Keith Underhill: July 2016
Sermon preached by Revd Keith Underhill — Sunday 17th July
When we moved here to Alton back in August 2006, I didn't come with an ecumenical agenda, I hadn't got an ecumenical blue print hidden away in my desk draw, and I didn't have a ecumenical axe to grind nor an ecumenical vision to pursue.
I wasn't anticipating anything extraordinary and I certainly was expecting what has happened and all that we give thanks for this evening.
I can still recall how on a dark autumnal evening, I, along with Judy Janes and Sheila Wooding, turned up to a meeting at Andrews' Endowed school; the remit of which was to begin to explore what the future shape and ministry of the Church of England might look like and indeed be in this area.
Was it really viable and sustainable to have three parishes within such a small geographical area — and rather than allow circumstances to dictate both direction and strategy, would it not be better to plan for the future?
The meeting was chaired by Rev'd Trevor Wilmott, the then Bishop of Basingstoke and we were present in recognition of the national Anglican/Methodist covenant that existed then and still exists now between our two denominations and a genuine invitation of generous hospitality to be involved, at a level we felt happy with in all of the discussions.
Little did we know then, where these conversations would lead!
Yet it didn't take us long to realize that as we met and talked, dreamt and shared around those go-pack tables in the parish office at St. Lawrence, that something truly special and unique was happening.
God's hand was upon us — it was one of those Kairos moments, that don't come around too often — of God's timing; and it is not too great an exaggeration to say that meeting together changed us, changed our churches and changed Alton.
We know how the story — our story goes. One new parish, the Parish of the Resurrection in a covenant relationship with the Methodist Church, in order that we can better serve, minister and witness to our town and the surrounding villages.
And whilst, GAP — The Greater Alton Project, was officially launched, sign, sealed and delivered on November 29th 2009 — in truth, it began when we sat down for our very first meeting.
In fact, God has been in this from before the beginning — and in those early days of planning and re-structuring, when it looked as though there was no way through the structures and limitations of canon law or Methodist polity, doors opened and new ways of working were found.
God continued to honour our endeavours — and if you ever needed proof that God's spirit was at work, how often do you get three P.C.C.s and a Methodist Church Council all agreeing and voting unanimously on something?!
Looking back on what has taken place, there is so much to rejoice in, so many positives and successes to reflect on and praise God for.
Anna Chaplaincy — goes from strength to strength and from here, Alton, its ripples continue to move ever outward. Through our connections with BRF, Anna Chaplaincy is fast becoming of national importance and its influence is also being felt abroad as well.
In years to come, when Parishes looking for new incumbents and Methodist Stationing profiles all speak of either having Anna Chaplains as part of their ministry teams, or wanting to have them, we will remember and thank God for the fact that it was here where it all began and that here is to be found the spiritual home of Anna Chaplaincy.
In and through the leadership, ministry, commitment and pastoral care of Debbie, Helen and Jonathan, we have modelled as GAP what working with; alongside, and for older people looks like, and whilst every set-up is unique and different, we have and are able, to provide something of a blueprint to help others.
The importance of Chaplaincy at Alton College has been imbedded so well, that the conversations we've had with them when a chaplain has left, has always been how can we find another one, and never, do we really need one!
Bill, Tara and Hadley have all brought their own individual take on what it means to be a chaplain in such an academically successful sixth form college.
Each very different, but they all built on the foundations already laid, winning the trust of staff and students alike, in the never easy, sometimes hostile environment of an educational hothouse.
We have enjoyed joint confirmation and church membership services, where I have officiated alongside Bishops, (5 at the last count) who have never been anything but gracious, generous and hospitable towards me as we have shared together, and in doing so, bore witness to what could and should be in ecumenical relations.
It is also in the ordinary and everyday, in the humdrum and perhaps less glamourous (yet just as important) that GAP has also taken off.
From Service after School, (our take on Messy Church) through to coffee mornings, study courses, Lent activities, Alpha, traveling meals, the "Final Journey", and mince pies to busy commuters at Christmas time, to name but a few, puts flesh on the bones of the concept "in order that" — and making a difference, can be seen at work.
As you will be aware, not everything we did was a success — but where we got it wrong, we learnt from our mistakes and are the stronger, better and wiser for that — which bodes well for the future.
In our early days of planning and sharing, we spoke of how in a stick of seaside rock you would find the name of that town running through the middle.
That was always part of the vision for GAP, that no matter where you looked, you would find the Greater Alton Project running through what we do. That we have done!
Now intimately entwined and inter-connected alongside the D.N.A. of the Parish of the Resurrection and Alton Methodist Church, we find those three letters G A P.
When new ideas or possibilities are discussed within the parish on in the Methodist church — it is always with the comment, this should be a GAP initiative, or we should do this together!
To speak of GAP is now as natural as breathing and sits so well alongside and within our two denominations.
We have been bold and innovative, we have blazed a trail and we have done and are doing exciting things.
If we are guilty of anything, than perhaps it is of taking all this for granted and of having become a little complacent of what we have.
I know that from a Methodist perspective, when I share something of the GAP story within our South East District or Connexionally, (that is nationally), there is often amazement and also some envy as those who dare to dream for just a little of what we have, (but who find themselves in some ecumenical backwater where that tide has long gone out), would give their eye teeth to be in such a position.
All this begs the obvious questions though — is this it?! Have we reached our destination? Is there any more to come?
The answers to that must surely be No, No, Yes!
This is not the time to sit back on our ecclesiastical and denominational laurels, basking in some kind of reflected ecumenical glory — but rather a moment to ponder, to take stock and then with God's blessing, to continue onwards.
The steps we took all those years ago that enable us to be here tonight, to celebrate all that we have done and through God, achieved; were bold, exciting and innovative.
To reach this point I venture, has been our ecumenical equivalent of walking on the moon
So, what is the next chapter?
Where does this incredible, exciting and God-led journey lead us to next?
If NASA is seriously thinking of undertaking a manned space-mission to Mars, what is our ecumenical equivalent of standing on the red planet?!
I'm not sure — and what is to come is not a discussion that I will be party to or involved in. But I do know that through your on-going conversations, discussions, prayers and decisions that it will become clear and that the next phase of GAP will be revealed.
However, if I were to be as bold as to throw something in the ring for your delectation and discussion, it would be this — worship.
What we have already done under the auspices of the all- encompassing umbrella that GAP is, is great — but we are not so good I feel at worshipping together.
We have a small number of joint services — the annual service of confirmation and church membership, our Advent Sunday joint service to mark the anniversary of the covenant being signed, some joint services to mark Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday and one or two other opportunities — which are all well and good, but surely we should be doing more?
I believe that worshipping and praying together more often will help the process of deciding and discerning what next for GAP.
For it is when we worship and pray together that we become more aware of God's will and God's purpose for us, and become more in tune with God's wishes and God's vision.
However, I do not underestimate the fact that this is not always easy to do.
There will be some in both our denominations and traditions I suspect, who may feel threatened by a more intentional approach to united, joint services and acts of worship; who fear they may be sold out, that their own brand may somehow be diluted in the process.
For some, the idea of worshipping in another building may not be enticing, after all, they do things differently there you know! Really!
But is that to get things the wrong way round? Is it really about when to stand or sit, when to sing or say, chalice or glasses, where the Gospel is read from and who wears what and when?
So let's flip the coin, and see the other side instead; for in the relatively small number of joint services that we have participated in over the past seven years, we have found ourselves blessed and enriched and have learnt much from one another.
So, rather than being suspicious of each other's practices, lets welcome them and in doing so, embrace not only that which we have in common but also that which is different.
In doing so, we will learn, widen our horizons and appreciate the bigger picture of both the possibilities and the realities of worshipping our awesome, living, and transforming God.
That's where I would start from as you look to the future of GAP .
So, it is imperative that the next chapter of GAP whatever it may be, is undertaken with as much excitement, commitment, courage, verve, dynamism and innovation as that which has led us to this service here tonight.
Because GAP is about "in order that". GAP has never been just about us.
GAP has always been about that which is in our community.
GAP has always been for the benefit of others as we seek to better serve, minister and witness to our town.
GAP is outward looking, kingdom living, community serving and it's never just been about systems, process and administration — and where we've had to spend time on those things, then its always been as a mechanism to allow us to do something new and bigger and better.
As GAP we are beholden to continue to move forward and to push at the ecumenical boundaries, because that is part of our very strap line, of who we are! The Greater Alton Project, — Anglicans and Methodists journeying together.
There it is! A perpetual commitment to an on-going future.
As GAP we need to keep moving onwards and forwards for the sake of all those who seek to carry the torches of ecumenical co-operation, yet find themselves a lone voice and ignored.
Those, who, in both our traditions and denominations around this country, find themselves in a minority and who fear that the ecumenical flame might be dying.
For the sake of our sisters and brothers who share the ecumenical vision yet find themselves struggling and isolated, so that they know that there is hope — and that certainly here in Alton, the ecumenical flame blazes brightly.
For all those who when they hear or see what we are doing, are given the courage and hope to cling on even harder and tighter to the possibilities of a bigger, wider and richer future — of the church working with others as it could and should be.
As GAP we need to keep moving onwards and forwards for the sake of our deeply divided and battered and bruised nation.
In the wake of recent political events and decisions, GAP can and must be a sign of hope and possibility, to our society.
GAP symbolizes what can be done and we need to continue to model what that looks like and to proclaim that there is another narrative, and a different story, one that speaks of co-operation, openness and the willingness to work together, of embracing differences, of generous hospitality and of welcoming stranger and friend alike.
And last, but not least, GAP needs to continue moving onwards and forwards because, quite simply, Jesus prayed that we might be as one and it is a blasphemy that we are not!
So, I will be watching from a distance with great interest to see how GAP does continue to move forwards and onwards in the coming months and years and it goes without saying that I will continue to hold you all in my prayers.
"What shall our greeting be: Sign of our unity?
JESUS IS LORD!
May we no more defend Barriers he died to end:
Give me your hand, my friend: One Church, One Lord!"
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