‘The very first journey to the manger begins, not with passive waiting, but with a walk. Imagine the pure physicality of that walk: a heavily pregnant Mary and a weary Joseph place one sore, dusty foot in front of the other, mile after mile. Mary plants each foot carefully, lest she slip and harm her child. Like Mary and Joseph, we embark upon a journey today. Let us walk with God through Advent, mindfully and intentionally, with our hearts and minds open to all the possibilities this expectant season brings.’ (Anita Philbrick)
Today is Advent Sunday, and the start of Advent Word, a project of The Episcopal Church, with an ‘AdventWord’ shared each day and a short meditation on that word. From my visit to London last week, I hope to share a photo with you appropriate for each day’s AdventWord.
Charming, quaint, quirky, peaceful and popular are all words you find on tourist websites used to describe the lovely Suffolk town of Beccles ~ all true of course, it’s a really great place! According to Trip Advisor, the top No. 1 attraction of ‘THE 10 BEST Things to Do in Beccles – 2022‘ is, guess what, the most unlikely sport of parachuting ~ not the first thing that came to mind when I arrived in Beccles on Saturday for my CMS Link Church Visit over the weekend – I wouldn’t like to try, even off the bell tower, the highest building in the town…
When I ask my London friends if they’ve heard of Beccles – yes they have – and what comes to mind, they mention ‘cakes’, though the cakes turn out to be Eccles Cakes, which are actually from Lancashire. Beccles and Eccles sound just a bit too similar, I guess! Of course, Beccles does have plenty of delicious cakes, biscuits and flans, and we enjoyed some of them on Saturday night at our Bring and Share evening. Check out this delicious and very beautiful cherry flan, yum yum!
My first challenge on Saturday though was just finding the town! The satnav took me on the scenic route across Suffolk which wound on and on, while signposts along the way all gave distances to Norwich, Ipswich, Lowestoft and then Diss ~ Beccles hardly gets a mention until you’re nearly there. Apparently only one of the main roads into the town has a large ‘Welcome to Beccles’ sign ~ though there’s another smaller one for those arriving by boat…
Yes, my conclusion is that Beccles is a very modest town, almost shy in fact, and happy to sit quietly on the River Waveney, marking the border between Suffolk and Norfolk, and the people who have chosen to live there seem to enjoy that quietness too. Saturday afternoon was certainly quiet (I hardly saw anyone!) but it was also sunny and bright and I could wander around taking photos of the streets and quayside…
I had the honour of staying with Barry and Faith Darch, long-time members of St. Michael’s Church, Beccles, where Faith is a lay reader and also in the bell-ringing team. Barry is serving as Mayor of Beccles this year, so I was delighted to have a tour of the town hall on Sunday morning, including a visit to the chamber, where the Beccles Town Council meets, and also to see the chains that the mayor and mayoress wear on special occasions. Despite all the grandeur, they are very down-to-earth, humble, kind people and such wonderful hosts!
On Saturday night, we met at St. Luke’s Church, Beccles for food – and sharing about Taiwan. It was freezing outside, their first frost of the winter, but inside it was lovely and warm. I was very warmly welcomed by the rector, Rev. Rich Henderson, in charge of Beccles Parish, which now has 5 churches; fortunately he is helped by a wonderful team. Keith is the chair of the mission committee, and on Saturday, he and Rich kindly presented me with a new and very large Chinese – English Bible, a gift from Beccles Parish. Thank you!
We had a fun evening – and check out all the amazing food….
And so to Sunday, which was St. Edmund’s Day, November 20. St. Edmund, who died on November 20, 869, was King of East Anglia, and is also the patron saint of plagues and pandemics. The tradition is that the St. Edmund’s flag is flown from all towers in Suffolk on St. Edmund’s Day, and so I accompanied Barry the Mayor to the town hall to meet Tom, the official flag-raiser – and to find the St. Edmund’s flag….
And as the flag went up, we went up to see Faith and the bellringers in the tower, where they ring every Sunday morning. Very impressive…
And so to St. Michael’s Church for the 11:00 service, where we had coffee before and after the service ~ it was great to see so many of those who had come the night before, and who I have known for many years. That includes Bishop Gavin Reid and his wife, who retired to Beccles many years ago – they had come straight from taking a service in a nearby village, and also Rev. Peter Langford, famous for cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats to mark his 75th birthday, then again for his 80th, then again for his 85th – and next year he’s 90, and thinks he may try again! Such energy! I see I mentioned them in my blog post after my previous visit to Beccles in October 2018 (see here). Also, Rachel, retired from CMS after serving many years in Asia, and now living in the area, lovely to see her again. Anyway, I did the sermon – and took a lot of selfies with lovely people…
As we came out of the church, there was this horse and cart driving around Beccles, what a great sight…
Faith and Barry kindly cooked us a splendid Sunday lunch, and then we went off to Bungay to visit an elderly church member in a care home there. Afterwards we walked around Bungay Town – it has lots of old houses painted in beautiful colours, and the ruins of an old castle…
And finally back to Beccles, where the St. Edmund’s flag was still flying, another great sight!
So a big thank you to Rich, Keith, Barry, Faith, Rachel and everyone in Beccles Parish for such a fantastic weekend, and such a warm welcome. It was great, and your ongoing support is so much appreciated. Thank you, and thanks be to God for all His many blessings! ❤️
The great city of Oxford, once romantically described as the ‘city of dreaming spires’ 🤨 is now more accurately a city of 650 fast-moving electric scooters, that zoom in and out around all the streets ~ trying hard to avoid people furiously peddling along on ordinary bikes or struggling to push themselves on ordinary scooters, all trying to keep up. They go so fast, I have yet to get one in a photo – only the ordinary bikes stay in focus! Such is Oxford’s morning rush hour as students head for lectures and others head for work. It’s busily bustling out there!
Last time I was in Oxford, in October 2018, I wrote this in my blog post, “I admit, I’m not an Oxford person. I can’t recognise any college or building or landmark, haven’t got a clue what the colleges are, nor why they’re famous, other than just being part of Oxford University. So all I can tell you is that the buildings and colleges are beautiful, and spires are many. Spires and steeples and towers and gargoyles and churches and chapels everywhere.” That much is still true.
And so today I ambled around Oxford looking at lots of old buildings, wandering here and there, trying to stay outside in the beautiful sunshine as much as possible and mostly avoiding anything that required me to pay to enter. So don’t ask me what any of these places are, just look at the photos!
The real reason for being in Oxford was to visit CMS (Church Mission Society) Headquarters, located south of the city in CMS House – it also lets office space to other mission agencies and church-related organizations. I was there all day yesterday, and, well, it rained most of the day. Hey, if the day is going to be wet, then the CMS office is the place to be, it’s so warm and welcoming! And by lunchtime, the rain was stopping and there was even a rainbow coming out….
Most of the people who work for CMS either work overseas, or if they’re based in Oxford, then since the pandemic, they work partly there and partly at home – so you never know who might be there in person on any given day. Ah, I love surprises! I took along my Taiwan teapots and tea, and was delighted to share them with all the people at CMS, along with a few smarties, chocolate money and a few other goodies – well I do want people to remember Taiwan and my visit 🤣🤣! I was so happy to finally get to meet Alastair Bateman (CMS CEO since May 2019) ~ he smiled all day long, he’s just so lovely!
And I saw lots of my other good friends at CMS too. These people are just so dedicated, cheerful, humble and kind, every single one of them. Some have worked there for years and years, and a few even worked in the London office before CMS moved to Oxford in 2007. Some I have only met on email, but now I realise who they are, wow, it’s so wonderful to meet them. My biggest encourager and supporter, Anne organized the whole day’s itinerary, arranged all the meetings, and kindly prepared a delicious lunch too. Thank you Anne – and thank you everyone!
After a morning of fun meetings, then at 1:30 pm I had 30 minutes to do a WOW ‘Window on the World’ session, sharing about Taiwan with pictures on a PowerPoint, and also with several people attending online ~ while CEO Alastair sat right at the front and wrote lots of things down as I spoke! 🤩 These are the action shots taken right at the start…
Meanwhile the online people could only gaze longingly at all those teapots and tea, and dream of the chocolate money and Quality Street as we munched away in Oxford! 🤣🤣
Thanks to Camilla for taking these photos – I discovered she’s often the person putting together my link letters, so I’m really grateful to her for so much! 😊😊
During yesterday’s meetings, I did invite Anne as Asia personnel manager to bring along her colleague to come together to visit Taiwan sometime in the next year or two. Neither of them have been to Taiwan, in fact nobody in CMS has come to visit for a good few years, so it’s about time! They were both so excited, and are making plans already ~ and since then Bishop Lennon Yuan-Rung Chang in Taiwan has sent me a message to welcome them to visit. Can’t wait! 😊 This was the WOW session…
Ah, it was such an amazing day! In the past, I have stayed at the CMS House in Oxford during my visit, but this time it was full. Thanks to recommendations from friends, I was able to stay instead at the guest house of the ‘All Saints Sisters of the Poor‘, located further along the Cowley Road. They have an amazing history of serving people in need, and within their grounds they have both a children’s hospice and nursing home. It’s an oasis of quietness and beauty in a busy area of the city.
The whole area around there is small narrow streets, which are now bollarded off, to stop cars going through, so although it’s much quieter, it’s also much more difficult to get from one place to another. Check out the local area…
There’s even a big mistletoe tree, looking spectacular, and located in the middle of the main roundabout there…
After my visit to CMS, so off I went to explore Oxford after dark….
So it was definitely a good 2 days in Oxford! And finally, today is a significant day, as I said a final goodbye to NatWest Bank after more than 4 decades – I’ve had an account with NatWest since I was 18. In July, NatWest notified all its customers who, like me, live overseas, to inform us that unless we are permanently resident in the UK, we have to close our NatWest bank accounts. 😭😭 This is a commercial decision, and even using someone else’s address is not permitted. 😢😢 If this affects you, then you have all my sympathy, because it’s not exactly easy to open a new bank account in this country, but finally it’s happened (thanks to CMS and all those who helped out!) and I was notified as I walked past this NatWest Bank in Oxford today that everything had now been transferred over. Fare ye well NatWest Bank!
And goodbye to Oxford tomorrow, as I set out eastwards for my next CMS church visit this weekend, taking with me so many happy memories of my visit to Oxford. It’s been great, and a big thank you to all in the CMS Oxford Office for your welcome yesterday and for all your hard work every day ~ and of course all the fun! 😊😊 And now, East Anglia here I come!
Without a doubt, the very best thing about Wakefield is definitely the very lovely people of Sandal Magna Parish! The parish includes St. Helen’s Church, Sandal Magna and the nearby St. Paul’s Church, Walton, plus the area of Portobello. Among many other things, they run a wonderful community shop and cafe, known as The Spring, it’s a great ministry. I was in Sandal this past weekend, which included bonfire night, so we started the visit with Sandal’s community bonfire and fireworks. All free, and ah it was fun!
In contrast, the very worst thing about Wakefield is, also without a doubt – for me anyway – the journey there and back. On a map, Wakefield looks to be in the middle of a huge urban sprawl of West Yorkshire cities and towns, with motorways, bypasses and roundabouts that confuse even the best satnav, and in autumn with the dark and rain, means that any journey from here to there is, let’s face it, not one of life’s greatest pleasures! 😭🤣 And if it involves driving round the Bradford bypass on a Saturday afternoon when Bradford City are playing at home, well, it’s almost the stuff of nightmares ~ which all means that I’m so happy to actually arrive, that I appreciate their warm welcomes even more! 😊😊
Sandal Magna is on the south side of Wakefield, along the Barnsley Road, and St. Helen’s Church (named after Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great) may be dark and austere on the outside, but inside it is warm and welcoming. There’s lots of beautiful artwork filling the church, on the altar, in the side chapels, and the children’s area is especially colourful, check it out below!
Much of this art and all the many projects were introduced to the church under the artistic leadership of the much-loved previous rector, Rev. Rupert Martin and his wife Sally, who retired last year after 26 years at Sandal. They’ve now moved to Bristol and long ago invited me to visit – but I’m running out of time, and Bristol is way off my beaten track. Sorry Rupert and Sally! They were also responsible for the Tree of Life Memorial Garden at the back of the church, which continues to this day, though there are ongoing challenges maintaining the stones and clearing the weeds around the stones ~ fortunately it’s still looking good!
When Rupert and Sally retired, the church and diocese made the wise decision to sell the large and lonely Sandal Vicarage, which was old, cold and sandwiched between the church and a car dealership. The diocese is in the process of buying a house for a new vicarage, but no news yet. Their new vicar, Rev. Hannah Smith was only installed 2 months ago, check out this report of the event here in the Wakefield Express. A big welcome to Hannah! Everyone is so pleased to have a new vicar at last, and so happy that she’s settling in, listening and learning all about the parish, visiting all the congregation, and getting to know everyone. Please do pray for Hannah, she is very clearly called to this new ministry, and has many gifts that will help develop and lead the church forward. Currently she’s living in temporary accommodation in the parish, and it will be good for her to be able to settle into a new vicarage once the sale is complete.
Hannah is assisted by Ruth, who runs the church office…
A big thank you to Neale and Olivia who kindly welcomed me to stay overnight in their home, and took me to the fireworks too. Here they are in front of the church, and inside the church with John the organist and Andrea, one of the churchwardens….
There are 2 Sunday services, one at 9:30 am and one at 11:00 am. I did the sermon for the first service, which had a much larger congregation than I was expecting – and a talented choir too….
Followed by coffee in the rooms at the back of the church….
And then I rushed off to St. Paul’s, Walton for their service at 11:00 am. Walton has a strong lay leadership team, and really good church premises…
The service was led by lay leader, Susan Lee, who informed me that there were 2 Lees in the church, herself and Rose Lee, so the 3 of us had our photo taken together. Ah yes, the 3 Lee sisters!
The service was the only service at St. Paul’s that day, and had lovely music, and beautiful flowers!
After the service, we had a shared lunch, their first one since the pandemic. The food was delicious, especially the puddings! Hannah and a group from St. Helen’s also joined us for lunch, after which I gave a short talk followed by questions. There were lots of good questions!
And finally, off I went with Hannah to visit Mavis, one of the original overseas mission committee in Sandal who set up the CMS link with me as long ago as 1989. In those days, the committee was chaired by Derek Wales, the connection then being that the Diocese of Wakefield had a companion diocese partnership with the Diocese of Mara, Tanzania, which is where I went for language school many moons ago. This is us with Mavis and her good friend Teddy….
Ah yes, such a great weekend, renewing friendships and reconnecting with all the lovely people of Wakefield. Thank you to everyone in Sandal and Walton for a wonderful weekend and for all your support over the years, so very much appreciated!❤️
PS This is the live stream of Sunday’s service on YouTube, my sermon starts at about 20 minutes in. I’ve just watched it, the sermon is definitely a little wacky, but anyway, do check it out!
Yes, it was quite a weekend! Full of church visits and meeting lots of great people in Co. Durham, starting on a very autumnal murky day at St. John’s Church, Neville’s Cross, on the west side of Durham….
The church is a modest building that’s currently got scaffolding in the chancel to deal with falling plaster, which kind of adds a new perspective to worship, but there’s also lots of colourful banners on the walls too. Last week, the church had a half-term holiday club on the theme of scarecrows, and several of the scarecrows and other artworks were decorating the church. It may have been a dull and miserable autumn day outside, but inside it was definitely warm and cheerful, full of light and joy!
Durham has been in News reports in the last few weeks with scenes of university students queueing overnight, desperate to get somewhere to live for September 2023 ~ it seems there’s way too many students for such a small city. Out at Neville’s Cross, there’s a big mixture of people who have made St. John’s their home – many connected with the diocese and/or university, including the theological college at Cranmer Hall. Spot at least one hospital chaplain, one ordinand, one archdeacon, one bishop’s wife, one retired vicar, one theology professor – and their families in the photos below. It’s always a challenge doing the sermon in such a place, trying hard not to feel too intimidated! 🤣🤣
The rector, Rev. Barnaby Huish is also in charge of other churches in the area and has deanery responsibilities, and he was also away this weekend for half term, so I didn’t get to see him. The services on Sunday were taken by Rev. Nicky Chater, assisted by husband Mike as lay reader. They kindly welcomed me to stay at their home for the whole weekend, along with their very lively dog and quietly assertive cat, though we missed the children, Harriet and Peter. Harriet has visited Taiwan twice, in 2014 with her father to celebrate the end of her GCSEs, and then with her mother after her A-Levels in 2016 (see that blog post here), such happy memories! Among many other things, Nicky is now diocesan chaplain to the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities – for more details, check out these articles in the Travellers Times and The Guardian ~ it’s a really amazing ministry.
There were 2 services on Sunday, at 8:45 am and 10:30 am (with a very talented music group playing for the second service, led by music director Amy) and there was also an afternoon event with Taiwan food and me sharing a PowerPoint about Taiwan. I also went to the church house group on Monday night where Jo the churchwarden led the discussion on topics related to my sermon, plus Nicky and Mike invited different church friends to meals at home. It was all wonderful ~ they are such a friendly and very lovely church! Special thanks to Adriel, from Singapore who provided a lot of challenging insights, as well as all the Taiwan / Chinese food …..
On Monday, I spent all day at Heighington, near Darlington, meeting up with so many friends, former colleagues and pupils. Heighington is officially my home church ~ having gone from there to Tanzania in 1990, and then on to Taiwan in 1999, all with the Church Mission Society (CMS), though this time we just arranged an informal visit, and the vicar, Rev. Lissa Scott was away on holiday. The village is very scenic, with a large village green, where they are collecting wood for bonfire night.
The day started with former head of Heighington Primary School, George Dixon, inviting me and our former colleagues round for coffee – George is nearly 89 and has the same enthusiasm for life as he always had, he’s still playing the organ and leading choirs, plus driving his caravan to the Lake District!
In the afternoon, I had arranged to go along to the Heighington Church Monday afternoon drop-in coffee hour, which attracts lots of people each week, including many who are not particularly part of the church. The curate, Rev. David Lucas was there, in charge of St. Matthew and St. Luke’s Church, Darlington, another of my link churches. There was also a 90th birthday celebration for one of the ladies, here they all are getting ready…
It was great to see so many friends, many were parents of children I taught at Heighington School – or pupils themselves, now with children in the same school. Thanks to Pat for organising it all, and inviting me to lunch, plus Gordon and Michelle, now returned from Canada, who invited me for tea. It was Halloween, and children and their parents were out on the streets tricking and treating. Ah, it was such a great day, just wish I had more time of course to talk to everyone!
Tuesday November 1 was All Saints Day, and I was invited to speak at the evening service at another link church, St. Andrew’s Church, Tudhoe Grange, Spennymoor, where the vicar, Rev. John Livesley and his family also welcomed me for tea. But first, I visited their former vicar, Rev. Neville Baker and his wife, Jean, now living right on the sea in Whitburn, up near Sunderland – we had such a lovely lunch and walk. Neville, now 87, reminisced about taking a group from St. Andrew’s to attend my CMS commissioning service in Heighington just before I left for Tanzania in January 1990, where he met my parents – he remembers everything in so much detail!
And so to Tudhoe Grange for the All Saints Day service. St. Andrew’s Church is unique among all my link churches in that it is affiliated with ‘Forward in Faith‘ and comes under the pastoral care of the Bishop of Beverley, and it’s really interesting for me to see how the church has moved considerably – and very happily – ‘up the candle’ (as they say!) since I was first linked with them. Everyone in the church says that Fr. John is so lovely that the congregation has willingly moved with him!
In this fairly unique arrangement, the vicar is in charge of 2 churches, as is common, but the other church is quite some way over in Bowburn, just outside Durham – and in a different deanery. Very noticeably, in between the two stands a brand new and very large Amazon Distribution Centre, complete with new roundabouts and roads. A sign of the times indeed. St. Andrew’s itself is built in an area of Spennymoor that originally housed workers of the old iron works. The air is much cleaner these days, and has become quite a desirable area to retire to, cheaper than Durham but easily accessible to the city.
St. Andrew’s has just completed a reordering project in the left aisle of the church, taking out the pews and using 4 of them to make a big table (with new chairs coming from the old Darlington Memorial Hospital Chapel), installing a kitchen and toilet, and making the whole place so much more accessible and welcoming. With the church hall being hired out to many different community organizations, so the church can use their own space for things like messy church and children’s holiday club activities – there’s lots of children in St. Andrew’s these days! With many churches reporting how difficult it is to resume children and youth activities since the pandemic, it’s really encouraging to see the way St. Andrew’s has grown and flourished.
The All Saints service was led by a very lively and friendly retired priest, Fr. Michael Thompson, who turned out to have once been vicar of North Hartismere area of northern Suffolk, neighbouring benefice to my link churches in South Hartismere, and where my good friend and former CMS regional manager for Asia, Adrian Watkins, is now vicar, and where I’ll be visiting in a few weeks time. We had to take this photo for mutual friends in Suffolk – Betty Wells, this is for you!
Thanks to Fr. John, Fr. Michael and everyone at St. Andrew’s for such a warm welcome! They were having a big service for All Soul’s Day yesterday too, so the numbers were expected to be much lower for All Saints, and in the event, most of those in the church building were actually part of the choir and procession ~ with incredible anthems of choral music directed by Fr. John, himself a former choirboy of Manchester Cathedral. They raised the roof with such inspiring and beautiful worship!