It was with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension that I set off last Friday to visit dear old Dibley, and to preach at the Sunday service of the Dibley Community Church (Baptists and Methodists). In the end it was a joyful and relaxed time, catching up with old friends, visiting new things (church and otherwise) and seeing how God works in us, through us, and beyond us.
When I went to Dibley at the start of 2004, the membership role for the Baptist Church was 46, plus maybe four or five 'adherents'. Now the membership role is 18, and I wasn't aware of any non-members. The Methodists are similar in number. Despite the reduction in numbers, and the fact that I'd still be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, this little church is in good heart and growing in gentleness and grace.
It was a curious thing to wander around the village, seeing what is new (lots of in-fill housing and a new housing estate finally being built 15-20 years after it was mooted!) and what hasn't changed at all.
One of the most interesting, and incredibly moving, things was an installation called 'The Famous Fifty' which comemorated the centenary of fifty young men, mostly miners, sent off to dig trenches during the first world war. Of fifty who went, only twenty-two returned, many traumatised and with their health permanently affected. Apparently for some time, there had been poppies displayed in the windows of the cottages in which these young men had lived - a striking reminder of just how significant the impact of conscription was on this, as indeed all, communities.
A visit to the church's cafe (in what used to be a chemist's shop) was really positive - it's a proper cafe, serving good food at affordable prices. The tally of available suspended coffees and meals showed the huge difference from city-centre enterprises, and the stories of the various groups who meet there - some church, others not - very encouraging.
I was always proud of Dibley, of their risk-taking in calling me, of their courage in leaving their building and trying new things, of their gritty tenacity and grounded, forthright expression of opinions. Returning for a visit, it seems to me that these strengths remain, tempered by age, shaped by grace and lived in love... so I continue to be proud of them.
For all that, after a long delay at East Midlands airport, I was glad to be home, back to another place and another congregation that I love and of whom I am equally proud. Dibley and the Gathering Place share more than real-world initials and having me as minister - the Gatherers are courageous, gracious, accommodating, risk-taking, resilient, politely-middle-class forthright in opinion, learning and growing.
As the preparations for Advent begin in earnest, I feel encouraged and energised (if physically still exhausted!) to journey onwards towards the eschatological hope that inspires my faith.