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!