It'll probably be my epitaph: "He wrote The
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Flying Pizza is published by SPCK at ₤12.99 (CT Bookshop ₤11.69).