A sermon preached on Bible Sunday, 23rd October, by Mark Ward at Sandleheath.

“The best book to read is the bible;

The best book to read is the bible;

If you read it every day, it will help you on your way;

Oh, the best book to read is the bible.”


I remember singing that at Scripture Union in my teens, but it has now fallen by the wayside as have many of the old choruses in favour of songs which sound much more like the music of today and maybe that’s no bad thing but at the same time the old choruses were to the point and this one certainly has a very singular message. Or what about:


“Read you bible pray every day, pray every day, pray every day;

Read your bible pray every day, if you want to grow, if you want to grow, if you want to grow;

Read your bible, pray every day, if you want to grow.”


It’s a very simple message. Today is Bible Sunday, a day we celebrate the bible and a day which reminds us of the foundation of our Christian Faith and it’s growth from a God of vengeance to a God of pure love.


I drove up to Swanwick in Derbyshire on Monday morning in the company of Bishop Jonathan and then also of Gary when we collected him from his son Craig’s house in Oxford. We had brunch in Summertown with Craig who has just started theological college at Ridley Hall Oxford and then set off for Derbyshire. The purpose was the Winchester Diocesan Conference which happens at the beginning of each 3 year synod cycle. There were 195 of us and unless you knew the people there was no clue as to who was clergy and who lay because dog-collars and other clerical clothing was banned.


Every morning began with a biblically based talk by the former Bishop of Maidstone, Graham Cray. Last time we had Bishop Tom Butler who I found impenetrable in his language but Bishop Cray evidently lives with and talks to normal people and the only times I lost his thread were when I was too busy dwelling on something he had just said. It wasn’t a traditional bible study in the sense that you visit a single passage, more a talk which was illustrated with biblical references but it taught me that this man knew his bible so well and it sustained him.


If you have had anything to do with the Parish Mission Action Plan process you will know that the Diocese has 4 strategic principles which we established 3 years ago and Bishop Graham spoke to each of these:

  • We need to become authentic disciples;
  • We need to re-imagine the church
  • We will become agents of social transformation; and
  • We must become willing sacrificial givers, not just of time but also of who we are.


Following Bishop Graham we then had a specialist speaker of the day and following that three topics were introduced which fitted in each of those 4 topics for us to discuss and feedback on. We met for Eucharist every morning before breakfast, for a worship session before dinner, full of modern worship songs, and then for night prayer called Compline at 9pm before we retired either to the bar or to bed. Gary, Bishop Jonathan and I were running the worship so we had some very long days as we re-arranged the chapel, filled it with candles and so on to make sure that each experience was new and enticing but also with the aim of focussing people on the word of God.


So I have had a lot of bible this week, some familiar bits and some less so. It made me realise what a huge book it is and that there are still large parts of it I know very little about. Dennis might have noticed a recent post of mine on Facebook. A couple of weeks ago at morning prayers, where I work, someone quoted from Ecclesiastes Chapter 4 and then later that same day, somewhere unconnected with work, mentioned it again. So what – well, I don’t think I had heard it before in my 54 years on this earth:

“A cord of 3 strands is not easily broken”. And then on Friday after the talk about generosity I opened a resource booklet to find not only that verse but also an illustration of those 3 strands. Now in the booklet the verse is there to explain three more diocesan principles, Bishop Tim Dakin’s 3 Ps which are:

Passionate Personal Spirituality;

Pioneering Faith Communities;

And, Prophetic Global Citizenship.

They come from the first sermon he preached when he was consecrated as the Lord Bishop of Winchester.


Yes there is a danger of all these principles to become jargon, but they are all based in scripture. Bishop Tim’s mantra, a bit like Tony Blair’s “education, education, education”, is “Mission, Mission, Mission”, – he was head of the Church Missionary Society before he became Bishop of Winchester and was born and lived in Africa for many years heading a theological college there. So his message is very clear “We the Church, be it CofE or Methodist or both as here, need to take our message out there into the world”, and by that he means Sandleheath and Fordingbridge and Downton and Ringwood, and meet people where they are. We need to engage with them in their lives, at work, in the co-op, in the pub, at the football, and ask them how can we help you, what can the Church do for you to help you in your life? We need to become relevant again or else we will die.  He isn’t suggesting we should Bible bash, far from it, he is saying we need to help deal with their social issues, what affects their lives, poverty, addiction, family breakdown and so on. So what does the bible have to do with it – well it informs us, it teaches you and me so we can be with people and walk alongside them – it tells us not to judge, not to preach but instead to encourage, it teaches us humility and it teaches us to be servants, not just of God but of those people.


In his sermon on Friday the Bishop said we need to stand firm against the enemy – poverty, family issues, addiction and all the other modern evils, we need to struggle against evil ourselves and we need to be strong, again not of ourselves but strong in the Lord.


So going back to my three strands for Ecclesiastes – what are they, well I am going for Prayer, Scripture and the Holy Spirit. If we take those three things into any situation we can stand up against evil.


Do you read your bible every day? I must admit I have only got better at it since I was licenced as a Reader, almost because I was forced to, because if I don’t then I can’t talk knowledgably about the reading set for the day, so for 40 years I wasn’t great at doing it every day, even with bible reading notes.


Pray – do you pray every day – I suspect that more people will say yes to that one, even if it is sometimes a bit out of context when we in anger proclaim “Oh God, why…” or as I hear on TV very often when people are surprised “Oh my God”.  I think my question here is more about “what do you pray” rather than “do you pray every day” – do you pray a long list of “dear God please will you…”  – which if you are praying for others is absolutely fine, but do you also pray “please will you make my arm feel better, please will you make my life better because of x and y and z, or do you pray – “God thank you, thank you for being with me, thank you for all you  do, thank you for helping me by giving me your peace and your spirit, for armed with these things, I can cope with everything”. Because clearly God can’t stop us having to go to the dentist or being dragged off shopping against our will, he can’t stop bad stuff happening to us but he can sustain us through all of this. And he does that when we come here – he sustains us to go out there to be prophetic global citizens – people willing to say they believe in God, in mission to the world around us.


And then there is the gift of the Holy Spirit. I was only talking about this last Sunday evening in Fordingbridge. Are we people full of the spirit?


Have you ever done a Myers Briggs personality test? Big organisations are fond of them because they explain part of what makes people tick. I don’t have time to explain it fully here but it compares pairs of issues, one of which is introverts and extroverts. It turns out I am a raging introvert – maybe you think that’s odd as I’m happy to stand here in front of you or for that matter in front of thousands of people at a conference, but I am a serious introvert, I like my own company, to quote an 80’s pop song, “you will always find me in the kitchen at parties”, because I run out of small talk after about 20 minutes, I like to think things through so I have huge and long conversations in my head, so much so that John Towler has said that he has never met anyone who can sit in a room in silence for so long supposedly in conversation, and I detest being asked to do anything that exposes me to acting out my feelings. I don’t know if you remember Debby Thrower, ex BBC and ITV journalist. Debby is a great friend of mine and fellow Reader. We were on a course together once and the person leading it was an extrovert, extroverts, in my opinion, have no idea what they put introverts through. This person was getting us to stand up and wave our arms around to express some feeling or other and in my opinion to make us look foolish, and I became more and more annoyed and uncomfortable. Debby, who is a brilliant reader of other people deliberately paired up with me at the next exercise and she said ”right, this will either make or break our friendship – Mark for goodness sake what is the matter, your negativity is beginning to affect the whole room, stop it right now”. So I poured it all out, and she understood and she encouraged me to at least try. Our friendship blossomed I’m pleased to say. Why am I telling you this, because I suspect I am a slightly extreme version of what we call “British reserve”. And maybe that is why we have difficulty with being what many see as “people of the Holy Spirit”, arm waving in worship songs or in prayer, calling out “yes Jesus” or “Amen” in prayer time or even when invited to name people during the intercessory prayers, staying tight-lipped because we don’t want to be the first one to speak. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t full of the Holy Spirit does it? That famous passage in the bible where everyone hears people speaking in their own tongue because they were “full of the spirit” is I think much misunderstood – the people who suddenly started talking all these languages weren’t drunk or crazy, the Holy Spirit had simply given them the amazing gift of being able to talk to all the strangers present in their own language, so being full of the spirit isn’t something crazy, it is something very normal and useful. Prayer, Bible, Spirit, my three strands from scripture”  – “a cord with three strands is not easily broken”.


So let me encourage you – the best book to read is the bible, read your bible, pray every day and be people of the Holy Spirit and if you do those three things we can all go out in mission to those we meet every day who are crying out for love and for answers because we will be true disciples of the living God, we will come here for spiritual growth and stop worrying about simply filling the pews up, we will be generous people with all that we have and so when we go out there we will be true missionaries.


I’ve been very long for me today, but let me finish with a final thought. I was sent on a leadership course a few years back and we had to do a project and I called mine “the step of terror” which is the doorstep of the church. It’s the step that outsiders find very difficult to cross because they are fearful of what they will find inside, and it’s the step where we often leave Jesus behind when we go out, when we go back to “normal life”. If we are spiritual people, praying and reading our bible we can take Jesus out there to be the practical Christians St James tells us we must be. He says, it’s no good being the holiest person in the world if you see someone on the street who is in trouble and simply say to them “I wish you well my sister, or my brother”, he tells us clearly that if we don’t help them out of their trouble then everything we have been doing and will do during this service is a complete waste of time. So whilst it would be good to convert a few people to bolster our numbers, our purpose is to put on the armour of God, to quote St Paul and I would say that is put on the bible, prayer and spirit, get out there, help some people in their need with us being people of God, and you know what, the odd one might want to come back with us here, maybe not right now, but in time, but they have to be able to see us for what we are – true disciples of the living God, full of his spirit, taught by his word and thankful in prayer. Amen.

Sermon on the occasion of celebrating 50 years of ordination, preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on Sunday 16th October 2016 (Trinity 21).

But as for you continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ”.(2Timothy 3:14-15).


Part of what I have to share with you this morning has been inspired by the writings of Fr Richard Rhor in a wonderful book called ‘Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the two halves of life’. Richard quotes a question from another writer Mary Oliver which very much fits with celebrating 50 years of ordained life within my total story. She asks, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ I remembering coming up with several answers to this with regard to what I wanted to do with my life-a pharmacist, teacher, a priest. I caught a rather idealised glimpse of being a priest somewhere around the age of 12.I have rebelled against it many times but God is smarter than I am, so here I am again fulfilling the role and work of an ordained minister of his Church and in his world.


Let me briefly return to this notion of ‘the two halves of life’. He puts forward the idea that we spend the first half of our lives creating ‘a container’ endeavouring to answer questions like, ‘What makes me significant?’ ‘How can I support myself?’ ‘Who will go with me?’ The second half is to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver. What he means is that the second part of life can be a rich journey of discovery of our deepest and fullest life which we largely do not know about ourselves. Both parts are necessary, cumulative and are sequential. We shall always be trying to answer those first questions although we can journey deeper. One is not better than the other.


So it is with this thought in mind that I want to share parts of my journey, in the words of Timothy ‘what I have learned’ as an ordained priest in which I have endeavoured to answer those first questions of Richard about ‘my significance’ ‘my support’ and ‘my travelling companions’.


Pre ordination it was largely as a chorister and an altar server that I glimpsed the mystery of God in worship with its wonderful rich music and liturgy. What a container that has proved to be when concentration wanders and questions abound. That was something which I was to return to big time as Precentor at Worcester Cathedral-music and liturgy as a holding presence of the mystery of God. But I needed theological college to burst my bubble and focus my attention on the person of Jesus, the sacred scriptures and the whole paraphernalia of what is means to be a priest in the world. It was here I learned to be critical, I think largely as a rebellion against a rather formulaic teaching style.


I feel sorry for parishes who have to put up with green curates! I was one. I had chosen a wife as a companion and as time progressed sadly this did not work out. I followed a path of educating myself through training courses to become a decent pastor and teacher-skills lacking in my Theological Training. I was exposed to teaching in schools; working as a volunteer in a coffee bar in a seamy bit of town where the youngsters were constantly in trouble with the law through drug taking, drinking and promiscuity; chaplain in  the local hospital; part time prison chaplain and was given a new housing estate of 10,000 souls to be their pastor. This was a time in which I painfully learned my craft-how to comfort a mother with a baby dying in her arms, how to get through a funeral service of an 18 month old child with cracking up, fending off the advance of clever prisoners, managing a youth club where adolescent hormones were on the rampage!

Who supported me? There were several parish priests (I served in a group of town parishes in Lowestoft), my POT tutors, wonderful parishioners who took me to the pub and a stumbling faith that this was what God was calling me to do.


My next job was to be Warden of a Diocesan Residential Centre, Youth Officer and Parish Priest in a small village-a heady mix, of living several lives mostly held in tension being pulled by the Parish on one side and my educational role on the other. I had a wonderful Chair of the Conference Centre who was also my Archdeacon-Tim Dudley-Smith of hymn writing fame. When things got hot Tim would be beside me literally.


So here I learned to say yes and no with varying degrees of success; but above all my ministry with the young people catapulted me into a study and ongoing dialogue about religious language-something I still wrestle with. How to communicate the things of God, of Jesus Christ, of the sacred scriptures, of the mission of the Church in a way which relates to human life? I learned to converse with people from Germany, the Soviet Union, Israelis, adults with special needs, ordinands, youth and community workers, teachers. I decided my priestly role was to provide a safe space for dialogue about questions they wanted answering, and a place of hospitality. It was out of that they asked me about my faith.


Diana Butler Bass in a new book, ‘Grounded’ is my latest sortie into religious language. She redirects our thinking into answering the question ‘Where is God in our world?’ Her exploration of God in dirt (earth), sky, water, roots, home, neighbourhood, and shared space reconnected me to a faith not confined to the institutional Church and one we are commissioned to find new expression in our common life together. The learning goes on.


My time at Worcester Cathedral was a sweet and sour experience. Learning to work with very musically able young people, lay clerks and musicians and the Dean and Chapter, was as pleasurable as it was totally frustrating with having to manage the competing demands of each. Singing Evensong each day was a haven in which I learned to let go of many of these frustrations as I was drawn into the Opus Dei-that round of worship which is constantly nourished by the monastic foundations of the world. My ego was stroked as I met with members of the Royal Family at the Maundy Celebrations and Prince Charles at the unveiling of the Elgar statue, Archbishop Runcie for the Diocesan Centenary Celebrations on Worcester Cricket ground, Cardinal Hume at the 500th Benedictine Celebrations, accompanying Dame Judie Dench practising ‘God’s Grandeur’ at the Three Choirs Festival. Then my ego was crushed when my marriage broke up.


I felt like I was living on the edge of my competence during these times but what a school for learning resilience. This for a while completed my full time ministry in the church. From now on I journeyed in the wilderness for a few years.


I emerged wiser, chastened, but needing to find a job like thousand of others. I learned ho to apply for job and present myself at interview and all those elements that make up paid public employment. In short I was immediately immersed what some of you would call the real world-buying and renting houses, supporting family etc. I faced the issues of living and working alongside ethnic communities, surviving feminist caucuses, being a commuter, wrestling how I could be a priest in this new world. Visits to monasteries and Cathedrals provided nourishment but what about being a priest? My conclusion was that those I served were my community; here I could give thanks for their work and love them as best I could. A priest above all is a facilitator, a go-between, a human being who is prepared to share in the sufferings of humanity, a person who endeavours to be Christ for others. I had many rich conversations and made many friends-few who attend church but who have spiritual depths that connects us to each other.


I knew some aspect of ministry was missing. So in fear and trembling of being rejected I offered to return to working within the institution. Returning to the institutional church is challenging. As I gingerly travel in the second half of life I want to push the boundaries of faith, take risks, go deeper, get lost, discover more of who I am, learning to travel with new companions (inc Christine and the dogs), finding I can sit lightly to institutional nonsense, but finding a deep satisfaction in learning to becoming who I am rather than what others would want me to be. I hope I am travelling to a place of deeper peace and satisfaction. That does not mean I can or would want to bypass the pain of the world. Rather that I can live it not having to know the answers or the direction but trust that God’s grace is sufficient for me. I thank God for all who travelled and continue to travel with me.


John Towler

Assistant Priest