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Pastoral Letter from Revd. Bryan Coates.

To:  The Members of the Churches of the Salisbury Circuit

Dear Colleagues ‘In Christ’ and His Church,

Following on from the letters that I have written over the past few months, at our meeting earlier this month the members of our Circuit Leadership Team suggested that I should write a further letter.  As I understand it, their idea was that it should be an upbeat, positive, constructive and encouraging letter. I found that I couldn’t write that sort of letter.   In the couple of weeks since that meeting I have pondered and puzzled over what I should write and having been reluctant I have now put pen to paper.

In honesty I am troubled and not a little daunted.  With some hesitancy, I believe it right to share with you some of my concerns.

It is true that following several months of the enforced closure of our churches because of the lockdown associated with the Covid 19 crisis, we have re-opened our churches and begun Services of Worship.

It is true that an enormous amount of time, energy, commitment and sheer hard work has gone into the process of preparing the premises to reopen with all the regulations that demand deep cleaning, Risk Assessment and a whole lot more.  As a Circuit we are hugely grateful to all those who have given and done so much.  I am glad to pay tribute to this and say Thank You.

It is true that during lockdown, although the premises were closed, church remained open for some of our ‘core business’.  Streamed Services and a variety of written material were produced to help people engage in Worship.  Pastoral care was offered and shared, and in some ways extended– we looked out for one another.  Again, a sincere Thank You to all those who continue to take part in that aspect of the ministry of the church.

Having said all that, there are some real negatives that prompt me to ask some questions – questions for me in my role, but also questions for you and for every member of our congregations.

Many of us must have thought that as lockdown was eased, we had come through the crisis and normality would soon be resumed.  However, we are now in a renewed period of uncertainty and the immediate prospect is quite dark.  Large swathes of our country have seen an alarming increase in the infection rate of the Coronavirus, a significant number of hospital admissions and of Covid related deaths.  Lockdown, with all its consequences, has returned for large parts of the whole the United Kingdom.  While we, in our part of the country, seem to have got off lightly, the danger and its threat have not gone away.  To me, it seems probable that we shall continue to be subject to all sorts of restrictions well into next year.

  • What effect is that going to have on the life of the Church?
  • How do we maintain our Worship, our Fellowship and, not least, our Finances?
  • How do we encompass and maintain our ministry to all the groups and organisations that find a home on our premises and who, at this time, share the experience of being locked out?

Worship is different.  As has been said many times ‘Methodism was born in song.’  We express something of both our faith and our spirituality through the singing of hymns.  That can’t happen now and we are impoverished.  Methodism is a movement of Fellowship.  In our greatly reduced congregations people now sit two metres apart.  I am hearing that being in Church under these conditions can be an isolating experience.  The very antithesis of all that we value in being together as the people of God.  As one charged with the leading of Worship, it is a whole different experience for me too at the front facing a masked scattered congregation.

  • How can we enhance and enrich the experience of Worship for those who are able to come on a Sunday morning?
  • What about those who cannot come or those apprehensive about coming?
  • How do we maintain the ‘rightness’ of God’s people gathering to offer to Him our worship and our devotion?
  • How do we maintain our fellowship? How can I encourage our people to gather in ‘permitted’ groups of six to share their faith and experience?
  • Would people welcome the opportunity of some written material – perhaps based on the Lectionary passages and/or on the last Sunday’s sermon(s) for serious discussion on at least some of the pertinent questions that our Biblical readings raise?

Then, for me, there is a personal question.  On January 8th I had a conversation with David, our Superintendent Minister, who had just been signed onto sick leave.  He anticipated and hoped that a two-week break would make all the difference.  After that first fortnight the sick leave was extended, and I offered – as before – to help out.  I was then, and remain, glad to do so.  In what has become a long-extended period, we remain very concerned for David – and for Helen – as they face the illness that has robbed him of his vitality and also an uncertain future.

As a Circuit, I believe that the current crisis will force change, perhaps unwelcome change, upon us.  We cannot stand still!

  • How can I, in this interim period, offer appropriate leadership and direction to the Salisbury Circuit?

And the big questions.

  • How do we maintain our conviction that ‘best of all, God is with us’ in these unique circumstances?
  • John Wesley said, ‘I look upon the world as my parish.’  Understandably, inevitably, we have focussed much of the last seven months on how the Coronavirus crisis has affected us – individually and as the Church.  How do we exercise our God-given responsibility and passion for those outside our immediate situation and those most in need on the local and on the world scene?

I shall be grateful to receive your reflections and suggestions: sandyandbryan@tiscali.co.uk

Sincerely,

Bryan

Bryan Coates

October 2020

 

A Reflection for Sunday 9th August from Revd. Bryan Coates

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 14 vv 22 – 33

It is also helpful to read John’s account of this event – John 6 vv 16 – 21

Codex Egberti c. 980 Manuscript (Cod. 24), 270 x 210 mm Stadtbibliothek, Trier
Jesus walking on water

Reflection 20

 

When the phrase ‘walking on water’ is used we think either of some incredible, almost impossible action or – with tongue slightly in cheek, of a person of great charisma and enormous and unusual gifts and abilities.  Our Biblical passage, set for this Sunday, fits both ideas and is just that with Jesus and his appearance to the disciples.  In honesty, it is an unusual if not strange story and, at first reading, seems a million miles from our experience.

Matthew, Mark and John all have the account of Jesus walking on water (I wonder why Luke chose to leave it out of his Gospel?)  and in all three Gospels it is placed immediately after the feeding of the great crowd.  What is in it for us?

It is a focus on Jesus.  While to our twenty-first century minds it is a miraculous event that raises all sorts of questions, that would not have been the case to the disciples themselves, or to those in the early church who heard about it.  They expected and accepted accounts of God in action in all sorts of ways and would not have raised the sorts of issues that we do.  There is a hint of at least a question in John’s mind as he records the event.  Matthew tells us that the disciple’s boat was far out on the lake, whereas in John “immediately the boat reached land” – as if he is seeking some explanation.

We see Jesus taking decisive action.  There are strong verbs – “He made the disciples get into the boat” and “after sending the people away”.  At the very end of John’s account of the feeding he tells us that Jesus knew that the crowd wanted “to make him king by force”.  John 6 v15.  Jesus wanted none of it.  The feeding had been deeply impressive, but Jesus was protective of himself and the disciples and removed the disciples from the scene and its temptations, and banished the crowd before it got out of hand.   He himself went off into the hills to pray.  Then, responding to the crisis, he came to the storm-tossed disciples in the boat.  The wind died down.

Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords in close relationship with his heavenly Father and this is part of the divine revelation of God himself.  He is in control.  He commands the disciples and the crowd.  His Lordship extends to the material world – bread and fish – and even to the wind and the waves.  He can and does walk on water!  He invites us to allow ourselves to be subject to his command.

It is about fear.  Some of the disciples were strong armed and experienced fishermen, entirely accustomed to the sudden squalls of wind and rain that are characteristic of Lake Galilee.  Some were not.  There must have been some fear as the boat was “tossed about by the waves” v24.                But then the figure – completely unexpected and startling, and at first sight ghostly.  “they were terrified…and screamed with fear” v26.  Then Peter, bold as brass, stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus.  That is until “he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid” v30.

Fear is real.  There is much to make us afraid.  The obvious and immediate example is Covid 19.  We fear for members of our own family, for friends, for ourselves.  Like you, I have read of the Black Death that devastated European populations in the second half of the fourteenth century, and of the Plague of the seventeenth century, and of Spanish Flue a hundred years ago.  Interesting, if chilling reading, but remote.  Now this pandemic, on a world scale, is ravaging populations, wreaking havoc on livelihoods and economies and bringing unimaginable suffering and death.  And it is close, very close to each one of us.  In that wonderful hymn ‘I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship,’ we sing the line “and calms our lurking fear.”   As to those disciples in the wave-tossed boat, Jesus says to us with our real, lurking fears “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” V27.

It is about failure. Of the three Gospel versions, it is only Matthew who tells us about Peter’s attempt to walk on water.  Unsurprisingly, it is Peter who attempts to walk to Jesus.  Throughout the Gospel story, it is Peter who is the prominent one.  Peter is the one who seems to speak first on a number of occasions.  Peter is the one who seems to have a modicum of understanding and of faith.  However, we know of the early hours of that fateful Friday morning when Peter, in spite of vehement protestation at the supper table, is equally vehement in his denial of even knowing Jesus. The same Peter who, at the glance of Jesus, slinks away and weeps bitterly.   Here in this account, Peter started to sink and there are words of regret from Jesus to Peter “How little faith you have!  Why did you doubt?”  Again and again, the gospels are brutally honest and give us the picture of Peter the failure.

In honesty, isn’t the reality of discipleship – our discipleship, about failure?  Failure to believe, failure to trust, failure to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus – even in the most fearful of situations?

It is about the saving power and presence of Jesus.  Noticing the strong wind, Peter started to sink. He cried out “Save me, Lord” v30. “At once, Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him” v31.  As we have already noted, Jesus called to the fearful disciple “Courage. It is I.” v27.  Then “The wind died down.” v32.  The response of the disciples is their worship and their faith “Truly you are the Son of God”! v32.

When we are overwhelmed by the storms of life, when the waves bring us to the point of being most fearful, when we are acutely aware of our fallibility and our failure, and when, in our need, we have nowhere to turn, nowhere else to go and we cry out ‘Save me, Lord’, it is then that Jesus reaches out and grabs us and holds us in divine security.  In Jesus, come hell or high water, God is powerfully at work.

Bryan Coates
August 2020

Postscript:

Charles Wesley based a hymn on this passage.  It is StF 461 or HP 434 – ‘Come, O thou Traveller unknown’.  He, of course, makes the transition to Jesus – “thy nature and thy name is Love”.

 

A Prayer for our time

A Prayer from the Connexion – slightly amended.

God of all hope we call on you today.
We pray for those who are living in fear,
Fear of illness, fear for loved ones, fear of other’s reaction to them.
May your Spirit give us a sense of calmness and peace.

We pray for your Church in this time of uncertainty.
For those needing to make decisions in order to care for others,
For those who feel more isolated by not being able to attend worship or fellowship.
Grant us your wisdom.

Holy God, we remember that you have promised that nothing will separate us from your love, demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.
Help us to turn our eyes, hearts and minds to you.

Amen