Tuesday, 16 March 2010

More from the Darlington District

I set off for the Darlington District on Tuesday 9th March, stopping en route at the Lay Employees, Children and Youth Workers' Conference (described and pictured on Richard's earlier blog).

My first visit on Wednesday 10th March was to Woodhouse Close, an ecumenical church on an estate in Bishop Auckland. The visit was great. This is a Methodist/Church of England church, and has been so for around 40 years. It is at the heart of its community, both geographically and in terms of the many things that go on there. It is THE Church in this community. I was able to meet representatives of various community groups and activities that are based or have links here, visit the pre-school playgroup, lunch with some of the leadership team, and even have a quick 'go' on the organ.

From Woodhouse Close, District Chair Ruth Gee took me to Durham, to the Wesley Study Centre. I joined staff and students for worship, then led a session where we had a lively discussion. This was followed by a reception in the Senior Common Room where I met college officers, along with staff from Cranmer Hall, Ushaw College and the University's Department of Theology. Durham is a very beautiful city and the Wesley Study Centre is located very near its heart. There is clearly an excellent relationship with the other colleges and with the University's theology department. Such a relationship brings exciting possibilities.

The day ended at the Methodist Church in Crook, with a lecture by Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham. This was part of an ecumenical initiative called 'The Big Read'. Tom Wright has written a study guide to Luke's gospel and lots of ecumenical groups are using it to explore Luke during Lent. The Bishop is giving 3 lectures on the theme (each in 4 venues) and these are being attended by hundreds of people. Having sat through this evening's lecture, I can see why. I have read some of Tom Wright's books but this was my first chance to see him in action - and it was a very good evening indeed. It's great to see and feel the 'buzz' when people come together to explore the Bible. (Picture above left shows Chair Ruth Gee, me, Bishop Tom and Superintendent Ann Shepherdson.)

On Thursday 11th March we drove to Thornaby Methodist Church in the Stockton Circuit. Like Woodhouse Close, this is a church very much at the heart of its community, with all sorts of exciting things going on. These include the Noah's Ark Family Centre, a soft play area for children. Grant funding has recently been obtained to develop a sensory garden at the rear of the church. All kinds of groups meet here and there is an excellent cafe (try the poached eggs on toast!) with a steady stream of customers. It was good to meet - and be enthused by - minister Roberto Viana and his wife Suzie, who originate from Brazil (where I did my pre-presidential visit last year).

From Thornaby we went to Redcar, to the Corus site. Along with Methodist Chaplain Gordon Wallace, superintendent minister Chris Eddy and local minister Malcolm Newman we met the HR Director, union representatives and other staff of the plant. The recently announced mothballing of the blast furnace means the loss of 1700 jobs. But the impact on the local community is much greater, as many other people's livelihoods are related to what goes on at Corus. This feels like yet another blow to a community that has, in the not too distant past, been affected by the loss of other major heavy industries. Local unions and management are working together to try to secure a better future, but no-one should underestimate the devastation caused to the community by the decision to mothball the blast furnace.

We were shown round parts of the site and Chris, Malcolm and I had at least a moment's light relief when we saw what we looked like in our orange protective clothing!

Friday morning was spent at Middleton Grange Shopping Centre in Hartlepool, where workplace chaplain the Revd Rosa Leto had arranged for the District's chaplains from various institutions to gather so we could explore together both the opportunities and the challenges of chaplaincy work. Suzanne Chaney, the Centre's Tenant Liaison and Marketing Manager, shared the morning with us and took us on a tour of the Centre.

During this year I have been increasingly impressed by the work of chaplains, both lay and ordained (so much so that I recently devoted a Methodist Recorder article to the subject). Here is the Church alongside people in their daily life and work. Many people are open to and appreciate what chaplains have to offer. And their work makes sense to those responsible for the places where chaplains operate. It was moving to hear Suzanne Chaney's words of appreciation for what Rosa Leto is, does and represents.

From Hartlepool I accompanied Ruth Gee to Yarm Methodist Church, to attend a service of thanksgiving for the life of one of our supernumerary ministers, the Revd Clifford Jagger, who died earlier this month aged 95. In his address, the Revd Peter Sutcliffe, with his gentle humour, gave us a real glimpse into the life of someone who had served his Lord for many years - Clifford's years of 'travel' as a Methodist Minister began in 1940!

Incidentally, Yarm Methodist Church was described by John Wesley in 1764 as of all the preaching houses 'by far the most elegant in England'. It is said he liked such octagonal buildings because 'there are no corners for the Devil to hide in'!

Richard, the Vice-President, arrived in the District in time for an evening meal with the District Vision and Strategy Team (described in Richard's blog) and for Saturday's District Day on Discipleship (also in that earlier blog).

When Richard went to jail on Sunday morning (see his blog for a reminder of why!), I went to Ferryhill Methodist Church in the West Durham Circuit to preach at a service conducted by their minister, the Revd Michael Pullan. Michael and I were probationers together in the York and Hull District in the mid 1970s and it was great to see him again. This is Ferryhill's centenary year and it was good to share in their celebrations.

Richard has already written of the evening service at Richmond. Before arriving at the church we drove up beautiful Swaledale. Quite a contrast to where I live, in North London. I arrived home at half past midnight and there was not a sheep in sight in Muswell Hill.

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