Roger Cresswell steps down shortly as Chair of the Reader’s Association Board here in the Diocese of Ely (where we call these wonderful people Licensed Lay Ministers, which is what they are – carefully trained lay members of our congregations who preach, lead worship and study groups, give pastoral care and generally “bring God into the conversation”.)
We are recruiting a whole new generation of LLMs – our intake has doubled this year – and although they come in all shapes and sizes, they all have a story to tell of how God has met with them on the road of life and called them into a new and exciting future.
To encourage you to join their company (and not at all to put him on a pedestal) I asked Roger if he would tell his story “out loud” on my blog – and here it is.
The past eight years has flown by, leaving vortices which have disturbed and shaped the air around me. Brought up in and at one with a church-going Christian life, like everyone around me then. In the turmoil of life I found I had turned away, my mind full of awkward questions I was not finding answers to. However, Easter speaks of the power of God to transform situations and although we cannot predict what the future, God’s future, will bring, God will and does surprise us.
So it was that, as I crept back to church and sat at the back, that annoying still small voice kept nagging at me. Like a horse when the loving and experienced rider says “walk on” he steps out in faith, not then knowing where that will lead. At first they were little steps, read the Gospel, prayers on Sunday, take Remembrance Day prayers, you used to be in the RAF so why don’t you do the Remembrance Day sermon. Step by step, I came to realise that my life, light and dark, had been a preparation for work I knew I had to do and when, so late in the day, I heard the words “Who shall I send” there was no other answer but “Here I am, send me”. So to Reader Selection and, by God’s good grace, three years of challenging theological training, testing yourself against those who really did know, proving what you thought, fighting new ideas in a justifiably tough but supportive environment.
The release from the behavioural cage we are born with, that reluctance to speak of conviction with conviction but rather with apologetic avoidance, was like some firework exploding into a dark night sky. It used to be a rule that at dinner it was impolite to talk about politics or religion, thus we perfected small talk. Now it is possible to talk about God, about what you feel and what you believe and you go forward to be accepted for Licensing.
There is a quiet morning and you ask yourself if you are good enough, if you have the strength, if you have enough knowledge and if you are fit for the huge step you are taking. Of course, the answer to all is no. So what you are doing here? Like a marriage and as joyous as that day, Bishop David leads you into the place where, before God and your to-be Reader colleagues, you make your promises. Like a ball of fire, the Spirit burns into you the realisation that you are not alone and your concept of power and ability is so narrow as to exclude the reality of the way you will be led into and fitted for the work a surprising God has lined up.
Next day, Sunday, my own parish church welcomes me as their Licensed Lay Minister and the journey begins. How I love thinking about what the Lectionary has decreed is my subject matter. How blessed and privileged to assist an incumbent at the Eucharist. So why am I at Hinchingbrooke Hospital where my wife nurses, asking what the Chaplaincy does? Who knows why? It is true though, that every week under the Lead Chaplain’s gaze, I am allowed to be with the joyous recoverers, the accident victims, the desperate, the helpless, the terminally ill and the dying. I am hugely honoured to be part of that Christian heartbeat at the centre of the hospital that cares for all, of any religion or none, the sick, the dying, the relatives, carers and staff although only on my wife’s ward when she is not there!
My new incumbent of unending energy and talent thought I was making a fair fist of parish work and of hospital chaplaincy and suggested the Cathedral needed occasional Day Chaplains and I thought I should see what that meant. Surprising God shows you the poor and emotionally needy amongst the tourists and amongst those seeking an explanation of the Bible, suffering and war within the 15 minutes they have, and a few come to remember, to mourn, to ask God, to hear God, to pray under the towering mark of human faith created in wood, glass and stone but inhabited by prayer and worship offered by generations before. You find, in this beautiful place, a different call from the same surprising God who is going ahead so fast it takes away your breath.
I suppose I had been around long enough to end up standing in the way of someone at a Reader AGM who asked me if I would mind my name going forward as there was a vacancy on the Ely Reader Board. Actually, I suppose I know that it is God who puts these things in our way although we are always encouraged to make the choice freely. Perhaps that was enough and I did say yes.
Between whiles, my youngest son joined the Huntingdon Air Cadets, the first of five to think the Forces had anything to offer despite the RAF supporting dad for 34 years. I thought I should help out the parent committee. Someone asked if I could teach, having actually flown in my own patch of sky. Then the lovely Padre claimed his 80+ years made life tricky and he really wanted to retire. My parish, my Bishop and the Air Training Corps believed that would be a good idea and oh what joy to be amongst these keen, dedicated, bright young people, mostly unchurched and many atheist or of other beliefs. To hear them debate the rights and wrongs of public and local issues, to solve ethical issues in game play, to turn up at school with short hair, clean shoes, pressed clothing and a willingness to learn, to be useful members of our society will tell you that was a good choice. I go to annual camps and, twice now, have been to the International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford where 800 cadets, 14 to 18, build themselves a tented camp, work shifts from early o’clock when their friends are snatching another couple of hours in bed, to late at night preparing for the next day. All this happens with little interference and supervision. One essential is the Padre contingent, a spiritual presence and a solution to those little things that go wrong between people. So, one Wing Field Weekend, I stood-in to take prayers and a thought for the day at the Parade. It rained, I was wet and about to go home when the Wing Commander asked if I would mind being Wing Padre. You get the idea. God never stops but why should we expect it? God asks, do you not see where I want you yet? Suddenly, I was designing a liturgy for a church parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of Air Cadets, dedicating a new banner, preaching and leading for 1200 people including Lord Lieutenants, High Sheriffs, Mayors and military brass, 30 Squadrons of fresh-faced youngsters who will never forget their day at Ely Cathedral. I have never asked for the destination but it does seem the map has been in other, stronger hands. The truth is it is not all you, the Jesus reality is you are never alone in his work, that the unimaginable enabling of the Spirit and unlimited grace of God combine to strengthen the sinews, clear the vision and set the first foot fall of a journey you will never regret.
I am about to leave the Reader Board, having been given the opportunity and privilege of Chairing it for a little while. That will free up some time to follow where an impatient God wants me to be, to be there to talk about God in the Cathedral, the Parish, the Hospital and amongst some astonishing young air-minded people who will be our future. Eight years ago I wrote a couple of reflections during the quiet morning prior to my Licensing service, the Apple Fair was full of noise, the Morris dancers danced. I offer one as a marker of where this began and in grateful recognition that a caring Bishop sealed God’s call which I had the temerity to answer “Here am I, send me”.
“The Lord of the dance, God of music, Creator of the intensity of colour this autumn day, its variety and shape, the Master of the breeze and hurricane, of the lapping waves and the force of a tsunami, fruitful as grain and grape, red in tooth and claw, one in all, the beginning and the end, a voice in silence and a steady presence in the ebb and flow of events, strengthen me as I set out in ministry, to hear You amidst the noise, to follow Your will and to give what I have to serving Your people wherever that may be”.
Eight years later I can say “To the glory of God. Amen”.