From observing sandpipers to revolutionising church

Bird-watching doesn’t get much better than this! I was with a group of observers out on the Dumbles, the grassland next to the Severn Estuary at Slimbridge. We’d been led there by one of the wardens – otherwise we’d have had to be content with views from the Holden Tower – in order to see a buff-breasted sandpiper. This is a small wader which normally breeds in the Canadian Arctic, which had been blown over in the recent storms. It was a very obliging bird, preferring the edge of the grassland to the saltmarsh or mudflats which were further out, so we were able to get excellent views of it. Then it took off, flew straight overhead and landed on the other side of us – but as I looked where it landed, I thought “that’s not a sandpiper”. A moment later, the warden said, “Hang on, that’s a dotterel! The sandpiper has landed right next to a dotterel!”

The buff-breasted sandpiper and the dotterel at Slimbridge. Photos: Allan Chard

It’s only the second time this species has been seen at Slimbridge, and was one that I personally was very keen to see. They breed up in the Scottish Highlands, and when they’re on passage they may occasionally drop down somewhere like Cleeve Hill. Suffice it to say that the 30 or so birders there suddenly became more excited by the dotterel than they were by the sandpiper which they had originally travelled to see!

Over the weekend I went on a couple of trips with friends. One was to a men’s event with the “Revolutionary Lions” in Wantage, generously hosted by Laurie Bath, and led by Roy Maguire. Since becoming a follower of Christ nearly 20 years ago I have enjoyed, and hugely benefitted from, being part of various men’s groups. Men enjoy the fellowship of other men – so that as they leave the church, more will follow through the exit. Thus it is exciting to be part of vibrant men’s groups like the RevLions, and to be with other blokes who desire to live radically for Christ.

One of the sub-themes of this and other groups is a general disillusionment, a feeling that ‘box-shaped church’ (to borrow a phrase from Joanathan Cavan) doesn’t work. As a wannabe vicar, I have a conflicting set of feelings towards this so that I end up wanting to ask: are we expecting Christ in the 21st century to do something other than church, or for church itself to become radically different? If it is the latter, do we change it from the outside or the inside?

Justin and Rachel Abraham

On Sunday I went down to Cardiff with Matt, Jo, Phil and Shane, in order to hear Justin Abraham speaking. Justin is an exciting and inspirational speaker who was talking about the mystical realms. Some of what he spoke about was mind-stretching – but that’s partly why I went, in order to be challenged in my understanding about the realities of the spiritual world. If church is to be filled with radical followers of Christ rather than well-meaning social workers, we cannot afford to underestimate the supernatural dimension of our faith.

Man-friendly church?

“Why don’t men go to church?” This was a question posed by Christian Vision for Men, an organisation founded by Carl Beech, who was speaking on Monday night to a men’s meeting at Trinity Church in Cheltenham. Of the printable responses, men tended to think that church is for wimps, for women, and that it is irrelevant. It doesn’t help that some recent songs are romantic songs to Jesus – “Beautiful one, I love” springs to mind – which are very hard for men to sing, even for regular churchgoers.

Carl Beech from Christian Vision for Men addressing a meeting at Trinity Church Cheltenham.

This alone should be cause enough for churches to re-think their approach – but there is extra incentive. As a survey for Evangelicals Now in 2003 showed, if a child becomes a churchgoer, there’s only a 3.5% chance that the rest of the family will go; if the mother, then the figure rises to 17%; but if the father becomes a Christian, there’s a 93% chance the rest of the family will follow.

There is a huge need for the Gospel among men today, which is being obscured by a feminised church environment. There is currently an epidemic of loneliness: one grim example is that the most common cause of death among men below 40 is suicide. And the effect among family members of non-functioning fathers is worse: children with absent fathers are five times more likely to commit suicide, and 32 times more likely to run away.

Carl is a passionate speaker who is very attuned to the needs of men and knows what is effective – but he does not make it complicated. His main message: “do what you are good at and invite a friend” – whether that is DIY, sea fishing, quad biking, hill walking or whatever.

With David and Wendy Bryan and Hannah, their daughter, who happened to be passing through.

The end of a tough term has arrived, and I’m enjoying being able to relax back in Cheltenham! One of the major highlights of the year so far has been the placement at St. Andrew’s, Haughton-le-Skerne, which ended on Sunday. I’ve loved being a part of that community, and to work with David Bryan – who has been a brilliant bloke to work with and a huge encouragement. The church needs more vicars like David, who are known more for their natural ability to relate to men than for their feminine sides.