Elaine and I came from a very different inner city parish in Stirchley in Birmingham in 2005 and, coming to live in Church End in Kempston, the first major shock was that our main neighbours were not people at all but pheasants and foxes. In fact, as we later discovered, the two parishes embrace a huge variety of people from farmers in rural Kempston to professionals in Biddenham, with substantial other groups in between, as well as pockets of poverty in Kempston, and later on the vast new estates in Great Denham and West Kempston. The priest’s task is somehow to bring God to these diverse groups of people and to represent their needs before God. It was a tall order at the time and with the massive growth of the two parishes, the job has just got harder. My predecessor Richard Sutton had used the word backwater in his email address and there is a sense in which every parish is a backwater with its own very parochial concerns and we are certainly not a couple of highly visible town centre churches, and yet with our vast and increasing population you cannot really say we are any longer a backwater in the sense that one might use the term of some very tiny parishes in North Bedfordshire. St James’s Church is a vital part of the Biddenham community especially when its church school is taken into account and All Saints Church has family links in Kempston going back hundreds of years, which accounts for the very high number of baptisms, weddings and funerals which take place within its ancient walls. These two factors have played a large part in my ministry within the two parishes over the last ten years.
For me, the highlights have included the strong tradition of Eucharistic worship in the two churches, which we have constantly sought to adapt to the needs of baptism families, children and young people. Others have led the work with children, which has been outstanding at both churches, although more recently numbers have fallen off at All Saints. However, my involvement with local schools has been fruitful and especially with St James’s School and Kempston Rural School and their Governing Bodies. I am conscious of having closed down several services at both churches, partly because of the death or illness of the congregations and partly because we are no longer so well staffed as when I came. This has meant the abandonment of the 8.00am said Eucharists and the midweek said Eucharists and the cutting back of the number of evening services. I have greatly enjoyed working with the other clergy and ministers, Geoff Smith and Gill Webb in the early days, then Jane Nash, and latterly the community ministers David and Suzette Maguire. I am indebted to them for all their work and also to our Readers, Christopher Dawe, who has been with me throughout the ten years and whose IT skills I have relied on, and also Paul Fricker, who gives part of his time to us alongside his commitment to St Peter’s. Team working, not least with all the churchwardens who have served alongside me, has been a constant source of stimulus, encouragement and joy to me – in fact, good relationships have been a feature of my time here and a cause of thanksgiving. Parish life can so easily be soured by poor relationships especially in the ministry and leadership team.
Of course, there have been special occasions at both churches – Flower Festivals, the International Music Festivals bringing great musicians to both churches, the Christmas Bazaar and Open Church Sunday at St James, with some great exhibitions and the Bedford Town Band rained off on almost every occasion and the Diamond Jubilee, another victim of torrential rain. And at All Saints, we have had the magnificent annual fete, the Angel Festival and the Wildlife Festival as well as the Missions Fayre. This is not to mention the host of other social events organized sometimes by the Friends and sometimes by ad hoc groups of individuals. All of these have contributed richly to the life of the two churches and parishes.
Perhaps my greatest gifts lie in teaching and preaching, though not everyone will have agreed with everything I said. There have been ample opportunities for preaching here and this has often elicited a thoughtful response and there have been many opportunities for Lent Courses, sometimes following a film, Emmaus Courses and more recently the Pilgrim course and others besides. These latter have been invaluable in allowing members of both congregations to share their insights in a non-threatening way and to delve more deeply into their faith. Some of you may not know that the Diocese has also used my knowledge to act as a tutor to those studying to be Readers or Self Supporting Ministers on the Eastern Region Ministry Course, teaching both the Old and New Testaments, which has demanded more time from me to go back to my own studies in order to keep up to date.
Relationships with other churches in the Bedford Deanery have also been a source of stimulus and more recently this has been particularly true of the Cluster of neighbouring churches where we have built a real sense of fellowship and have succeeded in doing some things like Confirmations and Quiet Day more effectively together. Ecumenical relationships with the Catholics, Methodists and the Moravian Church have also been good and enriching.
The date of my retirement on 29 February is rapidly approaching now and I shall in fact stop working on 8 February, but my final Farewell Eucharist for both churches is scheduled for Sunday 28 February at 4.00pm at All Saints, Kempston. I will have completed just over 40 years in full-time ministry, serving in Wednesbury, Aylesbury, Farnham Royal, Fenny Stratford, Stirchley and finally in these two parishes. It has been a time of tremendous transformation in the position of the Church in national and community life. We can no longer take people’s allegiance to the Christian Faith for granted because many younger people have had very little contact with the Church and very limited knowledge of Christianity. But we do have two local churches where faith and worship are vital experiences and we can still make a difference to the two communities in which we live through our prayers and our unselfish service of others. Elaine and I wish you well as this chapter closes and we disappear into the Lincolnshire mists and you prayerfully wait for a new chapter to begin.