frgavin on April 21st, 2011

Julian Mann Church of England Newspaper April 15

The suffering and growing Church of Jesus Christ in Africa, represented by Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos, Nigeria, and his remarkable wife Gloria spent three days in a South Yorkshire parish and the result was tremendous blessing.

They visited Oughtibridge, a commuter village on the north-west outskirts of Sheffield, before this week’s New Word Alive conference in north Wales to cement a recently-formed link between the Parish Church of the Ascension and St Luke’s Cathedral Church in Jos. Canon Christopher Sugden, Anglican Mainstream executive secretary, arranged the link on behalf of our church when he visited Jos just before Christmas.

At a church family meal on Saturday night, the Kwashis described both the explosive church growth they have witnessed in the Plateau State of Nigeria and the Islamist attacks they have experienced.

In 1987, when Archbishop Ben was a vicar, his church and house were burned down. In 2006, in the wake of the Danish cartoon furore, Gloria was savagely attacked in their home and had to have surgery in the United States to restore her eyesight. In 2007 Archbishop Ben himself was threatened with death by intruders into their home who fortunately did not carry out their stated intent but did steal valuables and caused considerable damage.

The Kwashis accommodate 50 orphaned children in their home whom they feed and educate. A further 150 children, housed nearby, are also educated in the compound. Christian grace under pressure is a compelling witness to the living Christ anywhere in the world. On the Friday of their visit the Kwashis did a pre-recorded interview for BBC Radio Sheffield’s Sunday breakfast programme in which they testified powerfully to the love of Christ. Asked how they coped with the suffering they have experienced, they simply expressed their desire to be a blessing to others in the place in which God has called them to be Christ’s witnesses. Such Christian integrity impacted powerfully on the Oughtibridge congregation to whom Archbishop Ben preached on Sunday. Gloria was wonderfully bedecked in her Mothers’ Union dress and headdress. His text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11, one of the Lectionary readings for last Sunday. His sermon about the raising of a dead man by the power of the living Christ resonated powerfully in a ‘middle of the road’ Anglican parish church.When my wife and I arrived in Oughtibridge in 2000, the middle of the road was where the parish church perceived itself to be. Though eschewing incense and reserved sacrament, it cherished its candles and coloured altar cloths. It also prided itself on not being ‘happy clappy’.

However, I soon discovered as vicar that the middle of the road is a dangerous place to be when you are a hedgehog.The Oughtibridge congregation had declined during the 1980s and 1990s in common with many such churches.Ours was virtually the only family in the regular congregation when we arrived. Indeed on Christmas Day in 1999, during the inter-regnum, there had been no children in the parish church, a feat of which Oliver Cromwell would have been proud or perhaps not if Sunday had fallen on December 25th during his Puritan Protectorate. The church was unsustainable back in 2000 – it did not pay its way in terms of parish share and still does not, though the congregation by God’s grace has grown younger and there is an agreed agenda on PCC to increase our contribution to the cost of our ministry. But the politically incorrect reality is that without significantly more Christian men of working age, the church will struggle to become a sustainable and viable parish church.

Oughtibridge churchwarden, Mrs Helen Kean, who joined the church in 2004 through bringing her daughter for baptism, describes the spiritual benefits of the Kwashis’ visit: “As a church family we have been encouraged enormously by both Ben and Gloria’s true commitment and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Through much suffering and pain they stand firm in what they believe and what Jesus has taught us through the Gospels. We are so very excited about this link that the Lord has provided us with and we look forward to praying for and supporting our brothers and sisters in Jos.”

The hymn after Archbishop Ben’s sermon was Charles Wesley’s ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.’ My English reserve almost failed me when we sang: “He speaks and listening to His voice, new life the dead receive, the mournful, broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.” Perhaps it would have been more appropriate on this occasion if the stiff upper lip had broken its line.

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire –

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