Växjö Priest at Ironstone and St Paul’s Wokingham

Four months in England in 2016

Dag Bjärnhall

Dag Bjärnhall

From September to December 2016 I had the opportunity to pay a visit to England.  This is a short summary of my impressions and experiences.

During my visit I stayed and participated in the life of the church in two parts of the Church of England Diocese of Oxford.  I spent half of the time (in September and December) in the Ironstone Benefice, which comprises seven small rural parishes and lies to the north of Oxford and to the west of the town of Banbury.  The other half of my time (October and November) was spent in the urban parish of St Paul’s Wokingham, which is to the south [east] of Oxford.

From many points of view it was interesting and rewarding to share in the life of two different aspects of both the Church of England and in the community and culture of England.  My aim in gaining this experience was to be able to compare it with my own experience of Sweden and the Church of Sweden.  Both churches have to live in a secular context, that is in a community where religion and faith in God are no longer self-evident; nor [does] the church as an institution [seem relevant].  At the same time, the Church of England and the Church of Sweden, despite their similarities, are in some ways different, which makes it interesting to compare them.

During my period with the Ironstone parishes and St Paul’s parish, which for the sake of simplicity I will refer to as Ironstone and St Paul’s, I was, above all, a guest.  I contributed when I could to the life of the parishes through preaching and leading services.  But my primary role was as an observer.  I am not deeply familiar with their culture, but I could contribute by asking questions and making comparisons with my Swedish culture and with the Swedish church.  As a visitor and guest, that is the contribution we can give to ‘the other’.  And naturally one gets a lot back through what one experiences.

Various activities and gatherings

I had the opportunity to take part in many activities in the church and in relation to the surrounding community.  I mention some of them here in brief.

Church services and a variety of meetings

It is an exciting and joyful thing to take part in the services of another church.  To a great extent there is a joy of recognition from my own church; different liturgical expressions, hymns, the preacher’s effort and eagerness to set forth the grace of the gospel, and prayers in thankfulness, grace and hope.  I recognise also the joy of coming together and sharing faith, sharing the creed and singing and praying together.  And, after the service, fellowship over a cup of coffee.  And I recognise in the eyes of people a certain woefulness or perplexity, sometimes expressed, when not many people attend the service; what will happen to the church in the future?

The Church of England, like the Church of Sweden, has various kinds of churchmanship; high church, low church and everything between.  Like us, they have the challenge of holding the church as a unity and being able to see the riches in diversity.  The liturgical expression of this is in the prayer book.  They use both the old traditional ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (1662) and the modern ‘Common Worship’.  A parish or church can use both for different services.  We can contrast that with our practice in the Church of Sweden where we want to have a single applicable prayer book for all churches /parishes.  Although I wonder if there is such a great difference when suggested revisions to our prayer book, if adopted, will in practice offer a range of alternatives.  The question for both churches is how we keep together as a unity and how diversity is given its place.  There are questions other than liturgical that carry the risk of being more divisive in our churches but, in this context, I leave that aside.

Irrespective of forms, language and culture, it is encouraging and hope-giving to see the joy and positivity that is awakened when people come together in a church service.  The Holy Spirit does something with us when we are gathered in faith and worship.  It is also cheering to see how engaged people are when they come to services and other meetings.  There are many who voluntarily offer their time and energy.  This is particularly true in the Church of England, which doesn’t employ so many people as the Church of Sweden.

I noticed another interesting thing in St Paul’s Church.  It belongs to the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which means that they emphasise the liturgical aspect in worship and are liberal in questions of private morality.  What I noticed was their relationship to the liturgy.  They made it beautiful and uplifting without its being rigid or over-formal.  Reverence and seriousness could be combined with warmth and a relaxed humour.  It was cheering to see this, as my experience in Sweden is that it is not so easy to combine these aspects.

Celebration of Swedish Lucia

During my stay, I was invited in both Ironstone and St Paul’s to lead a Lucia service, which I gladly did.  Lucia celebrations are unusual in England, so it was necessary for me to explain about Lucia and Lucia traditions.  We held Lucia services in both places with a Lucia procession, Lucia songs, and a talk on light in the darkness.  Pepparkakor [thin ginger biscuits] were baked and Lucia buns and glögg [a type of mulled wine] were served afterwards.  An appreciated and, for them, exotic, occasion.  It was also fun to hear Lucia songs, even to some extent in Swedish by quick-to-learn English men and women.

Music, song and choir

It is great to having music and hymns in worship.  This unites our churches.  And we have many hymns in common.  One difference, not least in the rural parishes, is that they don’t have the resources to employ a musician.  There are good voluntary musicians, but sometimes reliance has to be placed on recorded tunes to provide the accompaniment.  It does work, but it does not give the same ‘live [music] -feeling’.  We in the Swedish church can be thankful that we have church musicians.

In St Paul’s church there is a big and highly competent choir, and in one of the other churches in the parish, Woosehill, there is a devoted music group, which is important in services.  Not all the seven church in the Ironstone benefice have choirs but, as I understand it, choristers sometimes come together to form a benefice choir.  Music plays an important role in church services.

Weddings and burials

I also took part in a wedding rehearsal and a wedding ceremony.  Also in a burial service.  Their content is basically the same as in the Swedish church, but it was interesting to compare them and see certain differences.  I will not, however, go into that here.

Praise and pizza’, St Nicholas’ Community Church, Emmbrook

On one Sunday evening in October, we met in Emmbrook village hall, which is used on Sunday’s for church services.  This church serves a suburb [housing estate] within the parish of St Paul’s [Wokingham].  The theme was ‘Praise and Pizza!’  We sang praise songs and ate pizza and chatted afterwards.  Relaxed and happy, with low social thresholds [i.e. accessible to all].

All Saints Day – church service and bazaar

In the Church of England, All Saints Day on ‘the day’, that is on 1 November.  We celebrated it in St Paul’s Church on the evening of 2 November with plenty of congregational hymns and choir items; beautiful and atmospheric.

On the following Tuesday evening a bazaar was held in the Parish Rooms, which are adjacent to St Paul’s church.  It was a festive and relaxed occasion, with the proceeds going to charitable causes.

Advent, Christmas Carols and Christmas Stalls

In both St Paul’s and Ironstone Advent and Christmas services are held with an emphasis on singing.  Atmospheric and beautiful.  Christmas stalls are organised in the different churches.

Welcoming Oxford diocese’s new bishop, Steven Croft

The new bishop of Oxford diocese was received in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.  Our Växjö bishop, Fredrik, took part.  Afterwards, Bishop Steven was welcomed by the three areas of Oxford Diocese, each of which has an area bishop.  When I was in Wokingham, Bishop Steven was welcomed into the Berkshire area, where Bishop Andrew Proud is the area bishop.  That took place in Reading, a neighbouring town to Wokingham, in the church of St Mary the Virgin.  It was festive and celebratory.

Children and education

Both [our] churches run children’s and family programmes.  In practice this is about offering Christian teaching and mission for the next generation.

Children and family services, etc

Both St Paul’s and Ironstone offer various gatherings where children and families can enjoy fellowship, play and teaching/worship.  One difference [with Sweden] is that they don’t have employed teachers and so, to a great extent, have to rely on volunteers.  The priest is also involved in these events to a greater extent than is the case in the Church of Sweden.

Church and school

This is an area with interesting differences between our two churches.  Simply stated, we can say that there is a closer and more natural relationship between Church of England parishes and schools than is the case between Church of Sweden parishes and schools.  The priest at Ironstone visited a primary school in one of the parishes once a week and taught a Christian education class as well as leading an assembly for several classes which included teaching and singing.  It was, to be sure, a Christian [Church of England] school.  The St Paul’s priest also visits schools in the parish.  There too my impression is that relations there are more natural and not so filled with complexity than they can be in Sweden, for example [in Sweden] the annual discussions about hymns and prayers at the end of the school year.  I won’t take up the reasons for and correctness [or otherwise] of this difference here.  It is, however, an interesting question which can be looked into more thoroughly in other contexts.  The question can also be widened to the relation of the church to the community as a whole

Harvest festival in a school

In autumn, as in Sweden, there is a tradition of harvest festivals, with produce offered in churches, which is then sold for the benefit of some good cause.  One difference with Sweden is that such services, led by a priest with preaching and prayer, can be held in a school.  This happened, for example, in Holme Grange School in St Paul’s parish, Wokingham.  This was, it should be said, a school closely linked to the church.  A unique experience for a big school, with many hundred pupils between 7 and 12 years old sitting together in the school hall, as quiet as lit candles, all at the same time!

Remembrance Day

In relation to various traditions, such as, for example, Remembrance Day (a day of remembrance for the British soldiers who have died in war) it appeared natural for the church, through the priest, to participate and contribute, leading prayers and hymns and delivering a sermon.  This happened, for example, in The Holt School in Wokingham, where a Service of Remembrance was held in the school grounds.  There were addresses by the headmaster and someone from the military, but also, as a natural part of the ceremony, by the priest.

Study [Groups] and discussions

I also had the chance to to be present in various study [groups] and discussions/ conversations in the parishes.

Bible Studies

Bible studies are held in both Ironstone and St Paul’s.  It was interesting that, in the Bible study, in prayers and discussions, the focus was on the same Bible texts or themes, as we do in the Swedish church.  One difference is that it is not so easy in a language not one’s mother tongue, but it was interesting and informative.  It became clear how strongly language is interwoven with culture and that it is not so easy to understand what lies behind the words.  But it was also clear how religious experiences, e.g. of grace, despite being expressed in different languages, seem nevertheless to be understood across the language barriers in a sort of common experience.

Coffee and chat

There were various get-togethers for relaxed fellowship, for example at after-service coffee but also on weekdays under the title ‘coffee and chat’.  This happens in both Ironstone and St Paul’s.  These were good occasions for fellowship and practising my English.  Enjoyable and relaxing, and English people have their special witty and warm humour!

Men’s group

There were men’s groups at St Paul’s, one met in the evening and the other, newly started, was held in the daytime.  The atmosphere was pleasant and there was good ale and good food [here, enigmatically, Dag adds “kom!” – an allusion to a Swedish song which describes how good ale keeps the singer’s courage up, but also makes him poor, even to the extent of pawning his socks!] Even on the occasions at the pub I had the impression that the church is a more natural part of the life and community than seems to be the case in Sweden, despite secularisation in both our countries.

The church and the community

I also took part in activities relating to the wider community.  It is interesting to see how the relationship between the church and the community appears compared with the situation in Sweden

Remembrance Day

The day of remembrance for fallen British soldiers is observed not only in schools, but also in churches and town halls.  Wokingham’s other parish of All Saints holds such a service.  It started with people gathering in the town hall, where there were various ceremonies, culminating with the laying of wreaths, with the town hall chaplain leading prayers.  After a solemn procession to the church of local politicians, representatives of the military, church dignitaries and other civil organisations, a service was held with words of remembrance, wreath laying, but also with hymns, Bible reading, preaching and prayer for those lost in war, their families, and for peace in our community and in the world.

It was interesting to see what a natural place the church had in this and how natural it was to have a Christian service.  Even if we in Sweden do not have such a day of remembrance, there are other occasions which show that the church in our country does not have the same natural place in the community.  A clear example is, as stated, the relationship between church and school.  Another example is the pre-Christmas nativity play about the birth of Jesus.  In the school this is put together by pupils and teachers as a means of teaching parents.  But also, on the initiative of some villages, a nativity play is presented in and around a church in Ironstone.

So my general impression is that the attitude of people to the church and faith seems to be more open, or less complicated, than that of people in Sweden.  Certainly, both the Church of England and the Church of Sweden live in a secularised environment with few attending church and with, in many respects, a critical or disinterested relationship with the church.  But, at the same time, there are nuances, and my impression is that the Church of England in general operates in a community which is generally more positively open to the church than is the case in Sweden.

The parish, staff and church buildings

With regard to the number of employees in the parish, there is a great difference between the Church of England and the Church of Sweden.  In England there is often only one, or one or two priests employed in a parish or benefice.  Apart from that there can be an organist and a secretary, both part-time.  There are no teachers employed.  There are deacons, but their role is generally not the same as in the Church of Sweden.  Most commonly, a person ordained as deacon serves as such for a time prior to being ordained as a priest.  Employed caretakers [or vergers] are not so common either.  Structurally, this means that there is a big difference between our two churches.  The main reason for this is there there are not the financial resources to employ more people.  The Church of England does not have a financing system through laid-down contributions by its members as we do.  Neither have they a tradition of registering people as members.  Only a minority are registered members [i.e. on the parish electoral roll].  The members of the equivalent of our kyrkoråd (parochial church council) are chosen from those registered.

This means that there isn’t the same firm financial base that we have in the Church of Sweden.  The parish work must to a great extent be handled through voluntary efforts.  This is of course means that many people are needed, but it is also a problem when volunteers are lacking.  In Sweden the number of members is decreasing, albeit slowly, which means that before long we too will have more volunteering and change our priorities.  A necessary change of structure, the effect of which depends on how thoughtfully and wisely we make it.  Here, I believe we have much to learn from the Church of England.  Our membership system is something the Church of England should perhaps look more closely at but, naturally, in its context.

The less secure financial situation in the Church of England, of course, affects more than the number of parish employees.  Not least it affects the capacity to maintain church buildings.  Even though there seem to be many different funding sources, finance for church buildings is something which concerns and worries many church activists.  This is also a familiar problem for the Church of Sweden.  I don’t know if it is a greater problem in the Church of England, but that is my impression.  This is perhaps another area where we should learn from one another.

Deanery meetings, church councils and other organisations

Deanery meetings

One evening in Ironstone I attended a deanery meeting in Adderbury.  It was good to meet priests from the whole deanery.  Various issues were discussed concerning collaborative activities, e.g. an evangelistic campaign.  In addition, a representative from each parish related briefly what, currently, were matters of joys and sorrows in their parishes.  It was a good move, through which one got a certain insight into parish life throughout the deanery.  Another meeting took up the subject of pastoral care in the last phase of life; interesting.

At St Paul’s, I also attended a deanery meeting held in All Saints Church, Wokingham.  The theme there was how we can work in a more focused and mission directed way with children and families.  There was a presentation about ‘Messy Church’.  This is an approach which has already been introduced by the Church of England to the Church of Sweden.  A method which can provide a greater awareness and various new ways of carrying out teaching and mission among children and families.

Parish Council

In Ironstone I also attended a number of parish council meetings.  The Church of England still maintains the principle of self-governing parishes, through a parish council.  As Ironstone benefice has seven parishes (and eight churches!), there are many parish council meetings.  I was present at some of them.  The usual topics of service rotas and other special activities were dealt with.  The need for maintenance and, for example, renovation of church roofs also required time and thought.  Difficult questions about priorities came up:  for example, shall we launch an appeal to finance a new church roof, or a new electricity system for the church, or invest money to aid refugees, or in an evangelisation campaign in the village?  Not easy to prioritise, but it brings to the fore interesting questions about the purpose of a Christian parish.

Local ecumenism: “Churches Together”

In St Paul’s I attended a local ecumenical meeting, ‘Churches Together’.  There were representatives of the Church of England, Methodist, Baptist and Roman Catholic congregations.  They discussed matters concerning combined services and mission activities in the town.  Also discussed was a current issue about a new locale for their second-hand shop and their so-called ‘Food Bank’, a relief effort for providing food [to people in need].

Meeting with the Diocese of Oxford Group for the friendship link with Växjö Diocese

I took part in a meeting with the Oxford diocese group dealing with the friendship link with, among others, Växjö diocese.  It was interesting to attend this.  On this occasion the main topic of the meeting was the forthcoming welcome to Bishop Steven and the visit of bishop Fredrik [bishop of Växjö] to the diocese.  Other questions were discussed as well, for example the implications for the link diocese work of the change of bishops.

Church Mission Society

One day in September I had the opportunity of meeting Raj Patel, who works for the Church Mission Society and is responsible for Asia.  CMS is an independent organisation working in Christian mission throughout the world.  They train mission partners and others prior to their being sent out.  They work together in mission with local churches.  Interesting, with a world-wide perspective.

Training days

Partnership for Missional Church (PMC)

One Saturday in St Paul’s parish I was given the opportunity to attend a training for mission day.  It is a mission concept offered to parishes through the diocese.  St Paul’s parish in Wokingham is a participant in this project, which extends over a longer period.  It is process focused and assumes that the entire parish, with employees, parish council members and volunteers, is drawn into the mission project.  Each parish represented selects a number of different groups with different mission tasks in the parish.  One thought is that the entire parish will come to have a consciousness of, and think strategically about, mission.  Another departure point is a view of mission which can be labelled ‘God’s mission’.  This means that God is the ‘actor’ in mission and that we as a parish can choose to be God’s fellow workers in that mission.  This means broadly that God has already touched people through their longing so, when we as a parish meet people, we should see them as partners in God’s mission and not as objects for our mission.

I think that this view of mission, which is also found in other mission ideas, is thought-provoking in many ways.  Through this view of mission there is less risk of a so called ‘foisting views on others’ mission.  Mission is more respectful and more of a dialogue.  I don’t know if this mission concept has been spread to the Church of Sweden – as far as I know it has not reached Växjö diocese (?).  This concept of mission is well worth looking into and could have great relevance in the Swedish church, which is in a similar mission situation to the Church of England.  The concept seems to be well thought out and to have a sound view of mission.  A foundational book on this is ‘We are here now, a new Missional Era’, by Patrick Keifert, 2006.

A networking day on mentoring

I took part in a networking day for priests and others who work consultatively and supportively with other parish workers.  This was organised by the diocese and I went with David Hodgson who works in All Saints Parish, Wokingham.  It was interesting and instructive to see how professionally they work with this.  There was a high degree of pastoral and psychotherapeutic competence in the group.

Spare time

In my spare time there were good opportunities for other activities which gave an entrée to understanding England and its culture and which enriched my life.  For example, I visited Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s birthplace museum, the National Gallery in London and Christ Church [Cathedral] in Oxford.  I enjoyed musicals and and a Champions League football match between Reading (near Wokingham) and Bristol FC.

Meeting people

In all these activities I have described there are, of course, encounters with people.  It is above all the experiences from all these meetings that I take home with me.  All the good and interesting conversations which give new perspectives both on the life of the parish and on life in all its variety, I encountered so much generous hospitality and friendliness.  English men and women have great social competence!  As a foreigner in the language and culture I was welcomed in a friendly and accommodating way in every social context.  It makes the foreigner a guest, and sometimes also, a friend.

Conclusion and thanks!

Words on a few sheets of paper are a way of documenting experiences from four months in England.  But much is omitted and much that I experienced is hard to put in print.  I want to thank everybody, nobody mentioned and nobody forgotten, for the great hospitality and friendliness I met in Ironstone and St Paul’s; thank you!  Thanks also to Oxford and Växjö dioceses for the financial support I received.

In conclusion, a small reflection on encounters across culture and language barriers.  My experience is that there is something extremely paradoxical.  It encompassed many dimensions of both understanding and confusion or, perhaps after a time, new perspectives.  Sometimes in conversations and meetings [both] understanding and ‘the human element’ could be there.  It is stimulating when one builds bridges across language and culture barriers and reaches understanding.  But sometimes the barriers were too great.  Words can have different meanings and cultural baggage to the extent that we don’t understand one another.  This can be frustrating, but at best it can lead to new insights and perhaps a certain humility.  And, at the same time – and this is both interesting and paradoxical – sometimes understanding can be reached in spite of language and cultural hindrances.  It is as if one meets on a universally human level when we share grief, joy and hopes.  There, empathy, attitudes, facial expressions and gestures bridge language and cultural barriers.  Just a final reflection!

Dag Bjärnhall, priest, Växjö benefice

[Translation: Michael Nunn]