It was 10:30 when we arrived and already the church was nearly full. Unusual for the last Sunday in June. Normally, at least in good United Church tradition, school is out and most people have other plans for a fine Sunday morning. But this is Milford United Church and the Rev. Helen Waddell, after eleven years with these people of the Milford-Lantz Gays River Pastoral Charge, is ending her ministry. This is her last Sunday. (A Pastoral Charge is the United Church designation for the church or churches served by a Minister)
The cacophony of conversation runs high. People are visiting, children are squealing, musicians are warming up – there will be three singing groups plus the regular choir. As eleven o’clock approaches, still the magic worship hour for many churches, there is a shuffling of bags containing brightly wrapped packages and whispered words regarding speeches that will be made.
Emily and I are here to represent Truro Presbytery, the area governing body of the United Church. Part of the final worship service is a “decovenanting” ritual. A minister, upon beginning a ministry with a local church or churches, is covenanted. This is a formal relationship between minister and people, sanctioned and overseen by Presbytery. In recent years, what formally began with a Covenanting Service conducted by Presbytery officials, is recognized as ending with Presbytery taking a small part in a brief but moving ritual of returning the symbols of ministry; bible, baptismal font, sacramental elements of bread and wine, and a symbol of Pastoral Care.
Helen, who has been circulating among the people wreathed in her usual engaging smile and shining eyes, talking with and hugging everyone, begins the Worship with a welcoming greeting to which everyone responds.
Helen is an off the charts extrovert whose bright energy infects the gathered people with her joy of life and enthusiasm for the faith she is now celebrating. Worship here is a glad celebration of life, recognizing its pain but focussing on the positives and possibilities.
Emily and I, being a retired pair of ministers, have the privilege of sometimes conducting Worship and having other contacts with Churches in the area. Every congregation has its own personality and it is not difficult to pick up the flavour and spirit of each. This Pastoral Charge is a live one, and Helen has certainly helped Milford-Lantz and Gays River become lively, open, accepting churches. One hymn we sang expressed it, Draw the Circle Wide.
Milford-Lantz is a good example of what is taking place throughout much of the church. Worship is a celebration of life, complete with music, which often includes drums. We had no drums on this day – although they sometimes do – but did have two guitars, banjo, mandolin and stand up base, besides the regular electronic piano/organ which can produce every sound you can imagine.
I think back to the church of my youth. Worship was a serious and solemn affair. (We are learning that it can be a serious and joyous affair!) Conversation prior to worship, if at all, was in quiet whispers. Children were shushed. If we acted up too much we just might be taken out to the woodshed afterwards. As youth we took pride in taking up the offering with military precision. The Elders distributed the bread and wine (grape juice) of communion with the solemnity and formality of a changing of the guard. We knew that something momentous was going on even though it was an endurance test for a child. But after the service the adults stood around outside catching up on the week’s news while the children played, glad to be out and able to have fun.
Unfortunately, many churches are slow to change and are out of sync with modern times. Often neither the theology nor the music speak to the souls of people of today.
But in Milford-Lantz it is different. The Service turned out to be a going away party and worship all rolled into one. But no one minded the two hours we spent together in song and celebration, nor the lunch and conversation which followed. It was good to be part of this honouring of Helen’s long and creative ministry. With her kind of leadership, and people ready to grow, there is hope for new life within the church.