Last Sunday I was rather shocked as I walked into our Ascot Life Church service, which had just begun. For there was a massive hole of empty seats at the main centre row. As I took my place near the front, as I usually do, any worship meant to be offered to God was obscured by thoughts, troubling thoughts. And as such, I'll add some details about our church as a build-up to what had occurred on the very next day.
I realised that schools up and down the country had just broken up for the Easter break. Therefore colleges have broken up as well. Which means that many of the students from Royal Holloway, at the nearby town of Egham, who attend our services during term time would have gone home. This meant that during these college breaks, about three or four rows of empty seats, usually at the central section, are considered normal. But not last Sunday.
For greater clarification, I'll give a brief description of the seating arrangement at Ascot Life Church and how so many absent that particular Sunday has made quite an impact. The building where we meet is actually a restaurant located in the paddock buildings at the famous Royal Racecourse, where its interior has been cleared of all tables to make room for the seating. Since the length of the building is roughly aligned to the North-to-South points of the compass, the congregation faces south while the preacher and the music band members face north. Therefore, using theatre terminology, to anyone standing at the front will see three stalls of seating rows: The wide centre stalls and two narrower side stalls, the West stalls and the East stalls, both of these half the width of the centre arrangement and each separated by an aisle.
|How the Racecourse restaurant looks during the week!|
The huge hole of empty seats was among the middle rows, with most who did arrive taking occupancy among the East and West stalls. That meant that the few sitting at the back had a full view of me as I sat at the second row from the front, a view which is normally obscured by people in between. I would not be exaggerating if I was to say that somewhere between thirty-three to fifty per cent of all regular attendees were absent that particular morning.
After the service, over some coffee and doughnuts, I asked someone standing nearby why such a high level of absentees. His explanation was that many were at "the wedding of the year" which took place the day before, near the Sussex resort of Brighton, and many had chosen to stay for the night. When I asked further who could have participated in such high ranking nuptials, the answer came back: Martha Collison.
Martha is one of two daughters, the other being Hannah, of Chris Collison and his wife Louise. Chris is one of our four Elders of Ascot Life Church. This makes our style of church leadership rather unusual. We don't have a senior pastor, a reverend, priest or even a bishop. Instead, we have four Elders, each of equal standing and therefore a likelihood of equally accountable to the Baptist Union. Chris Collison is a successful businessman who joined our church relatively recently when compared to when I joined, along with those who were already present before my arrival in 1990.
When it became clear that more were attending each Sunday morning than our original church building could cope with, Chris negotiated with the management of Ascot Racecourse during the latter half of 2012, into 2013. An agreement with the officials for a reduced annual fee allowed the hire of an upstairs site restaurant which capacity could hold double to what our original building could accommodate. Eventually, an experimental contract was set up by the Racecourse officials with Chris Collison, and on Sunday 13th April 2013, which is exactly six years to the day this blog was written, we had our first ever service at the new venue. On the same day, Ascot Baptist Church became Ascot Life Church, a new name taken from John 10:10, with its iconic symbol of a bird's eye view of the racecourse itself next to the logo.
It looks to all us members that the reward for a successful contract with the Racecourse officials was a promotion into Eldership. However, it was a known fact that the other three Elders had asked Chris to join the leadership team sometime before any negotiations with the Racecourse officials had ever got underway, which seems to be a good indication of Collison's business prowess rather than a spiritual one. However, that's not for me to say.
On Saturday, April 6th 2019, his daughter Martha married a fellow graduate, Michael Haywood. Maybe you have heard of the name Martha Collison sometime in the past. Indeed, she was a contestant of the 2014 BBC's Great British Bake-off. At seventeen years at the time, she was the youngest ever to take part in a contest which was broadcast across the nation, and being so young, won the heart of the nation. She managed to reach the quarter-final, and it was then when she was eliminated. However, one of the finalists, London builder Richard Burr, coined up the nuptials as "the wedding of the year," after turning up as an honoured guest, among other former Bake-off contestants, to the wedding venue. Martha's status as a celebrity remains endorsed by her published articles in various magazines as well as writing a couple of books on her expertise in baking, which were successfully published.
|Cakes donated to Martha's Wedding Reception.|
But the road to fame was not always plain sailing. It was during the fifth episode, aired on Wednesday 3rd September 2014, when she hit a blunder while making an apricot flan. Unfortunately, the juice from the fruit had percolated into the sponge base whilst in the oven, making the sponge soggy, when it should have been firm. This earned a critical assessment from the judges, along with that of lacking flavour. Poor Martha! She was visibly close to tears when she was interviewed afterwards, protesting on how could the judges be so severe after two hours of grafting over the worktop.
However, step in Amanda Platell of The Daily Mail. A childless divorcee from Australia, this ardent Brexiteer had a sharp word to say to Martha in a filler which appeared in the newspaper on Saturday 6th September 2014. She laid it on thickly when she lambasted the teenage student for shedding tears after a mere correction from the judges. "If people like her cannot take a bit of criticism without shedding tears, heaven helps us for the future of Britain," she wrote.
It's the same columnist who also wrote, The working classes of the past, no matter how poor, had enormous self-respect. Men wore suits and ties. Women scrubbed the doorsteps.
This echoed her predecessor, self-confessed atheist and former Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer, who also wrote in a filler that no man can be referred to as a gentleman unless he wears a tie at all times whilst out, even on a Saturday afternoon. Indeed, both must have been cast from the same mould, despite that unlike Heffer, Platell is a regular church-goer.
It was the next day, Monday, April 8th 2019, when an ordinary day's schedule as a retiree calling for my weekly swim at the revamped Leisure Centre, about ten minutes from home on the bicycle. It was lane swimming at the Competition Pool, a weekly therapeutic session lasting between 75-80 minutes as part of the post-op cardiac rehabilitation program recommended by the GP. It was after the swim, when I was dressed and calling at the cafe outlet which displayed delicious calorie-inducing cakes and tempting Kit-Kat bars which takes a good dollop of will power for a hungry stomach to resist, where I ordered my usual cappuccino while complaining that these tempting food items will undo all my efforts in calorie burn. Her reply was that these items are purposely displayed in order to motivate me to return to the gym!
As I sat alone in a newly refurbished cafe, with nothing more than a paper cup of frothy coffee in front of me, my attention was caught by a group of individuals sitting around a nearby table. It was a small group of mentally handicapped adults along with their supervisors. One of them, a young and rather good-looking patient arose and sat at a nearby table by himself. He looked toward me. I cracked a smile. He got rather excited and grinned from ear to ear, holding up his thumb. As I could see, he was happy.
Then I heard a slight wail uttered by another patient, a female with curly salt-and-pepper hair, giving me an impression that she was in her forties, possibly even in her fifties, but has a mental age of a two-year-old. Her head was stooped over a plate of salad she was slowly eating. Connecting her lips to the food were several strings of saliva.
I had to turn away with a feeling of revulsion, obliterating my appetite and shutting out any desire for the coffee, still mainly unconsumed. All the others who sat with her were immune from such feelings of revulsion, both supervisors and patients alike, but I was aware that at any restaurant I would have been put off my meal, let alone sharing the table. Yet I could not help turn and fix my eyes on her, the sense of disgust having an overwhelming power over me. She became a magnet for my attention.
Then I began to think of her eternal state. Where would she go after her death? To believe that healthy, well-to-do people such as Chris Collison and his daughter are heirs of Heaven while this poor, unfortunate soul would perish forever is anathema, a wickedly cruel theory! Then I remembered what Jesus once said concerning little children:
Forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven - (Matthew 19:14).
This woman, adult as she may be, has a mental age of a two-year-old, probably even less. Therefore in God's eyes, hers is the Kingdom of Heaven. It makes sense. It makes perfect sense. There she is. Never having worn a wedding ring. Never knowing what it's like receiving a husband's intimacy. Having a womb which never, and will never, carry a developing fetus and giving birth. Having breasts which never and will never give suck. Never, and will never experience the joys and hardships of motherhood.
Yet she is happy. Happy in her own little world. Never having to worry where the next meal will come from. Never ever to worry about fuel bills, the taxman, nor a mortgage or rent arrears. As for travel, she most likely had never left the UK - and she couldn't care less! And she will never miss the experience of independent travel and backpacking, nor be aware of its existence. Nor even boarding a train, let alone sail on a ferry or board a flight. Yet she is happy, contented with her lot. Because in her little world, and among many other trials, she would never have to worry about nursing a physically disabled beloved or maintaining medical care in a way I need to. Yet I couldn't but help feel something of a love for her.
|Bracknell Competition Pool - weekly therapeutic.|
And a feeling of shame of myself. Ashamed of my feeling of repulsiveness, and of disgust at the sight of her drooling saliva. And yet I realise that sin is just as repulsive in God's eyes as the dear woman was to me. Yet God loves her, just as much as he loves Chris Collison, his daughter and her new husband, and all family members. The fact that she's middle class and a celebrity makes no difference. We are all sinners and in need of God's love and forgiveness. All of us. Status is absolutely irrelevant. God's grace fulfils the need for each and every one of us.
That was why I had a longing for her to rise up and make a dash for me, to receive a tight embrace. Even with her saliva dampening my shirt, I would have held her tight, and look joyfully into her eyes, smiling at her warmly. The same kind of love Christ has for us.
The kind of Christlike love such stoical, stiff-upper-lip, church-going Amanda Platell needs to show to Martha Collison, is a far better form of encouragement to get her flan right, instead of publicly criticising her and putting her down for the sake of being British.