My favourite Christmas carol is ‘In the bleak mid-winter’. Call me sentimental, but its talk of hard frost has undertones of a good Christmas country walk; it’s strong on creation, the stable animals in the carol being as important as the myriads of angels surrounding them; there’s healthily a physical side to it, with its talk of breasts of milk, and kisses; and it’s a humble poem, wondering what we might offer the Christ-child, ‘poor as [we are]’.
More of that in a moment. First, I’d like to give public thanks to three people: first to Phoebe Brown, who after many years of organizing the distribution of this magazine, is handing over to Judy Cooper - we are extremely grateful to Phoebe for her many labours. Second, Nichola Heathman is taking a break from her sacristan duties, and we are deeply indebted to her for her deep faithfulness keeping us going in the vestry, week in, week out - Liz Loftus is kindly stepping in there. Third, one of our retired priests, Denis, is ‘hanging up his chasuble’, after huge contributions both to Tavistock (maintaining the Friday 12.30 service) and to Gulworthy (where he has presided once a month). Denis’s contribution to ministry in these parishes has been quiet, and absolutely massive, and we are profoundly thankful to him and to Ann - it is wonderful that he completed his ‘tour of duty’ with a great celebration at Michaelmas, when a huge crowd gathered for the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination as a deacon.
The departure of Tim and the retirement of Denis have repercussions for the pattern of ministry in our parishes: Tavistock PCC has decided that, from the New Year, until we have more priestly resources, the Friday service should be occasional (red-letter saints’ days rather than weekly). And Gulworthy has taken the decision that on two Sundays each month, its worship will be Morning Prayer or a non-eucharistic ‘JAM’ Club service, thus halving the current number of communion services there. These are significant decisions which will evoke some feeling - yet until we can ‘grow’ more of our own priests and ministers, then the PCCs have little option. There is absolutely nothing to stop every tiny community having its own, local, volunteer priest - we just need to produce them ourselves, inviting the bishop to train and ordain them. The wonderful strategic work on encouraging different ministries, done by the PCC (see page 15), and continuing to be overseen by a lay ministry group, can only be a beginning.
It’s not only in terms of ministry that difficult questions are having to be asked and hard answers having to be swallowed. In Tavistock, our treasurer’s projected deficit for 2011 of £55,000 has caused the PCC to ask its standing committee to have a hard look at its areas of expenditure (our own ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’ to match the government’s). There has been an excellent and generous response to the ‘Personal Challenge’ issued to electoral roll members in September, while not every member has taken up the challenge, and so for 2010 there is still a shortfall which we have to meet from precious and fast-depleting reserves. The precise results of the Challenge will be available next month, and in the meantime, I am encouraged that the Challenge has engendered a sense of corporate responsibility for our finances among many members of the electoral roll.
Like many aspects of public life in the coming year, these questions of money and ministry in our church life will bring us discomfort, and cause us to make sacrifices. We often pray at the end of communion, ‘we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice’, and I sometimes wonder how much we really mean that. If we give God only what is left over once we’ve seen to all our other responsibilities, if we consistently give God only our ‘short change’, then we are short-changing God for all that God has given us. It is, I believe, a question of priorities, and whether we give (in time, money, or any other way) ‘first to the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 8.5) - first means first, not fitting it in last around everything else that we’re keen to do.
So we come back to ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ - we’re called to give the Christ-child nothing less than our heart: ‘What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him - give my heart’ - with all that that entails. I hope that the Epiphany season of January will remind us of that - from the costly gifts of the magi given to Christ on 2 January, through to the revelation at Candlemas (30 January) of the personal cost that Jesus will bring to Mary and Joseph. I wish you a ‘happy new year’, believing that only if it is costly will it be truly happy.