January 2018

While unpacking and reorganising after moving house last September, I came across a little pearl bead hidden in a tiny trinket box in the bottom of a very full drawer. The bead was a long lost ‘precious pearl’ belonging to my eldest son Benjamin. It had originated from a collection of bits of broken jewellery and buttons he had played with six years ago, when accompanying me on a visit to a lady recovering from a hip operation. Seeing how fascinated Benjamin was with the pearls, the kind lady had popped two in his coat pocket as we left to go home. Sadly we lost one down the bathroom sink at bedtime that evening, but the other pearl was treated with great care until it was put in a safe place and eventually forgotten about.

Upon finding the precious pearl I told Benjamin about Jesus’ parable of the ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew ch13 vs 45-46). We talked about some of the really precious pearls of our lives. We talked of friendship and Benjamin said how he wished his best friend from his old school could move to Melsonby school too.

As I reflect on the precious pearls of life and my first few months here, I cannot but help think of how blessed we are to have two village schools in our Benefice, and that we must do all we can to protect them and help them to grow and thrive. I recently caught sight of an article in the Teesdale Mercury about the increasing struggle for small schools to survive after changes in the way government funding is delivered means that funding is largely (80%) based on pupil numbers. Concerned Teesadale headteacher, Tessa Fenoughty, described small schools as the ‘hearbeat’ of rural communities, without which ‘the infrastructure of small communities can die.’

Sadly, in my opinion, schools are being pushed towards a business model where economies of scale are fundamental to survival and where schools must compete against each other for ‘business’, and where fluctuating entry numbers year by year can leave small schools very vulnerable. There are also underlying questions about the purpose of education with some of the precious pearls of primary education in small schools getting missed in the tables and statistics: the enormous value of children learning to work together on projects across age ranges and abilities, the care of the oldest for the youngest (and vice versa), and the rootedness in community.

As I write I have just returned home from St James’, Melsonby, having watched possibly the most beautifully sung, confidently acted, and clearly articulated Christmas nativity production I have seen since being ordained (and I make Melsonby’s the 28th). Last week we were treated to a lovely community celebration in Eppleby Forcett school as our local MP Rishi Sunak officially opened the new kitchen. Next week will bring more delights – the nursery & reception nativity at Eppleby and school carols at Melsonby. Thank you to our schools. Precious pearls indeed.

There are other precious pearls. There are our churches, and all our communities know the heartbreak suffered when a church or chapel closes, and the feeling of withdrawal from the community as the number of clergy on the ground continues to decline. And there are the precious pearls of our village pubs, the community halls, the community groups, clubs and societies, the village shops, and the individuals who give so much of their time to the community and to helping others.

And there will be precious pearls in each of our lives. Perhaps the New Year can be a time to reflect on these or to go searching for that pearl of great price.

One final thing. Jesus’ parables speak into each other and we see this in the way that Matthew groups together several parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in chapter 13. Besides the pearl of great price, these parables include my favourite – the parable of the mustard seed. When the tiny mustard seed grows into the largest of all shrubs and becomes a tree, the birds come and nest in its branches. The mustard tree, the pearl of great price, exist not for the satisfaction or fulfilment of the individual but for the flourishing of all people, where the most vulnerable are protected, and where justice, love and peace reign.

May God bless you in your searching and your finding and your sharing,


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