Farewell to Stockton and Durham

The biggest highlight of my time in Durham has been my placement at Stockton Parish Church. It has been a huge privilege to be able to serve in a place where God is so evidently at work. Unlike large churches down south which are often well resourced (technologically and otherwise), and where the emphasis may often be on slick production for congregations that have high expectations, at Stockton everything is much more relaxed and informal, and the most overt need is for fellowship and community. This is particularly evident on Thursday evenings, where there is also a dependance on the Holy Spirit, and a recognition that God can and does intervene supernaturally. Below are a few photos from a couple of Sundays ago.

Alan & Frank; Rob & Kath with friend

Alan (the vicar) & Nicky Farish; Roger taking good care of Linda

There are a number of asylum seekers here, including these two families from Sri Lanka

There was a Cranmer Hall day out to Lindisfarne on Wednesday. When we arrived, about half a dozen of us assembled and headed off towards the north coast. We found a lovely unspoilt bay fringed by sand dunes and steep cliffs, so for a couple of hours we lounged on one of the dunes. In the distance, seals called to each other as they lay around on mudflats. Eider ducks rested on the rocky outcrops, while in the distance little groups of gannets headed intently passed. Gulls and a couple of fulmars drifted around. We chatted, mused and occasionally gazed seawards. Afterwards we found ourselves saying to each other what an amazingly enjoyable afternoon it had been – an unplanned but fitting finale to time at Cranmer.

Never mind the photograph, we're just chilling out. Roderick, Andy Grant, Tom, James and Sylvia

Supernatural and natural

Woodie, Anna and their daughters

Earlier this week, Woodie came into college with his wife, Anna, and twin daughters – the first time they’d brought their kids in. This would have been a significant event in itself – but this was more than that. Last year Woodie had shared openly with the community about their going for IVF, and that it hadn’t been working. The community prayed, the miracle that was required happened – and then they had not just one child, but twins!

Last weekend Jenny came up to Durham, and on the Thursday evening we went to the Stockton Community Church. We got chatting to a couple we’ll call Mike and Rebecca. He’s been a Christian for a year, whereas she’s adamant that she isn’t. She’d just been in a serious car accident – her car was a write-off, and she was suffering from considerable pain in her neck, left shoulder and side. Later in the meeting Duncan announced a session for praying for healing: one group for those who were suffering in such a way that they would know immediately if they were healed. Rebecca put her hand up for prayer, and Jenny and another lady, Rachel, prayed for her. I was praying with Mike on the opposite side of the table. We then became aware that something had happened: Rebecca was trying out her arm and saying, “this is really weird. I feel no pain. I don’t understand this and I’ve been healed. I don’t even believe in God but I’ve been healed. This is really weird!”

It’s so exciting when God acts supernaturally like this: it’s good to celebrate these events and remind ourselves of them. Sometimes when we get disappointed, we need to remember to focus on God and his sovereignty. My course at Cranmer ends in a week, and unless something miraculous occurs(!) I will end without a curacy. This is not a situation I’d have chosen! But focussing on God and not allowing oneself to be downhearted is really important.

On Thursday afternoon, I had a quick trip to the Durham coast, to see an unusual scoter from Blackhall Rocks, and to visit the colony of nesting Little Terns at Crimdon Dene. My walk to the terns was interrupted by a bold and showy yellowhammer, and I spent some time trying to get as close as possible with my camera. He’d fly off a short distance, but would still allow me to approach quite close. Here’s the best of the pics.

Yellowhammer at Crimdon Dene

God’s ambassador from Lesotho


One of the privileges of the last year has been getting to know Obed Sebapalo, an Anglican ordinand from Lesotho. He’s spent two terms here in Durham and is returning home at the beginning of April. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed travelling with him to Stockton most Sundays and conversing on the way.

Lesotho is a land-locked country surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It’s economically poor, with 60% unemployment, and those who are employed are generally subsistence farmers. Around ten thousand are miners in South Africa, sending some of their wages home each month to their families. Obed is from the Thaba-Tseka district, a mountainous region with peaks generally around 2,500m. They’re high enough that they often have snow – unusually for Africa – so he was entirley unsurprised by the white stuff in Durham this winter!

He originally trained as a lawyer, and since 2002 has worked mainly as a registrar. His training for the priesthood started a year later, fitted in around his full-time work. Indeed he will continue as a lawyer after he has been ordained, as the Anglican church in Lesotho is rarely able to afford to employ priests full-time.

Obed with the late Fr. Constantinus, a Catholic priest who was a major influence and encourager

As anyone who gets to know Obed for any length of time discovers, he is a deeply devout person. He sees his life as a journey with God through daily prayer – he has regular prayer times throughout the day which he observes strictly. During this time there may be an act of contrition; he will invoke the Holy Spirit; he will talk to his guardian angel and the saints, and will offer to God the day with its works, joys and disappointments. However, the most important part of his spiritual journey is to take Mass and attend communion.

Within the Church of England there is often a stark contrast between the Anglo-Catholic and the charismatic spiritualities, but within African churches the distinction may often be less clear, with a recognition that God may be actively present in both. Thus, although the informal liturgy in Stockton is not his normal style, he’s been quick to see the activity of the Spirit within the community, and is open to the gifts of the Spirit being used.

Although he comes across as a quiet man who is very courteous, he is also a passionate and lion-hearted preacher. He is not afraid to challenge his audience if he believes it is what the Lord has told him to say: he has a fire that can only come from deep relationship with God.

Obed’s vocation is deeply conceived. He has “always cherished ideas of being a beacon of hope and encouragement to needy people, to ground them deeply in Christian values, to arm them with the heavenly weapons of prayer and faith to fight, and to help them on their journey to heaven”. After I’d finished interviewing him, he added:

My vocation is to serve the marginalised people, to help them to experience the divine life through the sacraments and the Word.

We’ll miss him when he returns to Lesotho, but the church’s ministry there will be greatly enriched by this ambassador for God’s kingdom.

Thinking for radio

One of the most interesting modules I’ve done while in Durham is the current one on “Preaching and Apologetics”. For those not versed in Christian jargon, apologetics is the art of defending Christianity to a secular audience. One of the lecturers is David Wilkinson, the Principal of the college of which Cranmer Hall is a part, who is one of the foremost experts in this field – especially where science is concerned.

One well-known slot for this is Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. Not everyone is keen on it – militant atheists hate there being any slot for religion on radio, and some Christians don’t like it either because the faith content is often bland and safe. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to give relevant Christian commentary on current news items. For one of David Wilkinson’s Thoughts, giving a Christian perspective on the giant physics experiment, the  Large Hadron Collider, click here.

As an assignment, we all had a go at composing, and reading aloud, a Thought for the Day. This was a remarkably powerful experience: Andy Grant, an ex-soldier, told us about four servicemen, severely wounded in the Afghan conflict, who are walking to the North Pole; Tom Hiney gave a moving reflection on Mohamed Bouazizi, the former stall holder in Tunisia who, by setting fire to himself, sparked the current conflagration across North Africa; Matt ‘Woodie’ Woodcock spoke of his dread about going to Auschwitz this weekend, to witness the site of the Nazi atrocities.

Mine was about a small black rock that fell from the sky… here it is:

The black rock from space… ©NASA

[Earlier this week] a small piece of black rock hit the news. It doesn’t look particularly special… Yet scientists are claiming that this particular lump may help to explain the origin of life on earth.

A camp-site on the ice-sheet near where the rock was found: makes you shiver just looking at it! ©NASA

It’s a piece of rock that has been on quite a journey. It was picked up in Antarctica about 200 miles from the South Pole. This is an area where scientists go looking for meteorites, those rocks that fall from the sky. Antarctica may seem a strange place to look for them, but dark coloured rocks are easy to pick out from the endless white ice-sheets.

This particular meteorite has an unusual chemistry with an abundant amount of ammonia – which is what has got the scientists excited. It’s incredibly difficult to try to understand the origins of life on earth – not least because we can’t go back four billion years to make observations and conduct experiments. However, ammonia appears to have been a crucial ingredient – but the problem is that it was in incredibly short supply. This discovery shows that meteorites, showering the Earth from outer space, could have provided enough ammonia to help seed the origins of life. Although it’s just one piece in the jig-saw, it’s an important one nonetheless.

That’s why this apparently mundane lump of black rock has an unusual significance. It belongs to the origin myths of our time. Like people across the ages, we humans have a great fascination with stories about where we come from. And yet – if all we are is explained by chemistry, does that really answer our innate desire to understand our origins?

As a Christian I believe that our origins are not just explained by chemistry, but that over everything there is a God who set all the scientific processes in motion. The heated debate about creation or evolution is in many ways a barren one: however life emerged, whatever mechanism was used, the big story for Christians is that God did it. I’m fascinated by the black lump discovered in Antarctica, and how it may be a part of understanding the way life began on Earth – but for me, the main thing is that God did it.

Disturbing a quiet meal

I was photographing a robin at the feeder, thinking the lighting was just right for a cute photo that might go on this blog, when suddenly there was a rapid flurry and a nuthatch appeared instead. But it was only on looking at the photos afterwards that I saw the aggressive raid involved…

You don’t mess with a nuthatch…

The 4wd cluster Christmas meal: Wendy, Helena, Hilary & Chris, John, David, Pearl & Rod in front.

I’ve just come back to Durham from four weeks in Cheltenham. It’s always great to go back there and re-connect with friends. One of the highlights was the Christmas meal with the 4wd homegroup at Chris & Hilary’s – honestly, Hilary’s cooking is sensationally good; I thought the Thai red curry couldn’t be beaten until we came onto the cheesecake…

Redwings munching catoneaster berries

The severe snow brought some unusual birds to the garden, including a small flock of redwings. After initially guzzling some catoneaster berries, they lurked for several days but, bizarrely, ignored all the food I put out for them.

I restricted myself to one twitch – down to the Cotswold Water Park, in the fanciful hope of seeing some smew. I struck lucky – largely because I bumped into some birders coming the other way, who willingly shared what they’d seen. I therefore changed my planned journey and hot-footed it down to pit 39. There, along with a group of my favourite goosanders, was a small number of smew, including the spectacular black-and-white adult males. The photo below really is too small – so click for a bigger image.

Smew at Cotswold Water Park – click to enlarge

Finally I have to share a photo from early December before I left for the holidays. Sometimes you get lucky with lighting and placement…

Sunset at Greatham Creek

And just to prove that some birds on the feeder can still act cute…

Not all birds are so aggressive with each other…

Winter wonderland

It’s snowing as I write this – which is not unusual for the past week, during which several inches have fallen and very little has melted. I thought I’d share with you a few pictures from around the place. This was the view from my window a couple of days ago when the Sun was out:

View from the window

Here’s a couple of photos of the Cathedral from Monday.

Durham Cathedral and River Wear from Prebend’s Bridge

The Cathedral from Observatory Hill

Birding opportunities have obviously been limited, although I did manage to get to Rainton Meadows the other day to see a bittern that had arrived earlier in the week. These are elusive birds, notorious for hiding deep in reedbeds – no-one had seen it the day I was there. Luckily, after half an hour peering at the reedbed, I saw a brown wing stretch up, and then the head and neck peering above the reeds. A few seconds later, it was gone. My friend Jaybee was more fortunate a few days later: not only had the icy weather forced the bittern out from its normal skulking habits, but he and a fellow birder discovered there are actually two of them!

Bittern at Rainton Meadows – photo by Jaybee

Mission and the Anglican church

Last week I spent a couple of days in a block module on mission. Despite being quite intense, it was lively and thought-provoking.

One session that grabbed my attention focussed on the way in which the Anglican church has viewed mission over the centuries. Thomas Cranmer, back in Henry VIII’s time and author of much of the BCP, believed that people became Christians through a long process of refinement, which came through the hearing of scripture, making regular confession and taking communion. Thus the mark of being a Christian was public attendance at worship.

This seems to have been a very Anglican perspective down through the centuries – along with a suspicion and distrust of anything more dramatic. For example, the Wesleys started out as loyal Anglicans – and saw themselves as such throughout their lives – but the spiritual experiences they had were far more intense and life-changing than fits comfortably with the Anglican way. Thus, Charles Wesley in one of his hymns is far removed from Cranmer in style:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Thus it is scarcely surprising that Anglicans eventually closed the door to the Methodists, whose movement thus became a separate denomination. It’s hard not to think of the parable about new wine and old wineskins.

It’s the punk hairdo that does it… waxwings in Thornaby

There’s been an invasion of waxwings into the country over the last few weeks. These are birds that arrive in surges in some years, and not in others – all depending on the berry crop in Scandinavia.

They’re charismatic birds which tend to show up in odd places like supermarket car parks or on industrial estates, but they hardly stay in any one place for long. However, the appearance of a large flock in Thornaby, south-east of Stockton, prompted me to look for them.

I arrived as the two last birders were packing up and leaving – they’d stripped the berries and flown off. I was not happy, so I toured the area to see if I could find them.

I returned about 15 minutes later, just as a small flock of 20 or so was arriving on one of the taller trees. A little later another 40 arrived. They didn’t eat much – presumably it was they who’d gobbled the berries earlier – but they hung around for long enough to get a few decent snaps – and to satisfy the half-dozen other birders who showed up later.