Thursday, 30 May 2013

Farewell to the Chambers Family

On Sunday 26th May, Dan conducted his last services at St. David's Uniting Church in Pontypridd.
After the morning service most people stayed for a 'party' lunch and to share in the splendid cake that Kath baked.  Here are some pictures of the day.
Dan and family

Our gift to the Chambers - a Welsh Love Spoon

The Chambers' gift to us - or rather, for The Manse

The beautiful and delicious cake

Friday, 24 May 2013

Baptist Assembly, Blackpool 2013

I attended the Baptist Assembly this year as a representative of St David’s Uniting Church. The Assembly is a great gathering of Baptists from all parts of Britain. It is the official annual meeting of the Baptist Union, the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS World Mission) and various other Baptist organisations.

This year sees a change in the administration of the Union. The General Secretary, the Rev Jonathan Edwards, is retiring, and the Assembly bade farewell to him and approved the appointment of the Rev Lynn Green as his successor. This will be the first time a woman has held this office.

However, business as such is only a small part of it: it is mainly a kind of convention to inform and inspire us: a time of worship, Bible study, discussions and of course meeting up with friends. Part of the pleasure for me was to meet people from every one of the churches where I have worked as a minister, and to attend the Reunion of the College where I trained – wondering what happened to all the interesting old characters who used to come to these occasions, and realising that I am probably now one of them!

This year’s Assembly was at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool. About 2000 people gathered in the great hall for the main sessions and in various other rooms for seminars and informal meetings, and wandered around the numerous exhibition stalls.

The worship in the plenary sessions was very high-tech and lively, if at times a bit loud. I am sure it was appreciated by the many young people who were there and by those from some of the black-led charismatic churches that have recently joined the Baptist Union. However, there was a fair sprinkling of hymns that could be enjoyed by us oldies too. One night we had a great rendering of ‘Here is love vast as the ocean’, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t resist singing it in Welsh!

There were so many things happening that I can’t tell you about all of them. I didn’t have the stamina to go to all of them anyway. I shall just mention a few of the highlights.

Visitors from other countries brought some colour and challenge to the Assembly. Dr Ray Monze, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Zimbabwe, gave a very honest picture of the situation in his country and made us realise how blessed we are in Britain, and the wonderful way in which Christians in Zimbabwe are not only holding onto their faith in the midst of suffering and persecution but living joyfully. The main Bible studies were on Philippians, the letter Paul wrote while in prison, and it added a note of realism to be listening to someone who has so recently shared that experience.

Another visitor was Ben Franklin, an Indian of small stature and incredible energy who told us about how he and his friends were planting hundreds of new churches in Indian villages. At a late evening session he was fairly successful in teaching us a few simple choruses in Bengali.

An important part of the Assembly this year was the attention given to issues around sexuality. 
We have all heard about the fierce debates going on in the Anglican Communion. This sort of thing has not happened in the Baptist churches because we are not a centralised or hierarchical church that can, or that needs to, make decisions binding on everybody. We are a union of local churches who govern themselves and each act according to their own conscience. But what this means in practice is that controversial issues are usually not talked about in case of upsetting people. The Baptist Union Council this year made the brave decision to bring the issue to the Assembly. There was a seminar at which a hundred or more people heard the personal stories of gay men, lesbians and others who for various reasons have got involved in the issues around sexuality. Then there was a plenary session in which we were invited to break up into small groups to discuss the Church’s attitude to same-sex relationships. 

Naturally there is deep disagreement, and many Baptists struggle with the interpretation of Scripture on this issue, but my experience was that the whole session was marked by a spirit of graciousness and mutual respect, and I was surprised at how many Baptists are moving in the direction of the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex relationships. There was a particularly  strong feeling of how tragic and wrong it is that so many gay and lesbian people feel that there is no place for them in the Christian Church. In true Baptist fashion, no resolution was brought forward for a vote. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’!

contributed by Ray Vincent.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A non-believers view of church

I came across an article written in the Welsh language magazine 'Barn'  by Beca Brown, a couple of months ago.  Beca had found herself, to her surprise, in a church. Even more to her surprise, she  quite enjoyed it, although she is a self confessed atheist.

Was she converted .. well no.    ' Am  I looking for something to fill the emptiness in my life?  Well', she says. 'aren't we all!'

What happened was that her 8 year  old son  was given an invitation  to Sunday School and wanted to go.   Rather than go with him (as she would for almost any other activity) she  thought of sending him on his own...  and then realised the stupidity of this.   Previous bad experiences of  church and of particular  Christians shouldn't get in the way of motherly duty.  

Having faced the pain of the recent death of a dear friend,  Beca was, she writes,  looking for answers - ' not for God and not even for the ability to  believe in something better to come, but I needed  a different kind of comfort.  I needed to belong to something which is more than the circle I have created for myself over 40 years of living'.

This is perhaps one of our most deep seated and universal 'religious' needs - to belong to something bigger. It reminds me of  the  illustration used by Janet in a recent sermon about how young children draw their own portrait with a line underneath, for the ground, and the sun shining in the sky.   The picture expresses what  children know but could probably never say in words... that they are not free floating beings, but belong to something bigger.

The dilemma  that Beca then identifies is this:   'its a terrible thing not to believe and yet to want  a bit of  the comfort and social  life that  comes with chapel life...   there are obviously people like me who are looking for the inclusive experience  that chapel can give, a chance to share  and listen and   consider, and to be quiet for an hour in the middle of a busy life'

Sadly,  her past experience of sermons  has been less than encouraging.   They left her feeling  that 'I will always be second rate, and marginalised because of that'.

The Sunday Assembly is, according to its website 'a godless congregation that meets on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.' It's a bit like a church , but without God.

Is this the answer? Should churches 'play down' God so as to attract more people? I don't think so. Pleasant as the Sunday Assembly sounds, it isn't church.. If churches stopped being prophetic and challenging, as well as comforting and inclusive; stopped working for justice and peace, as well as being 'interesting'; stopped trying to 'connect' with God through prayer and worship; stopped trying to grapple with what the Bible means, and what Christ, through his Spirit among us, is calling us to be... then it wouldn't be church.

We need God for more than comfort and a sense of belonging, but (and it's a big 'but') isn't it time that we listened to the likes of Beca Brown, to understand which bits of 'religion' make the most sense to a confessed nonbeliever?

Beca Brown's article 'Mynd i'r capel (Going to Chapel) was published in Barn  No 601 February 2013

Thursday, 9 May 2013

What are we like?

'Rugged, proud and uniquely beautiful' is how Wales, apparently, is described from space.

Dan suggests that we, as a church, are  not exactly this, but rather 'strong, modest and uniquely beautiful.... and also terrifying to those outside!'.

I don't suppose we are particularly terrifying as individuals, but as a church we are, because to many people any church  is terrifying... and for all kinds of reasons.

There is the physical building, especially one like ours  which imposes a  brick  wall of secrecy  to anyone walking down Gelliwastad Rd, and makes  sure that only the very determined find a way in. Then there are  the things we do and say in church: the praying, sharing bread and wine, singing  words that sometimes don't make sense and sometimes make, perhaps, too much sense and threaten a comfortable world view.
And then, of course, is the presumed judgement on people's lives.  Churches are supposed to disapprove of everything that's fun, aren't they? And Christians think they are so much better, don't they?

St David's Uniting Church has the ingredients, says Dan, to be the kind of church that cares more about 'you' than it cares about the church! To be a church that offers a radical welcome.

We had asked Dan, as he nears the end of his  9 month period  with us, to offer some reflections on where we were as a church and  what we might build on for the future.    In a session that followed the morning service (and lunch) on 28th May, he shared some of his observations and thoughts.

'Technical fixes'   won't solve the underlying problem of a steady decline in churches over the last 45 years, but a couple of things that the church might usefully address are:

  •  Communication with the local community.   Are we 'Ponty's best kept secret'? We could  make better use of notices and banners, of social media and use our voices to let people know we are here, what  we are about, and that they are welcome.
  •  Sunday worship. Two traditional services on a Sunday makes big demands on any minister, and leaves less time and energy available for  actively engaging  with the wider community (and our 'vision' will require a  considerable amount of  community oriented work to be done).  Moreover, two Sunday schools, meeting simultaneously on a Sunday morning at  Church House and in town, misses the opportunity for children  to be part of a larger, vibrant community.
The most important question, however, is how to 'keep the sacred fires burning' and how to share these with others.   Dan's sermon on this, preached during  the morning service, can be downloaded from the church website. 

The church  needs to make 'adaptive changes'. It needs to be prepared to be the church differently, in order to serve, in the name of Christ,  the world as it is today.

St David's Uniting has already sketched out an exciting  new vision for  seeking and working  with  church and secular  partners, to make a difference in Rhondda Cynon Taf.  This new vision will give  plenty of opportunity to 'take stock', as it is thought  through and fleshed  out. It may naturally prompt changes, in response to new partnerships and  priorities.

These are challenging but exciting times, indeed.