Sharing the story, in thanksgiving and celebration

This week’s article is taken from our online centenary service broadcast for the first time at 3.00 pm (BST) on the afternoon of Sunday 24 April 2022. Canon Dr George Lings’ address draws on childhood memories of the impact of BRF Bible reading notes on his family.

24 April 2022

George Lings

In thanksgiving and celebration

Canon Dr George Lings has a long association with BRF and is one of our vice presidents. This is the text of his address from our online centenary service. Celebrating and giving thanks for God’s faithfulness to BRF over the past 100 years, it was broadcast for the first time on Sunday 24 April 2022 – and you can watch it again here.

Sharing the story, including my own…

As you watch and listen to this service, I wonder if you recall your first memory of BRF. I think back to a snippet from 60 years ago. My mum kept her BRF Bible reading notes on her bedside table. That sounds so ordinary. It was anything but that. By then she was on her own, my father having recently drowned on a family holiday, leaving her as a widow to raise three boys aged seven, five and two. I was the seven-year-old.

In her grief and despair, one day God met her. Ancient words came alive, spoke to her, changed her life; gave her hope, strength and fortitude to carry on. From then on, encountering God through the Bible became a daily discipline. She was a beneficiary – so was I. Thank you God, thank you BRF.

‘Ancient words came alive, spoke to her, changed her life; gave her hope, strength and fortitude to carry on.’

One story among thousands

It’s just one story across thousands in the 100 years of BRF. I doubt my mum ever met Revd Leslie Mannering, our founder. But she would agree with what he wrote in 1921. ‘It is the dynamic of personal faith that really moves men and things.’ Such faith comes to life when Jesus the Word meets us, either directly, through the Bible or through the witness of someone else.

Yet the story of BRF is more than enabling the interaction between the Bible and individuals. When BRF was only 25 years old Leslie Mannering was already exploring its growth in the purposes of God and how the movement should be allowed to grow naturally, within which ‘the Spirit must have free play.’ So where did that take BRF? Mannering’s words took me to lines from the BRF centenary prayer.  

‘It is the dynamic of personal faith that really moves men and things.’

‘Thank you God, for your faithfulness in nurturing small beginnings into surprising blessings.’ 

What a good summary of BRF life over the last 20 years, that I have seen close at hand. Richard Fisher put it this way on Songs of Praise in January. ‘We’ve become the home of other ministries; that reflects our desire to resource the spiritual journey and to help all ages grow in faith.’

So what’s the connection between all this and our reading from Luke chapter one, Mary’s song? As I pondered and prayed over what to say today, I found my mind running to the line in v. 52, that God ‘has lifted up the lowly’.

Reading: Luke 1:46–55 (GNT)

Mary’s Song of Praise

Mary said,
‘My heart praises the Lord;
 my soul is glad because of God my Saviour,
 for he has remembered me, his lowly servant!
From now on all people will call me happy,
 because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me.
His name is holy;
 from one generation to another
 he shows mercy to those who honour him.
He has stretched out his mighty arm
 and scattered the proud with all their plans.
He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors,
 and has come to the help of his servant Israel.
He has remembered to show mercy to Abraham
 and to all his descendants forever!’

Luke 1:46–55 (GNT)

Turning the tide through BRF’s ministries

I’d dare to say that both Messy Church and Parenting For Faith have been sent by God to lift up a lowly group – called children. Children in church communities were becoming an endangered species. In each successive generation, there were fewer of them. Research has proved that Messy Churches help turn that tide, with half the participants being children. Across fresh expressions of church as a whole, there are twice as many children as in other churches. Children are no longer seen but not heard. They used to be missing, but now can be seen as a keystone species restoring something. It could be the value of play to life. Children are at home in play and they invoke the rediscovery of play in adults. I deeply enjoy being a grandparent. I’ve had many happy hours with my grandchildren, absorbed in their games, freed from the cares of this world, entertained by the surprising connections they make and prizing the pearls they come out with. All this, from a small beginning, one example near Portsmouth, now a surprising blessing. Messy Church is now an international initiative that models being a fellowship, being church community around Jesus – of, with and for all ages.

Anna Chaplaincy has also been used to lift up another lowly group, the elderly. Another small beginning; quietly developed for four years in Hampshire, and now with at least 200 other chaplains. It’s visiting older people, valuing their experience, bringing them hope and restoring dignity; bringing spiritual care and church to them, for them and with them – lifting up the lowly.

And is it an accident, alongside Mary’s song that these contemporary songs were first sung by a Lucy Moore, by a Debbie Thrower and by a Rachel Turner, pioneering the ministry done in families at home through Parenting for Faith? At this point, I wondered if this preacher should have been a woman. Go on the BRF website and click on the buttons that show you the team. You’ll see Richard Fisher and ten women. Sadly, until recently too often women have also been treated as being among the lowly.

You have filled the hungry with good things

Mary’s song goes on – ‘you have filled the hungry with good things’ – like God did for my mum 60 years ago, and today through BRF’s Living Faith ministry: it’s a range of resources both in print and online, as well as diverse sets of Bible reading notes and a stream of books. I’m glad to have made a minor contribution myself to that flow these last 20 years.

But what of the future?  

My mind turned to a verse from our second reading, Luke 5:1–7, in which Jesus calls the first disciples. Jesus’ words are enigmatic: ‘Launch out into the deep’. Because I’m a sailor I know it takes a bit of time to get out into the deep. I sometimes imagine that Jesus stopped at that point and it was only later he went on to say… ‘let down your nets for a catch.’ It takes time to get further out, it takes courage to take your feet off the bottom; the deep is a symbol of the unknown, beyond certainty and sight.

Yet in an adventure with Jesus, we may suspect that there’s something rather promising lurking beneath the surface. I wonder what it will be in BRF’s story: a further part of the re-imagination of church that needs to continue to unfold perhaps, way beyond the shallows of the old normal, which, to tell the truth, didn’t connect with most people.

‘It takes time to get further out, it takes courage to take your feet off the bottom; the deep is a symbol of the unknown, beyond certainty and sight.

I don’t care what the new normal appears like – if it is big or small, who leads it or what locations it uses. I care for its values: every expression must be a portal to deeper life in Christ, a community centred around Jesus, with the light of Jesus shining through.

I know too that ‘launch out into the deep’ is a characteristic of Jesus. His classic call was ‘follow me’ – no catchy mission statement, no three-point plan, no pension promises, just a personal invitation; how risky yet how utterly certain. I pray BRF continues to follow Jesus on his journey. Quite a number of us may find we are part of it.

Canon Dr George Lings has been a banker, student, vicar, writer, mentor and researcher. From 1997 to 2017 he led Church Army’s Research Unit specialising in fresh expressions of church and gaining a PhD. In 2017 he was awarded the Canterbury Cross for outstanding service to the Church of England. He now serves as a companion of Northumbria Community, vice president of BRF and consultant to a number of individuals and dioceses. His books include:

Seven Sacred Spaces

Messy Church Theology

Reproducing Churches

You're invited! A centenary service of thanksgiving and celebration / Sunday 24 April 2022 / premiering at 3.00 pm on Youtube/brfcharity.

Online centenary service

Watch our service here.

For more information about our centenary publications and events click here.

Pray with us: BRF centenary prayer

Gracious God,
we rejoice in this centenary year
that you have grown BRF
from a local network of Bible readers
into a worldwide family of ministries.
Thank you for your faithfulness
in nurturing small beginnings
into surprising blessings.
We rejoice that, from the youngest to the oldest,
so many have encountered your word
and grown as disciples of Christ.
Keep us humble in your service,
ambitious for your glory
and open to new opportunities.
For your name’s sake.