Reflecting on the “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend

The “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend (from June 15 to 17) was great fun, and many people seem to have enjoyed it.

Friday evening in Burtle Village Hall was a sell-out for the evening with Dominic Couzens, the well-known wildlife writer, who came to speak about “Birds Behaving Badly”. We’d expected to hear about bird behaviour, and there was plenty of that – what we hadn’t realised was how entertaining a speaker he is! He soon built up a good rapport with the audience.

We had a meal with the talk, and the combination worked for a relaxed and enjoyable evening. The first course was lasagna, after which Dominic did the first part of his talk. After dessert, and before the second half, I asked Dominic about his faith, and he gave us a really genuine and honest description of his journey: he’d been an atheist at school but it was the friendship of people at the Christian Union that made a real impact shortly after he arrived at university.

Dominic Couzens (front right) fielding questions at the Village Hall after a great talk and supper. Photo: Henry Routley

We learned a lot about bird behaviour! As an example: we learned that at a rookery in windy weather, the dominant birds took shelter low in the trees. However, in fine weather they perched higher up… so they weren’t pooped on by birds above them!

Huge thanks to the Burtle team for this led by Rosemary Tucker and ably helped by, amongst others, Jane Ponsillio, Rosie Tilbury and Sue Ball. Chris Mockridge also brought the audiovisual equipment.

Throughout the weekend, the photographic exhibition ran in Shapwick Church. Much as I like taking bird photos myself, the ones on display were in a different league – they were outstanding! The main displays were provided by Carl Bovis, James Cawte, Dan Hargreaves, Kim Hemmings, Chris Hooper, Andrew Kirby and Colin Lawrence. Their generous contributions were very much appreciated. Several of the photographers arrived on the Thursday afternoon and there was some enjoyable banter flying around: some of them had known of each other via Facebook forums but hadn’t previously met.

Some of the photographers who were exhibiting: Carl Bovis, Colin Lawrence, Andrew Kirby, and Chris Hooper, with Alison Everett who did so much to help make the event happen.

The wildlife photography exhibition just before opening time

For me, one of the most notable photos was one of a stoat running on ice at Greylake: Carl had seen it in the undergrowth, and had set his camera in expectation that it would run out. When it did, he was ready. From this I learned that the ability to anticipate what an animal will do next is a really important skill to learn!

Stoat on ice, by Carl Bovis

Another favourite of mine is an extraordinary action shot by Chris Hooper of two territorial grebes chasing each other. The intensity of the moment is highlighted by the open beak of the chasing grebe and the plume of spray to the left. Chris told me that the grebe fleeing wouldn’t give up and kept going back for more encounters!

Grebe chase, captured by Chris Hooper

The cafe that ran alongside the exhibition was a major part of its success. As Carl Bovis put it, it was due “no doubt in no small part to the delicious cakes on offer for visitors!” Light lunches were served, as well as fresh coffee, tea, scones and cakes – all of which helped to create a relaxed ambience.

Very many thanks to the Shapwick team led by Helen Wade, who was assisted by a large team, including Sue Sellick, Rosie Tilbury and Mary Tucker, as well as Rosemary & Chris Hargreaves, Brian Tilbury, Ann Cattermole, Jan Jones, Ken Wade, Kirsty Sellick, Jo Wright and my wife!

The café and exhibition in full swing

Some wildlife encountered at Muddy Church by the Decoy Lake!

On the Saturday afternoon, we had a Muddy Church – an outdoor variant on Messy Church. Over twenty primary-ages kids came with their parents. Fiona Livesley, our inspiring and indefatigable leader, had devised a really good set of activities for the children as they walked through woodland and meadow to the Decoy Lake. There, we had a picnic, before descending on the Decoy Hide in force – fortunately there were no birders there to disturb at the time!

Children and parents head towards the Decoy Lake on Shapwick Heath

There was an early start on Sunday for a couple of dozen folk, for a bird walk led by Alison Everett. We saw several Great White Egrets – now a regularly breeding colony in the Avalon Marshes having first bred only three years ago – and several Great Crested Grebes with their chicks. After the walk, we went for a full cooked breakfast at the Ashcott Village hall.

Freda Prime and Margaret Trimm and their team in Ashcott produced the full cooked breakfast for 24 on the Sunday morning, which would be a notable achievement for most people, except that it doesn’t quite beat the 70 to 100 they’ve cooked for at the Ashcott Big Breakfast!! They then hosted the evening at the playing field. Many thanks also to them.

The weekend concluded with two Celtic-style services, at Chilton Polden in the morning and on the playing field in Ashcott in the evening. There were two guest speakers: David Maggs, the diocesan environment adviser, and Caroline Pomeroy, the Director of Climate Stewards, both of whom encouraged us to think about and act on our responsibilities for climate and the environment. Rowena Steady led the music beautifully in the church services, and was joined by Andy Savage and the rest of Polden Praise in the evening.

One of the best aspects of the weekend is that it has been a great team effort of the Polden Wheel churches, and I’m indebted to the many who gave so much of their time and energy. I need to give a special mention to Alison Everett, an avid birder herself, who gave many hours for each of the events, particularly the exhibition and the bird walk, and her practical support has been invaluable.Her dedication to the weekend has been exceptional and greatly appreciated.

I hope the teams and all those who’ve visited enjoyed the weekend as much as I have!

Freshly expressed rural ministry

I recently went to an outstanding conference run by the rural team within the Fresh Expressions movement. It was exciting to be among a group of church leaders who are in similar contexts to the Polden Wheel, and who are thinking of new ways of doing church to engage with wider groups of people.

The first day focussed on several stories of rural Fresh Expressions. One of the most inspiring ones came from a remote part of the Scottish borders. Back in 2007 the parish acquired a new vicar, Bill Landale, who challenged the congregation to think about church in new ways. When they did a community survey, they found that, although people were interested in spiritual things, they didn’t think that traditional church would help them, so the idea of doing a Fresh Expression was born. Meanwhile, Bill identified the person he wanted to lead the new project – a guy called Alistair Birkett, a local farmer who at that time was part of another church. After a year and a half they launched Gateways Gathering, aimed at children with young families: it’s similar to Messy Church. They eventually grew to a point when they recognised there was a need for something more for the adults – so, two years ago, they launched Gateways Fellowship, which adopts a cafe church approach. The video below tells their story.

One of the prayer stations used in Outdoor Church

The highlight of the second day of the conference for me was being introduced to Outdoor Worship by Sam and Sara Hargreaves. There are a number of variations of this overall idea, each aimed at different potential audiences. For example, Forest Church seems designed to engage with New Age and pagan spiritualities, whereas Outdoor Worship may connect in a more straightforward way to families with young children (exemplified by Park Church in Luton). One of the key values is that outdoor worship is not merely doing indoor worship outdoors, but is doing something different that relates to the outdoor environment.

As the conference had an overall theme of ‘Dying to live’, one of the activities for us was to look at the invertebrates living on dead wood. As we looked at all the creepy-crawlies I re-connected with my inner child… I was still tearing bark off rotting wood while everyone else had moved onto the next bit, and couldn’t stop myself interrupting Sara in full flow with “hey, there’s a millipede here!”. That was probably the moment when I realised that Outdoor Worship was something I should explore further!

Outdoor church lends itself to some thoughtful prayer stations.

The theme of the conference was ‘Dying to Live’. The basic idea was that we may need to let some things die in order for new stuff to take root: part of Alistair and Bill’s story encapsulated that, and the dead wood – living creatures connection in Outdoor Worship also worked well. Having said that, the theme didn’t really capture the essence of the conference. The mood was more one of optimism and enthusiasm as we were able to explore different ideas: ‘dying’ didn’t really feel like a major part of it!

I also really enjoyed connecting with other church leaders. Early on, I sat next to Scott from Somerset, so I started with ‘Hi, I’m Rich, which part of Somerset are you from?’. Scott replied ‘I’m from a village called Curry Rivel’. At this point I recognised an important connection, and said ‘ah, your wife had coffee with my wife last week’! The networking aspect of the conference was invaluable: it was great to be able to meet and chat with others who are in rural ministry, and to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I particularly valued a chat over lunch with Matt Timms from the New Wave church in Perranporth, which connects with the surfing community there: he reminded me of the value of prayer walking, and of not being afraid to try some experiments, some of which might fail.

It was great to be able to worship without having to be responsible for it in some way!

When I arrived I had high expectations of this conference, but was a bit worried I was being unrealistic: but actually the conference far exceeded those expectations! I’ll probably be booking in for the next one rather early.

Cafe church in rural Worcestershire

On Sunday, the cafe church in Wichenford had its second anniversary: we had 50 people of all ages, enjoying fresh coffee, bacon butties and an informal service. This has been one of the major highlights of my time as a curate here, so I thought this anniversary marked a good time to reflect on it in this blog.

Cafe church in Wichenford

Cafe church in Wichenford

Gail and Amber do the reading

Gail and Amber do the reading

One of the attractions of cafe church seems to be that it works for all ages. It’s designed to be family friendly, so we have a regular kids’ activity (in the style of Messy Church) to one side, and kids are free to wander during the meeting. This is one of the things that helps to give it a lively atmosphere.

But we’ve also found that it works for older folks whose preferred style might be the Book of Common Prayer – because it’s an excuse to leave the house, have breakfast out and meet friends.

Louisa, Lottie and Fiona at cafe church in July 2014.

Louisa, Lottie and Fiona at cafe church in July 2014.

The cafe church format lends itself to creativity. In some of the months we’ve had sketches provided by some of the young people, and we’ve had a singing group a few times as well.

The bacon butties being served

The bacon butties being served

It would be completely impossible to do this without a dedicated team of helpers, and one of the essentials has been to identify those who are willing and able to commit time to being part of the hospitality teams. I’ve been really encouraged by the way team members have shared the vision of what cafe church is about, and have helped to create a welcoming culture.

The cafe churches in Wichenford and Martley are just two examples of the Fresh Expressions of church that are taking place around the country. Each one is an attempt to enable people in the 21st century to connect with Jesus Christ in a new way, with less of the baggage that traditional church is perceived to have in today’s post-modern culture. Indeed, the ultimate goal is not primarily to have large numbers at a church event – encouraging though that may be; it is for more people to recognise that Jesus Christ is alive today; and moreover, to realise that relationship with him is meaningful and powerful for their own lives.

Kids' activity in progress

Kids’ activity in progress

All photos (except the third) taken by Mark Wild, who retains the copyright.

Being pioneers in west Worcs

Rural west Worcestershire might not be the most obvious place to pioneer from, but our cafe churches seem to have caught the imagination of the diocese. Thus, David and I were interviewed for a video that has been advertised in their Kingdom People mailing. Here it is.

I only had ten minutes warning before Sam Setchell arrived (she’s the communications officer in the diocese). I have never tidied up the place so fast!

We’ve also featured on the Fresh Expressions website. Here’s an article I wrote,  called “What time is it?”: the gist of it is that we need to do church in new and fresh ways because the culture around us is changing.

Taking church out of the building – and into the pubs

Carol services are a regular Christmas highlight in most places – but in the Martley area, the most fun ones are those that take place in the pubs. David has a band that comes together for this, to lead everyone in singing both carols and modern songs with Christmas themes. Thus, ‘Silent night’ takes its place alongside Slade.

Pub carols at the Admiral Rodney

Pub carols at the Admiral Rodney

So far this year, we’ve had carols at the Crown in Martley and the Admiral Rodney at Berrow Green: tomorrow night we’ll be at the Masons Arms on the edge of Wichenford.

It’s increasingly important for church to move out of the building and into the community – and this is a great example of that.

A reflective interlude

A friend, Matt Breckon, is hesitant to describe himself as a poet; but his reflection on the communion at Noak Farm leads one to think his modesty may be misplaced…

The Priesting

On a hill above Martley in the warm embrace of sun and Son
We sat to modern country feast
of offered loaves and fishes in Galilean vale

The newly priested curate rose and at the hay bale altar tore bread
              and poured a cup of haemic wine.

Broken. Poured out for you.
rural healing
An urban death.

Then interrupting introspection Holy Spirit like a duck, emerging
              from the farmhouse pond o’er the communion table sped,
a pointed arrow
an outstretched neck
Fade gleaming city temples for here God’s resplendence is.

Matt Breckon, 2013

One afternoon above Martley (photo by Nick Eden)

Above Martley (photo by Nick Eden; click to enlarge)

Church beyond the walls…

Last Saturday was both intense and enjoyable. I got ordained as a priest in the early afternoon, and then a few hours later celebrated my first communion in the open air, on the hillside above Martley.

It may seem strange to have a second ordination just a year after the first one; it’s an Anglican thing, but this one permits me to celebrate Holy Communion and to be able to take weddings. The service was similar to the one last year, but somehow it had more impact emotionally on all of us involved. This may in large part be due to the wonderful sermon given by Bishop Jack Nicholls, who had also led the retreat in Cropthorne. He has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that have a deep impact emotionally as well as spiritually.

Ordination completed: me with Hazel Charlton and Richard Bubbers, and the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge.

Ordination completed: me with Hazel Charlton and Richard Bubbers, and the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge.

Afterwards, there was a celebratory barbecue at Noak Farm, most generously hosted by Richard and Claire Bray. Their farm is on the hillside just above Martley – it’s a stunning location with amazing views. It was a relaxed gathering, and a great opportunity for the church to meet friends and family from Cheltenham. We were very fortunate to have excellent weather – which had seemed unlikely during Thursday’s downpour!

One main reason for having the event there was to be able to use it to do my first Holy Communion – using a bale of straw for the altar, and with spectacular views of Martley and the surrounding Worcestershire countryside. Although God is present within church buildings, he’s also present outside the walls, in the midst of this rural community, within the countryside which he has ultimately created. I was glad of the opportunity to express that through leading communion in that context.

For me it was an extraordinary day and one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

First communion - at Noak Farm above Martley, with the Malverns in the background.

First communion – at Noak Farm above Martley, with the Malverns in the background. (Click to enlarge) (Photo taken by Nick Eden)

First communion - at Noak Farm above Martley

First communion – at Noak Farm above Martley. (Click to enlarge) (Photo taken by Nick Eden)