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  • Connections, connections...

    I love this painting of a group of Baptists from the English midlands (primarily Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Nottinghamshire). 

    There are many reasons I love it. 

    I love it because it reminds me of old photographs that many churches have of their diaconates, mostly all male, and all very worthy, with Bibles and pipes (for tobacco, not bagpipes!) and sat in similar fashion. 

    I love it because it has echoes of Last Supper paintings, and is a reminder that the story is our story, a continuing story through history.

    Most of all, and this is shamelessly self-indulgent, I love it because I can trace connections from myself to some of these men, which is something that intrigues and delights me.

    William Carey is sitting, on the left hand end of the front row.  Born and brought up in Northamptonshire, he was Baptised in the River Nene, near to what is now the location of the Northampton Railway Station.  Nothing that surprising there.  The connection comes via the minister who Baptised him, John Ryland (third from the left in the front row) minister of College Lane (later Street) Baptist Church.  Among the plants from College Street was a Sunday School in a nearby village called Duston, from which a church emerged, choosing to become Congregational when it gained independence.  It was this church, now a URC, where I came to a place of owned Christian faith, at around the age of 15.  And it was in this church that I got to know one of my GB leaders, now a  friend, whose great grandparents were married in the chapel attended by Mari Jones of Bible Society fame.

    In the centre of the back row is a man wearing a white wig.  He is, so far as I can ascertain, the odd man out, because he was not a Particluar Baptist but a General Baptist, influenced by the Wesleys, and founder of the New Connexion, at the delightfully named Barton-in-the-Beans in Leicestershire.  From there, one of the many plants was in 'Dibley', established in 1749, more than a decade before Carey's birth, and becoming an independent church in 1798.  As a former minister of Dibley Baptist Church, I can claim a connection to Dan Taylor.

    Other links I may claim are undoubtedly more tenuous, places I've visited/studied such as the John Ryland University Library in Manchester (oodles of Baptist archives in the main John Ryland library), hymns I've sung written by John Rippon, and so on.

    When I think of the 'Communion of Saints' or the 'Great Cloud of Witnesses', it is in the light of connections such as these.  As someone who is not convinced that heaven is where we reconnect with our nearest and dearest, it is reassuring and comforting to contemplate that the interconnectedness will ensure a shared history, if measured only over centuries rather than years.


  • Mental Health Matters

    Last night's evening service was a very cursory look at one or two aspects of mental health and Christian faith.  As part of it, I shared four true stories, which I'm sharing here:

    Liz comes from a well-off family, her father is a banker and the family enjoy a good standard of living.  Despite this, even as a young child Liz suffered from anxiety, being terrified of the dark, afraid of drowning and worried lest any of her family should die.  Her fears were justified when her mother died when she was just fourteen years old, by which time she had begun to experience bouts of depression and struggled to believe there could be a loving God. In her late teens she had a dramatic conversion experience and became very involved in her local church.  Liz married young and has a large family; sadly almost every pregnancy brought with post-natal depression, and she finds motherhood very difficult.  She undertakes high profile work in areas of women’s justice which means she travels extensively in the UK and Europe.  She tries to keep her mental health private, and fears being found out.


    Dot comes from a decent working-class home, where money has always quite tight, but she knew she was well loved by her parents and siblings.  She has been a regular churchgoer since childhood.  Her husband has worked incredibly hard to improve his education, learn new skills and is well respected; although he clearly loves Dot, she feels inferior and, when his work meant travelling overseas, she was very reluctant to move so far from everyone and everything she knows.  Initially, the family was quite cut off from other Britons, but they now live in a small ex-pat community.  However, Dot’s mental health has suffered hugely, and she experiences delusional psychoses in which she is convinced her husband is having affairs.  Being on her own with him is dangerous for both of them, as she becomes violent and has threatened him with a knife on more than one occasion. She remains in her own home, where she has to be supervised at all times.  Her husband is bewildered and fears for their children.  He has some, limited, support from the few church folk who are aware of the situation.


    Mary was born in South Africa, where her parents are missionaries.  She fell in love with a young missionary who had recently arrived there and, to the obvious disapproval of her parents, married him.  The young couple travelled quite extensively together but once a family arrived, it was agreed that Mary would take the children back to his homeland where his family could care for them.  This proved disastrous.  The culture shock alone was huge, but Mary and her in-laws did not get on at all, indeed, so catastrophic was the endeavour that she took the children hundreds of miles away to live.  Mary was by now at a very low ebb, possibly with mild to moderate depression.  Lonely and isolated, she sought solace in the odd glass of wine, which soon led her to a degree alcohol dependency.  Eventually she and the in-laws were reconciled, her health recovered and she has returned to Africa to spend time travelling with her husband.


    If you met Charlie, you would almost certainly be struck by his confident demeanour, hearty laugh and mischievous sense of humour.  This father of two is a hardworking Baptist minister who combines pastoral responsibilities with serving a children’s charity in a very deprived area of London.  But appearances can be deceptive.  If you were to ask the deacons of his church, you would discover that Charlie is a bag of nerves on a Sunday morning, so much so that he sometimes feels quite unwell before the service starts.  Since his mid-thirties, he has suffered from chronic pain which is tiring and debilitating.  He also suffers from recurrent bouts of depression so bad that he has to take time off from church in order to recover.  His workaholic tendencies and physical condition combined with his nervous temperament contribute to the pressure he puts on himself and almost certainly trigger his depressive episodes.


    Four people living with mental health issues. 

    Do you recognise any of them?

    They, or their partners, are well-known Christian figures. 

    Liz – Elizabeth Fry, Quaker evangelist and prison reformer

    Dot – Dorothy (Dolly) Carey, wife of William Carery, pioneer missionary in India

    Mary – Mary Moffatt Livingston, wife of missionary explorer, David Livingston

    Charlie – Charles Haddon Spurgeon

  • Going Deeper - with Elizabeth Fry

    Four more weeks of 'heroes' to ponder...

    My Own Story

    There are almost two distinct stories to be discovered here.  The public life of the Quaker evangelist and prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry.  The private life of Betsy Gurney, a woman afflicted by anxiety and depression, and whose marriage and family life was complex and challenging 

    • Do I have different ‘personas’ in different contexts, such as home, work, clubs, church? How open am I able to be about the ‘real me’ in any of these contexts?
    • Mental health is still something of a ‘taboo’ in churches. What do I learn from stories such as that of Betsy about myself or others?  How should we as Christians respond?
    • Betsy faced the challenge of combining motherhood (to 11 children!) with incredibly demanding prison reform work, often travelling away from home. In what ways is that similar to, or different from, my experience, or that of young families today?  How might we support, or be supported in this juggling act?  

    Faith and Unbelief

    Betsy and her sisters hated going to Meeting, frequently recording in their journals, “Goats was dis” (disgusting) yet they continued to attend diligently.  The death of her mother when she was just 14 challenged Betsy’s belief in God, and she did not consider herself very religious until her dramatic conversion.  Thereafter she became ‘enthusiastic’ (not a compliment in those days) and failed to understand why her siblings did not feel as she did.

    • Does the idea of church as boring/irrelevant resonate with me, or with my children? How do I respond to that? What might church offer, and what might I offer to help?
    • How do we make space for children and young people to ask tough questions about faith?
    • Have I ever been like Betsy, a new convert (whether to Christianity or a lifestyle practice) and wondered why other people don’t feel the same? How do I/we support and encourage new believers and help them to mature in faith and practice?

    Joined-up Thinking

    From small beginnings in Newgate Prison, the work of Elizabeth Fry grew exponentially, its effects still being seen to this day.  She soon realised that what she was doing in the prison was of limited value without follow up outside of it, exemplified by her work with women being transported to Australia, who she supplied with sewing materials to begin a simple trade, and, later, with sponsors/mentors to help them transition to their new life.  This joined-up thinking maximised the benefits of the work begun in prison.   

    • Thinking of one cause that is close to my own heart, how deeply do I think about how to maximise the long-term benefit of my input? Do I offer ‘sticking plaster’ responses?  Do I seek to give ‘fish or fishing rods’?  Am I alert to the complexities and need for joined-up thinking?  

    Elizabeth, Betsy or Both?

    Elizabeth and Betsy are, of course, the same person, but each emphasis brings unique insights.   

    • Which aspects of this story have touched me, and how? What have I learned from ‘Elizabeth’ and from ‘Betsy’ and how might I integrate those in my own story?
  • Thankfully I don't hear these very often nowadays...

    Things not to say to your woman pastor are alas all to often the experience of women clergy.  I still have private jokes with my friends from Dibley about the length of my skirt, and there are still times - not at my church but elsewhere - when some of these are said to me.  I'm sure it's not unique to ministers either.

  • Quaker Prayer

    Whilst researching for this Sunday's service, I came across this rather lovely 19th century Quaker prayer written by Henry T Hodgkin ...

    Firm when all round me is in flux and seething

    Strong when the knees are quivering and fail,

    Beat of my heart’s beat, energy of breathing,

    Over my frailty wilt Thou prevail–

    In the secret places of the spirit,

    In the silent spaces of the morning

    I come to thee.


    Giver of joy beyond my best conceiving

    E’en to the stricken on his lonley trail,

    In Thee I find the glory of achieving,

    Resting on Thee I do not fear to fail–

    In the secret places of the spirit,

    In the silent spaces of the morning

    I come to thee.


    Friends who wast by me on my first arising

    Nor wilt forsake me when the light is spent

    Unto the child-like ever more surprising

    Filling the restless with a deep content

    In the secret places of the spirit,

    In the silent spaces of the morning

    I come to thee.