Rector Writes – May 2017

Since our last APCM in March 2016 we have become used to hearing new, unexpected and, for many of us, unwelcome phrases. Perhaps strangest of them all is the phrase, ‘alternative fact’. It
emerged, of course, out of the fantastically divisive US Presidential Election in which ‘the truth’ – already a slippery concept deserving our full attention – became something to be treated with contempt. We are now, apparently, in a post-truth age. The events of the past twelve months have indicated that perhaps we have entered a new era of brazenness.

The language of alternative facts, of truth and integrity are not simply political terms. They are important for religious ideas and discourse, even in this seemingly small plot of the Church of England we call the ‘Parish of Burnage, St Nicholas.’ In these tricky and tricksy political and cultural times, we – as followers of Christ – are being challenged as never before to model the hope and truth that lies within us: Jesus Christ. We do not want to pretend that ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ will do. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Where do we do start? Well, first a theological point and then some practical ones. We start, theologically, with the truth: that we are all, at some level, liars and tricksters. We gather in Church not to show our goodness, but to show our need for redemption. We are not good, but we want to be. We all stretch truth and are prejudiced and see it from our limited point of view. We all see through a glass-darkly and we long to see God face-to-face.

To acknowledge this theological truth can be incredibly liberating. It means we do not have to pretend we know all things. It reminds and challenges us to focus on God in all we do. When we place this in the context of our wider culture of flim-flam and self-promotion, this is a serious business indeed.

So, here’s a reminder that, though we continue to be a small fellowship facing challenging times, we are serious in our mission of service to the living God. Firstly, we should be glad that – for all practical purposes – the major phase of building work we initiated several years ago has come to an end. We are currently waiting for our architect to sign off the project after the ‘cooling-off’ period. I want to especially thank Tony Witty for his support, good humour and willingness to wrangle over often very confusing figures with me. Our building is watertight for the first time in years, a fact that will be essential if we are to properly serve our communities in the years to come. Of course, a building like ours needs constant servicing, but we are at last ready to move forward again.

At the heart of our work is prayer, worship and thanksgiving, week by week. In the past year I have been delighted to see a blossoming of our curate Alan’s ministry among us. He has shown
us a new, more Catholic approach to embodying priesthood and I have been resourced by it. I also think that we at St Nick’s have enabled him to be more informal, though I suspect it shall be a
long-time before we witness him coming to church in ripped jeans!

We are also in the process of saying goodbye to Sally who has been our ordinand for three years. She and Abby have brought delight into our midst and I’m thrilled that Sally and her fiancé Lee
will be married at St Nick’s in the autumn. We pray for her and her new ministry which begins this summer. As a congregation I think we are waking up to the importance of everyone’s call to vocation, and I’ve seen encouraging signs that members of St Nick’s are now exploring vocation to ordained and lay ministries with great seriousness.

After an incredibly busy year of activities in 2015, including The Tree of War, 2016 was quieter, but with many rewards. Being a major building site meant we were careful about what we
committed to, but our Summer and Christmas Fairs were fine occasions, and the building is now being used more and more by community groups. Our Community Christingle – which adopted a
different format this year and made stars of our Rainbow unit – was a roaring success and our Christmas services continue to speak far beyond the boundaries of the church walls. Burnage Community Choir, which emerged from this congregation, has become part of the warp and weft of our wider community and is an extraordinary musical ensemble.

St Nick’s is also entering an exciting phase as we begin to formally link with St Chad’s, Ladybarn. I’ve been delighted by how organic that process has been and it was wonderful to welcome St Chad’s to join us for Community Carols, as well as us heading up to them for our celebration of new ministries for the Feast of St Chad’s. I’m sure there will be bumps in the road as we travel together, but I genuinely believe that our travelling together will be gift. We have welcomed new friends to our fellowship and I’m thrilled about how they continue to challenge us to grow and change. New people always bring fresh ideas and new eyes. Of course, just as we’ve welcomed new friends to our fellowship we have lost a few precious ones including Muriel Nicol, Barbara Gregory Tony Huddart and Derek Wheatcroft. We also remember Jim Mills who was and is precious to several members of our congregation.

God is good, abundant, but s/he also challenges us. Over the past twelve months, the church wardens, a small group of congregation members and I have begun to develop our Mission Action Plan. It has been a revealing process. It has indicated that the church is strong at pastoral and human relationships as well as being open to liturgical innovation. However, we face significant financial challenges as well as the challenge be more closely connected with our wider community.

Equally, the second half of last year revealed how one cannot plan for the unexpected. When our dear Caroline Abiodun fell ill last autumn her roles with the finance and the hall meant we had to engage in some swift footwork. The churchwardens, assistant wardens and others rose magnificently to the task. I can’t say how grateful I am to them for their work and for Katy Mills stepping in as our interim treasurer. We continue to pray for Caroline as she gets better.

For me, personally, it has been a rich year and I thank you for your support for all I do. There have been numerous highlights including the simple joys of day-to-day ministry: being with people at the big moments of life, and laughing and crying with those who are trying to make sense of it all. It was great to re-instigate the Rector’s Quiz, to wear a silly Christmas jumper for the first time, as well as act as Lord Mayor’s Chaplain for our own Carl Austin-Behan and bring a new book to birth. I may be an unconscionable show-off, but you, my church family, keep me grounded.

There are very real issues for us in this year as in every year. Our financial situation is challenging, but we face this year with hope. As a result of negotiations with the Diocese I believe we shall pay our Parish Share in full for the first time in many years. St Nick’s must become more outward looking. The Diocese has implemented a new process of Mission Action Planning which will help us focus on particular aims and goals. I think it will become ever more important that we work closely with partners like Burnage Food Bank, the local Council and other churches.

There is much to be excited about in the coming years. I see new faces and new energy emerging in our worship life. I think closer working with St Chad’s will help us identify how God is calling us. There is so much talent and ability in this congregation, and oodles of commitment. God is good. God is abundant. God invites us into joy and new life. We are called to discern where that is and get involved.

Rascel xx

May 2017 Magazine

Rector Writes – April 2017

One of the many striking things about the four gospel accounts of Jesus Christ is how much space they devote to the events of just one week. Indeed, if they were treated as novels or as a short story, you’d probably say, ‘nice try, but a bit imbalanced.’

Consider St. Mark’s account. It’s commonly accepted as the earliest account of the Gospel. It moves with the pace and style of tabloid journalism. Each incident is treated with dash and speed.
There is no account of Jesus’ nativity. As many scholars have pointed out, St Mark’s work has the urgency of one who expects the ‘end of the world’ very soon. Yet, for all of that, at least a third of the narrative concentrates on the events between Palm Sunday and the Resurrection.

That the Gospels are so ‘imbalanced’ is an indication of the centrality of the events of Holy Week and Easter to our faith. While many in wider society make a greater fuss about Christmas, for
Christians, Easter is central. It presents the account of Our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. That final week takes us to the centre of God’s love for and faithfulness towards a world of need.

Of course, the Gospels are not novels or stories. They represent a fundamental way for us to encounter the good news of Jesus Christ. As I’ve suggested in my letters and sermons over the years,
there is something utterly scandalous about that good news. Not only do the Gospels suggest that God may be represented in human terms, but, in Jesus Christ, God suffers, dies and is
resurrected.

No one can begin to claim they fully understand the mysteries of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. But we can participate in them and discover the profound power of God’s dwelling with and in us. This Holy Week there shall be a number of opportunities to meet Christ again on the path to death to resurrection. On Monday, as has become tradition at St Nick’s, we shall have our Stations of the Cross again. I’m also glad to say that, after a few years rest, our simple Agape Meal returns on Maundy Thursday at 6pm. We shall, of course, also be keeping our usual Good Friday and Easter Day services.

All of these services remind us that, if Holy Week and Easter are not simply stories, they are dramatic. We can participate in the drama. Indeed, at one level, we must. For in Christ, God stoops low to us and enters our drama. He makes an invitation to us to meet him in liturgy, in bread and wine, and in each other. If we are to taste salvation, we must make our response to his invitation.

So, as we draw close to the central drama of our faith, may you know God’s closeness, love and trust. May you walk the way of the Cross with him. May you wait at the Foot of the Cross, and know
the unconditional love of Christ’s self-giving. On Easter Day, may we all rejoice in the completion of that love; may we know the reconciliation and joy of the Living God.

With love and blessings,

Rachel xx

April 2017 Magazine

Rector Writes – March 2017

Finally, it’s Lent. It’s felt a long time coming this year, not least because Easter is about as late as it can be. As I write this, however, I think I’m ‘ready’ for Lent, if ‘ready’ is the right word. I feel in need of challenge and fasting and reflection. I feel it’s time we all took on board the holy, if challenging, joy available to us during this season of repentance and preparation.

Lest you think me a masochist, let me outline why I think Lent is ‘overdue’. What it comes down to is this: I think we all need a ‘wake-up call’ from time-to-time. I say this as someone who is
permanently sleep-deprived and could happily sleep in till 11 am each day if circumstances allowed it! But even a lover of sleep like me acknowledges the value of a good alarm from time to time. And that is what Lent is. It is a clarion call from God – a call to see ourselves and the world more clearly and respond to God’s loving invite into faithfulness.

This clarion call is made to all, but it is also specific. Lent is a challenge to communities as well as individuals. Indeed the idea that Lent is about individuals is quite a new idea. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use these forty days to search our consciences or give something up, but Lent’s deeper challenge is for the whole community to prepare for the heart of our faith: Easter.

So how might the wake-up call be applied to us at St Nick’s? Well, if I’m honest I want to say it is a matter for discernment rather than hard-and-fast rules. However, I’ve encountered enough of God’s startling love down the years to know that the wake-up call isn’t likely to be comfortable. It’s more likely to be the holy equivalent of a bucket of icy water thrown on our drowsy faces than a gentle nudge.

Here are some of the things I suspect God is challenging our community about as we journey through Lent. Firstly, that we can’t ever afford to be inward-looking. Yes, Sunday-by-Sunday we
gather for worship, and that’s great, but who we are is shown in our relationships with the wider world.

Equally, we can’t expect to be popular or liked simply because we call ourselves Christians. We have a great charge that we share in common: to serve and love with the wild abundant love of God.
And we may get few thanks for being faithful to that calling. We may not get much applause, but our task is to be faithful in a needy world. For when we strip back the cheap glamour and promises of the world, we come face-to-face with Christ. Christ comes to us in the shape of those who are on the outside. Christ is not comfortable but challenging.

The good news, however, is that God is faithful. We can be so easily discouraged (Well, I know I can!). However, the paths we follow are those already walked by Christ. We follow after him. He
may lead us into unexpected, challenging places, but he doesn’t abandon us. In our personal struggles, in our corporate fears and in the world’s endless need, God is present. And he cherishes us and we are called to cherish and delight in him.

May Lent be a time of wondrous discovery for you!

Rachel xx

Rector Writes – February 2017

As many of you will know, I’m fascinated by words. Perhaps that’s hardly surprising given I’m a writer. ‘February’ is an interesting case in point. Its origins lie in Roman antiquity. It’s derived from the Latin name for the second month of the Julian calendar, ‘Februarius’. This name itself was derived from the Roman festival of ‘Februalia’, a term which basically means ‘purification’. So, the meaning of ‘February’ is – effectively – ‘time of purification’.

I have to admit, when put like that, ‘February’ sounds rather ominous. ‘Time of Purification’ sounds like a slogan Chairman Mao might have used in Communist China, c.1965. It would have
presaged nothing good. For the Romans, ‘purification’ would have referred to rituals of cleansing and preparation, of purging excesses. In an agrarian society such practices would have been
significant as it prepared for spring and the agricultural year. It was both ‘spring cleaning’ and ritual purification.

These ideas of purification – of purging excess and spring cleaning – all have resonances in our modern world. February is usually the month in which we begin Lent, that extended season of preparation and fasting. Shrove Tuesday is a modern way of gathering up ‘excess’ and having a splurge before a time of restraint. And in February – as we usually see the first signs of spring – people often begin to think of having proper ‘spring clean’.

This year February is slightly different. As Easter is very late, it’s March before we begin Lent. Yet, in some ways, perhaps this year’s extended wait for Ash Wednesday only amplifies the (forgive the word!) ‘purgative’ nature of February. In my imagination, February always conjures a time when the weather is at its bleakest and – despite the appearance of flowers like snowdrops – there is snow on the ground. It feels to me like the deepest bite of winter. I think of it as ‘cleaning up’ the last remnants of the previous year.

In our modern technological world in which most people live in cities perhaps we’ve lost connection with the deep rhythms of life that most of our forebears knew. Pieter Bruegel, the great 16th
century artist, understood how seasons, life and devotion all went hand in hand. He – and his team of painters – produced extraordinary images of early modern life in which ‘holiness’ and
devotion were simply part of life. That incredible painting of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ is shown as taking place in deep snow in the Netherlands. He is always alert to how the divine – in both beautiful and terrifying manifestations – waits to greet us in the ordinary. If you have time, look that painting up (as well as the justly famous copy of his ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’.) The extraordinary always lurks in the ordinary.

Perhaps that’s what we all need to recover: a sense of God’s grace and wonder and terrific power in the midst of our humdrum lives. As we prepare, once again, to enter
Lent, perhaps it is time to look around and see, or to still ourselves and listen. February can feel like a bleak month, where we are caught between the echoes of the old year
and the desire to get on with spring and summer. But perhaps that’s its power: God is sometimes to be found ‘in-between’: in our frustrations and longings as much as our joy and fulfilments. On
chilly and dark mornings I hope that you, along with me, are prepared to wait on God and discern his love, emerging like the first spring flower.

Rachel xx

Book Launch – Fierce Imagining – By Rachel Mann

Thursday 9th March 7.00 to 9.00pm at Manchester Cathedral

Come and join us for the launch of Rachel’s new book ‘Fierce Imaginings’: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God.

It is Rachel’s fourth full-length book and examines, via poetry and literature, cultural history, theology and family story the complex weave of The Great War in the iconography and imaginary of ‘British’ identities.

The central thread concerns Rachel’s grandfathers Bert and Sam (both of whom fought in the war) and great-aunt Betty (whose story was definitively affected by the war) and how their encounters with violence has shaped her family’s stories.

Post expires at 12:00am on Friday March 10th, 2017

The Rector Writes – January 2017

The turning of the New Year is often a time for reflection and reminiscence. In any ordinary year there will be a lot to consider and reflect on. However, 2016 has, by any measure, been extraordinary. Many important 20th century popular culture icons have gone to join the Great Majority, including David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood and Alan Rickman. More significantly, the implications of the Brexit Referendum vote in June will be felt not only in the UK, but around the world for decades to come. And, then, we have President…well, resident Trump.

I know there will be a range of views about all these things. Many people will say, ‘Who cares about the death of someone like David
Bowie?’ However, the sense that many 20th century icons have died suddenly is an indication that we’re truly into the 21st century now. The 20th Century that formed so many of us over the age of forty is history now.

Equally, some people will say, the UK leaving the EU is long overdue. Personally, I am still in shock. It feels like a catastrophe in
the making. I’ve grown up in the EU and I am a proud Brit and a proud European. I think for many people younger than me it just seems unbelievable that the European dream is over. And, then, we come back to President Trump. Frankly, his appointment strikes me
as one of the most worrying international developments of the past fifty years.

So, 2016! On a global scale, I suspect it may go down as one of the significant moments in the story of the 21st century. It may signal
the point at which the 21st century ‘came of age’. However, as our thoughts turn to a New Year I still believe we do so in confidence. Why? Because, in faith, we say, ‘Jesus Christ yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ And we don’t do so in some stupid, complacent way. That is, we don’t just say, ‘Nothing can trouble us because we’re special.’ Rather, because we seek to follow in Christ’s Way, we trust that – in the midst of life’s challenges – ultimately God’s Story is definitive.

God’s invitation to live on his promises is incredibly challenging. I am reminded of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a Lutheran
Pastor during the Second World War. He was arrested for resisting Hitler and, after over a year in prison, was put to death. In the face of incredible challenge, he continued to live and work for the Gospel and he didn’t give into despair. The world was crumbling
around him and he kept faith, because God keeps faith.

While in prison, he wrote the following poem:

All men go to God in their distress,
seek help and pray for bread and happiness,
deliverance from pain, guilt and death,
All men do, Christians and others.

All men go to God in His distress
find Him poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,
watch Him tormented by sin, weakness and death.
Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving.

God goes to all men in their distress,
satisfies body and soul with His bread,
dies, crucified for all, Christians and others,
and both alike forgiving.

Of course, it’s a translation and as such it loses much of its power and subtlety. But it’s still possible to discern an extraordinary theological claim: That God meets us in our need, no matter who we are. Not because we’re Christian or good or special or blessed. No. He meets us and offers himself body and soul and forgives us. Why? Because that is God’s very nature. Because God is the Love Supreme.

God’s wondrous nature remains no grounds for complacency. In being invited to Follow The Way we do so in acknowledgement that we’re Christ’s Body on earth. And how we go about that way of being matters. We can choose to sit on our hands, we can bury our heads in the sand. Or we can show courage and faith and love. We can live as Christ lived. It may be costly, but it is also the way to abundant life.

May you have a Happy New Year!

Rachel xx

January 2017 Magazine

The Rector Writes – November 2016

Recently, in a rare moment of clarity, I realised that if I were to be a season I should be ‘autumn’. Even though this is the season in which the weather becomes inclement and the nights draw in, I find autumn both exhilarating and comforting. Example: I have permission to don my waxed jacket again, and pull on wellies for walks. One can wrap up warm and put the heating on. It is a time for cosiness and rich wines and soothing food. If I were allowed to eat more expansively I’d grow very fat during this season on partridge and wood pigeon, marron glacé and rich bramble pies.

Yes, autumn is a special time and November is its final flowering. The light dies early in November and, yet, you still get moments of blazing sun shining off the rich amber of oak leaves. As the wind blows, great piles of fallen leaves are sometimes lifted up to dance.

November is also the time where we both look back and also to look forward. We look back in remembrance – firstly on those who have died and gone to glory (All Souls Day) and then on the War Dead on Remembrance Sunday. This year our Service of Glad Remembrance for all who’ve died is on November 6th at 3pm. I hope that many of you will be able to join us for this occasion. Equally, during this period when we’re remembering the shattering events of the Great War and are also aware that parts of the world are in a complete mess, I hope you’ll be able to make time to be with us on November 13th for our Remembrance Sunday service.

Yet, if November entails remembrance, it also gestures towards hope. On Sunday 27th is Advent Sunday. On that day we enter a period of great anticipation and waiting, as we begin to prepare for the extraordinary joy of Christmas Day. A season both of Light and of Penitence, Advent offers us an opportunity to look forward and reflect on how we can become closer to God. This year I’m excited about the prospect of having a Tuesday afternoon Advent Group to which all at both St Nick’s & St Chad’s are invited, as well as a reciprocal group at St Chad’s on Wednesday evenings. I hope it’s a sign of our emergent closer ties with St Chad’s.

So this November shall be a busy one. In addition to all the church activities, we also have our Christmas Fair. Yet, if we risk being over-busy as we draw to the end of another year, let us also take pause. If there are bright and crisp days this November, I hope each of us can take a moment to wonder and delight at Creation; I hope that as the nights become bleak and wet, we have warmth and good company; and through it all we can face the seasons of Advent and Christmas with hope, expectation and delight.

Rachel x.

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