Reflections of an Associate Priest
There are so many thoughts running through my head. It is 5am and I am unable to sleep. And so, as I like to write, I decided to put finger to keyboard to see if I can get my thoughts in some sort of order. Therefore, what I am about to write may or may not make any sense to anyone reading it.
The themes or strands that are dominating my thoughts and which are pulling against each other are inclusivity, church growth, and our building. But where to start? The wider church is in one sense very grounded and in another sense in turmoil. Grounded, because we are literally, here on the ground. The church is a very real, solid, and grounded community and organisation. Yet it is in turmoil as voices from across the church are crying out, “Help!” Some of those voices are institutional voices saying, “Help! we have no funds, we need to cut back clergy posts, merge parishes, and make radical cuts to survive.” Other voices are crying out, “Help! We are the vulnerable in society. We cannot be vaccinated. How can we engage in worship?” And yet other voices are crying out, “You need to grow your church, mobilise your congregations, and evangelise. Help us grow the church!” Grow the church, look after the most vulnerable, and save money. All at the same time.
And I do worry about all three. A lot. To me, they are not mutually exclusive. You see, as a parish priest, I love people. I love the faithful, wonderful flock that is in my care. From the greatest to the least, I have a sense that our job, as Helen and I hold this vocation together, is to hold the fort, take the baton and run with it until we pass it on; to be good stewards of that which is entrusted into our care. Our church family is the most important thing. And we have a heart for the vulnerable and the isolated. There are members of our church who cannot worship with us on a Sunday. They are no less members. Some of them have email and the Internet. Others do not. It is these latter members that concern me most. We need to ensure they are visited or called regularly, and receive our paper newsletter. It is incumbent on me to ensure that the newsletter has some content with which they can engage, and are kept up-to-date with things that are happening. I confess that I don’t always get it right, but at least we are trying. For those that are isolated but do have email and Internet, there are our weekly emails and our live-streamed or online worship with which people can engage. And in terms of that online (and in person) worship we have made the content as accessible as possible to all – using language, and fonts, and other techniques to enable all to engage. Going forward, though, I am asking the question, how will the vulnerable and unvaccinated be able to worship and gather IN the church building with the rest of us? How can we include them without putting them at risk? I don’t think it’s enough or fair to say, “Tough. They have to stay at home,” because this goes against one of the very core tenets of what we do and who we are as Christ’s church. All are welcome. All are included. No-one is turned away at the door. Ever. Perhaps it won’t be an issue, but it’s a question that has to be asked and one we need to take seriously. If we follow suit with other nations and go to no longer wearing masks, is there a place in the church building we can safely accommodate people who need to isolate or wear masks such that they can stay safe?
There is a huge emphasis on church growth, both from the institution, and locally. It is a thread running through appointments and decisions. It is seen as the answer to our institutional financial worries and the future survival of the church. How many times have we heard the expression, “We need to attract younger people in?” I feel like there is a great deal to unpack in these expectations and what we do about them. Firstly, let me be very, very clear. You do not attract people to become members of our church family solely by re-arranging the chairs or by doing superficial things. You become attractive by being an authentic community that express themselves in worship and mission in ways that are true to themselves – however weird or quirky those ways may be! I think that is what St. Mark has in spades. We really are a family and that is what matters most. Yet, we do need to create spaces and environments that enable us to worship God together and allow the Spirit to minister through each other. Over the past year we have introduced new songs, new styles of music, and embraced technology to project our words and liturgy. Some of these developments were born out of necessity. But, and this is important, they are not simply ways of making our church more attractive to outsiders. No! These things are an expression of our collective spirituality in the here and now. We wanted to embrace new songs and styles and so we are doing it. It is who we are and what we do. Our worship should be lively and fun because we are lively and fun! And on that note, one of the greatest things I value in our church community is our sense of humour. I love it. I love the banter, the hugs (when we’re allowed to do so), and the laughter we share. It is so precious. So, let us be our authentic selves. Let us be wonderfully welcoming and utterly inclusive. Then, if God adds to our number, great. And if he doesn’t, that’s okay too!
So the final strand that I want to talk about is our building. We are an Anglican church. We do things a certain way and have a character all of our own. Our building is important to us. We built it to point upwards to God, and it has been the locus of our life’s events; our baptisms, our marriages, and our funerals. It has been the place we have been sustained Sunday after Sunday for hundreds of years through worship and teaching. It is a place we have laughed and cried, hugged and sobbed. It is a place we have felt the touch of God and a sense of the numinous. The interior of St. Mark’s has changed many, many times over the years. Bits added on, bits moved, and so on. But right now it is not fit for purpose. We have let it go a bit in terms of its infrastructure. Water has damaged walls and wood. Clutter has accumulated. Also, with new ways of worshipping, it feels in places, cramped and cluttered. The high altar is unused. The line of sight to the wonderful East end window is blocked. We have a clunky screen standing on pews. The Francis chapel is unused. The rest room is inaccessible to those that have mobility issues. It’s quite a list. And all these things make me feel uncomfortable. I want us to create a space that is usable and will help us connect with God – where we can capture that sense of awe and majesty and the numinous. We have already taken the bull by the horns. A dedicated team of people have begun the major repairs – to roofs and coving and lighting and woodwork, tackling the most urgent issues first. And if I’m honest, I do have a vision developing for our chancel area and perhaps this is something we could do together. Our building is important to us.
I hope you can see how these three strands are not mutually exclusive. They are the things that keep me awake in the early hours. How can we look after the most vulnerable in our church community? How can we be inclusive to all – to young people, children, those with physical disabilities, and those with hidden needs? How can be we authentic, lively, and fun in our worship and gatherings? How can we develop the building to meet the needs of our community and be a sacred, wonderful worship space? These are the questions I will ask and continue to ask as we move forward. The future is not yet written, so let us, with God, write a good one together.