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!
Despite spending 4 nights in Durham and driving around the city, and spotting the cathedral in the distance, unfortunately I didn’t have any time to visit the city centre and walk around. However, I had spent 24 hours in York on my way to Durham, visiting my very energetic and lovely friend Shelagh, formerly with CMS in many different countries in Asia, and we walked around the whole of the York City walls on a beautifully sunny Friday afternoon last week. Gotta share those photos with you all ~ thank you Shelagh!
And finally, I left Co. Durham via a visit to a RC priest friend, formerly in language school with me in Musoma, Tanzania, and now in charge of 3 churches in Stockton. There was lots to catch up on, not least news of the pandemic and how he, his church, and his diocese have been affected. So many stories. He took me for breakfast, and this was it ~ what a wonderful way to end my visit to Co. Durham, a full English breakfast! 😋😋😋
Thank you everyone in Co. Durham ~ and thanks be to God for all His blessings! ❤️