Sermons from Saint Faith's

Church for Sale...?

Sermon preached by Fr. Neil on Dedication Festival Sunday at the United Benefice Joint Eucharist.

It is a very logical argument, I am sorry to say, that before we can decide the best way forward for the mission of the Church and how we can fully utilise the whole church plant, it is worth seeing how much money this piece of land would generate. We could build a much smaller, easier to manage worship space, whilst having money in the bank to enable the church to do all the many things we wish we could. That is why the “For Sale” sign is on the front of the church. (and for that Sunday a “for Sale” sign was indeed attached to the iron gates of the Church!)

It is a very logical argument. It’s not mine. The truth is the sign is there because I wanted to see what your reaction would be! I hope it was shock, anger and disbelief. We couldn’t image this church not being here. 141 years ago, when the parish of St. John’s Waterloo was built, I am sure people said the same. It is being used for the very last time for worship at 4pm today.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken of how the current church faces opportunity and anxiety in equal measure. The opportunities are there as an unchanging God works through us in fresh ways as we seek to reach out and minister to those around us. The anxieties centre on the fear of losing the church we know and love, of meeting its financial demands and of changing patterns of ministry and worship.

We know we have opportunities – through worship and social events, and through pastoral care for people to see our churches in action. Friday showed the family of Saint Faith’s at its best – pulling out all the stops not just for the Patronal Festival Service but for the Funeral Mass in the middle of the day. The dedication of all those involved proved the high levels of commitment we have here, and that must never be taken for granted.

Only the week before at St. Mary’s in the evening we had a large number of people turn out for the Harvest Songs of Praise, an ideal service to bring someone along to church who has never been before. Let’s hope that is a regular fixture and perhaps, like the Crib Service which we started in 1999 at S. Mary’s with some 30 people, it may grow to something like the 200+ people we now welcome on Christmas Eve in S. Mary’s. Again, these things don’t just happen on their own. They only happen when people play their part and encourage others to do the same. Our over 65’s holiday club was a resounding success and put the church’s care for its senior members right into the heart of our community. These are perhaps some of the opportunities of which the Archbishop speaks.

However, we are only too aware of the anxieties: costly buildings: the lack of many young professional people in our two congregations means that when we appeal to money the appeal is going to people on pensions or low incomes. Rising  amounts  to  be paid to the Diocese and sometimes it seems, little return for the work that goes on. I’m sure people feel despondent at times when, for example, we invite all the holiday club families back for a service and only one comes.

Is that why we do it? To get something back? Well it is human instinct and we must keep hoping that one day, through the connections we make in our communities, they will bring people to come to worship God just as surely as someone, once, brought us!

But it is a huge task. No longer are we dealing with those who have lapsed from the church, but those have never been a part of it. A generation of people bringing children for baptism and they themselves have never experienced prayer and worship in school assemblies as perhaps we did.

The starting point is a very different one – like it or not. The task much harder. Bravery, boldness and openness are required if we are to take the challenge seriously and not duck it.

You must be sick of hearing me. If it is any consolation I am sick of hearing me say it too. I want to stop banging on about money and numbers attending church because there are actually far more important things for me to be saying and for us all to be doing!

The Church of today may not be what many of us would want it to be, but it is the only church we have. It will always be the only church we have.

The 2nd reading today (1 Corinthians 3 : 9 – 11. 16-17) makes an important point. We are God’s building: living, breathing human buildings, not bricks and mortar. We are the living stones. Yes, houses of prayer are important and they are certainly needed in communities as a place to gather on special occasions, baptisms, weddings, funerals, weekly worship, but also as signs pointing to heaven. When we see church buildings demolished it can often seem like a very sad statement is made. And yet, many congregations who have faced closure of church buildings have found that the anxieties they had have in fact been turned into opportunities.

Our prayers and thoughts today are with the people of St. John’s Waterloo as they gather for the last time in the church building which has been a house of prayer for 141 years, and move temporarily to the hall for worship whilst new premises are made ready in the school. What a time of anxiety for the people of St. John’s and especially for those involved in the decision-making process. And yet, each and every day will present opportunities for witness and service. Challenging times for any congregation in that position.

Very often when things have gone wrong in our lives (breakdown, marriage break up, redundancy, court appearances, whatever it may be) it is precisely at those times we find out who our fair-weather friends and who our true friends are. How many friendships are secretly driven by what we can receive rather than what we can give? If, as the Bishop said on Friday night, St. Faith shows us the cost of discipleship, then Mary certainly gives us an example of what it means to stand by someone, right to the bitter end. How fortunate we are in our two patrons for they set before us the pattern of life required of any disciple.

A faith based upon a certain hymn book, a certain Vicar, even a particular building, is not a faith based upon the one who gave his life on the Cross.

And it is with true disciples that the Church of God will continue to grow and face new opportunities. Armchair disciples are a different matter. Because of course those congregations in places where church buildings are closing are facing the things that really matter: the needs of the people we serve never go away. There will always be those around us who are suicidal, lonely, bereaved, unable to make ends meet, slaves to debt, addicted to gambling, alcohol, drugs or promiscuity. The needs of God’s people are not dependant upon the bricks and mortar of a church building. People’s real needs are either served by us or they are not.
As we consider the word DEDICATION today we must ask ourselves some questions:

Do we want to be part of the growth or the demise of the Church?

How deep rooted is my faith? Would you still be here, even if this building, or S Mary’s building wasn’t; is our faith based on a building, or on a relationship with the living God?

Am I prepared to embrace anxieties head on, and help them to become opportunities?

I don’t need them to tell me, but any time my priest-friends visit from other parts of the country they tell me how lucky I am to be in this United Benefice. I know that and I hope you all feel the same way. We have such talents, gifts and skills which are offered in the service of the Lord. We have no shortage of dedicated people who work for the good of the community and those around us in need.

These are not times for complacency however. Today is a time of rededication to the service of the Lord. We need to be bold, we need to be faithful. We need to be more prayerful and more trusting of the Lord. We don’t want a “for Sale” sign put on either of our two church buildings!

As we come to receive Holy Communion the spirit of Jesus is given to us to dwell in our hearts. Not simply to give us a feel-good, holy-glow, but so that we have the strength needed to be a disciple in the world. Perhaps we need our Bishops to assume the role of Lord Kitchener who said “Your Country Needs You!” You will see on your way out I have altered the famous poster so it reads:  Your Church Needs YOU!

As we give thanks today for all that has brought us to the present moment, people, events, everything: the tough question has to be faced: How much are WE prepared to dedicate to the Lord today?

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