A nice surprise was awaiting me when I arrived this morning at St Augustine’s to take my first service after the sabbatical. They had taken the trouble to buy a ‘welcome back’ card. Many members of the congregation had signed it. I’m not sure, but if I’ve identified the handwriting correctly, then I think it was the initiative of the Anglican priest, Jane. The old cliché says that little things mean a lot, and in this case the cliché was true. It was a simple gesture of love and thoughtfulness, and that from the congregation that gets the least of my time.
Tonight was the café church service at Broomfield with a lot of DVD clips. Well, I say café church: really it was simply an informal service. I had wondered about the wisdom of constructing an act of worship entirely without hymns, but as it happened, no musician was present, and few present with strong voices to pitch a note, so the format worked better than it might have done.
To some more liturgical traditions, a service without music might not always seem surprising, but it goes against a core element of Methodist spirituality. As the preface to a previous official hymn book famously put it, ‘Methodism was born in song.’ The rôle of Charles Wesley alongside John in the eighteenth century revival makes that clear. You could say that if you spotted a traditional Baptist, Anglican and Methodist on their way to worship, each would be carrying a book. The Baptist would be carrying a Bible, the Anglican a prayer book and the Methodist a hymn book. It tells you something about the expression of spirituality. Some put it like this: Methodists sing their theology.
Perhaps that’s why a ‘worship war’ over musical styles can be much more painful in Methodist churches. I certainly found that in my first circuit. Having spent my first two years battling a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers, we had no sooner put that issue to bed than some traditionalist members tried to split the church over music. Ironically, the more charismatic members who enjoyed the contemporary worship songs had no problem singing the great hymns alongside the modern material, because their spiritual experiences helped them identify with what Wesley and others wrote about in their hymns.
Most of the technology worked tonight – well, the DVDs did, but the XP laptop didn’t want to play a slide show of photos I’d taken on the sabbatical. It only seems happy to pass them onto the video projector if they’re in a PowerPoint show. They weren’t.
Beyond that, I then got embroiled in a church property problem that it wouldn’t be diplomatic or sensible to recount here, and I got home much later than usual.
So that’s about as up to date as I think I can reasonably bring you. It’s not been the smoothest of re-introductions tonight, and I’m back with a bump.
So the sabbatical is over. No more for another seven years.
OK, that last sentence is mean, especially for the vast majority of people who don’t receive sabbaticals. What have I gained from this one? Some spiritual encouragement from the week at Cliff College. A sense from the time at Trinity College, Bristol that I’m not insane to feel out on a limb as a minister with my personality type. And the sheer pleasure of using my long-dormant hobby of photography in Christian fellowship at Lee Abbey. From both Cliff and Trinity has come the desire to explore PhD research, although there are obstacles. Right now would not be a tactful time, ministry-wise. There would also be the small question of the finance.
What do I bring back from it into ministry? Actually, I’m not sure right now. I’m aware that some people in my churches are already talking about the things I shall be bringing back from the sabbatical for them, as if it has been a three-month trip to some extended version of the Christian Resources Exhibition. Sorry, that’s still for me just one day of the four next week.
What will I bring back for my churches? I don’t think it will be (or ever could have been) specific resources and ideas. I hope it brings a revitalised me, even if – quite honestly – I still don’t have the answers to the questions about why I feel so frustrated in ministry a lot of the time. I only have, as I said above, the sense that I am not mad, after all.
But I hope they’ll see something in me. What that is, I don’t know. I had some comments today. Given the assumption that no sooner shall I be back than I shall be off for a fortnight recovering from the upcoming nasal surgery, we did some things with my churches today. One church was holding a fund-raiser for Chelmsford Street Pastors. A couple at another church were celebrating their golden wedding. People made some strange comments. One person thought I had gained a suntan.
“Must have been all that snow at Cliff College in February,” I joked.
Another thought I looked relaxed. With small children? Rarely possible!
So I’ll see what tomorrow brings. I have a communion service in the morning at St Augustine’s. In the evening, I have café church at Broomfield, where I am going to show some DVD clips from Lee Abbey. One is ‘Words Are Not Enough‘, some mimes to biblical passages by Dave Hopwood, their creative arts director. The other is ‘Lee Abbey Reflections‘, which contains meditations and music that can be used worshipfully.
Oh, well. Once more into the breach …