1 John 3:16-end, John 10: 11-18
"You make the first blow” he 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 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. This Parish had a unique opportunity to start again from scratch in 2003. So, 15 years 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 that time, and to reflect in this Easter period on where we might be going. To do this, I’m going to use the three headings often used to describe pilgrimage - Companionship with God, Companionship with Each Other, and Companionship with Those we meet along the Way.
Companionship with God. The first duty of any Parish Church and the first duty of any priest must be to model what Companionship with God 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.” Companionship with God brings us individually and corporately to living springs of water which will continually refresh us, 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 15-year period, in which we baptised nearly 400 new Christians, and united over 100 couples in the sacrament of matrimony. I recognise that this work would only be a morning’s work in Churches like Mozambique, 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 are now done so far 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 the Church, including the unused Chancel, and revitalised the organ. In short hand you could describe all this work as the rediscovery of the numinous, or the vertical element of our work. We have more to do – a new lighting system and a new decorative scheme which will reveal the beauty of the original 1845 roof is ahead, and we will be applying ourselves to the fundraising for this in the year ahead. You could call this the vertical aspect of our work
Now Companionship with Each Other. As we could call rediscovering our relationship with God the vertical work, so we could call companionship with each other 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. 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 we have combined electoral rolls of 500, as opposed to just over 100 in 2003. Looking ahead, the PCC have identified that youth work must be a priority for us. This is an urgent need. This year in London alone, there have been 36 murders by stabbing and 13,000 recorded knife attacks in 2017 – the victims are mainly young people. This is not a problem out there for somebody else. It’s a problem here now, and we can be part of the solution.
We have already started our youth work, with a successful bowling outing, a group of teenagers being confirmed, and one of our team on a youth work training course. We will be giving this energy and attention, as we seek to address people’s real fears, and to show a different way from the way of violence. 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.
The Cross at the heart of our faith, and the Cross in Light has guided us in this element of our work Companionship with those us Meet along the Way. Look at the underside of the kneelers in this church with their Latin inscription, in Hoc Sign Vinces – by this sign conquer. This is the cross in light. In this work, we realised that all churches in London, in addition to being Parish Churches, must have a 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, and renewed our musical tradition and choir. 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. Companionship in the neighbourhood is also key to our past and future. This year of 2018 is significant if we look back and forwards at the same time. In 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived in the UK, with significant numbers of the new arrivals making their home in this area. In 1958, the first race riots happened in Notting Hill. In 1968, the politician Enoch Powell made his notorious immigration speech predicting that it would result in rivers of blood. And now in 2018, we have the shameful spectacle of the Home Office destroying records so that those who have lived here all their lives cannot prove it and may be liable to deportation. I am not alone in feeling that this is not only a total failure of our political leadership, but also deeply shaming. In this vacuum of political leadership, from anti-Semitism at one end of the spectrum, to lack of vision for the Brexit future at the other end, the churches and faith communities will need to step up to the plate, raise their voices, and offer a better way, as this Church did recently in offering healing and solace to our fractured community in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
So, in this Easter period, and today when we celebrate Christ the Good Shepherd leading us into the future, we pause, take stock, and thank God for all that has been and for all that will be. And what of the future? In the light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, our good shepherd will lead us on to even greater things, and I for one am up for the challenges ahead. To the future we say “Yes”!