Hymn of the week: To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise

Fruit and vegetables

Like it or loathe it, harvest festival season is upon us. I have already written in a previous post about the wonderfully eccentric Revd Hawker, who is credited as the inventor of the harvest festival, or perhaps it would be better to say, the person who transformed the secular feast of harvest home into a church-based service of thanksgiving. The problem with harvest festival is that though it may still be a significant event for rural, farming communities, for city congregations remote from the production of food it is less meaningful. Of course, if not producers we all are consumers of food, and modern day harvest festivals often explore themes such as trade justice and ecological awareness. And, to my mind, if harvest festival can get urban congregations thinking about the rural economy for just one day a year, that’s not a bad thing.

At Walworth it’s harvest festival this Sunday and it will be a fairly traditional service. However, being a predominantly African congregation means that harvest takes on a certain significance as a fund-raising event. After the worship there will be an auction of the harvest gifts and I would not be surprised if people bid crazy prices for ordinary fruit and vegetables. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Which brings us to the Hymn of the Week. It’s one of the traditional harvest hymns which we will be singing on Sunday. I’m a bit surprised that it made the cut to Singing the Faith; we only really sing it once a year and there are plenty other, more useful, hymns that did not. It is also one of the hymns that escaped modernisation and has retained its full complements of thee/thy/thous – in fact as far as I can see it is unchanged from Hymns and Psalms.

‘To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise’ was written in 1863, just twenty years after Hawker’s first harvest thanksgiving, which had become widely imitated. The previous year the Church of England had published an order of service for harvest festival. The writer was the prolific William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), who contributed many hymns to Hymns Ancient & Modern (his other compositions include ‘As with gladness men of old’ and ‘Alleluia! Sing to Jesus’).

Companion to Hymns and Psalms has a helpful exposition of the text:

The hymn begins with the harvest references in Psalm 65:9-13, but by a skilful series of transitions it moves in the second half of verse 2 to John 6:32-58, and thence to a vision of the last judgement as a harvest. In verse 3 there is a reference to Psalm 126:6: ‘he shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him’. This psalm, which is about the return from captivity of the children of Israel, is then linked with another journey to Zion, the vision in verse 4. This is taken from Revelation 4:6-11.

A quick note on the tune – Singing the Faith follows Hymns and Psalms in setting the tune to Arthur Sullivan’s tune BISHOPGARTH, which was written originally to accompany a hymn for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Curiously, over twenty years previously Sullivan had written a tune especially for this hymn, called GOLDEN SHEAVES. Although both tunes were included in the Methodist Hymn Book, the latter has all but disappeared from modern British Methodist worship.

To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise
in hymns of adoration,
to thee bring sacrifice of praise
with shouts of exultation.
Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,
the hills with joy are ringing,
the valleys stand so thick with corn
that even they are singing.

And now, on this our festal day,
thy bounteous hand confessing,
Upon thine altar, Lord, we lay
the first fruits of thy blessing.
By thee thy children’s souls are fed
with gifts of grace supernal;
thou who dost give us earthly bread,
give us the bread eternal.

We bear the burden of the day,
and often toil seems dreary;
but labour ends with sunset ray,
and rest comes for the weary.
May we, the angel-reaping o’er,
stand at the last accepted,
Christ’s golden sheaves forevermore
to garners bright elected.

O blessèd is that land of God
where saints abide forever,
where golden fields spread fair and broad,
where flows the crystal river;
the strains of all its holy throng
with ours today are blending;
thrice blessèd is that harvest song
which never has an ending.

William Chatterton Dix

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Racial Justice Sunday

O God,
you created all people in your image.
We thank you for the astonishing variety
of races and cultures in this world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship,
and show us your presence
in those who differ most from us,
until our knowledge of your love is made perfect
in our love for all your children;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

- Lutheran Book of Worship

Like many churches around the UK, today at Walworth we celebrated Racial Justice Sunday. Methodists have been observing Racial Justice Sunday on the second Sunday of September since 1989 and in 1995 it was recognised ecumenically.

Walworth Methodist Church is connected with the development of my own awareness of issues around Racial Justice. Back in the late 80s I was a member of Lambeth Methodist Mission (now Lambeth Mission and St Mary’s) and we made a decision as a church council that we would collectively attend a racism awareness course organised by MELRAW (Methodist Leadership Racism Awareness Workshop), a programme founded by the remarkable Dame Sybil Phoenix. MELRAW was based at Walworth and Sybil worked closely with the then minister of the church Revd Vic Watson, himself a tireless worker and campaigner in the field of community relations. Of the contents of the workshop I now remember little but I do recall that it was challenging and eye-opening.

The late 80s was a time for considerable reflection in the Methodist Church on the topic of race, firstly with the publication of the report ‘A Tree God Planted’ (1985), which was a call to Methodists to take seriously the issue of racial justice within the church and to work for greater representation of black and ethnic minority church members in the decision making processes of the church. In 1987 Methodist Conference affirmed its stand against racism and for racial justice. And, as already mentioned, a couple of years later churches were invited to engage with the issues by celebrating Racial Justice Sunday.

Why celebrate Racial Justice Sunday? A statement on the Methodist Church website makes the case:

We believe that the universe was created by a loving God who chose to become a human being in Jesus Christ, who has redeemed the world and sent the Holy Spirit to enable us to love one another with God’s love. All human beings are equally children of God and loved by God. Since none is outside the love of God, none should be outside our love either.

We believe that the diversity of the human race was no mistake on God’s part. God deliberately created variety within the human family and wants us to take as much delight in that variety as God does.

But racism persists in Britain and Ireland. At its most obvious and brutal, it takes the form of physical attacks, which sometimes end in murder. But it takes many other forms as well, like discrimination within the police force, popular prejudice against Travellers or people seeking asylum, or reluctance to accept people of a different ethnic or cultural group as neighbours. Even within churches, people can face discrimination and unkindness because they are different from the majority in a particular community.

As long as this continues, we believe that it is important to make time to give thanks for our diversity and to pray for God’s help in overcoming our prejudices and the injustices that reflect and reinforce them.

The worship this morning at Walworth was led by my colleague Dave Hardman, with assistance from the Wednesday Bible Study Fellowship of the church. I preached on the gospel text, on the theme of ‘forgiveness from the heart’. But it was the conclusion of the service I found most moving, firstly as we heard a few words from veteran writer and campaigner David Udo, who worked alongside Sybil Phoenix at MELRAW back in the early 90s. And then as we sang the concluding hymn ‘We have a dream’ (words by Michael Forster based on the famous speech by Martin Luther King) including the verse:

We have a dream; our children shall be free
from judgements based on colour or on race;
free to become whatever they may be,
of their own choosing in the light of grace.

Amen and amen!

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Week one at Walworth

Well, that was an exciting, challenging and frequently confusing first week.

It began with the circuit welcome service for me and my colleague David Hardman on Saturday 30th August, continued with a succession of meetings and conversations on and off the church premises and ended with the first Sunday services led by me and David. (Okay, strictly speaking, this is the first day of the second week, but it doesn’t feel much like that.)

What are my first impressions of Walworth Methodist Church?

District chair Jenny Impey said, at some point in the week, that as soon as you begin to think you have started to understand what’s going on at Walworth, you then find you haven’t understood it at all. And she was right – I’ve already had a couple of conversations where I thought I had figured out a situation, then ten minutes later realised I hadn’t got it and was left trying to get my head round it. So far we’ve met some of the officers as they have called in to say hello and met with the leaders of Sunday School and the church stewards. As the minister’s office was being redecorated all week, David and I have been hanging around in the admin office, getting to know and getting in the way of the church admin staff, a team of three – Yolande (general admin), Hilton (property and IT) and Eunice (finance).

Everything about Walworth is on a different scale to the churches I have pastored before. It’s pretty much the largest membership church in British Methodism – 500+ members and well on its way to 600, the majority African. The reasons for this growth, whether it is sustainable and whether it can be reproduced elsewhere is obviously something I want to explore. The Sunday School staff claim that they have 140 children on roll; there are 40 members in the choir (which is therefore larger than the Sunday attendance in three of the four churches in my last circuit). There are (if I remember correctly) twenty-something class leaders (pastoral visitors). The church owns extensive premises with various bits of it leased and rented, all of which needs to be managed. And then there is the extraordinary legacy of ‘Clubland’ – the ‘youth church’ pioneered by Revd Jimmy Butterworth in the mid 20th century.

Quite a chunk of the past week was taken up with worship preparation. David and I had agreed some time ago that for this first Sunday we would lead both services together. Or more strictly speaking, I would lead the worship and he would preach. As there is very little overlap between the two congregations that meet at 9.30 and 11.00 this seemed the best use of our time as the same sermon could be repeated! I have to say that David preached an excellent and challenging sermon drawing on all three lectionary readings. Recalling a ‘wayside pulpit’ he had seen many years ago which mentioned the importance of ‘being nice’, David argued that Christians are not called to be ‘nice’; we are called to love – and that sometimes means having to make difficult and challenging decisions as we ‘speak the truth in love’. If this was the usual standard of his preaching I am going to have to raise my game!

The first service is a fairly traditional service lasting about an hour. It is the second service that includes everything bar the kitchen sink, especially when it is a Communion service, as today. One of the highlights of the service is the ‘walk up’ offering, when the drums come out and the choir really gets the church moving. This really is worship as I most appreciate it: formal liturgy and extempore prayer; African choruses and traditional (and modern) hymns; silent prayer and joyful dancing – and never mind the fact that the worship lasted nearly two hours, because nobody’s in a rush to get home afterwards. After church there’s nearly always something going on: today it was meetings of the Ghanaian and Zimbabwean fellowships (David and I popped into both) and I travelled home on the bus with a number of the Ghanaians who were on their way to visit a sick member of the fellowship.

There’s no doubt that David and I are going to have our work cut out – just this evening I received an email mentioning a tricky property issue that will need to be sorted out with urgency – but with worship like this to sustain us… well, as Charles Wesley sang:

Yet onward I haste to the heavenly feast:
That, that is the fullness; but this is the taste!

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Call to prayer for Iraq and Syria on 31 August

From the Methodist Media Service:

Methodists urged to pray for those enduring ‘living nightmare’ of persecution

People are being urged to dedicate a special time of prayer to the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria next Sunday.

The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Ken Howcroft and Ms Gill Dascombe, are asking Methodists to ensure that they spend some special time in prayer for persecuted minorities during worship on 31 August.

They have written this special prayer for use by churches and groups (responses in bold):

God of love, guide us as we pray:
God of love, guide us as we pray.

God of all nations and peoples, hear our prayers for the people of Syria and Iraq, and for all whose lives are torn apart by hatred and violence, whose heartbreak is more than we can imagine:
God of compassion, guide us as we pray.

For leaders and politicians and those who seek to negotiate for peace, whose responsibility is more than we could bear:
God of wisdom, guide us as we pray.

For aid workers, medical staff, those who care for refugees, orphaned children and older people, whose daily workload is more than we could tolerate:
God of goodness, guide us as we pray.

For those who feel compelled to accomplish their justice through warfare or terrorism, whose motivation is more than we can comprehend:
God of justice, guide us as we pray.

For ourselves, who look on, devastated and helpless, praying to our God whose peace is beyond our understanding:
God of peace, guide us as we pray.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit:
Amen.

“The situation in Iraq and Syria can only be described as a living nightmare,” said Mr Howcroft and Ms Dascombe, adding, “as Methodists we stand in solidarity alongside all those who are persecuted. As followers of Jesus who was crucified we stand with all those who find their religion twisted by others out of all recognition in order to justify horrific acts of violence. We stand in prayer, crying out together to a God of justice, peace and mercy. May God have mercy on us all.”

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On the buses

Routemaster 60What with preparing for the move (including assisting my new circuit to find and purchase a house for us to live in) and covering two churches for a sick colleague, blogging has had to take a back seat. There were many things I wanted to write about, but just didn’t have the time or inclination. But I’ll mention one event in July that I did enjoy, and that was a rally of old buses in Finsbury Park to mark the 60th anniversary of the iconic Routemaster bus.

There are still Routemasters running in London, though they are confined to a couple of short ‘heritage’ routes catering mainly for tourists. Outside central London you are more likely to see them running as ‘specials’ for weddings and other occasions, though during the tube strikes earlier this year there were a number of veteran buses running extra journeys during the rush hour periods.

oldbus_2641

Veteran buses on duty at Camden Road, Holloway during the tube strikes earlier this year. The bus in front is an RT in Greenline livery; the bus behind is the stretched version of the Routemaster, or RML

The impressive line up of buses at the Routemaster 60 event

The impressive line up of buses at the Routemaster 60 event

RT2177

This is not a Routemaster – me and RT2177. The 12 bus route runs past my new church on Camberwell Road.

At Routemaster 60 there were over 150 vintage buses on display, including the immaculately restored prototype Routemasters RM1, RM2 and RM3. There were other buses as well, including examples of the older RT buses that are often confused with the Routemaster. The RT, which this year celebrates its 75th year since entering service in 1939, was still running on the 65 bus route which ran past the end of our road in Kingston on Thames in the early 70s, and I have fond memories of travelling on this type of bus to school (fare 2p for a short journey, 3p for a longer journey!) In 1975 the RTs were replaced by Routemasters, which were slightly larger and more comfortable. The 65 bus ran from Ealing Argyll Road (I always wondered what this exotic place at the beginning of the route was like) to Chessington Zoo, now the Chessington World of Adventures, but then still a plain zoo. I can still recall the graffiti scratched into the paintwork of one of the RTs: ‘I am Thunderbird 2, fly me to the zoo.’ Much as I enjoy the Routemasters, it is the sight of an RT trundling along that never fails to make me smile.

Line up of buses

Another view of the line up of Routemaster buses

Having said that, I wouldn’t want to be riding one of these old buses on a regular basis. Since 2007, when I sold my last car, my primary form of transport has been buses. In that time we have seen ‘bendy buses’ come and go and most recently the NB4L (‘New Bus for London’ aka the ‘New Routemaster’ aka the ‘Boris bus’) which looks colossal next to the Routemaster and the even smaller RT. Modern buses are far more spacious and comfortable than the old types. Yes, it can take longer to get from A to B, but as far as I am concerned this isn’t wasted time – it’s time for reading, for thinking, for writing emails, and not infrequently for bumping into church members and the conversations that inevitably follow. And for just looking out of the window and watching the world (my parish!) passing by.

For more photos of the old buses than ran during the tube strike visit this Facebook album (You don’t need to be signed up to Facebook to view it). For more photos taken during Routemaster 60 visit this Facebook album.

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Saying goodbye properly

Group photo of the congregation of Islington Central church

Saying goodbye – after my last service at Islington Central Methodist Church

Churches have various ways of saying ‘hello’ to a new minister/pastor/priest. In some denominations this includes a formal licensing or induction at the beginning of a new period of ministry. The Methodist Church does things slightly differently; as we are already part of a Connexion, Methodist ministers are ‘welcomed’. My own welcoming service at Walworth Methodist Church takes place on Saturday 30th August, just before the commencement of the new Methodist Year. This service will inevitably be a time of looking to the future; prayers will be said, commitments and promises made. I’m sure it will be a splendid occasion.

We’re good at saying ‘hello’, but I’m not sure we are always so good at saying ‘goodbye’. For this there is in Methodism no set form of worship or any requirement to do anything in particular at all.

One of my predecessors in circuit indicated that he didn’t want any particular fuss made when he left. Despite being Circuit Superintendent (and therefore having a relationship with all the churches of the circuit) he asked that only the churches in his pastoral charge organise their own farewells; there was to be no circuit occasion. What was plain when I came into the circuit was that there were many who missed the opportunity to say goodbye properly; the lack of a formal farewell was a cause of regret and even hurt. Yes, this had been according to the wishes of the minister concerned, but I wonder whether this is something too important to be left to the whims of the person leaving – a good farewell is as important for those who stay as those who go, for it recognises the loss we feel at such times and acknowledges that this particular pastoral relationship has come to an end. This is especially important in the Methodist context, where one minister going is followed so rapidly by the new minister coming.

For this reason I have always requested, on leaving a circuit, a worship service that includes a ‘liturgy of leaving’. Originally this particular liturgy was recommended by a colleague, and I knew it only as a photocopy, but there are many variant versions about on the internet, and it appears to originate in Human Rites by Hannah Ward & Jennifer Wild (Mowbray, 1995). For me the most moving and significant part  of the service is where the congregation says to the departing minister:

As you journey onward,
we ask forgiveness where we have failed you;
we give thanks for all you have given us;
we assure you of our love and prayers.

And the departing minister replies:

As I leave,
I ask forgiveness where I have failed you;
I give thanks for all that you have given to me;
I assure you of my love and prayers.

As I move on I am acutely aware of things left incomplete, problems unresolved, loose ends left untied. Many of the hopes and dreams I had coming to the circuit nine years ago were unfulfilled. Of course this is not my responsibility alone, though sometimes I have thought it was, and for this sin too I need to say sorry; ministry is shared by minister and people. To recognise this and offer mutual confession and forgiveness is part of the process of saying goodbye and moving on.

Leaving the Islington and Camden Circuit after nine years of ministry there has not been easy, but I found the last month very affirming. All four churches organised a meal or presentation or both on my last Sunday preaching there –and I was moved by people’s generosity. There was also a circuit event which included the aforementioned act of worship, some very kind speeches and refreshments afterwards. This was also an opportunity to invite ecumenical colleagues and some of the people from the community I’ve worked with over the years, not just to say goodbye but also to publicly recognise those relationships, which I hope will continue under my successor’s tenure. Perhaps it is not for me but others to say – but I think we did say goodbye properly.

Farewell gifts

Farewell gifts presented at the Circuit Farewell – a blessing from the Lindisfarne Scriptorium; flowers in the colours of the Philippine flag; a cross from the Eritrean Orthodox congregation; and a plate presented by preachers from Westminster Central Hall

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Holloway Rev – in Exile

I started this blog as a project for a sabbatical; originally I had no intention of keeping it going beyond a few months. So when I called it ‘Holloway Rev’ I didn’t really look ahead to the day when I would no longer be a Rev in Holloway. Well that time has come – after nine years as Superintendent Minister of the Islington and Camden Mission Circuit I have moved across the great cultural and geographical divide that is the River Thames and am now (back) in South London.

So ought I rename the blog? The church I am moving to is Walworth Methodist Church, which is as much in Camberwell as Walworth. We’re living in Peckham, just off Old Kent Road. This opens up a range of possibilities – Camberwell Rev, Walworth Rev, Peckham Rev. But if I pick one of them, I’m only going to have the same problem a few years down the road. For the time being it looks like I’m stuck with Holloway Rev.

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