Month: April 2013

Sitting at the Table | A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

When I was younger there was a church I used to walk past every day in the center of town.  It was called St Thomas’ Church.  And as a small boy what an impressive place it was.  There were huge vertical lines that were accentuated by the spacing of ornately carved pillars.  Each window consisted of intricately cut coloured glass creating beautifully illustrated scenes from the bible.  In one window there was ‘The Good Samaritan’ placing the beaten and robbed man upon the back of his donkey.  He was then shown taking the man to be looked after.  Then little gold coins were depicted as little yellow discs of glass being handed over to the innkeeper for his trouble.  In another window there was the last supper.  A simple shared meal between friends that symbolized the relationship God has with the world.  There was this huge table at which people were invited to come and share the Passover.  Jesus sat with his disciples as he welcomed them to come and eat with the God-man.  St Thomas’ was an impressive place.  It was a spectacular place.  When the summer sun shone through the windows and the incense was wafting between the pillars it created a dazzling sight as streaks of reds and blues and greens danced through the air.

Anybody who was anybody would be found there on a Sunday morning.  The Mayor would be there two rows from the front.  Behind him would sit the headmaster in the next pew.  Everyone was highly polished and neatly trimmed.  Partings were always worn and suits were neatly pressed.  Sunday best was the order of the day.  All of the people from the town we lived in who had any kind of status could be found there.  Everyone was ‘just so’.  As you looked around the congregation each Sunday morning you could see lots of white faces and nuclear families.  Mum and dad would bring the two point four children through the big oak doors each week.  In this congregation everyone was the “right type of person”.  There was no one in this place who could really be called “poor”.  Over the years plenty of people had come in and quickly gone back out because they soon realized that they weren’t the “right type of person”.  Here at St Thomas’, people in need were out of the question.  People with the wrong kind of accent need not apply.  If you are going to grace a pew, make sure your surname isn’t Unpronounceableovic.  Heaven forbid you would have a different coloured skin!

There was one family who attended for many years.  Mum and dad and 2.4 children happily coming to church each Sunday.  Dad had a good job and a company car.  Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.  The cracks started to appear when dad was made redundant.  Gone was the company car. Then one thing led to another and their marriage broke down.  It is hard work going to church when you find out that after ten years you are no longer the “right kind of people”.  Suddenly mum was taking the 2.4 children to St Thomas’ by herself.  No one said anything directly to her but she could tell.  There were conversations that would suddenly stop whenever she approached.  There were cups of tea passed to her with a knowing smile.  After a couple of weeks the energy it required to get the kids out of bed, dressed and ready for church was just not there.  The small nuclear family stopped being the “right sort of people” each Sunday morning.  As you might imagine, St Thomas’ did not receive many new members.  Its members simply grew older.

Years later as an adult I learned that St Thomas’ Church had closed.  There just weren’t enough of the “right type” of people.  They just didn’t exist, I guess.  One time I went back to that town and there I was passing beside the familiar gothic architecture and the ornately carved pillars.  St Thomas’ church building was still standing only now it was a restaurant.  Oddly given the history of the previous occupants of the building it was a curry house called the Indian Cottage.  I walked in through those massive gothic doors and where there had once been pews, now there were tables, waiters, and people eating dinner.  Candles were lit at each table and people were eagerly tearing naan breads and pouring fresh glasses of wine.  The familiar hubbub of community meals was all around as the sound of glass upon glass clanking together and laughter filled the building.  As I looked down the nave of the ancient gothic church to where the altar had once sat underneath the image of the last supper, now there were tables. 

A young waiter came over to us and asked if we’d like a table for two.  My wife and I exchanged a glance as I responded to his question with a simple “yes please”.  We were escorted to a table at the back of the restaurant where the sanctuary had once been.  The young man took our coats and pulled out a chair for my wife to sit at.  He asked if we would like to order drinks and I asked for a bottle of the house white.  As he went to get our drinks I began to unfold my serviette and turned to my wife.  As I pulled myself closer to her over the table with said with a hushed tone “Now, I guess everybody is finally welcome to eat at this table”.

What is “The Gospel”?


There is an inherent inner tension that consumes many followers of the way. So many feel the conviction in their beliefs about Jesus but are unsure of how to articulate them to a quizzical world. Surely there must be an easy way to justify our deeply held beliefs? It must be possible to reduce the Christian faith into a suitably strong concentrated form that we can keep in the cupboard like stock cubes. Everyone is looking for something beefy that they can easily unwrap when they need it.

Here Tom Wright subtly reframes the questions people are keen to ask.

Instead of the formulaic reductionism that people seek, Wright frames “the gospel” in the context of something much bigger; the whole story. He sets the life of the Christian within the ongoing narrative of God’s interaction with humanity focussing on the person of Jesus Christ. Can you live with the unending quest for that illusive superficial “cure all”? The easily unwrapped gospel flavouring? Or would you rather focus on something much deeper and richer?

Maggie Thatcher

I’ve been reliving my primary school years this evening. Heading back to the tender age of ten when Skid Row released their first album.  I went to see them last night and they were awesome!  Skid Row aren’t the only reason I’m trawling back through the annals of my primary school memories. This week, all I knew in those early years died.

We are currently listening to reports on the news of women being underrepresented in the FTSI 100 boardrooms.  My first memories are of the most powerful person in my life. Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1978 and for the whole of my childhood we had but one prime minister.  She was all-powerful.  She could decide whether I drank milk or water.  OK, maybe that’s not all powerful, but it is nearly as powerful as my mum. My mum knitted me a jumper using scraps of wool with a He-man sword on the back and baked us a gingerbread house cake!  Margaret Thatcher was nearly that powerful!

Margaret Thatcher in 1982.

For the last three days I have been in a strange and uncharted world. I see the a family grieving for Mrs T and I feel for them.  I see the press deifying her in none stop rolling coverage. I also see a church that is divided in its opinions of her and unsure of what it is supposed to do in this situation. I don’t know what to do in this situation. I am torn.  I write this post with one question throbbing in the heartland of my cerebral cortex. “What am I supposed to say?”  Heck, I’m ‘the vicar’ so surely I should have ‘something’ to say.

Actually, I’m at a loss for words. I’m stuck between the rock and the hard place.  I’m a [luxury*] miner’s lad!  I come from a pit village in the heart of God’s Country, Yorkshire. I lived through the miners strike. At five years old I watched people sharing everything on the kitchen table and working out who needed the money most.  I played kerbie outside whilst they decided who could eat this week. Liver and onions.  Or cheese pie, a dish my gran invented by layering everything that everyone had in a casserole dish.  Tinned tomatoes, mashed potato and grated cheese then placed under the grill.  My mum made that for me about four weeks ago as a nostalgia kick.  And I still love eating liver! Nom!

Every one of my male relatives was put out of work except one. My dad had moved to potash mining which continues to this day at Boulby in the North Yorkshire Moors.  It was purely down to a decision my parents made to move to North Yorkshire.  but everyone else remained in the pit village.  Everyone lost their job.  Some never worked again.  A village, a town, a community was ripped apart.  The community had its heart ripped out. No paramedics were called.  No hospital treatment was offered. No transplant was given.  Just the body left lying on the floor bleeding out.

Two years ago as part of a our ongoing ministerial education, I and three other priests had to present the socio-political factors in our respective parishes.  We had to compare and contrast the different areas around our region.  One of these priests comes from the same pit village as my family.  He was then ministering just down the road in the village next door.  What were our discoveries?  Just by being born in an area your average life expectancy reduces by six years.  1 in 4 are suffering from long term illness.  More than 50% of the population have no qualifications.  At all.  1 in 3 have a job.

But I’m the vicar. So I have kept a rather undignified silence.  There are people watching.  The press are watching.  Waiting for that chance to single someone out and make an example of them.  And so I’m “not allowed” to remember those experiences I’ve lived through.  Certainly couldn’t put them on Facebook.  Couldn’t blog about them.  What if the Daily Mail saw it?  I’d get in trouble.  It is as if someone has taken my voice.  This week something died… inside me.  And I’m not allowed to mention it.  So I won’t.  I will maintain my undignified silence.  I’ll leave it to a bishop.

“Where the pit head once stood, with thousands of people working to produce more coal faster and more efficiently that at most other pits, there is smooth level grass.  Empty to the eye, but pregnant with bereavement.  All around, despite the heroic efforts of local leaders, there are signs of postindustrial blight, with all the fallout of other people’s power games.  And that sight stands in my mind as a symbol…  What hope is there for communities that have lost their way, their way of life, their coherence, their hope?”  –  NT Wright, Surprised by Hope p5

*My dad always reminds me that he’s “an electrician who worked down the pit.  A luxury miner”.