Saint Aldates, A Vision Alive

It was Sunday morning, August 18th, and as we dressed to go to church the music floated in the open window at Pembroke College, Oxford University.  The night before we had been debating whether to go to Wesley Memorial Methodist Church (think First Methodist Oxford) or Christ Church Cathedral (the church where both John and Charles Wesley had been ordained).  We had decided on Christ Church Cathedral located in Christ Church College across the street from where we were staying.

As we left our rooms and walked over, we passed a plain looking old English Church nestled between Pembroke College and Christ Church College.  The music we had been listening to poured out of this plain church – “How Great Thou Art” sung to drums, guitars and a fast paced beat.  I peered in an open door.  “Look Jolynn, that place is full of young people!”

We turned in front of the church, which was named St. Aldates, intending to stop at a nearby coffee shop.  (St. Aldate, the person not the church, was Bishop of Gloucester and died a martyr’s death resisting pagan invasion forces in 577 A. D.)  The music and self-evident joy was intoxicating.  We paused to read the sign board outside the church.  One of the greeters came outside to the edge of the street and invited us in.  Now that is really radical hospitality!  At first we demurred.  Weren’t we late?  No, he assured us, they were just finishing the first hymn.  The Holy Spirit spoke, and we slipped inside.

The church was reasonably full. (Something we were told was never the case in England.  We had been assured that except for special occasions all churches were mostly empty with just a scattering of older people.).  All ages were present in abundance with a fairly even mixture (though tending to the young side) age-wise.  There was an ethnic diversity that we dream of accomplishing on our best days.  Worship had a passionate intensity, depth and biblical integrity.  The sermon was faithful, thoughtful, and well delivered.  People were friendly and genuinely glad we had come without being clingy.

In the service they spoke of opportunities for service.  It turns out that St. Aldates is active in a large Christian ministry to the homeless in Oxford.  They offered opportunities for continuing spiritual development in prayer and Bible study.  While my conference was talking about a post missionary age, they prayed for a young couple who was leaving on an evangelistic and social (love, justice & mercy) mission to a predominately Muslim country.  Evangelism wasn’t something debated and defined.  It was something engaged in with sensitivity and love both right there in Oxford and around the world.  All of this was wrapped in faithful denominationally obedient Church of England cloak.

Afterwards, we learned that even though it seemed full to us (and even though they had multiple services) the members thought attendance was down because students weren’t present (school was out for the summer at Oxford).  They have a major, as in mega-major, student ministry.  “Usually” one couple told us, “it’s standing room only.”  As I mentally ticked off the five practices of healthy fruitful congregations – radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, extravagant generosity – I realize that all the elements were there.

As we walked away, Jolynn and I reflected on how we thought the Holy Spirit had led us to St. Aldates.  Out of my personal desert, I came to the well of living water.  As a couple, we came to church and God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit spoke to us that day.  Struggling in parched land of a dry and at times contentious gathering of Wesley scholars, I recalled the original Methodist movement.  Here it was at St. Aldates, in an Anglican church no less.  Go figure.  Only God could pull something like this off.   We saw a vision of what the church is to be and be about.  I saw again the vision I have for Central Texas.

This is the vision I have and have had since I came here for the Central Texas Conference.  I see vibrant, spiritually healthy, fruitful and faithful local churches spread all over the area; churches in cities and suburbs; churches in towns and fields; new churches and old churches and even in-between churches.  I can name a host of churches in the Central Texas Conference that are our versions of St. Aldates.  We have a goodly number of healthy fruitful congregations that are vibrantly serving the Lord.  Once again I thank God for the privilege of serving in the Central Texas Conference.  On deep reflection of our St. Aldates experience, this is my vision for the churches both here and all over the world.

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