Letter from the Vicar – 19th March 2018

Dear Friends,

I am now half way through my Sabbatical and I planned to write a short letter to keep in touch and give you an idea of what we have been doing. It has turned out not to be all that ‘short’ but, then, a lot has happened! Anyway, in case you are interested, here goes.

On Monday 5 Feb I set off first thing to a friend’s cottage near Blandford Forum. It was a pleasant drive with a clear blue sky, no hold ups, some worship music and I felt the Lord’s blessing. I largely spent the next five days preparing for the Preaching Workshop I was due to lead in Cape Town the following week and the sermon to preach at St Barnabas Church in Cape Town. My Area Director of Ordinands work I have had to continue in the Sabbatical and there was also Reports to write for candidates soon heading to a Selection Conference. Study was interspersed with walks across the hills to Milton Abbey and around this ‘Hardy country’. I felt some annoyance as, on the second day, a noisy drill from next door unpleasantly pierced the silence – part of what I had left London to avoid! Mercifully, it didn’t last long.

I returned to London on Friday 9 Feb and on Sunday 11 Feb I went to Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon in the morning and Grace Church, Hackney in the evening. It was a treat to sit in a pew as a worshipper, with no responsibility for the service.

On Tuesday 13 Feb I flew overnight to Cape Town and was met by my friend Simon Clegg who came to South Africa in 2002, in his early 40s, after a career in finance. His aim was to set up a Christian ministry for business people in Cape Town. Having set this work up, he then handed iton and trained for ordained ministry in the The Church of England in South Africa. Having finished his training, he planted a new church – St Barnabas Bible Church – in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. I enjoyed joining with their Wednesday evening home group led by an able young man, training for ministry, from Ghana.

You will probably have heard of the dramatic shortage of water in Cape Town. I cut my hair extremely short thinking that I wouldn’t be able to wash it for three weeks! Simon is lucky enough to have a bore hole in his garden so, although they are extremely careful with water, the shortage is not too much of an inconvenience. I certainly, however, appreciate our plentiful supply in a way I never did before.

Thursday was a day of final preparation for the Workshop and Sermon. Then on Friday I was given a tour of George Whitefield College and met staff and students. This College was established in the 1970s in order to train and equip pastors from all over Africa for Christian ministry. It is reputed to have one of the best theological libraries in the whole of the continent of Africa. I was driven there by Raymond, a member of Simon’s church, from the so called ‘coloured’ community who told me about life under Apartheid as we walked along Muizenberg beach; a beach he would not have been allowed to visit under that regime. I also had lunch with Siegfried who is Director of SIM (a mission agency) in Africa who, along with Simon, would be hosting and promoting the Preaching Workshop.

Saturday was the day of the Preaching Workshop for about 30 pastors, preachers and Bible teachers, some from Cape Town, some serving in the vast sprawling and very poor township communities around the city, others students at George Whitefield College, from South Sudan, Malawi, Ghana, Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe. The teaching was a combination of input from me along with group exercises and it was exciting to see many grasping some of the principles of expository preaching. I had felt not a little concern about the day, since I knew so little about the context of those attending. The difference in context was brought home when a lady at the end of day asked me to pray for her. I was expecting to hear of something similar to that of someone in need in the UK so I was taken aback when she told me that her husband was on trial for killing someone in self-defence. Despite my ignorance of the context I felt, however, that the day was an answer to prayer and was useful. The plan now, is that some of those who attended, will continue to meet on a regular basis to work together on their preaching and teaching. Even if no one else benefited I did myself as I prepared and re-visited some of my fundamental convictions and beliefs about expository preaching.

On Sunday 18th Feb I preached at St Barnabas Church and the service was followed by a church lunch. The church has a congregation of about 40 with at least 11 different nationalities represented. It meets in a Salvation Army hall in the Wynberg suburb of Cape Town. It was a joy to worship with the church and to meet many of the congregation over a church lunch after the service.

Liz arrived at Cape Town airport on Monday morning and we set off for some holiday travelling east out of Cape Town. We loved the little town of Franschoek with its surrounding vineyards and museum about the life of the Hugenot refugees who first settled the area. There were other highlights on the well-known ‘Garden Route’ such as walking round the Robberg Peninsula at Plettenberg Bay. On Sunday 25th Feb I attended St Thomas Methodist Church in Plettenberg Bay, a church which has been expanding since 1975 with the auditorium enlarged three times. The theme of the service was the helpful one that there is no such thing as instant spiritual maturity and that gains come slowly and at a cost. The highlight of this holiday time, was probably a couple of days we had camping in the Shamwari Game Reserve and seeing elephants, lions, cheetah, rhino amongst other animals. It is awesome to see these creatures of God’s making at such close quarters.

On Sunday 4 March we went to Bettaway Community Church in Delft township on the edge of Cape Town. The ‘townships’ are sprawling settlements of corrugated iron little dwellings looking rather like garden sheds. The church is led by Clive McMinn and his wife Glenda, and he will be coming to St Simon’s soon to share something of their remarkable work in this setting of great poverty. The two-hour service, as you might imagine, was marked by exuberant and very loud worship which, though not St Simon’s style, was moving and uplifting. Clive’s message was an inspiring one about ‘knowing who you are in Christ’. He tells me later that he is speaking in to a mind-set in the townships of ‘I’m a failure, there’s nothing I can do’. He is wanting them to understand themselves as those created by God and known by Him heading for a place that Christ has prepared for us.

We returned to UK on 8 March and then two days later headed up to the Lake District. We are staying in a cottage in Loweswater in the north west of the national park. On Sunday 11 March we worshipped with The King’s Community Church in Cockermouth who meet in the town’s secondary school. As we do at St Simon’s on Mothering Sunday, they give out bunches of flowers to all the women in the church. The additional touch – which I would love to introduce at SSZ – is that each bunch has a verse of the Bible attached; in Liz’s case the words of Jeremiah 33.3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know’.

The plan for this time in the Lakes is to read and study, along with afternoon walks. As I write now, the sun is shining and I am looking across to the hill of Mellbreak, and I can think of no place I would rather be for some days of quiet reading and reflection. I have begun to burrow my way in to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and look forward to sharing some of its fascinating truths with you on return. On Sunday 18 March we were just the others side of the Solway Firth, in Galloway, and I attended Kirkcudbright Parish Church (Church of Scotland). There was a depth and a seriousness about the service which I found uplifting and it was good to be reminded that ‘at just the right time’, Christ established the new covenant by his death: an old and familiar truth but good to hear again.

I have now been to seven different churches and I have loved seeing the way in which, though they have in common worshipping Jesus Christ, each has its own distinctive ethos and culture and ways of doing things – just as each family does things slightly differently. It is a remarkable thing that the message of Christ crucified and risen has spread and taken root in so many different cultures and has found a good fit in the heart and lives of people from every corner of the world; this is the wonder of the ‘catholic’ church.

We are missing you and praying for you and look forward to reunion in early May.

With our love and prayers,

Mike