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What Do We Each Bring to the Table?
by Phil Andrews
“Jack Sprat could eat no fat
His wife could eat no lean
And so, betwixt them both, you see
They licked the platter clean.”

Look as you might, you won’t find this piece of wisdom anywhere in scripture.  It is, or certainly was, a popular nursery rhyme and, like many nursery rhymes, it would appear to have been plagiarised from at least one earlier work.  “Jack Sprat” in the sixteenth century was employed as a derogatory reference to any male who was of diminutive stature, and earlier variants of the verse are said to have been written about either Charles I and his taller (Roman Catholic) wife Henrietta Maria, or King John (of Robin Hood fame) and his reputedly greedy other half Isabella.  

Fascinating though its origins may be though, its relevance to us has more to do with what it has to say to us about the benefits of delegation, and in particular the allocation of responsibility according to wont.   Dining alone, neither Jack nor his worryingly unhealthy spouse would have managed to complete the meal.  And yet between them it was very much, as the saying goes, job done.

When our much-loved former Secretary Pat Burch sadly passed away many years ago, it occurred to the rest of us church members – probably much later than it ought to have done – just how much work she did with the everyday running of the church.  From taking the minutes at meetings to reading out the notices, from hiring preachers to dealing with correspondence, from handling incoming enquiries to organising the flowers – Pat was involved with pretty much everything that we did.  Quite apart from deeply missing her presence and her warm, endearing personality we also realised pretty quickly that all of those tasks that she had quietly taken upon herself with neither complaint nor ceremony would need to be undertaken by somebody else.  And once it had become clear that not one of us felt capable nor competent to step wholly into her shoes, we were left with just one obvious solution.  To this day our various responsibilities are managed by a plethora of different “secretaries”, each of them with a separate and singular job description.  Between us, somehow, we manage to lick the platter clean.

Such a distribution of roles according to talent is not of course a concept that is unique to Isleworth Congregational Church.  Heads of government, local and national, appoint ministers or lead members to specific portfolios which it is felt they may have a particular calling for.  Indeed, there is one authority above all others which outlines this thinking to perfection:

“A body is not one single organ, but many… God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body as he chose.  If the whole body were one single organ, it would not be a body at all; in fact, however, there are many different organs, but one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’, nor the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you’… God has combined the various parts of the body… so that there might be no sense of division in the body, but that all its organs might feel the same concern for one another.  If one organ suffers, they all suffer together.  If one flourishes, they all rejoice together.”
(1 Corinthians 12 – 14-26)

It was these words that I had in mind, as well as the recent history of our own church, when our deacon and Treasurer Elizabeth Crewes began to lead us through a series of Zoom meetings, as part of our regular Bible Study, based on a booklet called “Christ In All Things”, written by Suzanne Nockles and Janet Wootton and issued by the Congregational Federation.  The booklet examines both the role of the church, and our role within it.  Crucially, it touches also on how we interact as members, and how we can support each other to perform God’s work through fellowship.

Very early into the course we are reminded that both the Old and New Testaments consider our relationship to God in terms of “covenants” – agreements freely entered into, but which are nonetheless binding and based upon an unwritten promise of loyalty and faithfulness.  We are then asked to ponder our relationships on three levels – with God, with others who are part of the same covenant (our fellow church members) and with those outside of the covenant (everybody else).  All three are part of the same process, it is not ours to pick and choose which we wish to be part of and which we would prefer to avoid.

As practising Christians I would like to think that, for us, a relationship with God can be taken as a given.  But as members, indeed one might say ambassadors, of our own particular church the course may hopefully present us with an opportunity to reflect upon how we engage (a) with each other, and (b) with those outside of our fellowship, and to consider whether our attitudes in either instance are consistent with the manner in which our Lord comported Himself when He walked among us.  When we were implored to follow His example.

Jesus told us that in His father’s house there are many rooms, so the good news is we won’t all have to share the same one.  After all people are different – they have different personalities, and different talents.  Different strengths, and different weaknesses.  Different temperaments, and different likes and dislikes.  So different rooms it is, but all under the same roof in the same big house.

And so it is too that under the roof which rests upon our fine building there are so many different people who have different things to offer.  To our fellowship, to our church community, to each other.  Some are musical, others have the gift of oratory (or think they have – I’ll let others be the judge!).  Writing newsletter articles, or sending in a piece that somebody else has written which just happened to grab your attention, helps provide us with a message to fire the imaginations of anybody on the outside who may be looking in, as well as to make the editor’s job that little bit easier.  For others still, making notes or liaising with visiting preachers might be something you can do.  At the end of the day, if all you know how to do is knit then knit us something – we’ll find a use for it somewhere or other.  Everybody has a part to play, everyone has something to bring to the table, and nobody ought ever to be made to feel discouraged.

Not all of us are blessed with a cheerful demeanour, of course.  So those who are should consider it an obligation to instantly welcome newcomers to our pews should they feel the urge to step inside.  And even those who aren’t should as a bare minimum resist any temptation to scowl, or to give off an impression that the new visitor is looked upon as an intruder.  The third covenant is every bit as important as the first two.

And here, I would suggest, is where some introspection really is called for.  What is our relationship, collectively, with people outside of our fellowship?  Are we reaching out to the wider community, leaving our calling card, offering new options to those who pass our doors but may at some point have been tempted to venture a tentative glance, or better still a tentative step, inside?  Or are we, to put it bluntly, insular and self-serving?

Just a few days before writing this article I found myself chatting outside our church building, after Sunday morning service, with a few fellow members of the congregation.  Just an everyday conversation – about football, if I recall – not in itself a thing of any consequence to our broader purpose.  As we spoke, a cheery-looking young blonde lady walked past, shyly conscious of the small gaggle of strangers whom she was required to pass in order to make progress to her unknown destination further along the street.  As she did so, ever so discreetly, she made the sign of the cross.  Possibly nothing more than an instinctive ritual, of course.  But possibly something more?

I softly smiled at her as she did so.  Anything more would have seemed presumptive.  But I did wonder…

Jesus sent his disciples out into the nations to spread the good news.  Many of them suffered horribly as a consequence of their faith in Him.  We are being asked to offer a warm welcome, a smile and a bun.  It really shouldn’t be too much of an imposition.

Elizabeth has set the ball in motion with her work with the local foodbank.  This modest but important commitment not only provides help to those most in need of it, but serves as a useful statement of intent in respect of our church and its mission.  We should embrace it warmly, support it with enthusiasm and resolve to build upon it.

Self-awareness, individually and collectively, ought to inform all our actions in our dealings with one another and with the outside world.  If ever we are in any doubt, we can always ask ourselves this one simple question: “What would Jesus do?”


Elsewhere in this Newsletter:

Deacons' Page

Isleworth Congregational Church - Twickenham Road - Isleworth - Middlesex - TW7 7EU - United Kingdom

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