St. John’s, Neville’s Cross & St. Edmund’s, Bearpark: CMS Link Visit @ Durham: ‘A Perfect Little City’!

So said Bill Bryson, famous author and chancellor of Durham University – describing Durham as ‘a perfect little city’ and ‘one of the most beautiful little cities in the world’. So if Bill Bryson said it, then of course it must be true.  But hey, the people are great too – all smiling away!

This past weekend I was honoured to visit 2 churches in Durham, St. John’s Church, Neville’s Cross and St. Edmund’s Church, Bearpark, and give a sermon in each. These are actually in 2 different benefices, and I have been linked with both for many years.  My last visit to St. John’s was in February 2015 (see that blog post here), my last visit to Bearpark was possibly 7 years ago.  Nevertheless, a very warm welcome awaited in each place!  I stayed with Mike and Nicky, who have each visited Taiwan in the past few years with daughter Harriet, they kindly provided meals, transport, advice, fun and friendship all weekend – ah, it was great!

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First to St. Edmund’s Church, Bearpark (see above photo) – an old coal mining village just 2 miles west of Durham. The mines ran from 1872 – 1984, there’s the miners’ banner hanging in the church, along with other memorabilia, also a list of all the men and boys killed in the mine.  Very sad, such dangerous work.

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We had 16 in the congregation on Sunday.  Special thanks to Joan, Enid, Pat and Susan who run many of the church events and activities at Bearpark – all faithfully serving God and the church there.  The salt of the earth, really wonderful ladies.  But all are worried about the future of Bearpark church, with decreasing numbers, an aging congregation and few young people ~ a challenge faced by many churches in the UK.  Pray for them.

The service on Sunday at 9:00 am was led by Rev Alan Bartlett, who is on the staff of the diocese but lives in the village – here he is with Mike, who kindly took me there….

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A quick cup of coffee with the congregation and off back to Durham to St. John’s Church, Neville’s Cross (just 15 minutes from the centre of Durham). The church is filled with a great mix of interesting people, many involved in the university as students or academics, plus quite a few young people and a great leadership team.  This was the church on Sunday morning, with Nicky in front!

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Our first event of the weekend was actually a ‘bring and share’ supper on Saturday night, after which I shared my Taiwan power point.  Lovely to see many friends, old and new.  Rev. Barney Huish, the vicar, was also there, he’s the very youthful-looking one in the blue stripey jumper!

On Sunday morning, I gave the sermon at the 10:30 am service, followed by coffee and a small discussion group.  Great!  Delighted to welcome Stephanie who was my colleague many years ago in Heighington School and who has also visited Taiwan in recent years.  Also met Pat, whose husband Rev. Raymond Hay served for 3 months as chaplain to the English congregation at St. James’ Church, Taichung, Taiwan in 1998, only a year before I arrived there.  It’s a small world!  Sunday’s service was led by lay reader, Mike, and vicar, Barney, and Barney was very moved to receive one of Bishop Lai’s artillery shell crosses.  He put it on display for everyone to look at, and encouraged them all to light a candle and pray for peace.

On Monday I went to the church morning prayer service, and met my former teacher, Douglas who was in fine form (on the right below, next to Nicky).  In the middle is Abby, the St. John’s children’s worker, and tomorrow, off I go with her to do a school assembly.  There’s also Peter, retired priest from Spennymoor.  Really lovely people, all of ’em!

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So many many thanks to all in Durham for your warm welcomes, I really appreciate all your support over the years!  Durham is indeed a ‘perfect little city’ partly cos of all the friendly people, but it does help that they also have an amazing cathedral ~ this is the inside of Durham Cathedral, where we attended Choral Evensong on Sunday afternoon.  Check it out ~ it’s oh so beautiful!

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I love Durham, YES!

St. Thomas, Batley & Dewsbury Minster: CMS Link Visits @ God’s Own Country!

Yes, ‘God’s Own Country’ as they say about Yorkshire ~ and I just had a wonderful weekend visiting 2 of my very supportive CMS Link Churches in West Yorkshire.  As the locals know, you just can’t beat Yorkshire for anything!

The towns of Batley and Dewsbury are only about a mile apart, in a very hilly area, both are old mill towns, and both have large – and growing larger – Asian Muslim populations, mostly from one area of Pakistan.  Like many areas of the country, the churches are facing huge challenges of aging congregations and declining Sunday attendances.  The Anglican churches are now mostly working in town-wide team ministries, and both have new clergy (or at least new to me!) since I was last in the area.  Special thanks to Anne, lay reader from Dewsbury Minster who kindly welcomed me to stay with her over the weekend ~ this is us with Rev. Simon Cash…..

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First stop, St. Thomas, Batley, looking lovely in the autumn sunshine!

I last visited St. Thomas in April 2015 (see that blog post here), and this past weekend I joined them and gave the sermon for their 9:30 am service, led by the vicar, Rev. Martin Naylor.  Last weekend I was in Cornwall, visiting Joy, who is originally from St. Thomas, Batley ~ I had stayed with her in her Batley home on a previous link visit many many years ago, that’s how come we are friends!  I was delighted to see Gillian, one of my most delightful supporters, and Jeremy, churchwarden and lifelong member of St. Thomas.  Here we all are with Martin…

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Myra is also a special person, she also came along to hear me speak at St.Helen’s Church, Sandal only a few weeks ago.  She’s now heard my sermon twice, that’s true dedication!  And I must mention Mary, who arrives early to set up the church, and works hard to sell poppies for British Legion – she was wearing her beautiful poppy outfit of skirt, scarf and shirt all covered in poppies!  And John Walker, warden emeritus ~ ah, so many faithful members of the church were there, even though it was half term and everyone said that many of the younger ones were away.  Then, after the service, we had continental breakfast, yummy yummy!

Later that day, I visited Dewsbury Minster for their 6:30 pm combined evening service of Holy Communion – for all the churches in the team ministry. The church is right in the middle of town and looked lovely as I passed through in the sun at midday!

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My previous visit to Dewsbury Minster was in March 2015 (see that blog post here), and since then they have said goodbye to Rev. Kevin Partington, and welcomed Rev. Simon Cash.   Simon invited me to show some photos during my sermon, and they all gathered to pray for me afterwards.  Very touched.  And we had a choir and hand-bells and Holy Communion, and lots of beautiful music.  And it was all followed by refreshments.

In between visiting these 2 churches, Anne kindly took me to lunch with some Dewsbury Minster friends, and then she took us to visit the nearby Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield.  We were welcomed by Anne’s friend, Br. Philip who took us on a tour.  This was my first ever visit.  Quite an incredible place.  This is the chapel…

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And one of the altars…

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But back to the main purpose of the weekend, and thanks to all at St. Thomas and Dewsbury Minster for your warm welcome, and all the support and prayers over the many years we’ve been linked together.  It’s really appreciated.  Wonderful place, wonderful people.  God’s Own Country indeed!

Wanderings in the Wonderful West Country!

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A week or so in the West Country in Autumn ~ and yes, it was great!

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Tiverton, Devon ~ where my good friend Elizabeth took me to see a really bleak but utterly compelling Russian movie, ‘Loveless‘ which was about as tragic as it possibly could be, followed the next day by a mission support prayer gathering, lunch and a walk around the canal, which were quite the opposite!  And in the middle of the prayer meeting, one of the parked cars even rolled itself down the slope.  What with Russian movies, prayer meetings and rolling cars, Tiverton is quite a happening place!  The people are lovely ~ these delightful people from St. George & St. Paul’s Church gather regularly to pray for mission, including CMS.  Thank you!

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Next stop: Porthleven and Helston, Cornwall ~ where the sea and sky were all blue, and where my good friend Joy was in hospital for a new hip, so I stayed with her daughter and husband in Helston Vicarage – this is St. Michael’s Church, Helston where we worshiped on Sunday, and had a very warm welcome from all in the congregation…

And I visited Porthleven, where the harbour was looking splendid….

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And the old Porthleven lifeboat house has a stunning new wall mural by ‘Sketch’ painted on the front wall in memory of the lifeboat men who served there from 1894-1929, and took part in 28 launches and 50 rescues…. though it can only be seen from the sea and from the pier.  Ah yes, wall murals have come to Porthleven!

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Also walked the coastal path up from Porthleven to Trewavas Head – where, perched precariously on the cliffs, there are the 2 engine houses of Wheal Trewavas Mine, a disused copper mine that had 4 copper lodes and 1 tin lode in operation from 1834-1846, employing about 160 men who brought up a total of approx 17,500 tons of copper ore. The shaft reaches down 600 ft and goes out under the sea. Eventually the mine was flooded and abandoned.  What a relic of time past.  An amazing part of Cornish history.

Y’know what else made me smile in Cornwall?  Firstly the cars – and guess what? They are not all silver.  In fact, hardly any seemed to be silver.  All over the UK, boring old silver is the predominant colour for cars and it just adds to the greyness, especially on a cloudy day.  But Cornwall has cars of every colour. I love it!

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And y’know what else? In the hospital where we visited my friend Joy, there are signs posted up in the ward, behind the sink taps no less, telling everyone not to feed the seagulls. Isn’t that so lovely?  You just have to smile at the thought that such a sign is necessary.  Love it!

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And so to Wiltshire, where I stayed with my CMS friend, Jane in the Wylye Valley….

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where nearby Tytherington Village claims to have the oldest church in Wiltshire, dating to the early 12th century, and it is very lovely!

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There’s alpacas too who are oh so sociable and kept me well-entertained!

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Jane kindly took me to Stourhead which is run by the National Trust ~ the gardens are spectacular and looked glorious in their autumn colours….

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Moving northwards, I left Wiltshire and headed to Gloucester, where the cathedral was looking incredible in the blue sky…

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Gloucester Cathedral, ‘formally the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, in Gloucester, England, stands in the north of the city near the River Severn. It originated in 678 or 679 with the foundation of an abbey dedicated to Saint Peter (dissolved by Henry VIII).’

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It’s free to go in, and some of the upper galleries are also open, so you can look down on the main body of the church.  There’s lots of things to do, and as it’s half term there were lots of children busy doing things.  A great atmosphere!

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The best things to see are the GCHQ ‘Poppyfall’ all ready for Remembrance Day, as part of the World War I commemoration – on display in the Lady Chapel…

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And the beautiful stained glass windows of the St. Thomas Chapel where the windows are blue…

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There’s also some modern windows honouring Ivor Gurney…

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The cathedral is well worth visiting – my first visit ~ yippee!

It was while I was at Gloucester Cathedral that I learned the sad news of the death of my good friend, Winsome, friend, colleague and neighbour in Dodoma, Tanzania ~ she had also visited me in Taiwan and we had visited her in Sydney, Australia some years ago.  It was somehow fitting to learn this news while at the cathedral, and I lit a candle at the St. Thomas Chapel in thanksgiving for her life and friendship…

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Thank you Gloucester for a great break on a journey!

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And so onto Great Witley, Worcs, to see my good friends, Debbie and Nigel.  Some would say that Worcestershire is not really in the West Country, but hey, it’s still in the west, and, well, not that far away.  Anyway, Thursday was chilly and very grey.  So, what better than to visit the local ruined mansion, built with the profits of ironworks and coal mines, Witley Court.  It is very grey and very austere, and basically grim.  You can imagine what it must have been like, even though it’s now a massive ruin.  What money, what extravagance, what a ruin.

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‘Witley Court, a Jacobean country house extended on a number of occasions throughout its history, but which became derelict after a spectacular fire in 1937. The mansion, formerly one of the finest in the Midlands, is now in the care of English Heritage, who describe it as their number one ruin. They have restored the extensive gardens leaving the impressive skeletal ruin of the building overlooking them in a poignant and thought provoking way.’

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Witley Court, Great Witley, Worcestershire, England is a ruined Italianate mansion. Built for the Foleys in the seventeenth century on the site of a former manor house, it was enormously expanded in the early nineteenth century by the architect John Nash. Subsequently, sold to the Earls of Dudley, a second massive reconstruction by the architect Samuel Daukes took place in the mid nineteenth century, creating one of the great pleasure palaces of Victorian and Edwardian England.  The declining fortune of the Dudleys saw the sale of the court after the First World War to a Kidderminster carpet manufacturer. In 1937 a major fire caused great damage to the court, the estate was broken up and sold and the house was subsequently stripped of its fittings and furnishings. Forty years of decay followed before the house and grounds were taken into the care of The Department of the Environment in 1972. Since that point, significant restoration and stabilisation have secured the house as a spectacular ruin.’

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Having checked out the ‘number one ruin’, it was time to see the church (pictured above), attached to the house, but separate, and not affected by the 1937 fire.  It’s the local parish church and still serves the local community.  This is definitely not a ruin.  Quite the opposite. When you see this, you get a glimpse of what the house might have been like, once upon a time.  It’s the inside of the church that is so, well, incredible.

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It’s the ceiling, man, the ceiling!

‘The church, of Saint Michael and All Angels, is a brick building but like the adjoining Witley Court was faced with bath stone by the Gloucester architect Samuel Daukes in the 1850s. The interior is one of the finest Italian Baroque churches in Britain originally from Cannons House at Edgware in Middlesex and fitted to Daukes’s building by James Gibbs. It was completed in 1735.  It incorporates a richly gilded ceiling with a number of paintings by Antonio Bellucci, a funerary monument to Thomas Lord Foley and his family by John Michael Rysbrack and ten large painted glass windows by Joshua Price dated 1719-1721.’

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The last place to check out is the tea-shop ~ far more down to earth and very pleasant, full of cheerful ladies serving food and tea.

Goodbye to Great Witley, where many of the trees are covered in clumps of dark green mistletoe – ah, yes, Christmas is coming!

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And onto Kidderminster, where the brown bulrushes were in full bloom at the local nature reserve…

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The views over the whole area, almost as far as Birmingham from the Habberley Nature Trail were amazing!

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So goodbye to the West Country for the time being as I head northwards this weekend. Thanks to everyone who gave me such a warm welcome and great hospitality – including the seagulls in Cornwall.  Great weather too.  But winter is coming and this weekend may be a bit cold.  Get them Winter woolies ready!

The Children of Calais Sculpture @ Saffron Walden, Essex ~ Must see!

Ah, at last!  It’s so wonderful to see a sculpture in the UK in a major public space, like outside a church, that is not some army general on a horse, and one that is really meaningful and relevant.  This is a very contemporary, thought-provoking and moving piece of public art by Ian Wolter, standing just next to St. Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden, Essex ~ my Saffron Walden friend, Jenny kindly took me to see this on Tuesday…

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From Ian Wolter’s website: ‘The Children of Calais is a life-sized sculpture of six children in poses echoing The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. The piece is designed to provoke debate about the inhumanity of our response to the children caught up in the ongoing refugee crisis.  Rodin’s original memorialises a moment during the Hundred Years’ War when Calais was under siege by England for over a year and King Edward offered to spare the people of the city on condition that six of its burghers would surrender themselves.  Ian Wolter’s sculpture evokes a parallel narrative: the sacrifice being demanded of child migrants for our ‘greater good’. Dressed in contemporary clothing, one of the figures holds a lifejacket in place of the city key held in Rodin’s original.’

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From ‘A New Perspective on the Children of Calais’ by Claire Mulley (wife of Ian Wolter), in celebration of 20 June 2018, Refugee Day…

‘The Children of Calais’ is an unusual piece of public art in a country that tends to memorialize heroes, royals and victories. Britain has a lot of men on horses, columns and pedestals, and quite a few Queen Victorias gazing across towns and parks. But things are slowly changing. April this year saw the first statue to a woman in Parliament Square, Millicent Fawcett. ‘The Children of Calais’, unveiled by Alf Dubs in June, is something different again. The six life-sized, bronze figures, three girls, three boys, that compose the piece are designed to provoke debate about the inhumanity of our response to the children – those most vulnerable to neglect and abuse – caught up in the ongoing refugee crisis.

Award-winning sculptor and conceptual artist Ian Wolter was inspired by Rodin’s famous ‘The Burghers of Calais’, an edition of which lives in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. Rodin was commissioned by the City of Calais to commemorate the six burghers of their city who, in the fourteenth century, were prepared to sacrifice themselves to the English king, in order to save their citizens from starvation under siege. The six men are portrayed at the moment they walked out of Calais to their certain death, one carrying the key to the city in an act of silent surrender. Every figure subtly portrays desperation in a different way. Although they are standing close enough to touch one another, each is lost and alone in their misery. Yet as well as expressing sorrow and defeat, they also capture heroic self-sacrifice and human dignity.

‘My six figures are English children,’ Ian explains, ‘children I know, in contemporary clothes, but in poses echoing Rodin’s burghers, with the tallest child holding a life-jacket in place of the Calais city key. Refugee children are simply children at the end of the day, forced from their homes and at the mercy of strangers whose language they may not even speak. When children are portrayed in the way Rodin approached his sculpture, the loneliness and desperation is overlaid with their need for adult care and protection.’……

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The lives of the six Burghers of Calais, as represented by Rodin, were eventually spared in an act of mercy by the English king’s pregnant wife. ‘I liked that element of the fourteenth century story,’ Ian adds, ‘because in my work it suggests the possibility of a happy ending for child refugees. That in the end, humanity may hold sway.’’

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As Phil Simpson, one of my good CMS friends noted, the position of the sculpture in relation to the church also parallels Rodin’s sculpture of the burghers in relation to Parliament – a comment on institutions that have let them down perhaps?  Food for Thought – and if you’re anywhere near Saffron Walden in the near future, do go and check it out!

Beautiful Beccles ~ CMS Link Visit No. 4 ~ YES!

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Beccles in Suffolk is not just beautiful, it’s also busy, though you wouldn’t think so if you looked at the roads at a weekend – all empty!  But relaxing in the restaurants, climbing up the tower, and out on the boats at the quayside, there were lots of people.  And this past weekend it was very blowy and blustery too ~ real hold-onto-yer-hats weather.  Ah yes, I love a bit of fresh air!

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Beccles is a charming old town (town sign photo above shows Queen Elizabeth I granting the town charter in 1584), full of quaint houses and lovely people, and this past Saturday the sun was out, the sky was blue, and it was perfect for a walk around: and so, welcome to beautiful Beccles!

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I’ve been supported by the Beccles Parish of St. Michael’s – that’s the church in town, and St. Luke’s on the outskirts, for many many years.  My previous visit to Beccles was in February 2015 (see that report and photos here), when it was very cold and instead of meeting in the church, we met in the nearby Waveney Centre, which overlooks the River Waveney, down below.  Great views of the river around the town, and boats all over…

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Beccles was once a river port, which explains why the church tower is built at the wrong end of the church, to stop it falling off a large cliff down near the river. The Beccles Bell Tower is 30 m (97 ft) tall, free-standing, and was sold to the district council for the price of one penny.  So the council own it and on Saturday it was open to the public, £2.50 entrance fee to climb the 120+ steps to see a glorious view over the town and river.

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St. Michael’s Church is a huge building, with large noticeboards of all their mission activities.  This church is VERY supportive of CMS!

Since my last visit, sadly, we’ve lost Guenever who was the former leader of the CMS mission support group, but we give thanks to God for her life and ministry over the years.  Her son, Philip was ordained a few years ago, and now serves in a parish not far from the town.  Since my last visit also, Beccles has a new vicar, Rev. Rich Henderson, who was once the curate, so I’ve known him for many years too. He is assisted by 3 (yes, three!) curates. Wonderful!  He also has a whole group of retired clergy living in Beccles who help out, and one lovely retired bishop, Gavin Reid, who was running the parish during the interregnum when I was last there.  One of the retired priests, Peter Langford has famously just completed the Lands End to John O’Groats cycle ride – aged 85, and it’s his 3rd trip, his first was to celebrate his 75th birthday, his second at 80, and now his third at 85.  His son kept a daily blog of the ride, see here.  Amazing!   This is Rich and Peter…

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Many thanks to Keith for his welcome and hospitality, and taking me around from place to place.  We started off on Saturday evening with a ‘bring-and-share’ evening at St. Luke’s Church, and I showed everyone my powerpoint about Taiwan.  What a great evening, and wonderful food!

On Sunday, I shared a little in an interview at the morning service at St. Michael’s Church.  The church is currently focusing on the theme of ‘Extravagant Welcome’ and has a sermon series on ‘Hospitality, Inclusivity and Diversity’.  So on Sunday, I also had the chance to hear a great sermon on Inclusivity from Ben, one of the curates.

This is Anne (below right, with me), a long-time and very faithful CMS supporter, who many years ago taught in Uganda; and Keith, and his double, Ray (below left) ~ and no they’re not related!

On Sunday evening, there was an informal and very moving service, and I gave the sermon. These lovely people who came along deserve a medal, some were hearing me speak for the third time in one weekend ~ and they were still smiling!

And on Monday, the sun long gone, replaced by drizzle and fog, and Keith led the way as I said goodbye to Beccles and we headed over to Norwich to join the Norwich CMS Prayer Group (kindly invited by Louise Wright, former CMS mission partner in DR Congo – in the middle below) ~ where I had the chance to share about what’s going on in Taiwan.  My first visit to that group – thanks to them all for their warm welcome and their great prayer support for CMS!

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So a big thank you to Rich and Keith ~ and all the great people of beautiful and very blustery Beccles.  I received a wonderful welcome from one and all, and am grateful for many many years of prayer and support for me and CMS.  Thanks be to Almighty God for providing such faithful supporters and friends.  And to finish, some of Keith’s plants that grace his garden – beautiful!

Sandal Parish, Wakefield ~ And what a great CMS Link Visit!

Setting the scene, ‘Welcome to Worship’ ~ with a beautiful photo of Yushan, Mt. Jade – Taiwan’s highest mountain…..

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And the sun was out at St. Helen’s Church, Sandal Magna, Wakefield, W. Yorks as I arrived on Saturday afternoon for my CMS Link Visit to the Parish of Sandal Magna – which also includes their daughter church of St. Paul’s, Walton ~ and it was quite some weekend!

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These lovely people have supported me and CMS (Church Mission Society) for many many years, since 1989 in fact, and every time I visit, they always roll out the red carpet!  What’s more, their vicar, Rev. Rupert Martin just loves art and the church is beautifully decorated with works of art ~ he also loves taking photos, so hey, worshiping there is just like in Taiwan – photos galore of smiling people!  Photos in fact of everybody except Rupert’s lovely wife, Sally (spot her in the distance in one photo only!) but she rarely stopped still long enough to have any photos taken ~ the vicarage cat, on the other hand, barely moved all weekend, and enjoyed the heat of the radiator ~ so, well there it is!

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My previous visit was on Advent Sunday 2014 (see that report here), when it was the 5th Sunday of November and we had a joint service at Walton on that occasion – while over at St. Helen’s, they had just opened the most beautiful Tree of Life Memorial Garden ~ and there are now many leaves added to the Tree of Life in memory of those who have died.  It is really stunning and so meaningful to have this memorial garden in the churchyard.

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First though, a visit to nearby Sandal Castle as the sun was just going down…

On Sunday, I did the sermon at both the 9:15 and 10:45 services at St. Helen’s….

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And I also gave Rupert one of Taiwan’s artillery shell crosses….

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And in-between the services there was coffee, and the second service was followed by their monthly baked potato lunch – so yummy!  I also visited Mavis in Walton, one of my dearest friends, she has been so faithful over the decades in her support – I gave her an artillery shell cross. She is the salt of the earth!

There’s about 200 people in total at St. Helen’s and St. Paul’s on any given Sunday, but about 2,000 who are reached through the week, via The Spring Shop and Cafe, the CAP (Christians Against Poverty) project, school assemblies and all the other outreach ministries.  Lots of exciting things going on!

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I loved staying at the vicarage all weekend, such a nice welcome ~ and on Sunday afternoon, we went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where there were 2 interesting exhibitions, Guiseppe Penone, ‘A Tree in the Wood’

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and THE most beautiful exhibition in the chapel by a Japanese artist – from Osaka – Chiharu Shiota, ‘Beyond Time’ – I LOVE THIS!  Spot Sally and Rupert gazing upwards!

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So, thanks, and more thanks to all at St. Helen’s and Sandal Parish for such a warm welcome and for all their great support over the years, they are amazing!  Much appreciated.  Love them to bits!

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And thanks be to Almighty God for his many blessings, and such good friends and supporters around the country!

 

A Huge Big Welcome to Northern Ireland!

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Ah, Northern Ireland – such a very green and pleasant land, where it rains so much that all it has to do is stop raining and everyone is upbeat and happy. A grey, cloudy and overcast day might put the rest of the world off from venturing outside, but not in N. Ireland. “Hey, it’s not raining, isn’t it great?” they say all day long. And it always is! Y’know, you just can’t fail to be charmed by the people and their attitude to the weather – in fact to the whole of life. Everyone is, well, oh so polite, every car stops before you’ve even arrived at the zebra crossing to let you cross, they hold doors open or stand back to let you through first, they offer you their seat if you want to look out of the train window, they all say ‘good morning’ and they spend their days talking to their friends on the street or phoning each up for a chat. There is a quaintness about N. Ireland that is so charmingly old-fashioned that you just have to smile at how lovely they are.  And what a sense of humour they have too….

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Almost the first thing you hear on arrival in N. Ireland is how they haven’t got a government, but the last thing you see is any evidence of this fact. Everything works like it should. The trains and buses all run on time, and guess what, they even coordinate with each other. 😊 And N. Ireland people over 60 can travel on any bus or any train at any time to anywhere in N. Ireland completely free of charge, and at 65 they can do the same but all over the whole of Ireland too. This is really quite incredible. And all achieved without a government. Just imagine what the rest of the UK could do if they got rid of theirs!

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My good friends, John and Margaret are real N. Ireland people, and they kindly invited me to visit them in Coleraine for a few days. This was my 3rd visit to N. Ireland, the last one being in 2010-ish, also to visit John and Margaret, and on that trip they took me to Giant’s Causeway and other famous places. In 2005, I had taken some of my Taiwan friends to visit them when they were CMSI (Church Mission Society Ireland) mission partners in Kenya and we all had such a great time together.  Ah yes, Kenya features a lot in their house in Coleraine!

Before Kenya, John was vicar at Lisburn Cathedral for 17 years, so they were well-placed to answer my endless questions about N. Ireland – on culture, history, religion, faith and of course pronunciation and meaning of places like Cullybackey, Ballymoney, Ballybogey, Ballygalley and Knocknamuckley – and those are just the ones I can remember, there’s plenty more I don’t even know where to start.  As I traveled around, place names were many, but people were surprisingly few. So, if I saw a whole crowd, I just had to take a photo – just check this out, this is a rare sight in N. Ireland!

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Margaret took me to visit Coleraine Town. It’s a grey town and it was a grey day, so it all added to the atmosphere. But being almost the only tourist in sight that day, the Tourist Information lady was delighted to have someone to talk to about the history, and she was wonderful. Like a ray of sunshine breaking through the greyness. I learned all about ‘The Honourable The Irish Society’ who were a group of merchants in London who were sent to N. Ireland on the orders of James I to establish a settlement in the early 1600’s, they developed the town and also built the church, St. Patrick’s, although it was built on top of the foundations of an earlier church, dating back to the 14th century.

Needless to say, visiting Coleraine with Margaret was not the usual sightseeing tour. She knew most of the people we passed in the street, she took me into shops to meet her relatives who worked there, and of course when we got into the church, I was given a very warm welcome by more of her friends. Grey indeed outside, but inside, all was sunshine and warmth!

Later we drove out around the coast to Portstewart, Portrush and Dunluce Castle. “Hey, it’s not raining, isn’t it great?” said John all afternoon, smiling away. And it was!

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We spent a day in Derry / Londonderry – going by train around the coast. It didn’t rain then, either, and yes, it was great!

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My first visit to the famous city of Derry. Highly recommended. I’ve heard Derry described as ‘raw and beautiful’ and that kind of sums it all up. Very beautiful, with the most intact city walls of any city I’ve ever seen. A real walled city, full of history.

And in the walled city is the Church of Ireland (Anglican) St. Columb’s Cathedral, built between 1628-1633, the first post-Reformation Anglican church built in the British Isles and the first non-RC cathedral to be built in Western Europe…

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There’s a stained glass window in the church commemorating the life of Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), who was wife of Archbishop William Alexander of Derry. She wrote many famous hymns there, including ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away, outside the city walls’, the latter thought to have been inspired by the hills of the Derry, which are indeed outside the city walls…

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But Derry was severely affected by ‘The Troubles’. The conflict is widely considered to have begun in the city, with many regarding the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 as the beginning. Bogside is a majority Catholic / Irish republican area, and shares a border with the Protestant / Ulster loyalist enclave of the Fountain. From the city walls we could see both.

The ‘Bloody Sunday’ incident of 1972, when 14 protesters were killed by the British army, also occurred in the Bogside area of Derry, commemorated in this mural.

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The Bogside Murals are famous, virtually all political rather than great works of art, and I spent ages taking photos of them all; they also mark the spots where many of the killings took place. This is the ‘raw’ side of Derry, raw, bleak and poignant. Many of the posters comment on the current political impasse and urge the leaders to get moving on settling the disputes….

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These days, tourists like me come to take photos of the wall murals, slogans and flags, described in this article here as ‘showrooms of ethnic antagonism’.  Sadly, centuries of mistrust and bitterness are ingrained in the hearts of the people on both sides. Despite the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, society is still deeply divided. Geographically divided by public housing policies and educational practices, there are few opportunities for people to have meaningful contact with the other side. The 2 communities are close-knit, parochial, almost tribal ~ effectively living separate but parallel lives.

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Certainly the churches are very divided. Church buildings are everywhere in N. Ireland, apparently there are 26 in Coleraine alone, many the result of breaking away from one of the others. Current issues in society – of abortion and same-sex marriage – have actually brought the churches closer together. But as John says, when it comes to N. Ireland Christianity, the Protestant Churches have placed way too much focus on the ‘way in’ and not nearly enough on the ‘way on’. The Christian faith has to be lived out day by day and while the churches argue and divide over doctrine, Brexit is on the horizon, secularism is on the rise and the church risks being side-lined, as is happening in England. N. Ireland has a long way to go. Prayer is needed!

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On Thursday, we went to Belfast. I like the red-bricked buildings of Queen’s University…

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we also visited the botanic gardens…

and the Ulster Museum…

Then we walked down to the city centre along Sandy Row, traditionally a staunchly loyalist, predominantly Protestant, working-class area of Belfast. The huge wall mural at the entrance to the street commemorates King William III of England who travelled along Sandy Row with his troops on his way south to fight at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a defining moment in Irish history that ultimately ensured Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, and is commemorated on July 12 each year by the Orange Order with huge parades and bonfires. Pictures and flags of the queen, union jacks and slogans of support for Britain are everywhere. It is all really quite surreal. One thing is certain, 4 days in N. Ireland isn’t anywhere near enough to even scrape the surface in understanding the complex situation that is Northern Ireland today.

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And on into Belfast City Centre – to the city hall and around about.  Not enough time to go everywhere ~ still we saw a little of this great city!

The sign said, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what is for lunch’ 😊 And so we went off to meet my old friend, Ali and her husband, Chris – for lunch. Once upon a time, Ali and I taught together in Mwanza, Tanzania; now she lives in Newtonards, where Chris is the vicar. Her accent sounds really Irish to me, but all the locals say she sounds very English. Actually she’s from Suffolk!

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A very very huge thank you to John and Margaret for their wonderful welcome and amazing hospitality, and to Ali and Chris and all the lovely people of N. Ireland too for their warm welcome. Sorry not to be able to visit everybody I would have liked to – ah, next time, next time!  And next time for shopping too….

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And on Thursday afternoon, on our way back to Coleraine, finally, it rained. Ah, rain at last! I’d been in N. Ireland for 4 days, and saw no actual rain until my final day. All 5 minutes of it, enough for cars to use their windscreen wipers. John was delighted, “so finally you can see some real Irish rain!” YES!  A trip to N. Ireland is not complete without some wet stuff to make you feel welcome. So they say, anyway. 😊😊

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Goodbye N. Ireland – until next time.  And so to Belfast Airport this morning for my short flight back to Manchester.

Ah it was fun trip ~ I just LOVE Northern Ireland!

Yes to God, Yes to Mission, Yes to Taiwan!