Parishioners of Christ Church Strabane got a foretaste of what lies ahead when they met their new Rector for the first time, formally, on Friday evening at his Service of Institution. At the supper afterwards, in the parish hall, Rev John White gave an insight into what he called his “warped” sense of humour, promising his new congregation that while his sermons might be long, they were never boring.
The new Rector of Camus-Juxta-Mourne thanked his former parishioners in St John’s Parish in the Diocese of Down & Dromore for “15 great years” and for travelling from Lurgan to “the North West frontier” for Friday’s service. He said, too, that he and his family had been “overwhelmed” by the warmth of the welcome they had received in Strabane.
Rev White thanked his children, Andrew, David and Simon, for their support, and expressed gratitude to his wife, Diane, for putting up with his sense of humour, which he suggested “Diane does not get after all these years, but I know ‘the look’, I know when to stop.”
Mrs White may have given her husband ‘the look’ during his speech because he suddenly became very serious when he recalled how he had arrived in Christ Church Strabane – via All Saints Clooney, Tobermore, Dundonald and Lurgan. “Above all,” Rev White said, “I want to thank the Lord for his amazing grace because in our reading tonight, the apostle Paul made a very important statement. He said, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’. And I can say that exactly tonight: by the grace of God I am what I am. My life would have taken a very different course had it not been for the grace of God at a particular moment, and had it not been for his goodness and his love and his mercy. So, I want to thank him, tonight. for me being here.”
Rev White, who revealed himself to be an Arsenal fan, shared “a bit of homespun philosophy” with those present when he told them that he believed the best was yet to come for Christ Church. “And I am so excited about what the Lord has in store for us, as we follow his leading and as we see his hand at work in our midst.
“I want to thank you all for coming and for sharing this special night with us. And I want to wish you every blessing in the days to come, as I trust the Lord will bless us here in Christ Church in these exciting – I don’t believe they’re difficult days – I believe they’re exciting days, they’re days of opportunity and they’re days that we must grasp what the Lord lays before us.”
At the Service of Institution, earlier, in the adjoining parish church, the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good, acknowledged that there was sadness in St John’s parish in Lurgan at their Rector’s departure. But the Bishop said there was “a sense of excitement, anticipation and joy” in Strabane and in the wider Diocese at the new chapter which was beginning in the new incumbent’s life and in the life of Christ Church.
Bishop Good thanked everyone in the congregation for being there to encourage the new Rector. “You are part of a significant night in the life of this town, in the life of this parish and in the life of this Diocese, as well as in the life of the White family.”
Bishop Good was assisted during the Service by the Archdeacon of Derry, Ven. Robert Miller, who presented Rev White for institution; the Diocesan Registrar, Rev Canon David Crooks; the Rural Dean, Rev Canon Robert Clarke; and the Preacher for the Service, Rev Canon Paul Hoey.
The congregation included the Deputy Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District, Alderman Derek Hussey; HM Lord Lieutenant for Tyrone,Mr Robert Scott OBE; James Hamilton, the 5th Duke of Abercorn; Mrs Mary Good; Sergeant David McIlwaine, representing the PSNI; and leaders of the other main Christian churches in the area.
In his sermon, Canon Hoey assured the Christ Church congregation that they would enjoy getting to know their new Rector but that there were two things he wanted to tell them: “Firstly, John is here for one reason and that is because he believes God has called him to be Rector of this parish. And John, we say thank you for responding to God’s call and the call of the Church, and welcome back to Derry and Raphoe. And the other thing I’ll tell you is that in Diane, you folk in Christ Church will be blessed to have somebody who gives her husband her fullest support in that calling.”
Canon Hoey said he wanted to focus in his sermon on God’s call. “What is God’s call, John? What is it that God is calling you to do here? What is his call for you, people of Christ Church, at this particular moment in your history? Our readings are all about calling.
“In the first of them, from Isaiah, we hear about a tough call, a call to do something difficult and challenging.” The going is often tough, Canon Hoey said, and clergy needed to encourage one another in ministry. “It certainly was hard in Isaiah’s day. Isaiah was a man who had a great longing to see his fellow citizens following in God’s way. But in today’s reading he is very worried”. It was a time of uncertainty for the nation. The godly old king had just died – under him the nation had enjoyed blessing and prosperity – but his likely successor was going to be very different, probably set on a war footing with the surrounding nations. On top of that church attendance was plummeting as the people’s prosperous lifestyle made God seem irrelevant to them.
“So, what does Isaiah do?” the Preacher asked. “Well, he does what I think any of us should in those circumstance – he takes it to the Lord in prayer.” He sees God majestic in his holiness, seated on the throne of heaven. And suddenly he knows that God is in control – in control of the nation, in control of the Church.
“Someone once said that the task of the preacher is first to comfort the disturbed but secondly also to disturb the comfortable. That second bit – disturbing the comfortable – is what God was calling Isaiah to do. And John, I believe it will also be part of your call as it is of every preacher.”
Canon Hoey said Isaiah asked God how long it would take for things to change? “In the reading it says, ‘Until the cities lie waste and the land is utterly desolate.’ In other words, until it almost seems there is no hope left to the nation. Then, when it looks least likely, then the change will come; then people will listen and turn back to me, and then I will raise up the Church again. But, make no mistake, Isaiah, it says: it’s going to be hard. And that’s why I want you to know that I have called you and that I am with you.”
Canon Hoey said he was confident his friend would enjoy ministry among the people of Christ Church. They were faithful people, who enjoyed fun, and they would get on well. “But I’m sure there will also be times when – not just you but all of us who are part of God’s church – seem only to see things that are discouraging and seem to get few encouragements. It goes with the territory.
“It’s hard, today, simply being a Christian in our world. In those days, remember Isaiah. Know that you’re here because God has called you and that if you are faithful to his call he will be with you, and that his word will accomplish its purpose. And maybe, when you least expect it, there will be days of blessing and renewal.”
The second reading spoke about an exciting call – a call to proclaim and to be good news.
The apostle Paul started by reminding himself that the core task of any preacher was to remind people of the good news. In a world of bad news, people in Strabane and elsewhere were longing for some good news.
“I notice that Paul doesn’t say, ‘Tell them the good news.’ He actually says, ‘Remind them of the good news’. And he defines the good news as the news about Jesus, how he died, how he rose again, and of the new life that’s available in him. But it’s reminding them of it that’s important.”
Paul said this task of sharing the good news and reminding the people of it was of first importance, Canon Hoey said. “But it’s not just preaching the good news that Paul’s talking about, he talks about being good news. He tells his readers of the good news that has happened in his own life. He reminds them how once he had persecuted the church and now, here he was, completely transformed, leading that very same church, an amazing miracle of grace and the transforming power of God at work in his life.”
Canon Hoey said he wanted to encourage the people of Christ Church [to realise] that a time of transition such as this one – when they were getting a new Rector – could be a time when things did change. “Our vision in this Diocese is for every church to be a transforming community, radiating the good news of Christ out to all around and, John, I know that that’s your vision for Christ Church – that it’s not just about you preaching the good news but wanting this church to be good news for everybody who lives in Strabane.
“I’ve heard lots of good news stories from Christ Church. I’ve heard stories of healing, I’ve heard stories of renewal, all kinds of stories, but I believe there are more to come. And maybe the best thing that we can do on this night, as we begin this new chapter together, is to let that transforming power of God work in our own lives because it starts here with us.”
The final reading – the Gospel reading – included another call, to step out beyond our comfort zones and to launch out into the deep. “There’s a huge catch to be brought in here in Strabane,” the Preacher said, “and in every community represented here. But where does God want you to go? Where do you start? Where’s your ‘deep’? I don’t know. But God knows. He can see where the fish are who are ready to be brought into the nets of his kingdom. And so, John, maybe one of the things that you could do together as a Church in these early days is simply to come together and pray, ‘Lord, show us where you want us to go.’”