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

Shaping the Church

“Sweaty church”, “Questioning Church” and “An organic community for the elderly” – these were some of the topics being discussed over the last couple of days, in an MA study block on “Can Mission shape the Church?”. It’s been an intensive time, largely focussed on student-led seminars which have often sparked heated discussion.

John Lee told us about “Sweaty Church”, a new initiative at St. Paul’s, Holgate (where he’s the vicar and where, coincidentally, I spent a week last July). For young boys, Sunday mornings often clash with football, and church somehow seems a less attractive option – so the church has come up with an afternoon event primarily for boys and their families. It combines boisterous fun and Bible-based teaching, and has already proved to be a hit with young families in the area.

A couple of the seminars looked at the needs of the elderly, and the realisation that their needs conflict with those of young families – but that mid-week lunch clubs can be effective ways of serving them and providing church.

Many of the sessions were very thought-provoking. Mike Loach, a former Philosophy teacher, challenged us with “Questioning Church”, saying that too often church does not provide a healthy environment for honest questions. An hour later, Dan Pierce was arguing that the essence of church is that it should be for the whole of society, not just small sub-units – and he was sharply critical of the tendency of many Fresh Expressions to be aimed at distinct sub-cultures. (TubeStation, which reaches surfers in Polzeath in Cornwall, is a well-known example.) While I wasn’t fully convinced by their arguments, the debates that both Mike and Dan sparked were really good.

The squirrel is back…

Anybody would think I’d put the feeder at this height just for her!

I ended up doing the first seminar on Monday morning – which was good because people were at their most alert and attentive! One of the questions I asked was how church should reach people in Urban Priority Areas. I asked it because the answer seems to be both clear and costly: church leaders need to live on the estates that they hope to reach. This way, people get to know them for who they are, and genuine relationships are built up. For example, the key leaders at Stockton Community Church, such as Duncan McAuley on Victoria Estate and Tony Grainge on Easterside in Middlesbrough, do exactly this. Tony has recently become part of the Eden Network, which has had a dramatic impact on the youth of a number of urban estates across the country – because team members have moved onto the estates.

Doing this course has been one of the highlights of the teaching here – because I feel better equipped for my future calling by doing it.

Of Stockton and flying finches…

Stockton parish church

I’ve just started a term-time placement at Stockton Parish Church, with the vicar Alan Farish. I am absolutely delighted to be here because this is a church which is growing, from unpromising circumstances.

Alan had been the vicar at nearby Eaglescliffe, and had acquired a key role in finding leaders for other churches in the area. One of these was Stockton Parish Church – a large building in danger of closure unless something drastic happened. One day Alan was going into Stockton to get a watch battery or something similar, and as he passed the Parish Church he felt the Lord telling him that he was the one who should be the next vicar there. So he went back to Eaglescliffe, tendered his resignation immediately, and started at Stockton soon after.

Two years later the congregation has grown to around 100 on a Sunday, with an additional thriving midweek congregation as well. There’s an active Healing on the Streets team (which I was a part of in spring and early summer) – and a general desire to seek the Lord’s guidance in everything. It is an exciting place to be for a couple of terms.

On Saturday, I went on an unashamed tw*tch to Hartlepool Headland, to see a woodchat shrike – but what amazed me was what else was happening amongst the birds there. It’s the time of the autumn migration, as flocks of birds fly in from across the North Sea. As it had been stormy overnight, the birds were tending to flop onto the first bit of greenery they reached. Hence, the headland was host to flocks of chaffinches, siskins and redwings, and small numbers of others like bramblings, redpolls and blackcaps, all of which were newly arriving.

Goldcrest. Photo by Jaybee.

There were also goldcrests – not normally the easiest birds to see as they prefer the tops of conifers, but after their journey they weren’t being fussy. That they could have made the journey at all astonishes me: they are 6g in weight (less than a quarter of an ounce), but they managed to fly the 300 or so miles overnight through bad weather. For such a tiny bird that seems to be a staggering feat of endurance. Nevertheless, small flocks appeared all along the Durham coast on each of the last few days, having completed the same journey.

The woodchat shrike showed well, favouring a small patch of parkland opposite a chip shop. It’s been very obliging, hanging around for more than a fortnight.

Finally, a couple of recent photos of Durham during one atmospheric evening…

The Cathedral at sunset

Durham Cathedral, just after sunset…

Being a tourist

I’ve just spent most of the past week being a tourist, as my mother has been visiting Durham for a few days. This was much helped by the weather, as we had some of the only days of summer so far this year!

Puffin posing with sand-eels

We spent a day up in Northumberland, which included a trip to the Farne Islands. Mum had never seen puffins properly before – but there were plenty here! I was keen to photograph one with a beakful of sand-eels. I noticed many fly directly over the island, but they seemed spooked by the number of tourists and only a few landed. Then just before departing for the boat, this one appeared, and almost posed for the cameras!

We also visited some of the local museums, which offered great insight into the once-thriving economy of the region. The first of these was the excellent Head of Steam Railway Museum in Darlington: this houses the original Locomotion, which ran on the inaugural Stockton-and-Darlington railway, and was a fully working engine for thirty years.

Locomotion at the railway museum in Darlington, and the HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool’s marina.

Sue, Tom and Mum at a local Italian restaurant.

The Hartlepool Maritime Experience has as its showpiece the HMS Trincomalee, a fully restored battleship that was built in 1817, and had active service in the Navy for ten years from 1847. It’s an impressive sight (see above), and the tour of the decks was a window into a different era – and a tough environment. The sailors living in the dark and cramped lower deck would have slept in hammocks that were hung just above the dining tables, and owned little that could not be stored in a two-litre duffle bag. There was an odd contrast later in the day with the monks’ dormitory in Durham Cathedral: spartan though this may have been, they at least each had a separate bay to sleep and study in, with copious light and space compared to the sailors.

Healing on the Streets

Over the last few months I’ve been part of the Healing on the Streets team in Stockton. It’s been really good to be part of it from the start, to experience some of the wariness of the local townspeople as to what we’re about, and then to perceive a distinct thaw and greater willingness to receive prayer. One of the first people we prayed with in April was wheelchair bound and suffering from cancer. It seemed a significant moment, but we did not hear from her afterwards. Today she wheeled up to say that she had had a CAT scan a few days previously and was now clear of the tumour! We were concerned that she was not walking yet, so we prayed with her for that. We await further news of how she is doing.

Healing on the Streets

Typical scene for Healing on the Streets: this is from the Vineyard Church in Taunton. Stockton in March, though, was grey and drizzly!

I’ve just been on a training course for Healing on the Streets, run by Stockton Parish Church.  I’d been familiar with it before as it has been running for two or three years back in Cheltenham, and although I did not join it then I was really excited to hear that it is starting up here in the north-east.

The guy doing the training was Mark Marx, who started the movement at the Causeway Coast Vineyard church in Coleraine in 2005. He himself has been a street evangelist for twenty years, but has found this form of ministry to be incredibly powerful and effective. He has personally seen people healed of cancers, those paralysed in wheelchairs able to walk, and blind eyes to see.

I get really excited about ministries like this, where the Kingdom of God visibly breaks onto the high street. However I am aware that not everyone who reads this blog feels the same way, so I thought I’d highlight the “Five distinctive marks” of Healing on the Streets, adapted from the training manual.

  1. The presence of the Holy Spirit – we carry the Holy Spirit wherever we go, and we are totally dependant upon him as we minister.
  2. Peace – we create the place of ministry so that it is a haven of peace in the middle of a bustling environment.
  3. Gentleness – “The streets are full of broken, hurting people. We minister with gentleness and sensitivity” (direct quote from the manual)
  4. Love – we’re empowered by God’s love, not our strength. Whether people are healed or not, we minister and communicate the depth of God’s love.
  5. Compassion – our motivation is for “the lost, hurting and broken… expressed through our words and action”

Avocets on Greenabella Marsh

Prior to the start of the course, I went on a quick birding trip to Greenabella Marsh, near where the seals lounge around at Greatham Creek. I’d heard that the avocets had returned to the area for the summer. I had seen these charismatic waders before as a kid, on a family holiday trip to the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere, so was eager to see them again. I was not disappointed: eight were skimming the water for food, with the smokestacks of Teesside in the background. And if that wasn’t enough, a short-eared owl appeared and flew low over the ground across the marsh.