Acts 2:22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-end
You make the first blow” the priest said, as he handed me the sledge hammer. Smash went the sledgehammer into the reinforced concrete of the altar. I guess this hasn’t happened for 500 years, I thought, that an Anglican priest was helping to smash up an altar in a Roman Catholic Church. The scene I am describing happened recently in a Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, where the priest and the community asked me to help them demolish their old church in readiness for the consecration of a brand new one. The whole community turned out with hammers and sledgehammers and within a few hours it was gone. No-one was paid, and it was astonishing to see how effective an operation it was. This was a church in which the community had buried their dead, got married, christened their babies, and much more. But they knew that they had outgrown it, and that the times demanded something new. They had given sacrificially to build a brand new much bigger Church and there it was ready for use. For me, this was a practical demonstration of our Easter faith in action leading us on to new things, which the church is always called on to do. St John’s of course, has a history of remaking itself in different alliances as partnerships came and partnerships went. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century St John’s had as many partners as Henry VIII had wives. But at the beginning of the twenty first century this Parish had a unique opportunity to start again from scratch. So more than a decade on from that new beginning, and on a day of our Annual Meeting, it’s no bad thing to pause and reflect on where we have come in these years, and to reflect in this Easter period on where we might be going. To do this, I’m going to use the three headings used in our Annual Report Confident, Compassionate, Creative.
Confident – in speaking and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first duty of any Parish Church and the first duty of any priest must be to model what that confidence looks like. For me, this is encapsulated by the phrase of the second century Ireneus who said, “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Confidence in the Gospel will bring us individually and corporately to living springs of water which will continually refresh us and make us fully alive, especially when the going is tough, and we appear to be in a desert. Those springs of life come from open access to the sacraments of God – principally, of course, Baptism and Eucharist. From the beginning, our driving pincinciple has been to relocate baptism as the foundational sacrament, commission to ministry, and the source of any authority in the Church. I would say that the principal theological discovery ecumenically in the second half of the twentieth century was the rediscovery of the significance of baptism. The open policy we have in respect of the pastoral offices has borne fruit in this period, in which we baptised nearly 500 new Christians, and united 150 couples in the sacrament of matrimony. I recognise that this decade’s work would only be a morning’s work in Churches like Mozambique and the Philippines, but the secular desert in which we operate makes this a bit more challenging for us. Central to the re-ordering and liturgical work we have done has been to place the Font where it belongs at the heart of the worshipping community. At the same time, and drawing on an older identity of the Parish, we have re-introduced a more expansive celebration of the Eucharist, using all of the Church, and revitalised the organ. It could have been open to us to go down the route of musical accompaniment from the piano or from a worship band, but we took the line that the older identity of liturgy here using the organ would serve us best in the twenty-first century. I believe this was the right decision, and take encouragement from the external validation we have received in restoring and relocating the organ. In shorthand you could describe all of this work as the rediscovery of the numinous, or the vertical element of our work.
Compassionate – in serving communities with the love of God the Father. As we could call rediscovering our relationship with God the vertical work, so we could call serving the community the horizontal aspect of our work. Sociologically, one of the most distinctive aspects of this Parish is the very wide gap between rich and poor, a gap which has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. In this scenario, houses are no longer homes but high value assets, to be sweated until everybody bleeds. Remember, too, that one of the characteristics which now defines this part of London is the fact the largest number of jihadists who have gone to Syria are from this Borough and from Ladbroke Grove in particular. So social fragmentation and alienation is the context in which we work. Partially to address this, we established the Filipino Chaplaincy for the Diocese in this Parish, a work which has renewed and refreshed us in countless ways so much that now half of our electoral roll come from that community. This too simply reflects the global reality that in the twenty first century the leadership of the church, in energy and numbers, will come from Asia – principally China. We look forward at the same time to the next Pope being a Filipino. The next stage of our work in serving the whole community was the creation of new community facilities utilising the west end of the church. The use of the three new rooms, the opening of the Kitchen, and the use of the church and Undercroft 7 days a week has made the church what we always wanted it to be – the thriving and beating heart of the community. The days of this church being silent and locked have become a distant memory, not even known to those with more recent associations. If we call this work the horizontal element, and we place it on tracing paper on top of the vertical work, we produce of course the cross, which the theologian Paul Tillich called the intersection of the timeless with time.
Creative – in reaching new people and places with the Good News in the power of the Spirit. The Cross at the heart of our faith, and the Cross in Light has guided us in this element of our work. Look at the underside of the kneelers in this church with their Latin inscription, in Hoc Signo Vinces – by this sign conquer. This is the cross in light. Over the last 12 years, this has been the most dramatic change, where we have literally and symbolically opened up our building to serve both purposes, vertical and horizontal. In this work, we realised that all churches in London, in addition to being Parish Churches, must have some kind of niche market. For us, this has been the focus on music and the arts. So in this period, we created the Sacred Space Gallery, the Mayfest, lunchtime and evening concerts, choral and organ scholarships, children’s music and much besides. The Church is now open 7 days a week from morning until evening, and used by a cross section of groups too large to be listed in this short reflection. In our Mission Action Plan for this year, we identify children and young families as where we wish to invest our resources and energy in the immediate future. The spiritual desert of secular fundamentalism in which we live make this an urgent priority as the children of our society become increasingly starved of substantial spiritual food. At the same time, we are launching next month the new worshipping community of the Filipino Chaplaincy on Ascension Day.
We have achieved much in this period, and I thank from the bottom of my heart all those who have constructively engaged with this work. But there is much more to do, and some aspects of our life which are less than brilliant- principally our giving. At the end of the life of the previous Parish, and throughout our 14-year history, the regular committed giving of regular worshippers has not been enough to even cover our obligations to the Diocese which we call Common Fund. The decision of the PCC that stewardship giving should be simply for the Common Fund has helped significantly, and people have responded generously, but we still have some way to go, and have set up a new group to give this the dedicated spiritual attention it needs. For the longer term, say the next 10 years, this must be addressed if the Parish is to continue to have a viable life of its own. There is much to do, and an understanding of sacrificial giving is often a first step in the lifelong journey of faith. It was for me – I only realised that the Church was something real when I was asked for money.
So, in this Easter period, and today when we celebrate the confession of faith of the Apostle Thomas, what of the future? All we need is the confession of Thomas “ My Lord and my God.” When we can say this with confidence and fluency, all the rest will fall into place. For all that has been, we thank God, andto the future we say “ Yes.”