuel further unrest and deepen racial hatred. 

Here in the calm of our home in North Yorkshire the internet enables us to log in and say hello to the church at Portrack, (where I was the first minister back in the 1980s), greet friends old and new and then join with New Life Baptist church that we are a part of here in Northallerton. A relaxed, creatively curated service was beautifully led and included uplifting worship by gifted musicians, myriad voices, praying, reading, sharing , including an artist talking about the painting he had been commissioned by the church to do for Pentecost. An inspiring sermon by a Jane, a very gifted woman preacher that was insightful, challenging and encouraging. There were crafts and activities for all ages to do at home and Trevor and his puppet made an appearance. At which point, and not because of, we returned to Portrack in time to be part of the link up with Pattaya in Thailand, an orphanage of up to 200 children and a deaf school that the church is actively supportive of. Run by a Catholic Order a very spritely 84 year old Thai priest shared and prayed for us and we were taken on a live video tour of the orphanage where the smiling, happy faces of children and adults touched the hearts of all who of us who were privileged to watch and brought a tear to many. 

The DNA of Portrack evident throughout; a Church made up of a very diverse group of people; young and old, single, married, families, asylum seekers and refugees, barristers and pastors, civil servants, lorry drivers, retired folk, medics and educational workers, unemployed and self-employed. The DNA seen today, as in its founding years, in the church’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, near and far, The generosity of spirit and sacrificial giving way beyond the expectation of a relatively small, urban, housing estate church. Small church, big heart. Like New Life, it’s well led and develops leaders and both fellowships, move out beyond the walls of the church, to share the love of God with believer and unbeliever alike.

Church buildings remain closed but the church is out of the building and alive and at work in the world. 

It’s interesting that it took persecution in the first century to turf the church out of its domesticity. Jesus in commissioning his followers to ‘Go into all the world’ promised that at Pentecost they would receive the Holy Spirit and the power to become his witnesses in the world. However, then as now, it’s easy for churches to have a tendency to create a religious huddle into which the world is invited, where the church acts as host and invites guests to join. This is contrary to the way in which Jesus shared the Good news and intended his church to be. We are called to where people are, where we are more the guest than the host, where instead of doing things for people, we do things with people and discover the kingdom of God is to be found in the world. 

As my friend Glen Marshall discovered in his preparation to preach today these powerful words; “The Spirit blows the disciples out of the house, out beyond the confines of their own language, out into the world. The wind of the Spirit is no whirlwind sucking up everything in its path into some irresistible vortex, never to be seen again. Instead the Spirit is more like a whirlwind in reverse, a centrifugal hurricane, flinging all it touches ever outward. This is not religion for us – a keep it to yourself, consenting adults behind closed doors kind of religion – this is on the streets, in yer face religion. This is the Spirit of prophecy enabling disciples to open their traps, not to become Trappists.”

The Spirit of God is not contained within the walls of any building but at work bringing an antidote of transforming love, healing and reconciliation, light and life to the darkness and disease we are experiencing in the world today.

The Lord be with you… and with your Spirit. 

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A Welcome Voice in Parliament

Thank goodness we now have the emergence of a more effective Opposition. The bluff and bluster politics which has dominated the present government and its leadership over the few years, not least the rhetoric used in the Referendum and Brexit and which continues to be deployed in the present pandemic crisis is at last coming under appropriate scrutiny. 

It was good to see Boris Johnson, recovered from coronavirus, back and taking his place in the House of Commons. Watching yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament it was also good to see the UK Government being held to account. This is not a time for recrimination but it is a time for scrutiny. I believe Keir Starmer exercised grace, respect and razor sharp skills in his conduct and questioning of the Prime Minister and from a genuine concern for the common good. I appreciated his ability  to forensically examine the Prime Minister with calm but deadly efficiency. As one commentator put it, “He offers diligence and expertise, not bellowing and finger-pointing. In a crisis this seriousness will be an asset.”

I hope the Labour Party can get its house in order and appreciate, as I hope the public will in due course, an Opposition leader who can cut through the bluff, bluster and frantic jabbering that has been allowed to beguile too many people for too long. There is no longer a hiding place for Government ministers as Starmer himself and the formidable Opposition front bench he has appointed appear to be a force for good and one to be reckoned with. Starmer reminds me a little of John Smith, a former leader, who I believe would have been a great Prime Minister, who sadly died before the opportunity to serve the Government as its leader. 

Starmer is, as was Smith, a gifted forensic barrister. In 2005 he won the Bar Council’s award for his outstanding contribution to pro bono work to eradicate the death penalty in the Caribbean, in Africa, and Taiwan and was named as QC of the Year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007. He was a human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland, monitoring compliance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) with the Human Rights Act. In 2008, he became Head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions holding these roles until 2013. In this role, he brought the successful prosecution against two men accused of murdering black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

He was knighted in 2014 for ‘services to law and criminal justice’ for the work he undertook as head of the Crown Prosecution Service and said on receiving his Knighthood that “the one thing that defines my career is a passion for fighting injustice.”

He had earlier co-founded Doughty Street Chambers in 1990 and advised David Morris and Helen Steel during their marathon legal battle with McDonald’s which eventually became known as the McLibel case. He has also represented organisations like Amnesty. 

Starmer’s intellect and ability is unquestionable and his motivation for entering politics reveals somebody who operates out of some very good values. People will perceive and attack him for being another wealthy, white, privileged man who can’t relate to the majority of people in the country. In his defence, Starmer’s background is not so detached from ordinary people. Unlike the vast majority of the Tory Cabinet, Starmer’s father worked in a factory as a toolmaker and his mother was a nurse. His mother was in and out of hospital with a rare illness which eventually forced her to stop working. Keir was named after the first Labour MP, Keir Hardie and was the first in his family to go to university. 

In 2005 he won the Bar Council’s award for his outstanding contribution to pro bono work to eradicate the death penalty in the Caribbean, in Africa, and Taiwan and was named as QC of the Year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007. He was a human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland, monitoring compliance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) with the Human Rights Act. In 2008, he became Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Services  holding these roles until 2013. In this role, he brought the successful prosecution against two men accused of murdering black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

I have an innate fascination with how people behave and what motivates them. I like to discover the influences and experiences that have shaped their lives and led them to do what they do. It’s why I love reading biographies and am currently enjoying reading Steve Richard’s excellent book, ‘The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May’.

We all know this is an incredibly challenging time and the Prime Ministers claims about heralding ‘our achievements and success’ were exposed yesterday by Starmer at PMQ’s. Thankfully we have a political leader who can effectively challenge the bluff and bluster, which borders on propaganda, the undertones of which are disturbing. 

It is not good for democracy to have an ineffectual opposition. Constructive criticism in the course of good governance should be welcomed.

Starmer was introduced to the Labour Party at Leeds university back in the 1980’s and was described by a fellow member of the party then as “a non-aligned, conscience-driven leftie” – something akin to political Methodism.” I wondered what the term ‘political Methodism’ meant and discovered the following on the Methodist Church’s website:

” The Methodist Church has long associations with political life. John Wesley was much concerned with the poor and marginalised in 18th Century Britain, many of whom were excluded from participation in the established Church as well suffering from economic deprivation. Many of the early trade unionists, including the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were members of Methodist churches. The Methodist Parliamentary Fellowship has met for many years and holds an annual Parliamentary Methodist Covenant service in the chapel at the Palace of Westminster.
The Methodist Church has stated that ‘the commitment of individual Christians to work for social and political change should be recognised as a fully legitimate form of Christian discipleship’. In a society where self interest, acquisitiveness and individual happiness are often seen as the over-riding interests, the Church, and Christians within it, are called to witness meanings, values and purposes beyond ourselves, whilst recognising our own self-interest and hypocrisy.
People sometimes argue that involvement in political life involves getting our hands dirty, so is something Christians should avoid. But we believe in a God who is present in everything, including political institutions; a God who is heard throughout the Bible calling for justice for the widows, orphans and aliens who were oppressed by the powers of the day; and a God who seeks to transform relationship with and between people. If politics is about how we choose to live together and to treat one another, there is surely a place for discerning the activity of God in politics”.

Sounds good to me, not only good, but necessary given the state of the world today.

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Christ is risen

May the risen Christ be known this day, as on that first Easter; in the unexpected places of our hearts and minds; in gardens and workplaces, at breakfasts and barbecues, as we walk and talk, in our wondering and weeping, in praying and waiting, in lockdown rooms and homes, among believer and seeker, sceptic and doubter, the bewildered and broken, to those at sea and all who feel at sea, to the confused and weary, the anxious and afraid, in the breaking of bread and in the unexplained, paradoxes, mystery, questioning and exploring.

Risen Christ break through the walls of all that keeps us from encountering and recognising you. Speak your peace and breathe upon us that we may breath your peace into a troubled world.

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