OUR PARISH CHURCH has been taking seriously the need for fresh expressions in our shared life, worship and prayer. Ours is a relatively large church (the people, and the “house of the Church” too) and so there’s need for variety of expression simply because we’re comprised of a variety of people. Our life is shaped by daily prayer and space for silence and meditation, and by four main celebrations of the Eucharist in an ordinary-time week – three  consecutive celebrations on a Sunday at 8, 9 and 10.45am – each of these slightly different in make up and character, and by another on Wednesday mornings, and by a larger number in the various residential homes for elderly persons in the parish. For at least the past decade our liturgy has been almost exclusively taken from Common Worship and eucharistically shaped. We’ve used the NRSV version of the Bible. And we still use / do all of these things.

But we’ve also been engaged in diocesan-encouraged “Growth Action Planning”. And our usual Monday morning “Vicar & Wardens” meeting today involved (as it often does) a review of where we’re up to. And our variety of fresh expression currently involves

i) a burgeoning Messy Church ministry that is colouring not only our church life but also daily family lives; and

ii) the re-introduction, several times a month, of liturgy according to the Church of England’s ancient Book of Common Prayer (yes, we bought brand new copies), with readings from the King James Version (AV) of the Bible, including, most recently, an Advent Evensong. We have been freshly surprised that younger people are among those who’ve welcomed this initiative (not all young people elect for noise and high-octane action; more than a few express a real need for “space and place and silence”) and

iii) an exciting and very popular puppet ministry, which, fascinatingly, we’ve discovered, brings people of all ages together and enables conversations (by the mouth of the puppets – rather than by the mouth of the prophets!) that may very well not have taken place otherwise. And there’s lots of laughter, plenty of noise, and even some reflective silence involved in our Double Act say-and-pray-in-a-new-way performances. And then

iv) and perhaps, for some, most surprising of all, we’ve been enjoying a Monthly silent Meditation session on Monday evenings  throughout 2011 – with plans to continue through 2012 – which has attracted around 75 people altogether with 40+ people attending quite regularly and others reporting that they practice the Meditation whether they’re able to be physically present or not.

And then there’s the call to be apostolic: to baptise, to proclaim, to afford hospitality, to tend the sick and needy, and to “send out”. So our well attended and popular Baptism preparation evenings for candidates, parents and godparents are a priority focus area and all Baptism celebrations have been brought into and embraced by and in the context of Sunday Eucharist. Our Young Church team are engaging in well received contact with local schools. Our Missionary Giving co-ordinator is facilitating our active and aware involvement in the disbursement of funds allocation. And our now 2 year old link with the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania, having received and been blessed by the visit of Bishop Oscar to Bramhall, will lead to reps from Bramhall visiting Newala in 2013.

Preaching, teaching and learning, reading (a substantial and well-used new church library), Doorway courses and other study groups have all been further developed (what is the place of Christianity in the context of our 21st century’s pluralistic society? – which we want to celebrate); table fellowship is shared and enjoyed between groups of men, and between groups of women, and between men and women and youngsters all together.

Care of the sick at home and in hospital (a large lay pastoral-care team, some of whom are actively involved in local hospital chaplaincy), bereavement and funeral care are all part of our daily life – though as the work develops and becomes more widely known so the needs reveal themselves to be greater and we see more clearly where we’re not meeting some of those needs. This, in part, is what lies behind our recent communications review.

Thrillingly there are some quite specific vocations arising in our members. We’ve currently one of our number training for the priesthood at Mirfield, and another two in the early stages of the discernment / Foundations for Ministry / training process and in conversations with the Director of Ordinands and others. Over 200 volunteers are listed on our various rotas.

Major building works have taken place and continue apace. Fresh expression is further enhanced by the maintenance of contact, old and new, with artists, poets, painters and other creative partners to mutual satisfaction. Just today the Church was visited at dawn by someone who wanted “a last opportunity to sit in silence” in company with Wendy Rudd’s wonderful Windsails – now wending their way to a new host. Our lantern tower seems very bare without them tonight.

Fresh expressions – all of them designed and shared in so that we may REMEMBER God and re-member the Church of God. Fresh expressions – because we mean business when we say that the doors of Bramhall Parish Church are as wide open as is the Heart of God – the Heart that appears to us to thrive in Eternal Silence, so encouraging us, in the midst of all of our human expressions, to be silent too, sometimes, in the face of all eternity, knowing ourselves dearly beloved in that Divine Heart, too.



Ann Hyde prepares to be ordained Deacon

I DROVE MY NEW COLLEAGUE over to Bishop’s House this morning, and drove home with a full heart, praying a bit, and hoping a lot, for Ann and for all who are preparing to be ordained this weekend. I pray they’ll have a good retreat, one and all. Whatever they hear there will live on in their hearts for the rest of their lives; along with Sunday’s episcopal bidding, already well rehearsed:

In the name of our Lord, we bid you remember the greatness of the trust in which you are now to share: the ministry of Christ himself, who for our sake took the form of a servant. Remember always with thanksgiving that the people among whom you will minister are made in God’s image and likeness. In serving them you are serving Christ himself, before whom you will be called to account. You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Elation, I remember,  at my Deacon’s Retreat in 1982, alongside a gnawing terror that came upon me suddenly. Neither the years of training, nor the cathedral rehearsal, prepare you for the day: “we bid you remember the greatness of the trust”. Glory be! This is serious, serious stuff. About as serious as serious gets. And seriousness has remained. But so too elation.

Amongst the joys and the sorrows, trials and tribulations, great faith and lost faith, hectic round and R S Thomas’ absence of clamour, a theological twinkle has remained a constant companion:  Geoffrey Paul, on the occasion of his Enthronement as  sixth Bishop of Bradford, in 1981, said

I don’t find faith any easier than any of you, and must echo the words of the epileptic boy’s father in a modern translation: ‘Lord, I believe but not enough.’ I shall want to do everything I can to help you to believe in practice what you say you believe, and I shall rely greatly on your faith and love and prayers to help me in my unbelief, so that by enlarging the area of believing, we may give God room to demonstrate his strange Christalmightiness in our midst.

And then, being a Christian is a matter of belonging to Christ with those who are his, and of course there is no way of belonging to Christ except by belonging, gladly and irrevocably, to all that marvellous and extraordinary ragbag of saints and fatheads who make up the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The Enthronement Sermon, in The Pattern of Faith, an exposition of Christian doctrine by Geoffrey Paul, Churchman Publishing, 1986, page 135

And all who heard him knew that he was a holy bishop, and serious, and humane, and Christ-like and absolutely-hit-the-nail-on-the-head-dead-right. Encouragement there for retreatants tonight. Elated and serious, “remember the greatness” … gladly and irrevocably you’re to be marvellous and extraordinary, in company with all God’s people, both a saint and a fathead. Thank God,  and sing alleluia!