Holding on for Advent

blackfriday-memeIs it just me or is anyone else having a hard time getting their head around ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’?

At this time of year, inevitably thoughts are turning toward Christmas and Becky has written eloquently on the previous page about embracing the story of Jesus’ birth and pondering its improbable probabilities and possibilities that bring new hope and new light into a dark time of the year.

But I want to hold you in Advent just a while longer and I want to apply the brakes to our modern world just a little bit.

Black Friday isn’t a British festival. It’s barely an American one. The traditional festival of Thanksgiving in the USA is one we know well (or at least be familiar with the basics) and which dates back to the 17th century and the earliest days of the Puritans in America. But Black Friday started in the 1960s and was originally a term used by police officers in Philadelphia in a pejorative way to describe the double whammy of hordes of shoppers turning out after Thanksgiving with the football fans going to the stadiums for American football matches. It wasn’t a good thing. But seeing an opportunity, the shops rebranded ‘Black Friday’ as a good thing and it’s now the biggest day of sales in the year.

Seeing the UK seize hold of ‘Black Friday’ tells me, once again, that in the Internet age where an online shop serves a global audience, the barriers between nations become fuzzier and fuzzier. Sometimes that’s a bad thing. Sometimes that’s a good thing.

But it also confirms for me that our consumerism may be out of control. When we’re prepared to adopt a festival that is a pure shopping add-on to a festival that isn’t of any relevance to Britain, then I’m struggling to make sense of it. When people are fighting over televisions in poor areas of our nation while children and teenagers look on, then I’m struggling to make sense of it. And note the cameras weren’t sent to Knightsbridge or Surrey, but to Walsall, Newcastle and Merseyside – the media knew what was likely to happen when the poorest are dangled their dreams at cut-down prices.

I find it baffling and disturbing. As someone humorously put it recently: ‘Yes, you can save 50% if you go out on Black Friday and buy something. But you can save 100% if you sit at home and buy nothing.’ What is the point of all this spending? Is it bringing us peace?

Advent is one of two periods in the church year that are about penitence and fasting (the other being Lent). Those two seasons are about getting ready and preparing and waiting for all that is to come. If we give up things in Lent, I’m wondering why our world is so hell-bent on Christmas that we rush ahead and ignore Advent? Why aren’t we giving up things in Advent? Why do we paradoxically gorge and spend our way into debt and difficulty.

I hope that your Christmas, when it comes, is full of peace and joy. I hope to see you in church and to celebrate with you the birth of a man who was God in human form; someone who showed us the way of salvation and peace. And I hope you’re able to swim against the tide this Advent season and seek the space and time you need to ponder all that lies behind and all that lies ahead.

Rev David Green

Dying well

A photo of the candle tributes at the Memorial Service 2012From time to time, I will get into a conversation with non-churchgoing friends or people in my parishes who will ask about the role of the Vicar. The usual assumption is that weddings and baptisms sound like fun, but they can’t imagine what it must be like to do ‘all those funerals’.

We don’t really ‘do’ death in the UK any more. We don’t talk about it. Our crematoria are all at the edge of town; conveneniently kept out of the way. We don’t really see dead bodies anymore either. I think we are illiterate with death – perhaps the last and greatest taboo subject. So, for many people, the thought of ‘all those funerals’ is horrifying.

So imagine people’s surprise when I tell them that funerals are one of the best parts of my job. I find there is an immense sense of privilege for me to be able to conduct a ceremony which constitutes the last act of love that a family can give to their loved one.

Moreover, I get the incredible honour of telling that person’s story. The little old lady who was once a ballroom champion, the man who escaped Normandy’s beaches and was haunted forever by the experience, the pub landlord, the knight of the realm, the mum, the dustman, the vivacious full-of-life young woman, wheelchair bound but never limited by it. Each one a story that is worth telling, each one a reminder to me of the joy of human life in all its variety and complexity. And I get the honour of sharing that story with all who care to come and listen? That’s not horrifying. That’s a fabulous thing to be able to do.

In recent days, the death of Lynda Bellingham has started a fresh conversation about ‘dying well’. As a TV personality, she chose to face her own death with honesty. She embraced its inevitability and wrote letters to her family, planned her funeral and set her affairs in order. Our ‘death-illiterate’ media and society didn’t always respond to her approach very well, but I have no doubt that her family and friends will be better for it as they begin to adjust to her absence.

At the same time that she was doing that, I was meeting with a man who knew he was dying and wanted to discuss his funeral with me (and whether I would lead it for him). Some who want to ‘die well’ are famous, some are not. But all of them have courage, and a sense of kindness and regard to their family in hoping to do things as well as possible.

This month, the Church calendar turns towards thoughts of ‘the coming Kingdom’. As the end of the year approaches, we think upon our Ultimate Home in the presence of our Father. It’s a great time, therefore, for the events of Remembrance Sunday which, this year, will have particular significance as we mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. And for grieving families, we also have two special services this month in which those we have loved and lost can continue to be honoured and remembered by those of us who remain. I’m particularly pleased that we’re now able to offer something to help parents who have endured that often unrecognised and hidden grief of losing a baby during pregnancy.

Death is never straightforward or easy, but I applaud the efforts of those who are prepared to talk about it and to not make it taboo. I believe they help themselves but also they help their families and friends too. I hope that when one my time comes, I too will choose to ‘die well’.

Rev David Green

Identity in singing

Earlier this month, I made my second trip in a year to our friends in Estonia. St Mary’s and St Michael’s are twinned with the Estonian parishes of Jõhvi and Pühajõe and, on this occasion, for the first time some of our church congregations joined me there. We came back having walked (a lot) and feeling very tired and very well fed.

Estonia is a former Soviet republic; one of the northernmost with the Gulf of Finland immediately to the north and sharing the eastern Russian border with Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and then finally Ukraine to the South.

Estonia is a large country but sparsely populated. Of the million people who live there, half live in the capital of Tallinn. You can go miles in the country without seeing a soul. Our friends in Jõhvi and Pühajõe are about an hour’s journey from the Russian border. Jõhvi is the regional capital, Pühajõe a tiny rural village about 15 minutes drive away that effectively forms the nearest community nearby.

The mood in Tallinn and, especially in Jõhvi, was somewhat nervous when the subject of our conversations turned to international politics and to Russia. Given the situation in Ukraine, Estonians seem to be expecting trouble and in more than one conversation, people spoke of the Russian government with a fair amount of concern.

As we saw in various memorials and parks that we visited, the end of the Occupation was really not that long ago for them and their memory and ‘story’ is very definitely coloured by what they remember of those days. The Soviet tanks left in 1991 and the older generation still remember that time well.

Indeed, if you are looking for a holiday destination in 2019 (!) let me recommend Tallinn in June. Every five years they host a ‘Singing Festival’ which, by all reports, truly has to be seen to be believed.

When Estonia declared independence, singing was a major part of their revolution. In the final days of the Soviet Union, Estonians would gather secretly at first and sing Estonian folk songs as a statement of their own identity. Slowly, the gatherings became more public and bold until it became unstoppable. Indeed, they look back on their 1991 declaration of independence as ‘the Singing Revolution’.

Now, every five years, a choir of some 30,000 people sing those songs in a large natural amphitheatre in Tallinn. 300,000 people come to watch. Remember, this is a country of only one million so it’s effectively a third of their entire country gathered in one place simply to sing their old folk songs!

Of course, those who attend church regularly will know the high and prominent place of singing in the worship of God and perhaps that’s not so different to what they are doing in Tallinn. As we sing, we remind ourselves of who we are, where we have come from, where we are going. We remind ourselves of who God is and what he has done for us.

I’m already marking my diary and thinking it might be a great time for us to go visit our friends again.

Rev David Green

Silence doesn’t need to mean inaction

The monthly discipline of writing an article for Trio doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes the deadline will be approaching and Becky will be circling (in a nice way) and I won’t have a clue what to write about. On the other hand, with our double issue in July leaving August fallow, I found myself at frequent points over the Summer itching to write. The Women Bishop’s vote, my passion for football and England’s abject World Cup, the departure of Mr Webb as Headteacher at West Malling School after a very successful few years and, of course, the global situation with Ebola in Africa and ISIS in Syria and Iraq has given a variety of topics to address.

For me, Syria and Iraq looms most of all and with the horror of all that continues to take place, as I sit down now, I don’t know that there are any words to say. How do you comment or try to reflect on the atrocities taking place at the hands of such extremists who respond only with violence to anyone of any persuasion (ethnic, cultural, national, ideological or religious) who disagrees with them? I’m not sure I can.

I’m reminded of the events recorded in the Gospels as Jesus hung on the cross. The sky went dark, the Christ cried out in abandonment. There was silence. Sometimes, silence is the only sensible response to horrific suffering.

But silence does not mean inaction has to follow and I prize highly the efforts of all those who, after the silence, choose to be brave and to do what they can to help. There are countless examples, but let me highlight for you the work of Canon Andrew White, sometimes known as the Vicar of Baghdad who leads St George’s Anglican Church in that ancient city.

Andrew trained for the ministry in Cambridge at the same college where I studied, and since then he has gone on to be a courageous voice in the Middle East. Currently he is being frequently smuggled in and out of the country because of the dangers to his own safety. He is a ‘high value target’ as the TV spy shows would say. When he is not in Iraq, he bangs the drum loudly for Christians and other minorities suffering violent persecution, aggravating politicians and making sure the media (and therefore the public) know the full extent of what is happening. When he is in Iraq, he smuggles in aid and supplies and financial help to people in desperate need.

While some world leaders go surfing, and some make conciliatory noises but play down involvement out of an understandable but entirely miserable sense of self-preservation, Andrew and many others like him are trying to halt disaster.

If you have been moved by what you have seen on television, can I encourage you to visit his website at frrme.org and find out what you can do? Alternatively, visit the website of one of the major relief organisations like the Red Cross or Christian Aid and do what you can to help people in tremendous need.

Rev David Green

Make time for romance

By the time you read this article, I will have returned from some celebrations to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the day when my one true love and soulmate, Kerry, kindly gave me her hand in marriage. We were married in July 1999 fairly near to here at St Peter & St Paul, Yalding.

When we got married, she didn’t know she was marrying a future Vicar and so like all couples, we have gone on a journey and our relationship has evolved over time. That evolution has not been just about the fact that I’m now ordained, but we’ve had seasons of being young and without children and able to travel, the modern-day complexities of trying to be first-time buyers, the stresses of trying to conceive, now the joys of three primary school age children, periods of ill-health, difficulties in wider family situations and more.

Of course, I’m also now into wedding season and it’s already been my great pleasure this year to conduct weddings for one or two young couples, a widower, a divorcee, regular churchgoers, non-churchgoers, people who have always lived here and people with the most tenuous of connections. Every relationship, every story is different, and I consider myself very privileged to walk alongside couples at a key moment in their lives.

Each year we run a Marriage Preparation course for the couples and every year we get some great feedback. Regardless of how long people have been together, everyone seems to learn something new about themselves and their partner and their relationship deepens. I’m very grateful to St Mary’s & St Michael’s PCC who back the courses financially. It’s been a very fruitful ministry in the last three years.

One couple wrote to us that it was “a really practical, useful course – enables you to talk about things that are vital to building a strong marriage” while another couple said “it is really good for thinking about issues which may come up – even if you have lived together beforehand.”

The Marriage Preparation course that we use has a sister course for couples who are already married. Helpfully titled The Marriage Course it’s a bit like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin. I would love to see us be able to offer such a course, so that not just the newlyweds get the benefit, but couples of all ages. You’re never too old to learn something new about yourself or your spouse and it’s all too easy to slip into bad habits, take each other for granted and lose sight of the man or woman you married. If a couple from one of our churches is interested in organising The Marriage Course (with my help and encouragement), please do get in touch.

As much as I love weddings, what I really love to see are healthy, life-giving, long-lasting marriages and while couples will happily spend (on average) 200 hours planning a wedding, investing in a relationship by learning on a course or taking deliberate and devoted time to be with one another is not something that seems to come so naturally to most people. More’s the pity.

So this month, even if you can’t go on a course straightaway, if you are married, why not take your husband or wife out on a date? Get some time away from phones, TV, Internet, family, children, work. Make some time for romance.

Rev David Green

Statement about the future of St Mary’s Church Centre

A photo of St Mary's Church Centre, West MallingIn the month of March, the owners of Betty Lewis Pre-School announced that they would be leaving the St Mary’s Church Centre in West Malling in order to take up residence at the old McGinty building within the environs of West Malling CEP School. Their decision brings an end to a relationship that has lasted through the last few decades in which generations of pre-school children have found a second home and an educational foundation within the walls of our Church Centre.

As well as being Betty Lewis’ effective landlord at the Church Centre, I am also an ex-officio Foundation Governor at West Malling School and so I watched the decision-making process for Betty Lewis with one foot in both camps. Indeed, several members of St Mary’s are also Foundation Governors at West Malling CEP School; one of whom also sits on our PCC. It’s great, therefore, that St Mary’s will continue to have an association with Betty Lewis in the future. We are delighted that we will be able to keep an interest in their progress and that they have been able to find a new home which enables the Pre-School to stay local to West Malling and serve the local children and parents of our community.

In all my dealings with them, Betty Lewis Pre-School has proved itself an outstanding organisation, educator and carer for our young children. They rightly deserve their reputation within West Malling and the surrounding area as a place where parents are keen to send their kids, and I’m delighted that this move safeguards their future and establishes a relationship with our Primary School that should be mutually beneficial for the Pre-School and the Primary.

I mention the future because, for some time, we’ve been aware that the writing was on the wall and the Church Centre’s future was not certain.

When I arrived in the Benefice in 2011, it became very apparent very quickly that the Church Centre was a big issue. For ten years and possibly more, the building had been costing St Mary’s Church a great deal of money. Long-serving PCC members were well and truly frustrated by the whole subject and it quickly spilt over into our meetings. The deficit on the Church Centre each year was always in four figures and sometimes five. With the Pre-School in place and the various rents as they were, the Church was effectively subsidising all the activities that took place there, regardless of whether they were church-based or not, and it was something we could not afford.

Moreover, the building was slowly deteriorating. With Pre-Schools and other organisations rightly held to high standards in their care of children, we were struggling to keep up with their needs for the building and the demands of our current institutional structures – Government, Ofsted, Health & Safety, Environmental Health etc.

Two years ago, Betty Lewis and I spoke about these very obvious issues and the Churchwardens and I have tried to maintain an open and transparent dialogue with the owners ever since. While they were shocked by my honesty and didn’t realise we had such problems when we first spoke, to their immense credit Betty Lewis did respond in a positive way. Their fees for the use of our building have risen to better reflect its use and they’ve pulled their weight by organising a number of activities to renovate and spruce-up and generally help to improve the building’s overall condition. We’re enormously grateful for their partnership and ‘can-do’ attitude.

When West Malling School’s new Language Centre opened, the opportunity came up to make use of the old McGinty Centre in new ways and Betty Lewis rightly saw a big opportunity to safeguard their future in a facility far more suited to their purpose.

While Betty Lewis’ future has been safeguarded, their departure from the Church Centre marks the end of a particular era for our building and questions about the future are now brought into sharp focus.

At the present time, the PCC has had some preliminary discussions about the future of the Church Centre and it seems there are three main options. The first is to renovate the building and make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century. That’s going to take a lot of fund-raising, but it has a lot of merit. Community facilities in West Malling and the surrounding area are sometimes in short supply and whether it’s Parent & Toddler Groups, Lunch Clubs, Fitness sessions, Alcoholics Anonymous, Breast-Feeding Clinics, DIY Baptism & Wedding Receptions, it could be a very valuable space for the future.

Another option is to sell the Church Centre. Doing so would raise a good fund of money which St Mary’s might then be able to use to build facilities either in St Mary’s building itself or as an extension. Toilets, kitchen facilities and meeting space for Sunday School, Youth Group and all the sorts of community activities listed earlier could happen in such a new hall – perhaps on the south side of the church.

Contrary to some rumours circulating in West Malling, no decision has been taken to sell the land for housing. If St Mary’s PCC ever decided to sell (and it is an ‘if’, not a ‘when’), then any planning application to build housing or change its use would need to be consulted on widely. As always, such planning would go through Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council. Residents and other interested stakeholders would have plenty of opportunity to be involved. The fact we’re in a conservation area and the narrowness of Churchfields as an access road would, I’m sure, be very high on the list of issues that TMBC would need to think about.

A third option beyond renovation or sale is a somewhere in-between model. Either selling some of the land to renovate the rest, or working with a developer while retaining ownership in return for considerations.

At the moment, nothing is off the table and nothing is definitely decided. St Mary’s PCC and I need to carefully weigh all our options. As effective Trustees of St Mary’s as a charitable body, we have a duty in law to consider what is best not only financially but with all the aims and objectives of the church in mind.

Progress will also be slow. Diocesan authorities, English Heritage, the Borough Council will have opinions on what we can and can’t do. I’m very conscious too that the Church Centre impacts our neighbours in Churchfields and is also an emotive and important building for many West Malling people who either went to Pre-School there or, prior to that, remember the building when it was West Malling Primary. All that needs to be taken into account.

I’m always interested to hear what people think; there is a sense in which our Church and our Church Centre belong to us all. I’m also interested to hear from people who want to get stuck in and make things happen. Please contact us if you would like to be involved in doing the work. Much work lies ahead but there is opportunity and potential in all that too and that is potentially very exciting.

Rev David Green
originally published in the Parish Magazine for April 2014
and further amended since with clarifications and additions

Mr Webb to leave West Malling School

On Wednesday 30 April, West Malling Church of England Primary announced that Headteacher Darren Webb would be leaving at the end of the Summer term to take up a new appointment as the Headteacher in the Loose Schools’ Federation. It is both sad news since we will be very sorry to see Mr Webb go, but also exciting news because it’s a fabulous challenge for Mr Webb personally and we know that Loose will be getting a really, really good Headteacher.

After the last five years, Mr Webb has led a tremendous surge in the reputation of West Malling’s Church School. At their last Ofsted in 2013, they were judged as being ‘Good’ with some elements of school life considered ‘Outstanding’. Encouragingly, amongst the ‘Outstanding’ parts – many lessons had elements of outstanding teaching and pupil behaviour was often outstanding. Great foundations to build upon for next time.

When you look at statistics with West Malling School, you always have to remember that there is a Speech & Language unit attached. Some of those children have profound needs and so can skew a statistical analysis unfairly. As a rookie Governor when I arrived in 2011, I quickly learnt that league tables don’t tell the story of a school and especially a school like West Malling. Where some kids have major needs and when you have one form per year, each child represents a significant percentage of the whole.

Nevertheless, in 2007, 20% of the children achieved Level 4 combined in English & Maths. In 2013, 66% reached that level. If you take the Speech & Language unit children out of the stats, in 2007 24% reached that level and in 2013 it was 83%. Regardless of how you feel about league tables, one conclusion everyone can easily reach is that the school under Mr Webb’s leadership has made dramatic improvement. Mr Webb and his entire team deserve enormous credit for all that they have achieved.

As Governors, it’s been obvious to us for some time that the question was not whether Darren would be asked to go on to bigger and better things but when. As a result, we’ve been building strength in the School and the Governing Body with that likely scenario in mind. While we will be losing the captain of our ship, I believe that we have a very good crew, we have sailed some choppy waters successfully and now the horizon looks bright. On that basis, I believe that the school should be able to attract some very good candidates.

Over the coming months, as the Parish Priest to a Church School, I know I will need to be heavily involved in the recruitment process. As the Priest, but also a Governor and a Dad to children in the school, I am very keen and confident that we make an appointment of the highest possible calibre.

Rev David Green

Questions about the resurrection

A photograph of an artist's impression of the empty tombIt was my surprise and great pleasure to get an email from one of the fantastic teachers at West Malling CEP School last week. Her class had been thinking about the Easter story in their RE lesson and wanted to ask me some questions about Jesus’ resurrection.

‘How did Jesus get out of the tomb when Roman soldiers were around it?’
‘Was it really Jesus’ body on the cross?’
‘Why didn’t God stop the Roman soldiers killing Jesus?’
‘Was it a plan that Jesus was going to die?’
‘Was Jesus a ghost when he came back to life?’
‘Was the resurrection real?’

Fantastic questions unbidden from nine and ten year olds that cut to the absolute heart of the Easter story. For some of the answers, I was able to take them back to the texts we have in the gospels and read what was written. For others, we had to think and use our own powers of deduction. At the end of the day, I said to them, you have to decide what you believe happened to Jesus and such a decision is at the heart of the Christian faith.

As a 19 year old I read a book that outlined all the possible scenarios of what really happened at Easter and so I used the gist of that book with the children to look at some of the main options.

As the children explored, they decided that it didn’t make sense for the Romans to take the body and steal it. As soon as this apple-cart-upsetting new sect of Christians started to make waves, their revolution would have been easily quashed by the production of a corpse. Likewise, if the Religious Leaders had stolen the body of a man whose ideas they were so keen to destroy, it would have been sensible to bring it forth as soon as his friends, family and disciples began to disseminate those ideas even further.

If the disciples stole the body, it would seem to make sense. Until you consider that many of them were subsequently executed for refusing to recant their testimony that Jesus truly had risen from the dead. People don’t die for something they definitely know is an outrageous lie.

In the class, the children explored a few more theories; you can always trust a child’s imagination to come up with some alternatives and in my time I’ve heard plenty – Judas’ involvement, magic and alien abduction amongst others.

For myself, many years ago I concluded (in the words of Sherlock Holmes) that when you exhaust all the possibilities, what is left, however implausible that may seem to you, must be the truth. So I believe Jesus is risen. I don’t believe it’s a myth, I don’t believe it’s just a nice story, I don’t believe it needs to be turned into a metaphor. I believe he rose because if God is God, then such things would be possible and if it didn’t happen, then I can’t see why the disciples would be prepared to die for something they knew was not true.

If an Archaeologist produced a definitive grave and resting place for Jesus of Nazareth, I would resign my orders as a Priest tomorrow. It is that fundamental to me. If Jesus is not risen, then as St Paul wrote, ‘my faith is futile’ and ‘we are of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15.17,19). But if Jesus is alive, well then that’s a game-changer. That’s new life, hope, eternity, forgiveness, love, freedom and peace. Have a fabulous Easter, and may you know the power of the Risen Christ.

Rev David Green

How jugs re-order churches

A photo of Rev David with the Malling Jug at the British MuseumDuring my half-term break, my wife and I took our kids to the British Museum. With ancient Greece, the Vikings, Egypt all among school topics past or future, it seemed a great place to inspire the children. I had my own motivations for going too. Amongst the statuary and artifacts, I hoped to make a few moments to go and see the Malling Jug.

For those that don’t know, this jug resided in the West Malling Vicarage for many years and was passed from Vicar to Vicar until it was spotted in the late 1800s by a visitor. He tried to buy it from Rev Lawson, my predecessor, who was wise enough not to sell. It turned out to be a piece of rare Elizabethan pottery, with silver-gilt mounts and a London hallmark for 1581-2.

When Rev Lawson and the church sold it at auction a little while later, the British Museum purchased it for what today would be the equivalent of £150,000! The proceeds saw St Mary’s North Porch established in its current form and it funded a reordering of the interior of the church as we know it today.

So there we were in London, in the Museum and as the seventh holder of this post since Rev Lawson, I was keen to make a pilgrimage of sorts and and see it.

When we followed the map, we found that a crucial connecting room was closed for refurbishment. I couldn’t get to Room 46 because I couldn’t get through Room 40. We went downstairs and tried a different way. That too was blocked by Room 40. By now the kids were getting tired but we went back upstairs and tried a third way. This time we found a woman had fainted in one of the approaching rooms and so staff had rightly cordoned off access until she could be helped out. My frustration grew.

There was one last chance. It meant going back to where we had started. One of our subsequent attempts had suggested that the first route had a ‘diversion’ of sorts; a small passageway that would connect us. Another long walk, up and down stairs, more moaning and groaning from fretful children, pleas for patience from their mother and an increasingly curt father.

There was a passage that we had missed. At last we were in Room 46. But once in Room 46, we had to find the Jug. The member of staff didn’t know where it was. So we had to hunt. Was it even out on display? But there, in a quiet, unassuming corner of the room, eventually we found our prize.

As we came home, I wondered about both of my church buildings in our present day. Like Rev Lawson’s reordering, in St Mary’s and St Michael’s both communities are very conscious of a new era of reordering that’s needed. Toilet and refreshment facilities, electrics and lighting, the warmth of the worship space and the future of the Church Centre in West Malling. At times, it’s felt a bit like my journey to Room 46. Diversions, blockages, dead-ends, moaning and groaning, patience, stress, unforeseeable problems. I suspect that as we try to make some of this a reality, yet more of the same will lie ahead. But I hope and I trust that, like the Malling Jug when found, it’ll be worth it. Beauty even in simple function, the past connecting us to our future, and something hidden away, perhaps not fulfilling its potential, that can now be shared with all.

Rev David Green

Notes from Estonia

A photo of the outside of St Michael's Church, Jõhvi, EstoniaIn January, I was privileged to be part of a delegation of Rochester clergy visited the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church to visit link churches and attend their annual clergy conference. Being January, temperatures mostly stayed between minus 20 and minus 10. We had to wrap-up warm to handle the biting cold!

Sitting at a crossroads of sorts in Northern Europe, Estonians are an interesting mix of Baltic, Germanic and Russian influences and their church hints at some of our shared Protestant history while being quite distinct and very much of its own people.

As part of our visit, we visited their Diocesan Office. On the wall is a memorial to clergy killed during World War II but it’s dated 1941-1954. Our guide said “For you the war ended in 1945. For us it took much longer.” One could argue that their war didn’t end until the late eighties and the final withdrawal of the Soviet army when Estonia gained its independence.

A photo of the Memorial to fallen Clergy, Estonia

The war memorial in the Diocesan Office in Estonia

It is only in the last twenty years that much church property, confiscated by the Soviets, has been returned. Only in the last two decades have they been able to begin rebuilding, and that applies not just to the stones of their beautiful places of worship. They serve a nation seeking its own sense of identity after several centuries of being a strategic pawn in the wars of others. The Church too has questions to consider. They will shortly choose a new Archbishop, they have decisions to consider about structure and governance, relationships with the Lutheran world, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox neighbours are being explored, and they must find new ways to reach their younger generations.

The church may have outlasted the Soviets, but the impact of that history is still felt. Many clergy have become entrepreneurs, seeking sources of funding to renovate churches neglected by the Soviet era. There’s no English Heritage or Church Commissioners to help here. For fifty years, the church was often prevented from working with children. Those children are now adults and often see little point in letting their children attend church. There are missing generations in some churches.

The Cross of Jesus is a powerful image for them in what it means to suffer, but to overcome. Their past is not easy but they would not want you to weep. This is no sob story. They are not looking to us to be a kindly Uncle who fixes them and sets them on a prosperous path.

The journey they must take has similarities to our own, but the causal reasons are very different. You sense that the Lord is calling them to rediscover themselves as they rediscover Him afresh. If we are to help, it should only be to encourage and cheer them on their way.

They carry their past with great dignity. There is great determination to make their journey as the road opens up before them. Denied freedom by the Soviets for so long, we shouldn’t be surprised that they now value their freedom to make their own journey without outside influence. To interfere in that, however well-intentioned, would be to diminish one of the gifts from God that they now prize highest of all.

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