Parish Priest’s Page

December 2022

Thoughts on Prayer

From a Sermon delivered recently by Fr Gary

 In the name of the + Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Two weeks ago we heard a Gospel passage from St Luke chapter 17, about Jesus healing the ten lepers whose leprosy made them outcasts from society – and only one, doubly outcast because he was a Samaritan – turned back to thank Jesus. And last Sunday we moved on the chapter 18, and the first of two parables about prayer. It featured not outcasts but a pillar of society – a judge.

This week the second parable features another establishment figure, a Pharisee. The judge is unjust and dishonest, and will not give fair judgement to a vulnerable member of society, a widow. The Pharisee prays arrogantly and self-importantly in the Temple, unlike the tax-collector – another outcast! – who prays the honest prayer of the penitent.

Jesus told the story of the judge and the widow to encourage his hearers to be persistent in prayer, and never to lose heart. Not for a minute was he likening God to the unjust judge: just the opposite. The judge in the story was influenced neither by religious principles nor by public opinion. No doubt he would have taken a bribe – and the Old Testament refers to the perversion of justice in Israel so often that it must have been commonplace – but the widow had no money for a bribe and no influential friends either. Her only weapon was her persistence.

And the whole point of the story is that if persistence prevails with someone who cares only for his own peace and comfort, how much more will it prevail with God the righteous judge, the champion of the needy and the oppressed, who listens even to our inarticulate longings.

In his little book Tensions, the late Brother Harry Williams CR, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, has some wise words about the problem of prayer, he wrote:

We often divide prayer up into compartments: meditation or contemplation, for instance, is one department while intercession is another. From the practical point of view this division may often be necessary, but we should recognize that it is no more than a division of convenience. For our communion with God in prayer can never be for ourselves alone. I cannot enter into the presence of God only for my own sake, or only for the sake of my family, or only for the parish, or only for the Anglican Communion, or only for human beings.

 Being human I shall naturally and rightly be more concerned for the people close to me than for others. It is stupid to try to disguise this fact from myself. I must admit it in my prayer with gratitude as human closeness is a very precious gift of God and it means that I am inevitably more concerned for John and Betty than for the diocese of somewhere I have never heard.

 At the same time it remains true that God’s presence with me is for mankind and for the universe. In prayer I put myself deliberately in the presence of God’s outgoing love, and when I thus receive His outgoing love I become its agent and distributor so that through me it goes outward to all things.

 True prayer is thus never a form of self-culture. If his prayers make a man less interested in, less concerned about, less fellow-feeling with, the needs and agonies of the world, then there is something very wrong with his prayers. True prayer is always sacrificial in the sense that it is concerned to give and to surrender, not to get spiritual satisfactions in selfish disregard of others. 

This is why we should never put prayer into one compartment of our lives, and action into another. Prayer and action are one. As Harry Williams puts it, ‘To pray is a form of the verb to do, while to do is a form of the verb to pray.’

This, of course, is something Jesus’ first disciples had to learn. Remember, they were disciples before Jesus taught them how to pray and how to act. To be disciples they did not first have to achieve perfect lives. To be Christians they did not first have to understand everything. All they did – but it was all – was to link their lives to the life of Jesus Christ, and everything else followed. They started from the fact that Jesus loved them, and from him they learned something about loving. And from loving him they learned how to love one another, and from loving one another they learned how to radiate the love of God to all with whom they had to do. Living followed on from loving. Behaving followed on from believing. Prayer and action becoming increasingly intertwined.

And so it is for us.

We don’t, thank God, have to achieve some state of holiness or live a good life before God will have anything to do with us; we don’t have to earn our place in the company of God’s people. All that has been achieved for us by Jesus Christ, who opened wide his arms for us on the Cross and brought us the love and the grace and the forgiveness of God.

That love and that grace and that forgiveness are his gifts of love to us. When we respond to love with love, then from that will follow a desire to live lovingly, and so to order our lives that they will continue to grow in love.

That is why we need to place ourselves on the bench of prayer in the workshop of the Lord, so that as we grow in prayer more honest with ourselves about ourselves, then we will be more prepared for him to take us as we are and shape and fashion us into what he would have us be.

It takes persistence. It takes effort. But however tentatively and however hesitantly you put your hand in his hand and entrust your life into his keeping, you will find all his love and grace and strength beginning, slowly, to grow in you – and from that small first act of commitment can come a life empowered, transfigured and transformed. This week then let us recommit ourselves to just such a journey.

In the name of the + Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From The Vicarage November 2021 Part 1

Tel 01908 337936

Dear Friends,

Inevitably, as it must, Summer has well and truly given way to Autumn and the clocks change. Clear but crisp blue skies are illuminated by the brightest of light (unless it is throwing it down, of course, which quite frankly we need it too), conversely the evening gloom descends ever earlier. Not everyone adjusts well to the danker seasons, and none more so than in this year, which we won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

Simultaneously the Church has entered a period of reflection. As this Link hits the doormats of the parish we preparing to keep All Souls’ Day upon which we recall those whose lives have impinged upon our own and whom we now no longer see, those whom, we pray, we number as amongst ‘the angels, the archangels and the whole company of heaven’ as the Eucharistic Prayer puts it. As usual we have invited the families of those who have died during the last year and whose funerals we have been privileged to conduct. This year we are keeping All Souls’ on Wednesday 4th November at St James at 7.30pm to attend please book in with John Armstrong as with our Sunday worship.

Meanwhile Remembrance Sunday falls on the 8th this year and as usual we shall recall those from our two communities who gave their lives in active service. At Castlethorpe we shall meet at the War Memorial between the two morning services at 9.45am, and at the usual 11.15am service at Hanslope.

Once again this autumn we are offering a series of four talks on issues relating to Mental Health led by local practitioners with specialisms in a variety of related fields. Full details elsewhere in the magazine.

Autumn is also a season of Patronal Festivals – that is those occasions when church communities gather to celebrate the feast day of the saint or saints to whom their church building is dedicated. Castlethorpe celebrated SS Simon & Jude on Sunday October 25th. Calverton and Fenny Stratford have Patronal festivals at this time too, so please do remember these congregations in your prayers also. Patronal Festivals are, amongst other things, opportunities to look around and give thanks for all those who make our churches function, so many tasks are carried out quietly and unobtrusively behind the scenes, and it is through the pooling of our gifts and skills that we can work effectively, and all, not for our own glory, but, for the glory of Almighty God.

Meanwhile our various learning groups and opportunities have been under way now for the new academic year. We completed our two Lent courses (!!) in September and October, Nooma is under way at present, and Explorer Course is getting under way this month. We remain very grateful to those who help lead these groups. You are welcome to come along and join the groups at any stage.

And so Advent beckons. I love the season of Advent. It starts on Sunday 29th November this year and is a season of rich opportunities before the melée of Christmas. As Christmas Day falls on a Friday this year, the season is twenty-seven days long this year. The secular world is already getting into Christmas mode but Christian people are called to take the opportunity for proper quiet reflection over the four Sundays of Advent before the forty-day celebration from Christmas to Candlemas. Once again there will be an Advent Course on offer and we shall be using Jane Williams’ excellent course The Art of Advent in six sessions running either side of Christmas, four before Christmas and two in January. Once again this will be running via Zoom.

Forward planning is, as you would appreciate, VERY challenging currently and we shall be circulating full detail of our Advent and Christmas Programme later in November, so do look out for publicity nearer the time.

Holy uncertainty, I read recently, doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future. It just means we make our plans, but we let go of outcomes at an emotional level. We strategize and do our best, but we make peace with the fact that we’re not in control of what happens, and that is OK not to be in control, it is OK to let go and let God.

Currently, I find planning to be an exercise in comedy. I have no clue what

the coming six months will look like. As priests, Fr Adam and I have to plan – at least attempt to plan – for various possible scenarios. Part of my job is to have a rough plan for each possibility. But this isn’t an attempt at control; it’s just an attempt to live and lead in a way that is responsive, but not reactive.

As Eisenhower said after WW2, “In preparing for battle I have always found

that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Planning is a great way to prepare myself for the uncertainty of the future, so I respond, not react. But when I finish my planning, all I can do is close my computer, chuckle, and go have dinner with my family. I have no idea if any of it will even happen. As James puts it in the New Testament:

 “13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15 NIV)

So make your plans. Map it all out. Get your life ready. But then set your plans down. Have a good laugh. Detach from outcomes. Tether yourself instead to God’s presence and peace. Breathe. Pray. And take it one day at a time.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to your God to order and provide;
in ev’ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heav’nly Friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be careful, yes, but not fearful.

With my prayers and every blessing,

Fr Gary

From The Vicarage OCTOBER 2020

Tel 01908 337936

Dear Friends,

The end of August and September, historically, have been planning periods lining up all the activity for the busy autumn period. This year planning is really difficult and normally having to be done on a short term basis, usually tied in with the Link deadline. Everything we are advertising is of course with the health warning that it is subject to last minute revision or cancellation…

Whilst we have been very fortunate during the pandemic that, locally at least, we have not faced the same severity of impact that many areas have experienced, it is clear that as a country things are not heading in the right direction. The message is clear, be sensible, keep washing your hands, assess carefully where we choose to go and how we conduct ourselves.

For the sake of our emotional wellbeing, and that of others, we cannot all lock ourselves away in perpetuity, and I am hugely grateful to the teams in the two churches who have worked so diligently to ensure our church buildings are safe for us to use. There is a real joy in being together and we all benefit from the being part of something bigger than ourselves. Each week we have welcomed someone back for the first time since March and it is a real joy to gather everyone together again, albeit aware that for some the time is not yet quite right and we continue to stream worship live from The Vicarage three days a week to help stay in touch with those who have not yet been able to return.

Every step we take as churches is very carefully thought through. I am delighted the choir has been able to reconvene (they are now allowed to sing in church during services, if socially distanced), and if singing is something you enjoy why don’t you consider taking the opportunity of joining them at their weekly rehearsal on a Thursday? Robin Pratt and Joyce Markham have retired during the year and some new faces would be very welcome indeed. We were also able to reinstate some weekday worship on Wednesdays and Thursdays with a celebration of the Eucharist at Castlethorpe at 5.30pm on Wednesday and at Hanslope on Thursdays at 9.30am. The next reopening, is Sunday School in both villages with Castlethorpe’s meeting in the Village Hall and Hanslope’s as usual in church. I shall be thrilled to see some of our younger members again. And speaking of younger members, we assure Rhian & Mike Parsons of our love and prayers as we pray for the safe arrival of our new youngest member and we thank Mary Nokes for editing this month’s magazine in Rhian’s place.

In addition, the Learning & Teaching programme is under way for the autumn. It is good, finally, to complete the Lent Courses (!!) and we shall be picking up the Explorer Course during the autumn too.  It is one of the key aspects of what we do and our Learning and Teaching Programme is a very significant achievement and I am indebted to John Sorrell, Prester Coleman, Fr Adam and Diane Gordon for giving so much time and energy to what is such an important area of ministry from which so many of us continue to benefit enormously. This month will see the first of four DVD based sessions looking at key issues in the Christian life and later in the autumn there will be a further art based course to look forward to.

October, of course, is Harvest celebration time. I am very grateful to all those who have had a share in the organisation and I am sure the charity FARM-Africa and indeed the MK Foodbank too, will benefit significantly from our shared efforts. In addition to worship on the morning of October 11th there will be a Harvest Walk for Health, our monthly walks have bene in abeyance but I am grateful to Ann Ellis as always who has pioneered these for getting them back under way each month, and at 6.00pm via Zoom, we will hear from FARM Africa’s Director in Tanzania Nick Kempson (who is Castlethorpe PCC member Trish’s brother!) and this will be followed by a Harvest Auction. Please bring or send gifts to church as usual, gift items, flowers, bottles, preserves, chocolates and fresh produce will be auctioned in aid of FARM-Africa, tinned and dried goods sent to the Foodbank. Full details including Zoom Login details will be sent out via email and social media and at

Our Annual Meetings are running some six or seven months late as a result of the pandemic and indeed the law has had to be changed to enable them to happen at all. Castlethorpe’s will, hopefully be in church on October 27th at 7.30pm, capacity is limited and you must book a seat in advance with Jan Bance in order to attend and Hanslope’s will be held via Zoom on Tuesday 20th October at 8.00pm, full details will be posted nearer the time via email and on St James’ website.

Castlethorpe’s Patronal Festival will be upon us too and will be kept on Sunday 25th October, sadly there will be no joint service this year as a result of capacity constraints.

There are some important changes to note firstly the new email address for church business which replaces my personal email address the benefice has been using for the last 17 and a half years! Fr Adam and I will both have access to this email as will Daniela Armstrong who continues to assist with administration at The Vicarage, and normally you should only use our personal email addresses for matters that are personal as opposed to church related. Items marked Confidential for Fr Gary or for Fr Adam will only be read by the intended recipient. The other change is that Sunday’s 11.00am Mass will now start at 11.15am, in spite of valiant efforts your priests simply cannot get from Castlethorpe to Hanslope in time and we are always starting late and somewhat harassed after back to back service at 9.00am and 10.00am.

We may have to endure further lockdowns, which may, or may not, see public worship disrupted, whatever happens we will continue to offer worship each day either in church or via our livestream, and I know many of you have been setting times aside for prayer and reflection at home too. Thank you to those who, I know, have been praying for me and for Fr Adam in this time of transition for us all.

As ever this comes with my prayers and every blessing for a fruitful, if socially distanced, autumn,

Fr Gary

JULY 2020

Dear friends,

I am really delighted to tell you that we are ready to reopen St James for Public Worship from next Sunday,  Sunday 19th July which will also be Fr Adam’s first Sunday with us.

This has been a long haul, seventeen weeks in fact, and as fasting goes, the inability to be together, pray together, sing together, receive Communion together and simply laugh together has been very far from easy. Even now we are not out of the woods and we won’t be able to do everything just as we did before, nor will everyone feel able to return straightaway. We will continue to offer worship and other activities online to ensure that no one is left behind, I am acutely aware that for some (many) these have been a real lifeline.

As with every organisation currently re-opening a huge amount of work has been done in advance and I am very grateful to PCC members and others who have given their time to this. You will need to bear with us in that a number of things cannot simply be as normal.

  • The capacity of the church is limited as we have introduced 2 metre social distancing for your safety
  • You will need to book your place in advance by 5.00pm on Saturdays (see the poster for details) having your details means we can offer track and trace if needs be.
  • If the 11.00am Mass is oversubscribed there will be an extra Mass at 12 noon to ensure everyone can attend and make their communion
  • Please use the hand sanitiser on arrival
  • The collection plate will be at the door
  • You will be guided to a seat by a steward. The earlier you arrive the more likely you will be able to sit in or near your ‘normal’ seat, if you have one!  Please wait to be admitted from 20 minutes before the service.
  • Seats are designated in advance – only sit where there is a red marker and a service sheet
  • Communion will be administered standing from a single point at the front of the Altar platform – a steward will be on hand to guide you
  • We may have an organist to provide music before, during and after Mass, but we are not yet permitted to sing as a congregation
  • There will be no Tea and Coffee afterwards, you are welcome to socialise, socially distanced, on the lawn outside after Mass if you wish


 After July 19th we will continue to offer daily acts of worship wherever possible, albeit at some stage you will understand that Maria and I will need to take some annual leave as it is seven months since my last break.

From Sunday 19th July, Sunday’s online Mass will come, initially, live from Walsingham at 9.00am and will be available via our Livestream page as normal, and on demand after live transmission. We will need to update the equipment we have and look at issues around internet access before we can broadcast live from church in a way that won’t distract those who are worshipping in church. We hope to resolve these issues by September.

Weekday worship will continue to come live from The Vicarage initially. Fr Gary and Fr Adam will be looking at these issues as a priority once Fr Adam is in post and each Friday evening we will continue to let you know what is scheduled for the Sunday and the following week.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who has helped keep the worshipping community praying, either online or privately at home. Thank you to all who have delivered information and collated and stapled around a 1000 booklets. And thank you to all those who have prayed for me, your prayers have made a huge difference and have helped sustain me through it all. And thank you to Maria (and Libby, and now Ben too home from university) who have borne the brunt of our home becoming in effect the Parish Church for the duration, not just the Dining Room becoming a Domestic Chapel but most of the Sitting Room becoming a sacristy and a vestry too.

Fr Adam

And in the midst of the organised chaos strides Fr Adam. The brief Licensing Ceremony which will happen via Zoom and be simulcast live via our Facebook Livestream here:

This short ceremony will be conducted by the Bishop of Buckingham, Bishop Alan Wilson, assisted by Bishop Jonathan. It will be streamed live from The Vicarage at 3.30pm on Thursday 16th July, do put the date and time in your diary.

There will be a Zoom Drinks Party to celebrate his arrival on Thursday evening at 8.00pm

Join us via Zoom here:

Meeting ID: 933 487 4337   Password: Rosary

I hope to see many of you next Sunday morning – don’t forget – book yourself in!!

 Kind regards,

Fr Gary

Information on Castlethorpe Church reo=opening can be found here:

Fr Adam Burnham


Hill House, The Mount, Caversham READING RG4 7RE

We are delighted to announce that Fr Adam Burnham SSC currently Assistant Curate at Holy Trinity, Taunton in the diocese of Bath & Wells has been appointed to serve as Assistant Priest at Hanslope & Castlethorpe in the Diocese of Oxford. Adam is 36 and hails originally from Texas in the USA.

Fr Adam is joining the benefice as Assistant Parish Priest while Fr Gary Ecclestone, the incumbent, is being seconded by the Bishop of Ebbsfleet for a wider role across the See of Ebbsfleet as Healthy Churches Mentor.

Fr Adam will be joining an active and busy church to lead the church in its ongoing mission to, and service of, the two villages. He will be taking a lead in the day to day worshipping and pastoral ministry of the church across the community, and within that working actively in developing our ministry to children and young people and their families, and among young adults across the Benefice.

Fr Gary says “We were delighted to appoint Fr Adam from among a slate of impressively competent candidates at the interviews in February. Adam is very personable and is passionate about encouraging people of all ages to grow in their relationship with Christ and I am delighted that he has accepted our offer to join us here for the next four or five years of our life together.”

Fr Adam says, “It is my great pleasure and privilege to be called to minister in the benefice of Hanslope and Castlethorpe, which have been so creatively served by Fr Gary. While my time in the market town of Taunton, Somerset has been a true joy, I now look forward to embracing a more rural ministry and lifestyle. This is a vibrant and healthy benefice in which to develop my skills in priestly leadership, and I look forward to partnering with the congregations to use our gifts in loving and serving these beautiful villages for Christ and his Church.”

Bishop Jonathan says, “Pentecost is a wonderful moment to make this announcement. The field was strong, the discernment thorough, and everyone was agreed in calling Fr Adam to serve in Hanslope and Castlethorpe He is a fine and dedicated young priest, has found a real love of ministry in village communities, and has an evangelist’s love of bringing the mercy and joy of the Gospel to other people. I pray the Lord’s richest blessing on his pastoral leadership and his partnerships in the parish and wider deanery. I want also to express my gratitude to the PCCs for their ongoing support for the wider role that Fr Gary will exercise with the parish as his praying base, and to the bishops and dioceses of Coventry and Oxford, and especially Archdeacon Guy, for their vision and commitment.”

Breaking News 2

Appointment of a Healthy Churches Mentor for the parishes of the See of Ebbsfleet

On 5 March 2016 the Ebbsfleet Lay Congress at Coventry Cathedral was addressed by the then Archdeacon Missioner in the Diocese of Coventry, Morris Rodham, who talked about strategies for church growth and evangelization, and especially about the 8 Essential Qualities which underpinned a programme for Growing Healthy Churches that he had introduced, very successfully, across the Diocese of Coventry. That same day was also addressed by Bishop Rowan Williams, on the theme of ‘Growing the Catholic Community’.

Subsequently Archdeacon Morris proposed to make the programme available to parishes across the See of Ebbsfleet too. With Bishop Jonathan’s support the Diocese of Coventry included the See of Ebbsfleet in a funding bid to the Church of England’s Strategic Development Fund, which obtained funding for a full-time post to undertake the work of supporting Ebbsfleet parishes in the aspiration to grow the church using the Healthy Churches Programme.

At last the scheme can begin, and Bishop Jonathan is delighted to announce that The Reverend Canon Gary Ecclestone SSC has been appointed to this new role available to the parishes under his oversight.

Fr Gary has been Vicar of Hanslope & Castlethorpe in the Diocese of Oxford since 2003 and is Area Dean of Newport. He is no stranger to the wider Ebbsfleet Area having been born and brought up in Lichfield diocese, came to faith as a student in Exeter diocese, completed a PGCE living in Truro diocese, trained for ordination in Oxford diocese, and served his title in Salisbury diocese: all dioceses in the area served by the Bishop of Ebbsfleet.

Fr Gary’s role will include supporting and mentoring incumbents across the Ebbsfleet area, working with PCCs and key lay people to reflect on the wider life and health of their church communities, introducing the 8 Essential Qualities and supporting parishes in surveying their church life, identifying both things to celebrate as well as areas for future development, and helping implement the Society Bishops’ agenda of ‘Forming Missionary Disciples’. He will be part of a network with others in the Catholic movement who are engaged locally in similar roles

Fr Gary says, “I am hugely excited, albeit slightly trepidatious, at being called to this new post which will take me to a hugely diverse set of parishes from the Fal Estuary in Cornwall, to the very north of Derbyshire. I hope I can bring with me a genuine enthusiasm and passion for growing the church and I am really looking forward to working with priest colleagues and committed lay people, as together we look to take stock of where we are, and discern what the Spirit might be saying to the local Church in each context.”

Bishop Jonathan says, “I am delighted that the efforts and creativity of so many colleagues in the dioceses Coventry and Oxford and the Strategic Investment Board have made this role available to those under my oversight; and I encourage parishes and clergy to embrace it with joy. I’m even more pleased that Fr Gary, who is both a faithful and creative parish priest, is to be the colleague who will share this aspect of my own ministry for and with them. This appointment could not have come at a more opportune moment as the future opens up before us in an unexpected way. It is clear now, as we contemplate life beyond the pandemic, that whatever lies ahead in the design of God for his Church, she has to be herself, serving God, living out all the Gospel reveals. For that, Christians, and Christian communities, need to grow in confidence and holiness, as well as in number from every age group. I look forward to making the most of the time we have with Fr Gary in this role, and thank him for taking it on. May the Virgin Mary, ‘mother of the Church’, accompany with her prayers the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel to the people of our time.”

Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church
‘Whit Monday’ 2020

From The Vicarage

JUNE 2020

 Dear Friends,

And so May gives way to June. School half terms, the Castlethorpe Duck Race, Open Gardens, concerts and fundraising events, looking ahead to St James’ Open Weekend. All of that would normally have filled my Link Letter. But not this year…

Broadcasting from home has been a fascinating experience. As of writing, Saturday 23rd May, I have livestreamed 134 acts of worship from what used to be my Dining Room and is now the Domestic Chapel, which has involved a little upheaval as you can imagine and I am hugely grateful to Maria and Libby too, via and whilst not everyone has access, or chooses to access, the livestream, surprisingly large numbers of people are, including some of the oldest members of our churches too. Facebook Live has proved to be very reliable and with just one iPad, a fixed camera and Maria, means I have had to be very creative indeed, especially during Holy Week!

It’s also been good to note that those viewing include local residents who do not normally come to church and as we highlighted last month, some former worshippers who have moved away and we are regularly joined by people from Ayrshire, Dorset, Hampshire, North Staffordshire and even Crete. Friends and friends of friends join us too, with viewers from St George’s cathedral, Ho, Norfolk and Derbyshire as well as my former parishioners in Salisbury. Weekday worship is attracting roughly double the numbers it did when we were in church and in spite of the fact that there are those who aren’t able to join us online the Sunday numbers are also as high and often higher than the pre lockdown figures.

We are, of course, in a needs must, set of circumstances and whilst it is good to meet virtually, good to pray, good to hear Scripture being read, to hear sermons, there remains much which is absent. Not physically being together, not being able to sing together, not being able to receive Communion, not to meet socially after we worship in the same way. As the lockdown’s restrictions are lifted we will be left in a possibly uncomfortable limbo. There will be no overnight return to normal and it is difficult to know what the interim phase of the future new normal might be like.

Clearly once we can, legally, meet in Church there will be significant risk assessment to be done, and not everyone will be able to leave their homes straightaway either. We will take very seriously our responsibility to ensure as far as we can, that people are as safe as they can be in our church buildings. This will necessitate careful work behind the scenes and some difficult decisions. It may be one of our church building is easier to open safely than the other, it may be we have to restrict numbers, it may even be worshipping outdoors when the weather permits may be easier initially over the High Summer than using the building. It may be we are required to introduce forms of deep cleaning between services, which may, or may not actually be realistic or indeed affordable. All of these issues and much else will have to be carefully thought through, and by people who cannot yet meet physically with one another! And of course we will need to continue to offer worship online for those who cannot yet attend in person, either because they are in the shielding category or because they do not yet feel safe to come, there will no pressure on people to join in things and we will continue both online and in regular mailings to ensure people feel connected and supported in praying alone at home. And I am very grateful to our two teams of deliverers across the benefice who regularly ensure that all 175 households on my mailing list are kept up-to-date.

Having mastered Facebook Live more and more people have been installing Zoom on their PCs and smart phones and tablets. Our Rosary Group were the first to pray via Zoom and this was followed by Zoom Coffee Mornings which have seen as many as 32 households gather, and on May 17th we were joined by Bishop Jonathan and Sarah his wife too, my screen was so full of boxes it looked like the closing credits of The Muppet Show. This last week some of our youth met up for the first Youth Zoom, on Pentecost Sunday the Sunday Schools are meeting virtually and during June and July there will be a new House Group looking at works of art through the eyes of faith, this group can be joined weekly via Zoom, or for those not able to access Zoom, via an email or phone chat group (details elsewhere in the magazine). Zoom is really quite easy to master so do give it a go!

In the midst of it all there have been good things to celebrate too. The two villages have been very resilient and the level of mutual support has been wonderful, as I expected it would be. Our Pastoral Team members and Corona Friends have plugged the gaps and provided some very much needed support in some quarters with shopping and prescription collection and that work is ongoing. We have worked very successfully with the local Surgery and we have sent large quantities of food to the MK Foodbank from the two villages. St James’ website has been very busy too. The page set up with Corona advice and resources has been visited, rather remarkably, in excess of 2000 times in the last seven weeks and in the first three days of its existence the Emotional Wellbeing page was read nearly 60 times and there will be further news on support for emotional wellbeing during this month.

Christians are Easter People and perhaps more so than ever people of faith have been able to step up and live that out in countless quiet ways in service of our fellow men and women. As the months go by there will much to reflect on and I hope the lessons learned by many will bring about some changes in how we lead lives that personally and globally had become unsustainable in so many ways, and I hope the church can be at the forefront of calling folk back to some first principles in the way we treat one another and the natural world which we inhabit.

Maria joins me in sending our love and the assurance of our prayers,

Fr Gary

MAY 2020

Holy Week & Easter from The Vicarage

My great-grandparents, Jack & Sarah, were married during the Spanish Flu epidemic 100 years ago and set up home in a newly built, if isolated, semi-detached cottage on the Staffordshire/Shropshire borders in a hamlet in the Parish of Gnosall. My great-grandmother whom I am blessed to remember well and with affection was the last member of my family to be confirmed, 75 years or so before me! My Mother adored her as did I, and my great-grandfather was a gentle soul, a gardener by profession who worked at the local ‘big house’ as head gardener (where his brother in law was Gamekeeper) before he moved to work at the renowned (and sadly much missed) nurseries Bakers of Wolverhampton where he was actively involved in trialling new strains of ‘Russell’ Lupin.

He also ran a small nursery from home with my great uncle and taught me how to manage raspberry canes. He had a particular love for yellow, or amber, raspberries, which only relatively recently have appeared again in some of the UK supermarkets. He, as I, loved cottage garden plants.

Lockdown is of course a cause for reminiscence, and my reflections on Jack & Sarah are wholly due to the impact of the restrictions under which we are all currently living. St Patrick’s Day, March 17th was the last time public worship was offered in the Church of England and that night I celebrated Mass at Castlethorpe as usual, for a few days after that it was possible to celebrate at church with no congregation save for one assistant which I did until Lent 4, March 22nd and then even that became impracticable. And so it was that I set up at home and transformed my Dining Room into a Domestic Chapel. My Dining Room is largely filled with my great-grandparents’ Victorian and Edwardian furniture as well as two prints depicting the Guardian Angels, and their photographs, and, not insignificantly, their sideboard, a gift to them from my maternal great-great-grandparents William and (another) Sarah, which has for the duration become my new altar. What would they make of it I wonder, as another pandemic sweeps the nation, just as one did a century ago when they set up home, that their not especially remarkable furniture, might become a focal point of two churches’ life and worship under the care of their great-great-grandson?

It was obvious that Lock down was coming and there was frenetic activity at the Vicarage to ensure that 250 adult church members would receive packs containing all sorts of resources to help them pray at home and maintain the Christian life. Two such mailings have been collated and sent out, more than 350 envelopes have been stuffed and delivered and the Vicarage printer has managed to produce over 8000 pages of material without once jamming, in spite of the heightened stress levels of the operator. A huge thank you to our delivery teams in the two villages. Simultaneously there was a need for mutual support networks, largely for the church community at Castlethorpe and for the wider community too at Hanslope and so the Corona Friends were born and nearly thirty people have volunteered to offer support. We are blessed to live in communities where mutual support comes naturally and where many folk have good neighbours and good networks, but I am delighted that we have the ability to offer practical support to anyone who might need it.

But the very real need of church members was for a pattern of worship to sustain us through the enforced Eucharistic fast which hit at the very worst possible moment, just before Holy Week. Once materials in paper form had gone out I could tur my attention to broadcasting from home. Armed with just an iPad and my imagination, I set about developing a pattern of worship for Holy Week. Many much loved aspects of our Holy Week journey would be impossible, no Healing Mass, no Chrism Mass, no trip to Lichfield, no Easter Fire etc. But losses created space for new opportunities too. I especially enjoyed compiling a Holy Week in Poetry devotion for Holy Wednesday evening and the Drop in Three Hour Devotion on Good Friday. Again modern technology allowed Alex, Anne and Peter Adams to deliver, memorably, the Passion Gospel in Three Voice parts both on Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday.

The late evening office of Compline and devotions such as The Rosary and Stations of Cross were opened up to a wider audience and many people had the opportunity try new things, and do so from home. And of course you could watch on catch up too, so if you missed something you could watch it after the event, and may have done so. The first Sunday Mass saw around 50 people tune in, Palm Sunday 100 and Easter Day nearer 150, and even weekday Eucharists have regularly clocked up 25 people joining in from home. Maria has been alongside me for the duration and how wonderful for me to have a congregation, even if only of one, she, very aware of her role representing the members of both churches and speaking on their behalf, although it has all entailed a modicum of household upheaval!!

Facebook proved a huge bonus to proceedings as though the very easy to use Facebook Live it has been possible with just an iPad to broadcast several times a day. Not only have people been tuning in via their phones and iPads, and PCs, others have streamed the worship via their TVs. Sue Collet sent me a slightly unnerving image of me on her TV and Mike and Rhian Parsons even added incense to their Easter Day Mass watching at their home in Old Stratford!!

And one great joy was that it was not just the regulars who were tuning in. It was those who come to church less often, or never, it was friends of church members whose own churches weren’t livestreaming, it was former members of our congregations joining us from places including, Dorset, Staffordshire and Hampshire Ayrshire, and even Crete! It was members of my former parish in Salisbury, friends from Norfolk, Yorkshire and Lancashire, and even people who found us by chance, like a student from Lesotho who joined our Rosary Group on April 4th! And it wasn’t just Facebook either, we tried the video-conferencing app Zoom too for Rosary and for an Easter Day Coffee Morning which well over 30 people came to, some of whom are pictured here.

It was so good not only to hear people but to see them too, of all ages from Finnian to David Brooks and from all over the country too, at least six counties in fact represented!

And so what next?

We all want this to be over soon. But equally we want it to be over at the right time when it is safe to do so. I am writing this on April 16th and it seems clear to me that the current Lockdown is clearly going to last for at least a further three or four weeks and even then restrictions will last well into the Summer and at least until the return to school in September, if not even longer than that. Restrictions will be lifted slowly, and gatherings of people will clearly need to be curtailed for quite some time. That means pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas as well as churches will be closed for quite some time yet, I suspect, and events over the Summer will need to be cancelled or postponed too as a result.

In the meantime, there is much to do to support friends and neighbours. The page on St James’ church website devoted to the Corona Pandemic, has been visited more than 1,500 times at the time of writing. It includes how to contact our pastoral team and Corona Friend, a wealth of information about prayer and worship, local shops and businesses, home-schooling resources, mental health resources, the emergency local bus timetable and rather more besides…

Nothing will ever be quite the same again after this. Within the church community we have been forced to find new ways of praying and worshipping, both alone and together. These opportunities, for it is what they are, will do us ultimately no harm. And when the fast from receiving the Eucharist finally comes to an end we will never again take for granted that wonderful opportunity of encountering Christ in the sacrament of his body and blood, as well as the opportunity for being together physically as the body of Christ. We have always known that the church was not merely the building but the people within it, and critically, how those people live out their faith when they are not in the building, But also, we have been reminded just how valuable sacred space and places are to us, and to the wider communities in which we live. Our spires and towers simultaneously lift our eyes up to things beyond us, whilst also reminding us of how small we are, and keeping us in some measure humble too, they are visible reminders of things heavenly and of truths that are eternal.

With the assurance of my prayers for us all as we journey on, “I shall be with you always” says the Lord, “even to the end of time”.

Fr Gary

MARCH 2020

Dear Friends,

As we prepare to worship tomorrow on the second Sunday of Lent it is necessary that I write to you about Corona Virus.

In reflecting on my response to what is happening I was very much struck by a very informed commentator I saw quoted online earlier:

“I implore you all. Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education. We have an opportunity to learn a great deal about health hygiene and limiting the spread of innumerable transmissible diseases in our society. Let’s meet this challenge together in the best spirit of compassion for others, patience, and above all, an unfailing effort to seek truth, facts and knowledge as opposed to conjecture, speculation and catastrophizing.

Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts.

Our children will thank us for it.”

I am keen not to get caught up in any media frenzy, whilst equally responding proportionately in a way that respects those who are most vulnerable so that we can sustain our shared worshipping life. I am mindful that the vulnerable in this instance includes your Parish Priest as a chronic asthmatic, and of course both my colleagues Fr Robert and Fr Robin are out of action currently too, so you all have a vested interest in my wellbeing in particular!

In church there will be a number of things that will be different and that we ask you to follow, for your good and for us all:

  1. At home do of course wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least twenty seconds, do drink fluids, little and often is recommended
  2. If you are not 100% well please ask yourself if it is wise to come to Church. If you do and have any kind of minor cough etc then it is essential you use tissues, cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in a bin – some people are carrying a plastic bag with them to store used tissues for disposal at home.
  3. On arrival at church for services or events there will be sanitiser gel available, please use it
  4. We won’t be sharing the peace, at least not physically. At the weekday Masses this week we have been putting our hands together and bowing at the person we have been sharing the peace with, it’s a little odd at first, but becomes quite natural quite quickly I have found!
  5. After careful thought I have decided we will not be sharing the chalice. As on Good Friday, Communion will be shared in one kind only, the consecrated bread. The Church teaches that the fullness of Christ is received in receiving either Christ’s body or his precious blood, (the doctrine of Concomitance) so do not worry that you are being short changed!

In addition to these things rest assured that your Church Officers supported by advice from the national church and diocese, and by the two retired GPs we have in our congregations, have been working with me to ensure that a number of simple changes are happening behind the scenes to ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing. Those who are involved in setting up for worship, welcoming and catering, for instance, will be briefed appropriately about anything you need to be aware of.

Whilst the vast majority of church members locally receive my emails, if you are aware of a friend or neighbour who doesn’t, then please could I ask you to share this with them please?

And finally do not forget to pray. And most especially for those in Government and within the NHS who are at the front line of handling this situation.

Kind regards,

Fr Gary

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