local ordained ministers

50 years ago I spent a year in Greece studying the rural church there. I found that the smallest village had their own locally ordained priest whose job it was to be the local pastor and to conduct all services in the local church but not to preach, so that he did not have to be trained in theology: preaching in the church and teaching in the schools was the job of theologically trained lay people.

Ever since then I have wondered why we could not do the same, especially in our rural areas. It seemed to me that every parish could produce at least one or two people who could be the local church leader or leaders.. Unfortunately the dominant trend went the other way,  which was to bring together a collection of parishes under one full-time incumbent. In some places this has worked well, but in many others it has put an excessive amount of stress on the incumbent. However in some dioceses local people have been ordained and in one parish in Staffordshire a retired teacher is making a great success of being in charge of a parish of 1000 people. She has the backing of a group of lay people called out by the Church Council to meet with her on a regular basis to pray, study and plan for the way forward and she is also backed up by another team which guides a dozen parishes, of which hers is one, all working together and serviced by a group consisting of full-time stipendiary clergy, other local clergy and lay ministers.  This arrangement has two main advantages, the first that no ministers are isolated in their ministry and secondly that those clergy and laity who wish to contribute are encouraged to do so in the way that is right for them on an equal basis. When I was working in that setup as part of a ministry team I felt greatly relieved from having to work on my own.

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the Big 0

It has become the custom to make a big thing of birthdays that end with 0.  I have just come through the ritual of entering my 81st year during which people routinely ask me if I feel different, to which I either reply “not at all” or “I’m really ancient now” according to the temperament of the questioner. In fact crossing that boundary can give one the chance to look back in anguish or anger or even pride over the previous x number of years. It’s pretty well bound to be a mixture with a leaning towards one or the other way, again according to one’s temperament. I must confess to feeling a little satisfaction at having got that far in reasonable shape, but given the fact that my father lived till he was 103 it is not so surprising.

Usually my birthday, January 2nd, is a rather insignificant adjunct to Christmas, but this time it was the other way round. For almost the first time we didn’t all congregate over Christmas, but five grandchildren, two daughters,  and two sons-in-law with the addition of a brother-in-law and a nephew/godson all assembled at a place in a nearby village complete with a swimming pool  and a table tennis table. Usually 2 or 3 regulars kindly remember to send cards but this time I had loads of most imaginative cards  and emails from the most surprising people. My wife arranged two parties, one a lunch in a pub with a Spanish menu, where a variety of people who had known our daughters as little girls 40 years ago could take a second look, joined the family on the day, and on the next day a tea party with a cutting of the cake to which all the residents of our complex were invited.   The octave was rounded off by my two same daughters arranging for the old couple to have a night in a local spa

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christmas greetings

Once upon a time we used to rejoice in receiving cards from our friends and family with a printed message of Merry Christmas or some such, and, if we were lucky, a brief expression of affection. One variation at this stage was that a host of charities saw cards as an ideal way of bringing in some cash and many of us obliged. The first step on from  a plain card would be a few scribbled lines of news which quite soon developed into a typed sheet of paper folded inside the card. But typed news became insufficient: it had to be accompanied by photos even though they might be so small that it was difficult to distinguish what or whom they depicted. This went on for a while till the great internet revolution which prompted us who were too mean to pay for buying cards and posting them resorted to emails, the more skillful carrying on the tradition of including photographs. The final refinement was a Jacqui Lawson E card which could have choir boys trotting into a church or doves flying around a tree. So what next?

As with so many things that are new there will always be some, thank goodness, who will prefer the traditional ways of doing things. I say thank goodness because otherwise we receptors would be deprived of the joy of desperately trying to find homes for the lovely multitude of cards which still comes through our door. For many of us there is a mixed economy. We may send newsletters to people who send us newsletters, we may send emails to those who use email and we may still follow the good old way of finding just the right card for the rest , especially if they are not the slightest bit interested in having to read all the details of what we and, if we have them, our children have been up to. And we may continue to rejoice in supporting one of our favourite charities even if  it does cost us an extra bob or two.

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The Spirit Level

It is now five years since this book was published but despite its life-changing qualities there are still several people like me who have only just cottoned on to its existence or else have not yet cottoned on at all.  The Spirit Level, written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, has one clear message: more equal countries, as opposed to those which are both rich and unequal, manage to have low levels of a high proportion of ills, and here they are: lack of trust, mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, high infant mortality and low life expectancy, obesity, low educational performance for children, teenage pregnancies, homicides, high rates of imprisonment and low social mobility.

The rich countries that achieve the best score are three from Scandinavia, perhaps unsurprisingly, Finland, Norway and Sweden and one other, Japan.  The countries which score lowest are – guess which? – yes, the United Kingdom, accompanied by Portugal, the United States and Singapore which comes bottom.  There are lots of ways of measuring inequality, but they all come to very similar conclusions.  The book has chosen one used by the United Nations which is to compare the amount of income received by the top 20% of the population with that received by the bottom 20% of each particular country.  In the countries with the most equal incomes, the top 20% receive an average of 4 times that  received by those with the lowest income, whereas in those with the most unequal incomes it averages out at 9 times.  We are talking about household incomes, after taxes and benefits, adjusted according to the number of people in each household.

The bulk of the book is taken up with looking at the inequalities in the richer countries of the world, excluding China for which it is impossible to obtain figures.  The book also looks at the inequalities in the different States of the USA.  However, the poorer two thirds world is not neglected altogether.  The book shows that more equal rich countries are, on the whole, inclined to give a great deal more proportionately to the needs of the poorer countries, both in the form of beneficial trade and aid.

One very important point that the book makes is that both the rich and the poor in the more equal societies benefit from the gift of equality, particularly in the realm of happiness.  There is much less anxiety because the poor are not always feeling deprived of what they think they ought to have, and the rich do not feel so anxious about the need to hang on to all the advantages they have received.

This is a very inadequate summary of a very important book, but to get hold of the real thing and to delve into all its intricacies and graphs is very well worth while.

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In Africa there is only one sort of walking: to go from A to B.  In the UK the main sorts of walking are going for a walk or exercising the dog. Only one sort of walking is good for the planet.

Living as we do on the edge of a small town we are fortunate that we can do the first sort of walking to almost everywhere nearby to which we need to go.  Crossing the road that runs past our complex takes us to a brewery, a bike shop, an outdoor shop, a flower shop and very soon a large restaurant.  Crossing the road and turning right and walking for five minutes will bring us to a supermarket which we hardly ever go to because we only have to walk just over ten minutes to find a galaxy of small shops in the town centre.

When we moved here six years ago one of the first things we did was to find out if we could walk into the centre avoiding busy traffic.  We found that once we had left behind all the vehicles that flowed round our complex we could go through a pocket park with skate boards, swings and slides and a prolific apple tree, to a quiet private estate, to an even more private way through school property to a quiet graveyard and thereafter we were at the centre.  As there was a graveyard there was also a church to go to, one of two which one or other of us attends regularly.

Apart from the small shops the town centre contains two dentists, two beauty parlours , three pubs, three banks, four restaurants and a proliferation of hairdressers and cafes.  There is also a theatre which shows interesting films as well as plays and  a weekly market on Thursdays and a monthly Farmers’ Market, at both of which we stock up our faithful shopping trolleys.  If we pass through the centre and go five minutes to the West we will find a museum and Council offices and a Roman Catholic church, all of which we have patronised, and a couple of minutes to the South of the centre there is the original supermarket.  Fifteen minutes in a totally different direction from home brings us to the library, the doctors’ surgery, the police and fire stations and five minutes’ very pleasant walk beyond that is the school swimming pool open to the public at specified hours.

Then there are the homes we visit regularly for Scrabble, for discussion groups or for contemplation.  All these can be reached by quiet routes except one.  This is one of the contemplative groups for which one has to negotiate a really noisy road.  Although we live right on the river I tend to use my bike to get to the place where elderly people like me can join the U3A rowing club, though I could probably walk it in half an hour or perhaps hitch a lift.  I have no qualms about asking for a lift provided the driver does not have to go out of his way to take me.

One of the blessings of walking or cycling is that one can become more readily aware of the changing seasons.  Just now I suddenly discovered an avenue of trees which a day or two ago was full of leaves now stripped completely bare.

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Picking up apples

Do any of you older ones remember the Peter Sellers song (which clearly I don’t) in which he describes, amongst other things, going round ‘distributing boxes of rotten apples’ to the poor and needy.  I have felt rather like that myself recently.

No doubt you,like me, have probably seen the all-too-common sight at this time of year of apples lying on the ground round a tree which has let them fall.  We live near a small park which happens to have a very prolific apple tree.  For almost two months each autumn we walk past a goodly number of bruised apples.  Recently I have taken to picking up and finding people to whom to distribute them.  The first victims have been my immediate neighbours, of whom there are about 50.  Most of them have now received small parcels of 8 – 10 apples which they have then had to cut, core, peel and chop as well as getting rid of all the rotten bits before they can do anything with them.  So far I have received only one complaint about the work involved and this happened to come from the one neighbour who was kind enough to repay our gift by giving us a beautiful apple pie.  Another kind neighbour returned the container in which we had presented the fruit now full of humbugs.  On this occasion we had supplemented the apples with our last picking of blackberries.  More recently I have singled out two ladies who do a lot for the community and given them apples on which we have done all the preliminary work so they have received ready-to-eat stewed apple.  No doubt rather more acceptable.

But we have not confined our ministrations to our immediate neighbours.  On one occasion I took apples to a small service in our church, declaring that the fruit, like us, was fallen and when Judith took 37 apples to her local home group, the leader kindly compelled each participant to take a bag full home.

Each year I go even further afield to a rectory garden in a nearby village where I have a monthly Quiet Day.  It is usually October when I pick up the apples under their one tree and take them home, but I also pick the apples I can reach and present them to my host and hostess who have not got the time to do it themselves.

Finding time to do such supposedly inessential things as picking up windfalls and distributing them is part of the blessing of being retired.  Long may it last.

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A place of wood

While I was up North I called in on some friends who live close to the Cumbrian town of Kendal.  Edward and Romola own fifteen acres of land on a turbulent river, half of which is given over to trees.  Beside their house is a four storey mill where wood is stored, wood is displayed and wood is worked on.  People come from all around to learn how to use wood to make things of use and beauty and this autumn they held two weeks of open studio.  Another important sideline is Edward and his family’s amazing gift for making beautiful things out of anything that other people would regard as rubbish.  It could be a cluster of old nails or old bones.  It could be unwanted and seemingly useless scraps of wood.  It could be a selection of what we might only call dirt.  Everything is grist to the mill and these creations can be seen artistically displayed wherever you look.  Other important members of the family include the chickens and the goats which make vital contributions and which may be found in unlikely places, and other humans living on the spot or round about have their gifts and skills to offer.  The family, as you might expect, are distinctly green and if you come by train you might be met by Edward on his bicycle with a trailer containing another bicycle for you to ride while the trailer will carry your luggage.  Much of what is eaten in the house comes from the prolific garden or from local producers and the diet is thus exceptionally healthy.  If you are staying there it is good to be able to  play one’s part and this time I had the opportunity to gather blackberries, but in a particular way: I was given a sawn off plastic container with a string round my neck so that I could use both hands to pick the fruit.

Both husband and wife have been deeply involved in serving the local community for many years, but now they see their life as primarily being on their home ground to be an original resource to anyone who is interested.  For those of us who care about the challenges of climate change the Aclands may be said to be as fine a model as any I know.

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