Isabella Plantation

A pause for a group photo in Isabella Plantation

A pause for a group photo in Isabella Plantation

My teenage years were spent in Kingston-upon-Thames, where my father was minister of the Methodist Church in the town. I don’t often go back to Kingston; it’s a nice enough place to visit, but when we were living in North London it was a bit of a trek.

isabella pano13

Pleased with this photo, taken from one of the little bridges that crosses the stream that runs through the plantation. It’s actually a panoramic composite of 4 separate photos.

So Sunday was a bit of a trip down memory lane. My parents were staying in a hotel in Richmond. “We’re free on Sunday. We’re going to attend church in Kingston but the rest of the day is free.”

It so happened that I was off on Sunday. “Why don’t we meet you at the church?”

It’s a long time since I’ve been to Kingston Methodist Church. The last time was my sister’s wedding and that was years ago. But a regular Sunday service – that was probably over 30 years ago.

The church has changed – but not that much. It’s still identifiably the same place I attended as a teenager. There were even a few folk in the congregation who remembered me, including my Junior Church teacher Alan (who is still teaching Junior Church). The church is, apparently, doing well.

It had been raining on our journey to Kingston; fortunately by the end of the church service it had started to brighten up. My parents suggested we go to Richmond Park for a bite of lunch at Pembroke Lodge and then a walk round Isabella Plantation.

Now I am no stranger to Richmond Park – I cycled through it enough times when I was a boy – but I don’t remember ever visiting Isabella Plantation. Apparently it’s been recently tidied up, with paths improved, the ponds cleared and most of the rhododendrons – which  as rhododendrons do, were threatening to take over the place – removed. I have to say – I found Isabella Plantation absolutely stunning, with the azaleas, in a wide variety of reds, pinks and purples, brilliant in the sun that had now come out to shine. Mary Ann, who loves flowers, was in her element.

Another panorama - the 'Still Pond'

Another panorama – the ‘Still Pond’

That evening, when we got home, I showed Marina (one of our Filipino ‘aunties’) the photos. “Lovely,” she said. “They could only have been made by God.”

“Well, God and the people who bred all those different varieties” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “God and the people.”

Want to see more photos? Here’s a link to a Facebook album here (you don’t have to be a Facebook member to see it).

 

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Come, all you people!

Members of the MCZF lead the 'walk up' offering at their anniversary service

Members of the MCZF lead the ‘walk up’ offering at their anniversary service

Uyai mose, tinamate Mwari!
(Come all you people, come and praise God)
– Shona chorus by Alexander Gondo

One of the distinctive features of Walworth Methodist Church, and one of the reasons for its growth, is the number of fellowships within the church community. Some of these cater for particular sectors within the congregation – men, women, young adults and so forth – and will be familiar to many churches. More unusual is the presence of four ‘national fellowships’ which are based on four of the largest ethnic/national communities within the church – Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. These meet at least monthly after the main church service, partly to offer informal worship, prayer and singing in various languages, but in particular to offer pastoral support to their members and raise funds to support projects ‘back home’. They are affiliated to the national fellowship bodies and serve as local branches of the same. No doubt in future blog posts I’ll say more about what the fellowships get up to.

Each fellowship has an annual anniversary thanksgiving which is an opportunity to celebrate its own culture. On Sunday it was the turn of the Zimbabwe Fellowship to hold its anniversary. The Zimbabwe Fellowship is the smallest and most recently created of our national fellowships. In fact it began as a gathering of Zimbabwean Methodists from around London and as we were told at the service Walworth is therefore regarded as the mother church for the MCZF-UK (Methodist Church in Zimbabwe Fellowship UK). Over the years various local branches were formed, some spun off from Walworth – there are now thirty around the UK – and the Walworth Zimbabweans, now a fairly small group, reconstituted as a local fellowship and branch of the MCZF-UK. In fact there seems to be some confusion as to how many years we were celebrating. In the worship service 11 years was mentioned, and on the programme we were told that it was the 7th anniversary service!

The fellowship had not held anniversary services for the past couple of years, and the original plan was for the service to be in February, but it was postponed. With a little encouragement from me and a lot of support from members of other branches, the anniversary was held yesterday and was really successful. We had an excellent visiting preacher in Annah Mwadiwa, who preached on the topic of ‘New Beginnings’ and were treated to some powerful chorus in Shona by the MCZF-UK choir, accompanied of course by dancing. Beautiful prayers of intercession were led by one of the brothers from the choir – I heard one or two church members speaking to him afterwards about his prayers, and realised that it is not often that we thank those who lead us in prayer. There was great food afterwards, and Nancy the secretary of the fellowship explained to us the significance of some of the food, such as the beans that were served (“This is what poor people eat. When you are going to school or work in the morning and there is nothing else, this is what you eat for breakfast.”)

It was a great occasion, and I hope a real encouragement for our Zimbabwe Fellowship – perhaps even a New Beginning.

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Customer service

Being a dutiful son I popped into Walworth Post Office yesterday to post a package containing a Mothering Sunday present and card. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was no queue; in fact I was the only customer in the post office. However there was a post office employee hovering by the counter, who when I approached her guided me over to a machine* that looked not unlike the self service checkout at the supermarket, and showed me what seemed to be the twenty or so steps that it takes to enter the correct information. (One screen even asks me to confirm that my package does not contain poisons or explosives.) It’s just as well she was there as the machine didn’t like the tatty £5 note I pushed into it, and it requested her assistance. After entering her security code hey presto, it printed off a stamp, I stuck it on the package and she kindly asked whether she could post it for me.

As I thanked her for her assistance, she said “Next time you’ll know what to do.” “Use the counter?” I thought, but of course expressed it a little more politely. “I think I prefer dealing with a real person at the counter”. “Well, this is the way that post offices are changing,” she said, before asking me whether there was anything else she could help me with today, would I would like information about their credit card deal, and please could I enter their consumer survey on the post office website to report on my customer experience? I wonder whether they will let me suggest that I preferred the experience of a two minute transaction with a human being rather than five minutes wading through menus and options on a machine?

You might think that after putting up with self service ticket machines at the Overground station and the automated check out at the supermarket, I would have breezed through my encounter with the post office stamp machine. The problem is that every machine is slightly different. I just about got the hang of the check out at the Tesco Metro near the church where I regularly look for reduced price offers for lunch, once I figured out that you don’t actually have to answer every question on the screen – just swipe the barcode and insert cash in the slot. But try using the machines in Asda or Sainsbury’s and I’m lost. In any case, once I have more than a half dozen items I find it quicker to queue and let a professional do the scanning. I quite begrudge having to do something myself which used to be done by the checkout assistant/Post Office counter clerk. Shouldn’t they be paying me for doing their work for them?

Thank goodness I can still go into the Co-op Bank and speak to a real person. I must admit that it isn’t very often these days – usually just when I have a cheque from a funeral director to deposit. The thing that annoys me there is that the staff, like the lady in the post office, are always trying to sell something. “Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr Weary?” “No thanks.” “Can I interest you in our will-writing service?”

If I was interested in their will-writing service I would have said so, wouldn’t I? Fortunately, a couple of days later, I have the opportunity to complain, after an email arrives noting that I recently visited the branch and was served by so-and-so and could I complete a brief customer survey about my experience? I answer that the service was great except for the tedious sales pitch afterwards. Needless to say, next time I’m in the branch, the conversation is the same, only this time it’s selling some sort of insurance. Considering that they have the technology to send out email telling me that the date and place I was in the branch, is it too much of a stretch to put a note on my account? “Do not try selling any products to this customer. He’s a grumpy old git.” Or something like that.

*I just found out that officially this is a ‘Self Service Kiosk’. And according to http://www.postoffice.co.uk/post-go-in-branch “it’s the same reliable service, only quicker”. No it’s not!

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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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