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Interview: Alan Barker, Methodist minister and author

19 September 2014

'A well-led assembly can be the highlight and focus of the school day'

It'll probably be my epitaph: "He wrote The Flying Pizza."

I just keep going back to the word "bemused". I was incredibly surprised and pleased to be asked to write a book of school assemblies. It began with the SPCK assemblies website. They welcome tried and tested submissions; so I sent some in. "The Flying Pizza" was about the second one I wrote, and it's just gone on and on.

It's a Harvest assembly that, thanks to the internet, has flown further than I ever imagined. I think another one, "The Harvest Rainbow", will also go a long way.

It'll be interesting to discover which of the 45 in the book proves most popular. All along, the editors, Gordon and Ronni Lamont, have offered me great encouragement and support.

The SPCK website offers resources for teachers and clergy who lead assemblies and collective worship. Many of the ideas can be adapted for all-age worship in churches, too. My aim is to celebrate life and learning in ways that are inclusive, interactive, imaginative, and fun. I do like to laugh: I like to enjoy life. A good sense of humour helps.

Back in 2000, I wanted to encourage greater food awareness. I'm a Methodist minister working in rural Lincolnshire, and lead assemblies in local primary schools. "The Flying Pizza" invites children to identify where their food is grown, and to calculate the many food miles in everyday meals. It encourages a sense of gratitude for the different colours and flavours of food from around the globe, and, of course, it's a Harvest celebration with a yummy ending.

We've become detached from the processes by which our food is grown and produced, and detached from the earth itself. Society as a whole is just not in touch with the growing of food in the way it used to be. The face of agriculture has changed enormously: it is so much more distant.

I like good, wholesome plain food - home-cooked and fresh. We enjoy the fresh vegetables grown in this part of the world.

It's impossible to know exactly how many people I'm reaching, but some of the assemblies, which are downloaded free from the website each month, are experienced by hundreds of thousands of children. Indeed, "The Flying Pizza" has now been downloaded more than 155,000 times. The SPCK website has become very popular over its 15 years, and usage is growing. I know that from visiting local schools here in South Holland, where I enjoy meeting about a thousand children and teachers every month.

Feedback is generally very appreciative, and has come from around the world. Children are a responsive audience, and a challenging one, and it's so rewarding. It's the one child who sees you a week later in the supermarket, and says: "I really enjoyed that collective worship." I had a group of teenagers from a school choir who came to do a concert and said: "Oh, Mr Barker - we remember. . ." Crumbs, that's four or five years ago, and that's something they still remember.

Strangely, I've little recollection of assemblies in the primary schools I attended. In my secondary school, each day began with a hymn, Bible reading, prayer, and the detention list.

Assemblies still play an important part in school life. They strengthen a sense of belonging, purpose, and mutual respect. In church schools, especially, all that's part of the collective worship of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A well-led assembly can be the highlight and focus of the school day. Almost useless? Not in my experience. The best assemblies don't aim to indoctrinate, but to enrich, inform, and inspire.

I was brought up in Cambridge, took an initial degree in Applied Biology, and then read Theology. I'm married to Meg, who is a primary teacher, and we have two children.

I'm in a busy Methodist Circuit: I care for eight congregations. I have local [lay] preachers and retired ministers to help, but it leaves little time for leisure. Some are small churches with half a dozen people, and others have 50 or 100.

When you've been serving on the remote coastal fringe of Lincolnshire for so long, you tend to become a little bit cut off. Once you're here - well, perhaps it appeals to my personality type. The congregations are supportive and appreciative, people of fantastic quality. I've always identified with those kind of folk, really. Actually, South Holland is increasingly cosmopolitan. Migrant workers, mainly from Eastern Europe, have come here to find employment in the farming and food industry, and people increasingly retire to this area.

I enjoy the opportunity to walk around the shores of the Wash: big skies, broad horizons, and abundant wildlife. I always carry a compact camera, and enjoy digital photography.

For many years now, we've visited Northumberland. Once there, we love exploring the Cheviots and visiting secluded spots along the coast. An occasional day out in London provides a marked change from the solitude of the fens.

The song of a skylark and the rustle of ripening wheat are evocative fenland sounds.

I love what I'm presently doing, but I'd like to find more time for writing. I've lots more ideas for assemblies and children's stories. If the opportunity arose, I'd like to develop my work within schools. Alternatively, I could perhaps open a pizza parlour. Guess what it would be called.

Looking back, the people I've met through Christian ministry have taught me so much: ordinary people, both young and old, who've shared something of their life journey. I think of them with fondness and gratitude, and draw strength from their encourage-ment.

When our children were young, it was a joy to read some of the modern children's classics: Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea; Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar; and Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt, for example. All capture the imagination with the question: "What if . . . ?"

I believe that prayer changes things - primarily because praying can change us. So I identify very much with the petition of Reinhold Niebuhr: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Children are not scared to ask the big questions, and sometimes we can grow out of asking them. Children are not afraid to challenge faith, either, and that's got to be positive. One of my aims is not to simply provide answers, but to encourage the asking of questions - about values, origins, worth, and purpose. I think it's important to conduct our work in schools in a spirit of enquiry.

I'd like to be locked in a church with George Herbert. It would be good to reflect on rural ministry with someone who saw the significance of ordinary, everyday things. He'd perhaps be amazed to know that small country congregations are still singing "Let all the world in every corner sing". He once observed: "Stories and sayings they will well remember." That phrase has stuck with me: it's so true. It's certainly true of assemblies. I get stories from everyday incidents - sometimes the news, Bible stories reworked, personal experience, sometimes traditional stories.

It's quite remarkable to think of him heading off to Bemerton. His poetry reflects a deep tension between a flight from God and a desire to honour and serve him. And he's just so honest, isn't he? Whether he'd be a comfortable man to talk with, I'm not sure. I identify with him quite a lot because he focused on a small community, and schools are communities, too.

The Revd Alan Barker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
The Flying Pizza is published by SPCK at ₤12.99 (CT Bookshop ₤11.69).

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