It had been billed as a Celebration of Ministry – an opportunity for synod to say good bye and thank you to Lis Mullen, our moderator for the past three years. And members of our churches turned out in good numbers to do just that, so that there was not a spare seat to be found at St Margaret’s South Shields.
And it all turned out to be very much a celebration, even if tinged with sadness and regret. Our moderator-elect, North Northumberland minister David Herbert (who had been invited to lead the service before every his appointment was known) began with some familiar verses from Ecclesiastes, with an extra home-grown verse: “A time to retire and a time to be recycled”. And the retirement theme was to the fore in the following “Jesus and Peter” dialogue written by Lawrence Moore of the Windermere Centre. Whatever may await Lis and John as they retire back to their home in Windermere, we know that once one is caught up, like Peter, in being with Jesus, so much that is life-changing is never going to be put to one side.
Thoughts like this came through the sermon, preached by General Assembly Moderator Kevin Watson, a local lad returning to his home patch. Kevin recalled the geography of the region and followed its rivers down to the sea, recalling on the way people of faith whom he has known who in their various ways have lived out the calling described in the reading we had just heard from Micah – What does the Lord require of us, but to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?
After we had sung a hymn that Jan Berry, who was present with us, had written for Lis’s induction three years previously, ecumenical guests spoke of their own appreciation of Lis’s ministry from the perspective of the regional church leaders’ group. They have learned through their regular meetings to be open and honest with one another and, as Bishop Mark put it, they have come to appreciate Lis’s presence with them all the more because she did not always feel the need to be nice to them.
Then came the presentations: from Lis’s colleagues in the office, made by her trusted friend and colleague Mel Campbell, as synod clerk; and then on behalf of the whole synod made by Newcastle minister Meg Robb, a member of the synod executive. Meg reflected the feelings of the whole congregation as she spoke of our appreciation of Lis’s wise leadership and reconciling spirit that had brought people together again, while enabling us all to face up to the realities of our present situation. And Lis, in response, thanked all who had supported her through this time – and reminded us that we would be in good hands as David stepped into her shoes.
There followed prayers, and a final hymn and blessing – but it was by no means all over. How St Margaret’s folk were organised! They quickly had the able-bodied moving chairs, those who could bear the sunshine (happily no hardship) out in the grounds, and before long refreshments were being served to everyone. Then it was only a short break before the hall was reorganised once more, and the St George’s Morpeth Ceilidh Band, augmented by a number of guest instrumentalists from around our churches, took centre stage – and two hours of dancing followed.
For all the sterling efforts of caller Jared Johnson, it has to be said that in the course of the evening there were moments out there on the floor that were little short of chaotic. Seeing just what synod members are capable of may have reinforced what we already knew – that we should be so grateful to Lis, for keeping us so well on course over these past three years.