Team's blog 

Here you will find the latest thoughts from our vicar Mark and other members of the staff team


The Queen's death: a moment of opportunity?

We live in momentous times. The Queen’s death is a unique moment in our national life. While we mourn an extraordinary woman of faith, there are various opportunities which can be grasped at this time of transition.
Our King’s accession to the throne is different from his mother’s in many ways. The Queen was in her twenties; the King is in his seventies. The Queen had only spoken publicly on a few occasions; the King has been a public figure for decades. We did not know what the Queen thought about just about every issue of the day, something that remained true until her death. By contrast we know a good deal about the issues that are important to the new King. When he got frustrated with his pen in public this week, even this outburst of emotion was a contrast to his implacable predecessor. This is not necessarily a bad thing in an age where feelings matter.
We already have some clues as to the approach the King will take. He broadcast to the nation the day after the Queen’s death and has spoken in public several times since. The accession council was televised for the first time. Engagement with the mass media is completely different from the 1950s, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill argued that TV cameras should not be allowed into the Queen’s Coronation. The King’s journey with the media has not been an easy one, but he is acutely aware of how powerfully a message can go around the world in 2022. He has also been adept in working with the mass media. Consider the turnaround in his reputation, and that of his second wife, Queen Consort Camilla, in the decade after the death of Diana, the last Princess of Wales. Few thought our new Queen Consort would ever be accepted by the public, but she has been embraced. This was largely through hard work engaging with the media and the public over many years.
Some Christians have wondered whether faith will play as big a part in the King’s reign as it did in the Queen’s. Church leaders were nervous when Charles proclaimed many years ago that, as King, he would like to be ‘defender of all faiths’ as opposed to his traditional title of ‘Defender of the Faith’. The King’s Christian faith has been evident in many of the things he has said over the last week, but also in his championing of the persecuted church around the world. This is something the Christian press has covered extensively, but which the mainstream press has largely ignored. To ‘defend all faiths’ is not to sideline the church; it is to recognise that Christians are sometimes called upon to stand up for the rights of those of other faiths as well as our own. As people of faith, we may be more sympathetic to the teachings and ethics of Islam or Hinduism than atheists would be.
All of this provides huge opportunities for His Majesty. He can make a difference through the soft power his position wields, although he can no longer speak out in public about the issues that concern him. He seems likely to take a more open, transparent and informal approach to the monarchy; it would not make sense to continue with ‘business as usual’, when so much of this was built around the Queen’s position, personality and experience. He will be influenced by his sons William and Harry in their roles leading the next generation of royalty. As we pray for our new King, we ask God to give him wisdom for all the areas where a new approach will be welcome.
In the run-up to the Queen’s funeral, I have also been praying for our new Prime Minister Liz Truss. As well as facing a very challenging inbox, the Queen died on her third day in post. Gus O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary, recently gave an interview where he remembered David Cameron arriving at 10 Downing Street for the first time, looking joyful as he entered, sitting at his desk and putting his head in his hands. The reality of government and the challenges he faced was beginning to hit home. How much more must this be true for Mrs Truss as she faces the cost of living crisis, the clogged up NHS, unrest among workers and the stalemate over the Brexit settlement in Northern Ireland.
We have to hope that our new Prime Minister can grasp some of the opportunities of this moment. The disruption caused by the Queen’s death has focused everyone’s mind. Strike action has been called off temporarily by postal and railway workers. After committing to spending an eyewatering amount of money to keep people’s energy bills down, might Liz Truss be willing to spend a smaller amount to settle matters with these workers and others who are striking? With an outpouring of public sympathy in Northern Ireland, and support from leaders across the European Union, could a new solution to cross-border trade be found, to reignite the political process there? One comment made about Truss when she took office was that she is someone who is prepared to look for new solutions to old problems, even when those solutions are unorthodox. One of her university tutors remembered her arguing strongly for political positions he had never seen in an undergraduate essay (which is saying something – most tutors have seen just about every argument there is). These issues are complex, but a new energy, a can-do attitude and a willingness to challenge establishment thinking might make just make a difference. Above all, we pray for a renewal of integrity and trust in our government after the many lapses of the last three years.
We also have a new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley. His in-tray includes the appallingly low conviction rate for sexual offences, misogyny and racism in the force and several high-profile cases which have been mishandled. Top of the list this week is the unprecedented security operation around the Queen’s funeral. We need to pray for him and his team as they seek to rebuild trust in the police.
The Queen’s death has also given Christians opportunities to talk about our beliefs. Discussion about Her Majesty’s strong faith has been central to the coverage, and many people are talking about it, as well as prayer for those who mourn. National moments like this tend to focus people’s minds about their own mortality, the losses in their lives and their futures. Pray for opportunities to share your faith with others, and think about how you can talk about the Queen’s faith. The Bible encourages us to pray for everyone with responsibility for our public life. As they appear over these next weeks, do pray for those taking up new responsibilities, for God’s wisdom and courage as they seek to make a positive difference to our society.


Staying the course

This time last year, Arsenal football club was having a shocking start to the football season. After a series of defeats, many were questioning the ability of the relatively new manager Mikel Arteta. Arteta said he had a plan; fans were encouraged to keep the faith and things would turn around eventually. From the relegation zone, things did not look promising.
What a difference a year makes. Although we’re just two weeks into the new season, Arsenal are top of the table with four victories out of four. (No doubt the very act of writing this blog will ensure a swift journey down to mid-table mediocrity!) The point is that Arteta had a plan, which wasn’t obvious to most people watching. Eventually it started to work, and now fans are seeing the benefit. This is sometimes how strategy works – you make hard choices which have what appears initially to be a detrimental impact on your organisation, and it takes time to start to reap the rewards.
We head into the autumn at St Mary of Bethany with a smaller staff team, having said some sad goodbyes. We experience the pain of the changes we have made; we have yet to see many of the benefits. But there is a plan; there is a strategy and we trust that better times are ahead. As a church we understand how vision works. Over the last few years, we have set our vision, spelled out our plans and stuck to them, with God’s help. Now we have a new approach to mission and evangelism thanks to our Associate Vicar, because we planned to appoint her and made the necessary hard choices along the way. We have plans for our building, because we set those as a priority and arranged our church life to ensure this would work. When we make plans prayerfully, in God’s timing he will bring them to fruition. In biblical terms, you cannot reap fruit without first pruning the branches. Often this feels counterintuitive and risky.
If you’re struggling with the changes so far, and you’re uncertain where we’re going or how we’ll get there, reflect on God’s priorities and his timing. If our plans are his plans, then he will help us to realise them. As we begin our whole church consultations on our children’s and youth work this weekend, let’s join together in a spirit of prayerful co-operation in making God’s vision a reality among us.


Coming soon at St Mary of Bethany

Over the next few weeks we will be thinking more about the future of our children’s and youth work, as we look forward to hiring our new Young People’s and Families Co-ordinator. As our volunteers have a break over the summer, it’s a good opportunity to begin to think about next term. Our consultation on the work will enable young people, parents, volunteers and the wider church family to input into the work, so do take part.
Friday Night Club is ON!
Immediately after we announced the changes to the work in July, members of the Friday Night Club team made a strong case for how we could continue this ministry next term. The team has been really willing to help, so we’re delighted to be running FNC in the autumn, starting on Friday 23 September. This positive engagement from team members has made all the difference – we are in a consultation and things are not set in stone.
All-together services - a new approach
Until now, our young people have been in the service on the second Sunday of each month. These services have not always been as appealing for them as they could have been. From September we have a fresh start: a monthly all-together service for all ages, organised by a group which we hope will include all stages of life. Starting with our Commissioning Service at 10.30am on Sunday 4 September, we hope this new approach will be really exciting. If you’d like to be involved, please join us after the 10.30am service on Sunday 21 August in church to start planning.
Consulting about the future
Next term we aim to give everyone plenty of opportunities to think about the future of our work with young people. We’ll be having a monthly tea on the first Sunday of each month at 3.30pm in church, so do put these in your diary now. We begin on 4 September and will be joined by Emma Coy, Diocesan Mission Enabler for Children, who will help us think about our big picture vision of intergenerational work and how this might work in our context. Do join us if you can.
We are also having an away day for our church council (PCC) at the beginning of September. We’ll be thinking about all our ministries, aiming to map out what we do – those things which are entry-level (like Bethany Babes, CAMEO, FNC and the Chills), and looking at where the next steps might be for people in all of our ministries. We aim to prioritise new ministries when we don’t yet have obvious next steps for people to take, so that we can be really intentional about the journey we would like to see people take towards a relationship with Jesus.
Hiring someone new
We will begin the process of hiring a new Young People’s and Families Co-ordinator at the end of August. This post will help us to draw together our work for 0-18-year-olds, to think about all our ministries in an intergenerational way and being intentional about the journey we want our young people to take from birth to the beginning of adulthood. We aim to have someone in place in time to start in January. Do watch out for the advertisement and pray that we will find just the right person.
I hope this gives you a good sense of our direction of travel for all of these ministries. Please keep praying for all of our young people and families. If you’d like to talk to someone about the work, do get in touch with Mark, Bekah or Sarah T directly.


Responding to questions about our new approach to young people's work

After we announced our changes to the work with young people and families at St Mary of Bethany, we've had lots of conversations, including our main one after Sunday's service. Here are some thoughts on the issues which have been raised. Please do continue to pray about the work and take the opportunity to have your say. The clergy, wardens and PCC are all available to talk, so do contact any of them directly for a conversation. We are having tea in church on Sunday 4 September 3.30pm for young people, parents, team members and the wider congregation to talk more about our plans.

Why have the young people and leaders not been consulted about the changes?
Dealing with employment issues is very hard to navigate, and it is important to consult the staff members concerned in confidence before doing this more widely. We are consulting young people, parents and leaders now, which was always the plan. As we’ve reviewed the children’s and youth work, it has been clear from the start that there might be an impact on our staff. We have consulted a range of church leaders, specialists in children’s and youth work, and church members (informally). As a church we want to put the voices of our children, young people and parents at the heart of things, shaping the work going forward. We will be listening to them and taking their thoughts and ideas on board.
Can you give us more details about the future shape of the work?
Having a detailed plan at this stage would mean we don’t have space to consult with everyone properly, especially the young people. We have heard the same people feeding back that we haven’t consulted widely enough, but also saying we are not giving them enough detail of what the work will look like; but these things can’t happen simultaneously. We need to consult in order to shape the work.
If we don’t run FNC and Barnsbury Fun Club next term, how will be avoid losing touch with all those children?
We’ve already had strong feedback from some of the FNC team about the value of keeping the group going if we can, so we are exploring this for next term and we will do our best to achieve this. We will be in contact with all those involved to work out how these groups go forward.
We are going from having three specialist staff to one, covering all ages. Will this be a specialist and what will we do about gaps in their experience?
Having fewer specialist staff will not mean that we lack specialist skills and experience, both on the staff team and among our volunteers. The trend in young people’s work is to see more people working across all ages and this is reflected if you look at whom churches are hiring. On our role description, we list skills and qualities which are essential and ones which are desirable. The person we hire will undoubtedly be someone who has skills and experience in children’s and youth work. No single candidate is likely to have absolutely everything we want, so we will provide training to fill in the gaps. This is completely normal practice when you hire staff; it is our experience at St Mary’s in the past, and that of peers in other churches.
How will things run with fewer staff?
Things will be a bit different, and our next term will be a chance to try new things. This is usual when staff leave. The fact that groups at SMOB have generally been run by a staff member doesn’t mean they have to be. Many other churches of our size and smaller have fewer, or no paid staff, and the work is covered by volunteers. Bigger churches also rely on volunteers, for example it may come as a surprise that Welcome Church does not have a specialist youth worker on its staff.
Where will you find new volunteers?
We recognise that many of our volunteers cannot do more, and the majority of our church members serve in at least one ministry. But we also trust that, when God is calling us to do something, he gives us the resources to do it. As a result of this process we already have some new volunteers. Some of our teams require a greater commitment than others; a group like Bethany Babes builds solid relationships week by week, so the team is always the same, whereas our Sunday morning helpers need to be able to worship in services as well as serving. This gives us a variety of shapes of ministry and potential commitment levels for leaders and helpers which we can explore. We have some experienced leaders across all our ministries (not just youth/children’s) who may be prepared either to be involved more regularly or to step up into leadership. Ironically, sometimes having paid staff can inhibit volunteers from taking a lead, because there is a sense that it is the paid worker’s job to lead. One of the great strengths of this ministry is that we have volunteers of all ages now, which gives us strong foundations for growth.
Is this simply a finance driven decision?
No. Finance is important, but our wider vision is more key to this decision. Nothing I say is a criticism of our staff, who have done a great job. However, we need to face the fact that our children’s and youth work has slowly but steadily lost people over the last 5–10 years, with families leaving in the last couple of years, and a history of young people opting out in their mid-teens, all for a variety of reasons which cannot be put at our team's door. This has been a major concern of our families; whilst it is important to voice your concerns, it’s also key to bring constructive suggestions of what we can do about it. If we don’t do things differently, how will we turn the tide? Attendees at our younger children’s group on a Sunday can regularly be counted on one hand, but we have had two staff members available to work with them; this is not something we can ignore if we want to grow.
How does our vision speak to our work in this way?
In the autumn our PCC will consider the different pathways people have to the centre of church life. We have several activities which anyone can come to, such as Bethany Babes, FNC and CAMEO. For each of them, we want to map what activities people can move on to, to take the next step. We could be much more intentional about helping people to take these next steps, but all of the teams need to know what the options are. One of the reasons FNC does not work as well as it could do in this regard, is that we don’t have ministries into which members can transition. Young people aged 11 are not in a position to come to something more ‘churchy’, without their parents being involved; there is the potential to shape new ministry to meet this need. We hope to become much more joined up missionally, to see all kinds of people move through our ministries to become full members of the body of Christ here. Our current team has done good work in this area, with the February Chill, the Barnsbury Hope weeks, Community Day and many other things, so we have a lot to build on.
Our worship is not particularly compelling for our young people, but you’re suggesting being all together more regularly. How will you make this work?
By having a team including all ages coordinating the services. We hope that bringing more people together to spark ideas and share resources will make these services really special. A number of us have seen this work really well in other churches with fewer resources than us. Working intergenerationally does not just mean all being together; it means working in a different way, and our new staff member will help us to explore this. We'll be getting a team together to organise our all-together worship over the summer; please speak to Mark, Bekah or Sarah T if you would like to be part of it.
The new role sounds quite junior – what will they be doing?
Our new Young People’s and Families Co-ordinator will be a pioneering role, taking a lead in integrating our ministry with young people and families within our church life and developing a culture of intergenerational discipleship and outreach ministry. While they will not be managing other staff (which makes it a junior role compared to our current Youth Minister post), they will be working across the whole church family and overseeing all of our ministries in this area. We’ll be publishing the job description soon and the role will be advertised at the end of the summer.


Questions about our new approach to young people's and families work

We have just announced to our church members a new approach to our work with young people and families. I’ve sent a letter to everyone on our mailing list giving the details, but there are bound to be plenty of questions. Here are some we have heard over the last few months; this post will be updated as people ask more things in the coming weeks.
‘Intergenerational’ is a buzz word in this new vision. What does it mean?
Intergenerational work is defined as:

  • Every generation seen as a valuable and active part of the church family whether gathering in age-specific groups or connecting together.
  • To not only welcome and include all generations but have a culture of connecting and forming together. 

Our work with young people and families is core to who we are at St Mary of Bethany. An intergenerational approach is about enriching the work and making sure it is owned by the whole church. This doesn’t mean that we stop doing groups for specific ages and stages of life. Rather it means that we develop these groups alongside all of our other ministries, to work together and give opportunities to be served by, and to serve the wider church. Churches which do this well foster strong relationships between senior adults and young children, families, young adults and singles. This brings a richness to our whole church life, where older people are more invested in our youth and young people benefit from the full range of people in our family. The church is uniquely placed to foster these relationships, as it is a set of people of all different ages and stages of life united by our shared faith. There are few other organisations which embrace diversity in this way.
Are you reducing the level of work with young people?
Young people and families are central to our vision for St Mary’s. But if we are moving from having the equivalent of two full-time staff to one, how can this not mean a reduction in what we have on offer? Well, none of St Mary’s ministries relies only on employed staff to keep going. It’s our ministry teams which contribute a large amount of the work, both leaders and helpers. At the same time our team has included in its workload the equivalent of a 40% staff post working mainly outside the parish in schools and chaplaincies. Cutting back on this work helps us to focus fully on our core work at church, in local schools and with Engage. Many smaller churches do most or all their work with young people without employing staff.
We hope to retool our work with a new Young People’s and Families Co-ordinator raising up and training leaders and helpers, but not running all our groups directly. Over the last five years we have reworked our pastoral and worship ministry, which both operate effectively without dedicated staff members, and neither do less than they did before. We hope to see more people on teams taking responsibility together for our work with young people and families. Ultimately we hope this will lead to more work with all ages, not less.
Where will new volunteers come from?
In common with other churches, it is always a challenge to find enough volunteers to run our young people’s work. It’s clear from conversations with parents that many feel exhausted after Covid. Juggling work and parenting is demanding, and it is not feasible to ask them to do more for our ministry. However, others in church life have had a break from ministry during Covid, and we have seen new people joining our church family who are looking to get involved. When God gives us a vision to do something, he gives us the resources to do it too. If you don’t have the time or energy to help, there will be others who do.
How can one person work right across 0-18-year-olds?
Churches are seeing increasing numbers of workers covering all ages of young people. At the same time, it is hard to justify having full-time, specialist workers for both children and youth in a church of our size. The trend in churches is to see workers covering all ages as well as specialist workers; the advice we have from other church leaders and from Guildford Diocese is that our new post is realistic in terms of the skills and qualities we are seeking.
If money is a driver, shouldn’t the church family have been asked to contribute before staff were made redundant?
While finance was an important part of the picture, our overall vision to shape intergenerational work across our church is a more significant reason for change. As a rule in churches, money follows vision. We would have felt uncomfortable asking our congregation for a very substantial uptick in financial giving without a compelling new vision for the work.
At the same time, our Finance Team calculated that the level of increased giving needed was much greater than we have ever seen at St Mary’s in a single year. Making this appeal would have exposed us to the risk of exhausting our financial reserves and having to make redundancies under duress if we did not succeed in raising the money. Praying into this, we did not feel a sense that this was the direction in which God was calling us to go. We concluded that a new approach with a reduced staff footprint was a better solution for us than to try to keep going with the status quo.
We have also done a lot of work to reduce our other costs. For example, we have decided not to apply for another curate, saving the money we would spend renting a home for them. We have negotiated hard to get the most competitive energy supplier, and we are improving our energy efficiency and installing photovoltaic panels as part of our ‘Heart of Mount Hermon’ building project.
Do take the opportunity to talk about our changes after the 11am service this Sunday 10 July and over tea, 3.30pm Sunday 4 September, or make a time to see Mark, Bekah or Sarah for a confidential one-to-one conversation.


Finding connections to the gospel

Every now and then I take a look at recent film, TV, books and popular culture, to see how Christians can think about the underlying values depicted and make connections to the gospel. Here’s my latest scout around the world of entertainment.
The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
This emotionally loaded western won its director Jane Campion the Academy Award for Best Director this year. Note the very modern themes at the heart of the film: hidden homosexuality and addiction. There is revenge and resolution, salvation (up to a point) but no redemption. As with Campion’s previous film The Piano, the film celebrates the beauty of creation and lingers over its wonderful landscapes. You could argue that the characters are all reaching for something which they can’t find in themselves – in short, they are in desperate need of a saviour!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)
Another beautifully constructed western, this time an anthology of loosely connected short stories delivered with the Coen brothers’ trademark wit and lightness of touch, and a terrific cast. There is eccentricity, fun and variety in the rich storytelling and plenty to catch the eye: a dog that won’t stop barking, a travelling Shakespearian actor with no legs, an elderly prospector who strikes gold. The characters embrace life in all its fragility and colour; there is rough justice, violence, occasional tenderness and a thin line between life and death. It’s worth reflecting on who the heroes and villains are, what they do and how this is portrayed. The film portrays the hope of a better life which propelled the wild west, and the hard work which goes with it.
Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
A thoroughly enjoyable disaster movie with an all-star cast including Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. A planet-destroying meteor is spotted hurtling towards Earth, propelling the scientists who spot it into celebrity, even as the governments of the world do a lot of talking and little doing. The film takes aim at many of the features of our culture: virtue signalling, social media, instant celebrity, cynicism about government; with obvious parallels to the climate crisis. Again, the question at its heart is, ‘Who will save us?’ and the film concludes that it is beyond humanity’s power to save ourselves.
Gentleman Jack (BBC1)
Costume drama gets a modern twist in this adaptation of the nineteenth-century diaries of Anne Lister, one of the first women to write frankly about her lesbianism. Now in its second series, the show majors on very current themes of identity and sexuality, the message at its heart being a celebration of ‘Gentleman Jack’, as Lister was nicknamed. Viewers are encouraged to embrace who you are, to live without shame and to follow your own path. As the Industrial Revolution takes off, the forces of tradition are seen as negative and reactionary: the fusty old men who get it wrong, pitted against the witty woman who gets it right. You could reflect on the real-life implications of some of this thinking (the celebration of the self, the rejection of the old-fashioned), and the extent to which this drama is a true reflection of the events of the time.
How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie (Borough Press)
A thoroughly entertaining, darkly comic revenge story of a young woman, the abandoned love child of a prominent businessman, who sets out to kill his whole family. The characters and dialogue ring true and it’s a thumping good read. At its heart are themes of identity, justice and retribution; it’s worth reflecting on the choices our heroine makes and how she justifies herself. Where do these take her and what alternatives does she have?
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin)
An unusual novel, in that it is not a single narrative but a set of different ones, where each lead character is connected to the others. It tackles a wide variety of issues around modern femininity: identity, sexuality, sexism, transgender, race, education, feminism and more, without feeling worthy or preachy. The characters are wonderfully well-written and the way it all folds together is ingenious. Readers may like to think about the assumptions behind the characters; who is portrayed positively and who negatively? Who do you find yourself rooting for and why? Again, what alternative choices are available?
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)
Another cracking read centred around strong female characters. Reading it made me realise how little mainstream fiction has a young, female, black voice; this may account for its rapturous critical response. It’s not for the fainthearted, with some strong sexual and violent content. The journey of the main character is interesting: her gradual path towards understanding herself is explored sensitively. It’s worth thinking about how Queenie experiences herself and the actions of the men in the novel. Is her journey rather idealised given where she starts off? How might a Christian character make a difference (say, a Christian friend)?
Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV (BBC Sounds)
I binge-listened the ten hours of this podcast – it’s absolutely fascinating and well worth it if you want to understand how reality TV has shaped our popular culture and society. The presenters do a deep dive into everything from Big Brother to Love Island, the Kardashians, What Not to Wear and The Only Way is Essex. Don’t underestimate how influential this genre has been, as it affects young people’s expectations of life, helped to create our fame culture and holds out often unrealistic portrayals of what is an ideal body or lifestyle. It’s worth reflecting on how absent the Christian voice is in this world; what difference might whole-hearted engagement with our mass media make for our churches? Is it time for a different approach from just avoiding the perceived immorality of some of these shows?
Teach Me a Lesson (BBC Sounds)
Bella Mackie’s been busy; as well as writing, she’s done a podcast with her husband, DJ and broadcaster Greg James. This irresistible listen sees them getting lessons in every school subject from a real teacher on subjects as varied as the manipulation of images (computing), whether a human being could actually get super powers (biology) and whether advertising can be art (er…art). The BBC’s traditional mission statement is to educate, entertain and inform; this is a great example of one programme doing all three things. Christian thinking gets a look-in too. Our presenters are models of what it means to be teachable: open to new ideas, positive and fun. Churchgoing Christians can take a leaf out of their book!
The Joker (Warner Bros)
A violent, gritty but also thought-provoking portrayal of a man on the edge in a city on the edge. It evokes its setting very well (effectively 1970s New York) and Joaquin Phoenix gives an extraordinary performance. You could consider who might provide a light in the dark places the film portrays – what might a more positive approach to mental illness look like, when the state is limited by funds and personnel? Are we prisoners of our past or can it be redeemed?
The Batman (Warner Bros)
The latest version of the DC Comics hero sees Robert Pattinson battling the Riddler in a very dark Gotham City – literally dark throughout – I was desperate for someone to turn the lights on by the end! Long but gripping, with a variety of interesting actors in supporting roles. There are themes of what it means to follow the crowd or stand out, power, responsibility and choice. What is Batman’s code and how does he conduct himself? Who is Jesus in this story?


Our church at the centre of the community

What a wonderful time we had at our Platinum Jubilee street party last Sunday! Over the afternoon we saw around 250 people. We ate, talked, prayed and sang together, helped enthusiastically by the wonderful Caroline and Katherine from Inter-generational Music Making. (They should have their own podcast surely?) We said thank you for our Queen and for many other things too. We even gave away food via our Community Store Cupboard, supported by our partners at Morrison’s. It was fantastic to work with a team of around 80 helpers – thank you so much to everyone who played their part. As always with big events, there was huge value in our working together on the day, and building relationships across and beyond the church family in the weeks and months leading up to it. In a first for me, I donned a hair net (the most redundant one ever?) to open cans of tuna. The sight of our team making sandwiches that morning was delightful to behold.
The guests I spoke to were very appreciative of the event and the feeling of community it engendered. One of our youngest visitors was just two weeks old – it was her first big event. Her parents voted at church in May and were invited then. Others remembered our outdoor Carols in the Community last Christmas, and were quick to make sure we're repeating it this year. Several people asked what we would do this time next year. This is steadily developing our reputation as a church without walls, reaching out to our local community and working in dialogue with them about how we can help people effectively. Do share the conversations you had and encourage each other.
Our Associate Vicar Bekah heads up our mission and evangelism. Her vision is to run a big Christmas event and something over the summer every year. Clearly there’s a lot of demand for Carols in the Community to be an annual event. This year we have the added blessing that the Sunday before Christmas sees the World Cup final (18 December, kick-off 3pm). We televised England games during the last World Cup, and this was well-received by our community – having a large, safe space to watch the games on our big screens was appreciated. With England aiming high this year, how can we make the most of this opportunity? How might it work logistically, since fixtures beyond the first round depend on results? It may seem crazy to think about Christmas, but we’ll be planning our services at the very beginning of the autumn term, so do share your ideas now.
One thing that came up in conversation several times on election day was the idea of using the church for co-working space. Many of the younger people in our parish are working from home, often in small spaces in shared flats. I heard of someone whose desk was their ironing board! One person I spoke to was in a block of flats where the cladding is being removed, so there wasn’t any natural light at home. Another had been funded to work in one of the paid co-working spaces in town during Covid, but her company has withdrawn that now. If she wants a change of scene, she needs to sit in a café, but the cost of hot drinks eats into her income if she’s there all day. Part of our vision for the development of our building is to provide space where people can come and work, including a café in our creche. This could give people the opportunity for a change of air and some social time in their working day. Do we really need to wait for our refurbishment to do something about this? We have the space and the wifi now; we could open the worship space and have tea and coffee at particular times without too much difficulty…
Do pray about these opportunities, and pray into our relationships with those in our parish who don’t yet relate to us as a church. If you feel the nudge to get involved with any of the things I’ve talked about, or something I haven’t, please let us know.


How we do vision at church

Vicar Mark writes:
As we navigate a season of change at church, one thing I’m being asked is how we’re formulating our vision. Having talked about this at our annual church meeting, here are some thoughts.
When I first started here in 2017, the church had done a lot of work on vision, to write a thorough Parish Profile and Statement of Needs, to explain what the church was like and what they wanted from their new Vicar. So my job was to work out how we would begin to fulfil the vision we had. During that first year, as I worked with the team, I had to face the fact that the role of Worship Minister wasn’t really working any more. This was something I noticed and worked on for some months before we made the post redundant. In that case the vision was something which came out of my own work and prayer, beginning to get to grips with the implications of the vision formulated by the church community during the vacancy.
Since then, we’ve revisited our vision twice to formulate a new two-year plan, most recently in March this year. Each time, this vision process has involved more people, more closely. This time, vision was discussed among the staff team, the Leadership Vision Team and the PCC (church council), and then we consulted the congregation on the idea of having a set of SMOB values.
The current review of our children’s and youth work has been a corporate process. It came out of extensive discussion at PCC and a small group tasked by them has been praying, talking to people both inside and outside the church and moving forward with ideas and plans. One way the Holy Spirit works is by putting wisdom in his people – we receive this wisdom by talking and listening prayerfully to each other.
For myself, the vision process is rooted in my own spirituality; an ongoing conversation with God in my daily quiet times and my monthly quiet days, in prayer with colleagues inside and outside the church. When I pray, I always set aside time to be silent and listen to God. I’ve often felt some anxiety about not knowing where our final destination for this work will be; what God says to me consistently is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and he’ll show us the way forward. I think God is telling us that he is in the process, showing us the way together. There is immense wisdom in the church family and those in the Diocese and wider Christian community whom we speak to. He also wants to give confidence to those who are feeling uncomfortable or uncertain.
So vision is rooted in staying close to God and seeking his voice expressed in the Bible, in personal prayer and in the wisdom of the church. As all of us are part of this work, I would ask you to pray and seek his wisdom in our vision for St Mary of Bethany going forward. We continue our review of young people’s work, and will be beginning to consult with the staff and wider ministry team and the wider church about specific plans in the next few weeks.
One of our church members had a picture in worship a couple of weeks ago. In it, rose petals were descending from the sky on to people, with the words, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ This speaks for itself: God is in this time and our work.


Our plans for children's and youth work

Change is in the air for our work with families, children and young people. Our Young Families Minister Tina Thomas retires in May after twelve years at the helm of this fantastic ministry. We now have plans for the immediate future of our work at Bethany Babes and we are also developing a new vision for the whole of this ministry.
Our parent and toddler group Bethany Babes has been a mainstay of our work with young families for 40 years. Staff will continue to lead the group through the summer until we have someone permanent in place. Vicar Mark will lead the Tuesday group and Associate Vicar Bekah the Wednesday group, both assisted by Curate Sarah. Our clergy are really excited to be doing this frontline work for a season and we hope the families and teams involved will see this as a vote of confidence. We will also continue to support the BBs community online, part of the work which has become increasingly important. Both teams could do with one or two more helpers; if this might be you, even just for this season, please contact Mark, Bekah, Sarah or Tina.
We have also been busy reviewing our vision for work with families, children and young people. We aim to develop a truly ‘intergenerational’ community, where children are fully part of our church life, contributing to the body of the church and being supported along with their families. Children and families will be at the centre of our work, rather than being taken away from much of church life always to be dealt with in separate groups. Our first priority will be to retool our Sundays, developing new ways of being together – perhaps sometimes all together, sometimes in groups, sometimes with families. Then we will build out to focus on discipleship, thinking about groups for each age and new ways of supporting families.  
We want to ensure that all this work happens in the body of the church family, supported by the whole staff team and visible to everyone. There will be less of a ‘siloed’ approach to this ministry, where groups happen in their own bubble, out of sight and away from many church members. This vision is part of the wider vision for St Mary of Bethany, so will be shared across the staff team and the whole of our church life. We aim to work together much more effectively to deliver it. Just as you will see our clergy helping with Bethany Babes this summer, you can expect to see the whole team pitching in across our work with children, young people and families going forward.
It’s important to face up to the challenge: even before Covid our work with children and young people had not grown for several years. There are new ways of doing this ministry which are proving highly effective in other local settings. Making change happen is challenging. We will need to let go of some established ministries and ways of being which have served us well over the years, but which have reached their sell-by date. The shape of our teams is likely to change, to enable more people to take responsibility for the work. As leaders we encounter a fair amount of fear of change in our church family. We want our ministry to bring many families from the fringe of church life into the centre. We have many of those connections already; just look at the number who attended February’s SMOB Chill. There are plenty of families, children and young people in our area who would think of themselves as members of St Mary’s, but for whom Sundays and many of our groups don’t connect. If we can get the vital building blocks in the right place, we can deliver work which is really compelling.
Please pray for all our leaders, families and young people as we continue to work out our vision and plan as a church.


Justice matters in Kyiv, Dover and Hackney

I am really enjoying reading our Lent book, Embracing Justice by Isabelle Hamley. This week it could hardly be more obvious how important justice is.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine violated the long-established principle of international law, that nation states are entitled to peaceful coexistence within their agreed borders. The massive international outcry is motivated by a strong sense of the injustice of the situation. Ordinary people have been well ahead of their governments in wanting to offer help in whatever way they can – this is true here in the UK, but Ukraine’s nearer neighbours, notably Poland, have acted with admirable speed and humanity after many years of anti-immigrant sentiment from some of their leaders.
P&O’s sacking of 800 workers has shocked many people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has spoken out against it on behalf of the Church of England. Employment laws appear to have been ignored entirely and employees treated shockingly badly. The law demands that employers treat their employees fairly and reasonably when they make changes. P&O has agreements in place with unions to avoid exactly this kind of scenario. If major multinational companies can do things so badly, we have to pray that they will put things right quickly or be made to by the courts.
In the face of these major news stories, you could be forgiven for missing the scandalous story of Child Q, a 15-year-old black schoolgirl from Hackney, who was taken out of a school exam and strip-searched for cannabis by two female police officers, without her parents being informed. When nothing was found, Q was returned to complete her exam without any contact from a teacher. Unsurprisingly, she was traumatised by the experience. Schools are at the forefront of educating children about their rights; how can things have gone so badly wrong for this vulnerable child?
The Bible puts justice at the very centre of God’s heart for people. Time and time again, God expresses his concern for the most vulnerable in society: typically referred to as the poor, widows, orphans – those who would have been unable to support themselves in the ancient world. Christians care about fairness, whether for a whole nation, a set of employees or a single child. We care because we believe that every human being is made in the image of God; when one is harmed, it impacts on all. When we allow, enable or ignore injustice, we diminish God’s image in us and become dehumanised.
If you’re not already reading Embracing Justice, I recommend it heartily, along with the urgent need to pray and stand up for justice whenever you see wrongdoing.

Our Lent course on Embracing Justice continues on Thursdays at 1pm on Zoom via the link emailed with our notices.

Churches Together in Woking are praying for Ukraine in Jubilee Square, 7pm Wednesday 23 March.



Some thoughts on the shape of church services    

With worshippers at our services now able to decide whether or not to wear a mask, we continue to encourage everyone back to worshipping in person. We will continue to live stream services to include those who can’t get to us on Sunday, and this also provides an excellent way for people to check us out – this has become the norm for newcomers now. Live-streaming is no substitute for being fully part of our church family though. Church is best experienced in person, where you can more easily build relationships and grow in faith together with others.
As part of our new two-year plan, we’re going to have a ‘service pattern review’, to think about whether the shape of our services meets our needs and those of people who would like to join us. Our current pattern does not suit everyone. Some of our older people struggle to get to our 9.15am service, because it’s early. Many families have sporting or other commitments on a Sunday morning. We used to run Messy Church on a Sunday afternoon at Barnsbury School; maybe it’s time to revisit it in our own building? It was hard work back then; other churches are seeing real fruit from using a more sustainable model. At our Chill last month we saw 100 people in church on a Sunday afternoon, many of them families we have connections with, but who don’t normally come to church.
With all of this said, our current pattern has a lot to recommend it. It is much easier to cater for worshippers who connect best with a liturgical service and those who thrive on contemporary worship in two different services. We do not have strong boundaries between our services; most St Mary of Bethany members identify as church members rather than attendees at whichever service they go to, and there’s a lot of crossover. On a busy week pre-Covid, we would struggle to fit all our worshippers into a single service.
There was something really significant about us gathering at a single service through Covid. This is our usual pattern through the summer and over the Sundays around Christmas. To make it a slightly more regular event, we’ve decided to have a single 10.30am service where there is a fifth Sunday in the month, roughly four times a year. Our next ones are on 29 May, then 31 July (and throughout August as usual) and 30 October. These all have the advantage of falling within school holidays this year.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been so encouraged by being in a band with different people, some I haven’t played with for many months; others who are serving this way for the first time. It’s been wonderful to see people coming back week by week. If you’ve yet to come back, can I encourage you? We miss you! You will bless others by being here, and you will be blessed yourself. So many people have said things like, ‘I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after being away; it was better than I thought.’ If you’ve stepped back from serving, now is a good moment to step into something new as well. We’re planning to have at least one opportunity to socialise every month from now through the summer – here are the dates:
14 April 6pm Maundy Thursday Community Meal
15 May Tina Thomas’s leaving do
5 June 1pm Platinum Jubilee celebration
10 July Tea at the Vicarage
Spread the word: we’re here in person every week and we hope you’ll join us.


Pray for Ukraine

The events of the last few days in Ukraine have appalled the world. The invasion of a democratic country by its powerful neighbour is a violation of the United Nations Charter and every international norm. Christians of every denomination stand together in condemning Russia’s aggression and praying for the people of Ukraine. We pray too for all those Ukrainians and Russians living in Britain, particularly those here in Woking, understanding that, for many Russians, these actions are not being done in their name.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called on us to set aside tomorrow as a day of prayer, and this will be the focus of our services at 9.15 and 11am. They have also joined with Pope Francis in supporting a global day of prayer and fasting this Ash Wednesday, 2 March. We have a Holy Communion service at 10am that morning, and resources have been sent to small groups meeting that evening.

In a statement, our Archbishops wrote, ‘This attack is an act of evil, imperilling as it does the relative peace and security that Europe has enjoyed for so long.

‘The attack by one nation on a free, democratic country has rightly provoked outrage, sanctions, and condemnation.  

‘We lament with the people of Ukraine, and we pray for the innocent, the frightened and those who have lost loved ones, homes, and family.  

‘We continue to call for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces as well as wide-ranging efforts to ensure peace, stability and security.’

The Church of England’s Bishop in Europe, Robert Innes, whose sister worships at St Mary’s, spoke of the congregation of Christ Church, Kyiv, Ukraine. ‘Our little church in Kyiv are right at the centre of this crisis,’ he explained. 

‘Some of them have fled the city by car, others are still there. 

‘These are our people, our brothers and sisters, and of course we are very concerned for their wellbeing and safety. 

‘In the face of military action and aggression, we feel powerless. What can we do? One thing that we can all do is pray.’

We pray with our Archbishops:
God of peace and justice,
we pray for the people of Ukraine today.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk and in fear,
that you would hold and protect them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.


Live-streaming our services: an update

Before Christmas we surveyed our congregations to find out how people are using our live-streamed services. Thank you to the 33 people who responded. Using YouTube means we have no way of knowing exactly who is watching our services at any given time, other than the overall number. We continue to have 20-30 devices connected each Sunday; if you take a rough estimate that each one has 1.5 people watching it, then perhaps we have 40 extra people present, plus more who watch the service (or part of it) back afterwards. That’s a substantial number of people.
The results of our survey are not scientific, but they are informative. Our of our 33 responses:

  • 11 live-streamed one service in the last four weeks. (33%)
  • 11 live-streamed two. (33%)
  • 6 live-streamed three. (18%)
  • 3 live-streamed four. (10%)
  • 2 did not say how many they streamed. 

Asked what their main reason for joining was:

  • 15 said, ‘I couldn’t go to physical church that week but can normally.’ (45%)
  • 5 said, ‘I enjoy worshipping from home rather than going to physical church.’ (15%)
  • 4 said, ‘I can’t go to physical church for reasons of disability, etc.’ (12%) 
  • 31 of our responders have joined us at physical church (94%); 2 have not (6%).

We asked for comments about the live-stream.

  • 9 people (27%) said something about live-streaming giving them the option to attend when they’re unwell or unable to attend physically for another reason.
  • 4 people (12%) commented negatively on the sound quality of the music on live-streamed services, with one (3%) arguing that we should stop live-streaming and insist people attend in person.
  • 4 people (12%) said that live-streamed services help them to feel part of the church community.
  • 2 people (6%) argued for a single 10.30am service rather than our two current services.
  • 1 person (3%) said they had just moved to the area and really enjoyed finding out what our services offer. 

What next for live-streaming?
(1) For now, we’re going to continue live-streaming one service per week. With the Covid pandemic continuing, we recognise that not everyone can get to church every week. We’ll continue with our current pattern of streaming the 11am service except for the second Sunday of the month, when it will be the 9.15am.

(2) We need to recognise that there are people on our live-stream who can’t get to physical church. Some of these people have felt much more included in our church life since we started live-streaming. We will exclude them if we stop live-streaming.

(3) We need to recognise the difficulty of getting a good sound balance both in the building and on a live-stream. Other local churches are finding just the same tension. To do this well, you need a separate sound desk in another room. We are exploring other ways to improve the sound and are in conversation with other churches on this. It’s interesting that only 12% of our respondents mentioned this; it is a tension which is harder to resolve than you might think. (It also doesn’t necessarily follow that people visiting our church via live-stream don’t like the sound of our music; we need to be careful before we assume what visitors notice about us.)

(4) We’re going to have a ‘Service Pattern Review’ as part of our plan for the next two years. As a team we’ve heard strong views in favour of the traditional 9.15am service, the united 10.30am service and the contemporary 11am service. Our current service pattern has stood the test of time, but this ‘rebuilding’ season is a good time to review and think about our options. (And this is, of course, nothing to do with live-streaming!)

(5) None of this is set in stone. We’re in a brave new world, church-wise. We will continue to keep our live-streaming under review. Do talk to any of the clergy about this at any time.


Archbishop Tutu and dealing with difference

The recent death of one of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has made me think about how we handle difference in the church. Tutu was a man of uncommon gifts. He had an infectious sense of humour and an instinctive ability to bring people together. He was able to connect with people with whom he disagreed strongly on all sorts of issues. During apartheid he was an unstinting campaigner against its injustices in South Africa. As the country emerged into democracy, he made his brainchild, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, work. He managed this through his partnership with President Nelson Mandela, but also his insistence that all of us share a common humanity; that we are made in the image of God and can find grace and forgiveness in him and each other, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
Most of you will know that the Church of England is thinking about issues of identity and sexuality through its project Living in Love and Faith (LLF). I’ve been working as the Guildford Diocese Advocate for the project as it’s been rolled out to parishes. Desmond Tutu and I would have disagreed about some of these issues; he was theologically liberal and wanted to revise the church’s teaching, whereas I take a conservative view theologically. Yet I have no doubt that, if we had ever met and talked about it all, we would have laughed a lot, enjoyed the discussion and departed as friends. Dealing with difference depends on the character and choices of the people involved: you need to choose to love the person and engage with the tension you feel.
At its heart LLF is a project about how we handle difference better as a church. As anyone who has done the LLF course will know, the issues it covers touch each of us very personally. Being British, many of us find it very difficult to talk openly about identity and sexuality. But when we do allow ourselves to be vulnerable, listen to each other without judgement and accept that we won’t be able to change the other person’s mind, we can find a richness in our diversity. It’s been very moving to hear about so many people within the Church of England going miles out of their comfort zone to engage with these issues; it’s also been a costly exercise for many, especially those dealing with past hurts done at the hands of fellow Christians.
No one agrees with anyone else about everything one hundred per cent of the time. What a boring world it would be if we did! We know that we can love and appreciate people who are very different from us. At St Mary of Bethany I have heard a full range of political views expressed on the issues of the day. We can only engage with each other properly if we take the time and trouble to listen to and understand views different from our own. This is why churches stand up for freedom of religion and expression: we may find some people’s views abhorrent, but we recognise that any curb on freedom of speech will impact on our ability to say things which might offend some people. In my role as LLF Advocate, one of the most dispiriting things I've heard from church leaders is, 'I know what my church thinks about this' (said by someone who has had no recent conversations on these issues). Every church contains a wide range of views, life experiences and people who have never shared their stories, because they don't feel safe to do so. Who would be bold enough to claim that we are all of one mind on such personal issues?
The gospel is good news for our world, but it can be hard to take. Jesus was not afraid to challenge and often caused offence, particularly to those in power. He met people just where they were, but encouraged them not to stay there. His parting shot to the woman caught in adultery, whose life he had just saved, was, ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ (John 8:11) In public he forced her accusers to look at themselves (‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’ John 8:7b); when they were alone, he refused to condemn her, but told her to change her ways.
I spent a few weeks in South Africa after its first democratic election in 1994. What united all the South Africans I met was their deep love for their country and their hope for a better, fairer future. In Desmond Tutu they had a leader who could hold their differences well, without denying the pain of their experiences or the strength of their feelings. Too often Christians have been determined to hold a stance on an issue, ignoring the human beings in the picture. We have valued truth over grace; in our faith, both are necessary, but one cannot survive in isolation from the other. Without truth, we affirm anything and everything, and our faith becomes meaningless. Without grace, we fail to look at our own sins before zeroing in on those of others, and we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves.
As we near the end of the LLF process (as your Advocate I am obliged to tell you that the deadline for feedback via the website is 30 April and then it will be over to General Synod in July), pray with me that we will continue to learn how to handle our differences better.
God of grace and truth,
give us both these gifts in their full measure,
that we may be the hands and feet of Jesus to everyone we meet.
Help us to be more like Desmond Tutu:
people who embrace others and love across the divides.
In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Amen.



New Year, new spiritual regime?

As a former book publisher, I am always entertained by the selection of ‘New Year – new you’ books which hit the shelves immediately after Christmas. Which celebrities will help you be more mindful, eat more healthily or start a new exercise regime this January?
Now that I’m a church leader, it’s my role to call you to something even more lasting: to go deeper in your relationship with Jesus in 2022. For Christians everywhere, a daily discipline of Bible reading and prayer is foundational. Today there are more resources than ever to help you. Here are some ideas for you, whether you are just getting started or would like to try something new in '22!
The best piece of advice if you’re not doing anything yet is to do something – be realistic and start where you are. One of my favourite promises in scripture is ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you.’ (James 4:8a) God will meet you in whatever time you give to him. You can meet God in your room, in your car, on the train, out for a walk...don't feel guilty that your spiritual pathway isn't the same as someone else's.
If you decide to use an app, make sure you won’t be distracted by notifications or other things on your phone. God deserves your full attention! As ever, we can't take responsibility for all the content we mention here.
The Bible App
A wealth of free resources, including various versions of the Bible and a wide range of Bible reading plans. Whether you’re looking for something to help you with particular issues or a plan for the whole year, you’ll find lots of options here.
Pray as you go

A 10-13 minute daily prayer framework you can listen to. Ideal if you want to get into a simple rhythm of praying every day.
Lectio 365
From the 24/7 prayer stable, a fantastic app which will help you pray morning and evening, and will speak truth over you.
Bible in One Year
From the Alpha stable, a very accessible way to read the whole Bible in a year. Nicky Gumbel gives you a reflection every day (and you can listen to the whole thing).
For the love of God by D.A. Carson
An excellent two-volume set to help you read the whole Bible in two years, if one year feels a bit too much of an undertaking.
Through the Bible through the year and Through the year with John Stott by John Stott
Want to get to know the Bible better but not ready to read the whole thing? You can’t do better than Stott.
Explore Bible reading notes
Available on paper on app, an excellent resource to get you into the Bible every day.
Every Day with Jesus Bible reading notes
Generations have turned to these to build a stronger relationship with God.