Ministers, schools and Christmas…

I got someone to come and play at a carol service from the community around a particular hospital.

He was a long retired headteacher: giving his time freely now because that was how he was formed and lived his life.

We had never met before that day and so we talked as he left. He told a story of being a headteacher and loving what he did- he breathed vocation.

Then he spoke about ministers whom he had used for school assemblies. He found few of them could actually do it. He felt that the problem was so many of them expected children to sit still while they ‘preached’ at them. There was an issue with power, with many feeling threatened, out of their comfort zone and not in control.

‘They expect the children to come to God…when God has to travel to the children’.

He was talking my kind of language. He was also talking Incarnation- God travelling to people, rather than waiting for them to come to Him. Of course: with the expectation that we do likewise: almost impossible to do if you hold onto power, position or prestige.

And that is a good point to end this year’s blog ramblings….

If I ever did another Christmas Day sermon…

I think I’d want to talk about Christmas as somehow upsetting/disturbing:-

Shepherds– outsiders and unwanted being the first to ‘see’. The kind of people most would have edged away from.

Magi- heretics/those from ‘outside’/those who indulged in unorthodox and ‘strange’ practices beginning to ‘see’, when those who should have, couldn’t.

Angels– shocking and upsetting normal routine.

I don’t think I’d make it twee, although I have ideas for all sorts of participation.

I was just struck as I was leading carols in a ward with many who had no sympathy to faith, just how this story is not comfortable, or for those who are especially ‘sure’ or in the ‘centre’.

And that is Good news.

Christmas Carol services

Embedded image permalink

I actually did 4 this year. I was expecting not to do any, but some wards wanted them.

They were unlike any carol services I have ever done. Whilst they had the lesson and carol format, it was a lot smaller scale than any church service I ever did. But it was also a lot more informal, spontaneous and open.

It was normal to be interrupted, for people to react and for people to talk freely about how they were feeling/how they understood ‘god’. Parts were improvised/altered: for example, the above (autographed) book became a stable- don’t ask how or why. I was rarely in total control: that was a good feeling.

I enjoyed celebrating the fragility of the Incarnation in some very fragile, and emotionally open places and lives.

Someone came to help me in two of them. I had not met him before: he said ‘You love this job don’t you- you are at home’.

I was, I am. Maybe those services were a kind of parable for me: something new, not yet fully grown, birthed in a provisional place.

Christmas Letter

Each year I try and do a Christmas letter.

I know the risks of this: unsubtly rubbing people’s noses in it as to how brilliant your life is and how gifted your progeny are. You may chose to put in descriptions of ludicrously expensive holidays with attempted ironic descriptions in: ‘Here we are in Klosters with David Cameron:again. lol’. If you are Christian, you can have all these but you must never admit to doubt, failure or fears; in fact your letter must make the life of St Paul look like something of a failure compared to yours.

The best letters are newsy and honest. This is my stab at it- my wife did redact it to stop me saying too much. It was not our best year and leaves out some things:-

This year has been a year of so many changes: some good, some bad, some mixed.

The biggest change was that Victoria’s dad died at the end of September following a long illness. A couple of weeks after my dad had a life threatening accident from which he is slowly recovering. In addition, we experienced some other issues which caused major heart-searching;  we approach the end of 2015 with feelings of both relief and exhaustion.

During the year we moved house: this time last year we knew that we would have to leave the manse but had no idea where (or how) we would live. We subsequently found a place to rent and are living in an older house at the other side of the village: smaller but somehow lovelier.

Friends helped us to move in late May. It feels like home and we all still have many of the same networks and friends that have sustained us (I now lead Beaver Scouts, still turn out in panto and have restarted booking gigs in the village). Throwing things away and decluttering has proved cathartic, almost hopeful.

Mathew and Ben are doing that thing children do: growing. Matthew is now the tallest in the house and is only just 14. He will be doing his first GCSE in June next year. Sometimes we call him ‘Kevin the teenager’ after the Harry Enfield sketch.

Ben has started senior school, likes it and continues to have a wide and varied social life. His batting and leg break and googly bowling have just earned him a place in a couple of local league development squads; if I have sired a leg spinner, my work as a father feels complete. The 3 males have started to run in a local Park run: although I can do a respectable 24 minutes, they always outrun me.

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for Victoria: sharing a house with 3 males is not always easy. Without her steadying hand, we stray into ‘Lord of the Flies’ territory. She continues to teach for 9 days a week (actually 4, but it feels like 9…), now with a year 1 class.

I work as a mental health chaplain: it feels like ‘coming home’- I rove all over North Yorkshire, work flexibly and don’t have an office. The NHS Trust I work for has a good ethos. I also get to work with some lovely people.

I miss what I used to do less than I thought that I would (it helps living in the same village and the local church people have been encouraging: I was incredibly moved by the variety and number of people who turned out for my ‘farewell’). I can’t see going back to ‘normal’ Methodist ministry ever- I have rediscovered weekends and evenings and a supportive working environment plus people say that I look healthier and happier.

On top of the last few months, I guess that we underestimated the emotional impact of changing vocations.  This means that this letter will arrive after Christmas and I never got around to writing cards…. If you want a quote to sum up the last few months and our Hope for the future, I can do no better than cite St Leonard Cohen:

‘Ring out the bells that still can ring; forget the perfect offering. There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in’.

Happy Christmas and a hopeful and joyful new year to you…


Silent Night?


If I had seen this on a TV show, my first reaction would have been something along the lines of how cheesy it was. Then I would think something about how cheesy TV was in the 1970s. I don’t deny the talent of those performing or the work they have put in, but…..

…This is from a church: Hillsong in London- and it was only done last year. What were they thinking…?

Leaving aside the song: ‘Silent Night’- the clue is in the words. However you re-imagine it, it involves ‘silent’, ‘night’ and ‘calm’; it is really hard not to miss that….most 4 year olds would get it….

Some Christians have complained about the ‘raunch’ or that it is not ‘worship’ and how terrible that is. I don’t really have a problem with any of those concepts: Christians can perform, guys. Maybe too it was in the context of something presented to people who don’t yet believe…that would be fine…but….

My biggest problem is this: if you believe it, the incarnation was small, frail, fragile and barely noticed by those in the ‘centre’ (the carol, old as it is, picks this up)… the way this song is presented misses this entirely. So I have the following points:-

-What is this about ‘big’ ‘loud’ and ‘better’ that seems to typify some churches? I can understand your desire to ‘reach’ people, but do it in a way that aligns with the message and does not try and ape the world that you are trying to give a counter view to.

-Someone,somewhere must have had misgivings about the artistic direction and given a dissenting view: ‘Nice idea, but….lets rethink this…’ before it got any further. Or is this the kind of place where ‘Leadership’ (capital ‘L ‘) is venerated above ‘community’ , so any kind of alternative view is ‘heretical’, ‘sowing dissent’ or ‘not being faithful’? I have been around churches and ministers like this and it is not pretty.

-Everything needs recontextualising or re-imagining from time to time. The best way of doing this is understanding the tradition you are changing and being sympathetic to it. The worse kind is ignoring any tradition and doing something different as we know best (I cringe at some churches blurb that goes along the lines of : ‘we are not like other churches- we are hip, happening and fun’….).

The most I managed of this video was 53 seconds….I challenge you to try longer.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

(Rowan Williams)



This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

(U.A. Fanthorpe)

Christmas Eve


This is my favourite Advent hymn ever. and is one of the few hymns that makes me cry.

I like the tune and the words of longing: miles away from the brashness and saccharine that can affect the season.

I like the longing for restoration and Hope and the acknowledgement that things are not as they could be.

I like the frailty of Sufjan Stevens’ voice.

O come, O come, Emmanuel…


It was while I was in the corridor I could hear someone singing carols alongside the choir. Except they were not joining in, so much as parodying them. Maybe it reflected the person’s desire to be funny, their hostility to faith or their mental health (but having written that, I do not believe any of us are ‘normal’): I do not know.

After a while however, the person’s voice changed & they began to sing in time with the choir: there was no irony or mimicry- something connected and made sense.

I think most people were listening to the choir. I stopped listening to them: I could only hear a broken voice, trying to remember a time when it all made sense.

Sometimes the barrier between heaven and earth is very thin and sometimes only the broken really sense that.

A week or so I quoted Annie Dillard:-

beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there‘.



During that same carol ‘service’ I spent most of my time in the corridor. I was helping to open doors to assist people who wanted to move, checking on people on the edge who were not sure what was going on and striking up conversations with those who had no wish to draw near.

This, I thought; is ‘home’- being on the edge: looking out for and being alongside those who are not sure of the centre.

Maybe this is closer to what Christmas is all about.