‘The Wee Church on the Walls’ gets a new Rector with “a big, big heart”

’The Wee Church on the Walls’ was getting a rector with “a big, big heart”, Bishop Andrew Forster told the parishioners of St Augustine’s Church, on Friday evening, as he instituted Rev Nigel Cairns as their new Rector.

It was a night of firsts in the church built on the site of St Columba’s first monastery: Bishop Forster’s first Institution as bishop; Rev Canon Paul Whittaker’s first Institution as Rural Dean; and Rev Cairns’ first incumbency.

The service ended a vacancy which arose when the previous Rector, Rev Canon Malcolm Ferry, moved to Agherton Parish in Portstewart in May last year.

Rev Cairns was joined for the occasion by his wife Alison, their twins Megan and Matthew, and other family members, and the sermon was preached by his former Rector in the Parish of Glendermott and Newbuildings, Rev Robert Boyd.

Rev Boyd – who is the Diocese’s Director of Ordinands – began by thanking the Bishop for allowing him to preach on such an important occasion for the life of the Parish of St Augustine’s and for the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe.

“We all love to brag,” Rev Boyd said, “but I am not going to brag about your new Rector tonight, despite the fact that he comes to you in perfect condition, having been trained by a wonderful Rector and parishioners for the past two and a half years. If he has any faults, just remember: he was okay when he left Glendermott.”

The preacher joked that it was bad enough that St Augustine’s had ‘stolen’ one of his organists but to come back and take his curate was a step too far. Indeed, he wondered whether they might be coming back to take his wife.

“Why are we here tonight?” Rev Boyd asked. Was it that Nigel had got a bigger pay rise? Had he made a mess of his ministry in Glendermott and Newbuildings? Did he just need a change, to escape his dreadful Rector? “Why has Nigel put himself through the ‘torture’ of moving his family and himself half a mile up the road. Poor Alison no doubt had to wonder ‘Where are we going to get all the furniture to furnish a Rectory?’ and ‘Have I to clear out the attic again?’ This calling has resulted in the family’s third house move in under three years.

“Who knows maybe even Nigel and Alison heard a call from God? That is the simple answer. That call from God is one that we all hear; many don’t listen, but listen we must.

“The Christian life is a journey – a process of growth in which we seek to ‘lay hold’ of the fullness of that which has been given us – ‘that for which I was laid hold of by Christ’ as Paul put it. We, as Christians, that is, we are Christians by the profession of our faith and in our position in relation to the Lord. He calls us to various tasks, and it is often a real step of faith to respond to that call.

“Nigel and Alison have done that – for you will soon find out that they are a supportive team and Matthew and Megan are a part of that working team as well. We have been blessed by their teamwork within our parish over the past two and a half years.

“Nigel has given up a good career as a teacher and headmaster to go into this crazy but privileged calling as a Rector. It hasn’t been an easy step, but it was the right one for him and the family. They have sacrificed a lot over the past six years, watching dad head off to college in Dublin, only coming home for the weekend – not easy for a young family – moving home and the uncertainty of where they will end up. Yet they did it and now they have arrived at this adventure in their lives as they move to St Augustine’s and take up responsibility here. We, in Glendermott and Newbuildings, have been blessed by Nigel’s ministry amongst us. We will miss him, and I will certainly miss his support and friendship as my colleague.”

Rev Boyd told the congregation that when the new Incumbent was ordained a priest in the Anglican tradition, he was reminded that “as a Priest in the Church of God” he was being called to work with the Bishop and with other priests as servants and shepherds among the people to whom they were sent. He was to proclaim the Word of the Lord, to call those who hear to repentance, and in Christ’s name to pronounce absolution and declare the forgiveness of sins. 

“The list went on, and it is a scary charge to any of us who enter the ordained ministry of what our responsibilities are. Your new Rector is here to proclaim the Word of the Lord. That Word will challenge both him and you as parishioners of this place to change. To do all of this, he needs to be surrounded by prayer. He needs to spend time in prayer as he continues to develop his relationship with God, for without that relationship with the God who has called him his ministry will suffer, so give him space to develop that important relationship.

“We must remember our proper subject. If we burn with the passion of our higher calling of God in Christ Jesus, burn with the conviction that Christ Jesus has made us His own through our faith and trust in Him, we will not go through life looking back to some Mt. of Transfiguration in the past; our path will be marked by His constant presence, and maybe, just maybe, there will be occasions when in His presence He will become a dazzling light to keep us from settling into discipleship drudgery – to call us back to the stand of Paul: ‘Not that I have already obtained – or have reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because…because Christ Jesus has made me His own.’”

Rev Boyd said St Augustine’s new Rector was not there to replicate the ministry of former Rectors, he had come to follow the call of God and to build up the fellowship of believers in the Parish. “When I moved to Glendermott a short time ago, I banned anyone from saying ‘This is the way we always did it.’ Those may well be in your eyes ‘the good old days’, but you and your new Rector are moving on to greater things; clergy are called to follow the prompting of the Spirit – just as you are; we are not here to glory in the past, we are here to build up a Kingdom in the present for the future – remember that. There will be changes ahead. Support him.

“As Nigel is Instituted tonight as your Rector, I pray that you not only welcome him, Alison and their twins Megan and Matthew, but I urge you to pray with him and for him; to work alongside him as he discerns God’s will for this parish in the future. If you and he pray and remain faithful to the call of God, then this place will continue to blossom and be blessed by God.

“Nigel, I wish you well in this new calling. May you know God’s blessing, guidance and grace in your ministry here. Remember those words of St Paul: ‘Not that I have already obtained – or have reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because…because Christ Jesus has made me His own.’ Never forget that Christ has made you His servant, His child. He who called you will guide and equip you.

“Christ has made your new Rector His own through his faith. He makes each of us His own when we respond in faith. May you press on as a Parish and grow in faith.”

Rev Cairns thanked Bishop Forster for instituting him; the Rural Dean for organising the Service; the Diocesan Registrar for ensuring that all matters were done in accordance with the Constitution of the Church of Ireland; and the Rector of Glendermott and Newbuildings “not only for putting up with me for the last few years” but also for preaching the sermon at the Institution Service. He also expressed thanks to family, friends and clergy who had come to the Service to support him.

“It was a privilege to minister in Glendermott and Newbuildings,” the new Rector said, “and I have no doubt whatsoever that the same sense of privilege will continue as I do my best, under God, to pick up the mantle here in St Augustine’s. As a family, we feel blessed to be amongst you, and I know that your Christian witness on the Walls will be one that will glorify God.”

Bishop Forster also thanked Canon Whittaker for organising the Service and for being with the Parish during the vacancy, and thanked Rev Boyd for his “thought-provoking” sermon.

“To you, Nigel, and to you, Alison, and to Megan and Matthew, we just want to say tonight, God bless you. We’re thrilled that you’re here.

“I know we’re told that pride is a sin, but – but – as a Diocese we feel a sense of pride in you because you’re one of our own: you grew up here; you know the place; we all know you and love you; and tonight we feel a proper sense of pride in you as you begin this new chapter of your life and of your lives together.

“You have a wonderful family. It has been a real joy for me to meet Alison and the children. And can I say to the parishioners of St Augustine’s, I know that you’ll look after this family and help them and support them, and give them the space they need and the support they need, and bless them in the years that lie ahead.

“Do you know, the most important thing for all of us in Church – whether bishop, rector or parishioner – is that each one of us stays close to Jesus. That’s what matters. And as we stay close to Him we find His love, His support, His encouragement, His pushing us on and His blessing as He leads us home. So, I say to you, Nigel, tonight, stay close to Jesus and know His blessing as you serve Him here.

“I’m going to finish by telling you a little story. I’ve been in this church once before – well, I was here yesterday, for a wedding, actually – but I was here once before, it was about 14 years ago, and we’d come just on a daytrip to the city as a family and we walked the Walls. It was a beautiful summer’s day. My children – they were all quite small then – just always used to hate going out with dad in summer because they had to go into every church they walked past. And the great thing about me coming in here was they could play about on the Walls and I came in here.

“I do not know who the parishioners were but there were two of you and you talked me through the church and explained all about it, and told me the history of it, and I felt so welcomed here that day.

“And this is a place of welcome in the heart of this city to tens of thousands of tourists, to people who are part of our denomination and who are not. This is a place of welcome. What we found that day was that this Wee Church on the Walls had a big, big heart and it still does. And you have a Rector now who has a big, big heart, and he will lead you on and bless you in the future.”

The readings were delivered by the new Rector’s wife and by Rev Ken McLaughlin who assisted with ministry during the vacancy. During the service, parish stalwart Deirdre Amor presented huge floral bouquets to Mrs Cairns, to the Rural Dean’s wife, Carol, and to the Bishop, and afterwards the congregation crossed to the parish hall – the Old Schoolhouse – for a splendid supper prepared by members of the parish.