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Open Features: A Celebration

A service was being held today in the parish church of the Shropshire village of Annscroft to celebrate the ministry of John Waddington-Feather.

John is a regular contributor to Open Writing web magazine. We are serialising his trilogy of novels, Illingworth House, concerning the complicated lives of a Yorkshire mill-owning dynasty. There is also a weekly short story or article by John appearing under the title Featherís Miscellany.

We hope that John has a very happy and memorable day.

Here is the sermon he delivered at the celebratory service.

The readings this morning contain the essence of our lives as Christians, the two things which should be the driving force in all we do and are: Godís love, which we should reflect in our dealings with our fellow men and women; and Godís Holy Spirit, Christís Spirit, which is within us all, and which empowers us to do Godís will.

In 1932 and 1933 two baby boys were born about seven miles apart in the wild Pennine Hills of Yorkshire. One was born in a village called Baildon on the edge of Ilkley Moor, and the other was born in a dirty mill-town in the valley at Keighley. Thirty odd years later they met for the first time at a morning service in Annscroft Church. In the interim both had grown up, gone to university, then one pursued his career in the Church as a priest and missionary teacher; and the other, after his National Service, as a schoolmaster, first as a housemaster and English teacher on board the cadet training ship, H.M.S. "Worcester" then as a Grammar School teacher in Yorkshire and Shropshire.

The first boy was Colin Hurford, who, as the parish priest here, was instrumental in helping me fulfil my own calling to the priesthood; and the second boy was myself. I owe much to Colin and the encouragement he gave during my training for ordination. Now, thirty years later, I can say at this service: ďMany thanks, Colin; and may both of us continue in the Lordís service for some years to come.Ē

When we give ourselves to the service of Christ, we never know where he will lead us or what new horizons open to us. Like St Paul and Christians ever since, we found ourselves ministering abroad in places weíd hardly heard of as boys in Yorkshire. Colin went to Sabah on the other side of the world, then to Tanzania. I eventually went to Sudan to teach.

My calling came in Shrewsbury Prison, which Iíd begun visiting in the evenings after school and helping in the chapel at weekends shortly after we came to Shropshire in 1969. A few years after Iíd been visiting, a prisoner said to me: ďYou ought to be a priest for what youíre doing in here, boss.Ē I didnít take him seriously till a month or two later Colin asked: ďHave you ever considered ordination?Ē Then I knew God was trying to tell me something.

About that time a new form of priesthood in the Church of England had started, when Bishop Mervyn Stockwood began ordaining men into what was then called the Auxiliary Ministry, later the Non Stipendiary Ministry. Like St Paul, the NSMs earned their living by following a trade but ministered in their places of work or elsewhere. It was primarily a ministry to non-churchgoers and the NSMs soon became recognised by their fellow workers as a priest working Godís will in their midst by giving them both spiritual and secular help. The Bishop of Hereford, the late John Eastaugh, also saw the need for the NSM priest. Prophetically, he recognised there would be a dire shortage of priests in the Anglican Church and was quick to support training at St Deiniolís Library and elsewhere; ultimately in Ludlow at the Bishop Maskell Centre. John Eastaugh gave oversight especially to the wives and families of those in training and my wife and I had much to be grateful for to him.

On Sundays, the NSMs helped out in their local churches or sometimes as chaplains in hospitals, hospices or elsewhere. In my own case I assisted in services at the prison chapel as well as in Longden and Annscroft Churches.

I was teaching at the Wakeman School when I began my ordination training at St Deiniolís Library, near Chester. For two years I went there every other weekend and also for a week in residence in summer. It meant much sacrifice for my wife and young family, who gave me 100% support then and after. I was also helped at school by my colleagues who were practising Christians, especially by the deputy headmistress, Margaret Roberts, (now Mrs Walters) who then lived across the road from Annscroft Church and worshipped here. She taught Divinity to ĎAí Level at school and consequently the library was well stocked with theology books and biblical literature which helped me in my own studies. The headmaster, Alan Gower, a Baptist, and the deputy headmaster, Eric Stephenson, a Methodist, also supported me strongly during my ordination training.

I was ordained deacon in 1977 and priest in 1978 during a rather stressful period of my life when the education system changed radically. Grammar Schools were abolished and replaced by Comprehensive Schools. The result was chaos at first and both teachers and students were caught up in it. It was during this very stressful period I found myself being ministered to as much as ministering to others, and again I valued the prayerful help I received through my local churches here and at Longden.

Yet there were some very moving experiences at this time; one in particular when I gave Communion at his bedside to a dying colleague as the deputy headmaster sat alongside me praying. It happened again at the hospice many years later when I was chaplain at Prestfelde School and it was Douglas Gillespie who was sat by me then. Indeed, I rarely ministered alone. There always seemed to be a fellow Christian sharing my ministry with me. While teaching at the Wakeman School and at Prestfelde, I had the joy of baptising the young children of colleagues and encouraging older youngsters to go forward for Confirmation.

My prison ministry linked in with my ministry to the homeless and vagrants. I helped as a warden at the Night Shelter in town run by Christian churches - and Iíd be here all day telling you about the experiences I had there. Suffice it to say, I shared that ministry with a saintly man, Lawrence Edbrooke, who virtually ran the Night Shelter as warden and secretary for many years. He was a Quaker who taught at Shrewsbury School during the day, but at night was warden at the Shelter in the old School house near Welsh Bridge. There he booked in and fed the homeless who turned up, sleeping down there before a full-time paid warden was appointed. I relieved him sometimes and I can smell the place still! Some of the clients slept fully clothed in their boots, which, I suspect, they hadnít taken off for days. Nevertheless, we had some jolly times there and also at the Day Centre in the old Presbyterian Church hall up Milk Street.

My next ministry as an NSM took me to Yukon in Canada, among the Native People, trappers and gold miners. It is the coldest diocese in the Anglican Church dropping to -40 degrees Celsius in winter, but I went in the summer of 1982 to help the Bishop and his priests at places like Atlin and Dawson City, the gold-rush town.

Yukon is as big as Spain, France and Britain put together, so you can imagine the vast spaces there and the sizes of the parishes. Its population when I was there in 1982 was only 50,000 and 30,000 of those were in the capital, Whitehorse. On one occasion I took Communion at 10am one Sunday at a settlement called Haines Junction on the Alaska Highway, then drove 200 miles to the daughter church, a small wooden structure, in the same parish at beaver Creek on the Alaska border. There, I celebrated Communion again in the evening to a handful of Communicants and slept behind the altar on a built-in bunk all night before returning down the Highway the next day distributing the reserved sacrament to Native Peoples and gold miners. The gold miners had no cash and put little bags of gold-dust on the collection plate which I banked in Whitehorse.

Two years later found me ministering in the hottest diocese in the Anglican Church, Sudan, where the mid-day temperature sometimes reached plus 54 degrees Centigrade. I went as a volunteer teacher and taught English as a foreign language at the University of Khartoum, mainly to undergraduate scientists and engineers. That, indeed, was an experience! A mere six hoursí flying from England and I was in the poorest country in Africa, then in the middle of a dreadful famine. It was a shock to see such deprivation and the emaciated bodies lying around. As well as preaching at the Episcopal Cathedral, I helped a group at university which ran food supplies to the numerous refugee camps ringing Khartoum. The military wouldnít let the refugees into the city for fear of cholera and typhoid. So they lived in cramped conditions five miles out in the desert surrounding Kahrtoum. They came from all sides: Darfur in the west where two million people starved to death and from Ethiopia in the east. Many died crossing the vast desert trying to reach Khartoum and many died in the camps through illness.

I was able to see first-hand the tremendous humanitarian work of charities like the Red Cross, Christian Aid and Medicins sans Frontieres. But alas I picked up a bad bout of dysentery and hepatitis while in the camps, and in consequence left Sudan almost three stones lighter than when I went there.

Thereís much I could tell you about my stay in Sudan, but what impressed me greatly was the way Christians really had to live out their faith there. Christ means so much when you have so little and you donít know whether the next day will be your last Ė or the last of your baby. Despite the terrible conditions, unless they were very ill, you rarely saw a Sudanese without a smile on their faces and they were always ready to share what little they had with you. Their church services were always joyful events, their hymn-singing, in several tribal languages, resounding in beautiful, African harmonies, accompanied by dancing at times. On my return, English Sunday services seemed very subdued.

From 1985 to 1995 I spent ten very happy years as chaplain at Prestfelde School, and at the same time I continued my prison ministry right down to this day. I go into Shrewsbury Prison one evening a week and now minister as much to men of other faiths, like Muslims and Sikhs, as I do to Christians.

Before I close I would like to say how much I have valued the back-up of the congregations at Annscroft, Longden and Pulverbatch. I have always felt I was being supported by prayer coming from the benefice churches wherever Iíve been in the world.

So in a nutshell that is the brief history of my ministry as a priest. I thank God for it each day and above all for the manifold blessings He continues to pour upon me. Despite my being a grumpy old Yorkshire man now, God enables me to see all that is beautiful in the world both in the realms of nature and in people.

Finally, I sincerely hope that what Iíve said here this morning may prompt others, both men and women, to put themselves forward for ordination or to become a Reader, another vital order in our Church, which keeps the Word of God alive in our parishes and involves itself in ministry. Thereís still much to do preaching and living out Godís Word in British society, where many people are looking for purpose in life, yet have still to learn about Jesus Christ and his teachings.

Let us pray: ďO Lord, when you give to your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same to the end, until it is thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory: through him who for the finishing of your work laid down his life, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.Ē

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