These articles by Steve or me are written a couple of weeks prior to their publication in Contact, so as I write today (14 May) we have just been reflecting upon our first joint service with Trinity Church yesterday. It was good to see a full church and to share in joint worship with our sisters and brothers at Trinity, especially as Malcolm Newton drew our attention to the shared witness of our two congregations at the start of Christian Aid Week and Thy Kingdom Come, which coincide this year. Christian Aid, together with CAFOD and Tear Fund, are the prime means by which the churches in England focus their international development work and relief of poverty and also respond to disasters such as flooding and earthquakes. Thy Kingdom Come – a season of prayer from Ascension Day to Pentecost – began as an initiative of the Church of England, but has this year been taken fully on board by Churches Together in England. As my ministry amongst you draws to its close (this is probably the final Contact leader that I shall write) and I take up my new post as General Secretary of Churches Together in England, it seems fitting that we should have been so richly engaged in ecumenism through our shared worship and mission.
It has been a great privilege to share ministry with Steve here at Abingdon, and I have often sensed the weight of history upon my shoulders, following in the ministry of such giants as John Pendarves in the 17th century and Daniel Turner in the 18th. More recently, under Adrian Thatcher’s ministry in the 1970s, Michael Hambleton records in his excellent history of the church that ‘guitars were heard’! It also saw the old pulpit removed, and the interior so altered from its nineteenth century original that it proved of insufficient architectural worth to be listed (hurrah!) – which had it been so listed, would have left us with no opportunity to undertake the kind of major redevelopment of the building’s interior that has just begun. We have much to thank Adrian for, and those who followed him, opening up opportunities that we can exploit today. It has been Steve’s and my aim to move the church on in its history and effective mission, just as Pendarves, Turner and Thatcher did in theirs, not least in bringing the redevelopment of the building to fruition, accompanied, we pray, by a renewed congregation. Ministers come and go – and I am ‘going’ a little earlier than I had planned in response to the clear leading of God to my new role – and we make our contribution to the life of the church in our day, but the church here at Abingdon is so much more than its ministers, thank God! It has a bright future ahead of it if it trusts in the leading and empowering of God and embraces those changes that will equip it for mission in the 21st century as it unfolds. These might be uncertain times for the church in Britain, but I am convinced that as local congregations like ABC honour the past by embracing the future as our forebears did, we can ‘buck the trend’ for decline and diminished influence.
Some have asked ‘what will I be doing?’ as Gen Sec of CTE. The honest answer is I am not sure until I start in earnest, but I do know that as well as maintaining the strength of ecumenical life in England (which is extraordinarily broad, with 48 churches in CTE – more than in any other European nation), the task is to help CTE to find a new missional role in these days of ‘post-Christendom’ England, and a new voice into our nation as we speak as the body of Christ to a society that has by and large let go of God. So, as I leave ABC, would you pray for me that I will be granted wisdom in helping to lead the ecumenical life of our nation into fruitful new ways of mission together, witnessing with greater courage and empowerment by the Spirit given at Pentecost. An endeavour such as Thy Kingdom Come is a good way to start, but my hope for our nation is that as we face new challenges from whatever flavour of Brexit emerges, together with a resurgent Russia and an uncertain relationship with the United States on the international front, and with all the challenges of rapidly changing social and cultural forces on the domestic, the church in England – all 48 traditions and churches currently in membership, including, of course our own Baptist Union as a founding member – will face all those challenges with trust in Christ and strengthened fellowship with one another. As we seek to sift the truth from the mass of ‘alternative truths’ (we used to simply call them lies!) pray that the church might be granted discernment, and the courage, where necessary, to speak truth to power; and as we face all those challenges, find common cause with all who genuinely ‘see the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.’ (Jer. 29:7). These are certainly interesting times to be a Christian in our land, and as ABC discovers what that means for Abingdon, and CTE for the whole nation, we can be sure that God is faithful, dispelling our fears through the assurance of his loving purposes.