The Last Chapter
Revd Sue Lucas's address to her last Annual Parochial Church Meeting at St Faith's
On Tuesday of last week, we had Deanery Chapter – and as it was my last one, but also our Area Dean’s, Roger Driver, we had it at the Mons on Breeze Hill – a carvery for the particularly hungry and the menu for the rest of us. And it prompted me to make the same joke as a friend of mine made when he was retiring – ‘this is the last Chapter – and you know what comes after the last Chapter? – the end!’
There’ve been quite a few lasts for me in these few weeks, and there are some more coming up. And the end of my time with you arrives on 3rd April.
Endings of course also imply new beginnings. I have a bit of a rest – or, as I’m doing some study, and going away, I suppose, a change (which is just as good or so they say!) – of 7 weeks; we are in the Vicarage until 13th April, and my ministry in East Ham begins on 25th May.
Endings and new beginnings are charged places, in-between places, times of transition; and those places are not always comfortable, but they are rich, creative, hopeful places.
I got a strong sense of that yesterday morning; sometimes the lectionary does us a great favour, and the reading at Morning Prayer was actually one of my favourites, Hebrews 11, ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ It is in faith that I am journeying out; and it is in faith that I’m launching St Faith’s into her voyage. I am leaving in the context of Easter, and so of the Resurrection; and that faithful launch, I very much see as Resurrection for St Faith’s – and of course there is new life for me and my family too. But I’m very much struck by the idea that Resurrection is something we have to choose – when sometimes the dark, enclosing tomb is a lot more comfortable.
It is a paradox of the Christian life that we both have to choose to die –and choose to live. We are buried with Christ in our baptism – a symbolic drowning; and we are raised to new life with him again in the waters of baptism too, crossing the Red Sea to freedom from all that separates us from God and prevents our full humanity. Sometimes it is agony to let go – and sometimes it is agony to pick ourselves up and start again; yet, in different ways, that inward and outward dynamic of baptism is repeated many times over the course of our earthly Christian life.
There has been death, of course, over my time here; we have lost some of our companions in the faith.
And I did ask myself, and I asked God, when the lead went, if that meant the death of St Faith’s, and my calling was to enable St Faith’s to die well. Whatever some of you thought, imagined or feared two and a half years ago, Bishops can’t just close churches in the Church of England – some of you will know that the petition for redundancy of St Mary’s building is far from straightforward, and they have themselves decided the building is no longer an asset to them as a Christian community. I feel at this point we must acknowledge what a hugely difficult decision they made, and how much our thoughts and prayers are with them.
But there are things St Faith’s needs to die to – to let go of: a tendency to hark back to a supposed glorious past, which was never, in fact, free of struggle or challenge; a tendency to ‘sweat the small stuff,’ and perhaps lose sight of what is really important; a tendency to identify tradition with ‘how we’ve always done things,’ and a tendency to cling on fearfully to what we have rather than risk letting it go and asking what new thing God is doing.
So, in the events of the Episcopal visitation of two and half years ago – I’m going to dare to ask you now what I couldn’t then, or even a year ago: where was God in all that? I’m of course not going to give you an answer; I’m not even suggesting you’ll get an answer necessarily; but that, rather than determinedly moving on, and burying your resentment, you try prayerfully to live with the question. It can be liberating to recollect emotion in tranquillity, perhaps allowing us to see events, however painful, difficult, and humiliating, in a different way – for however difficult, painful or humiliating, God is never absent – but, called or not, present.
And God is doing a new thing here too; the PCC and standing committee have met our new Archdeacon, and there is a determination on all sides to make the appointment process here as open and transparent as possible, and also for the other Waterloo Churches to be involved in the process of appointing someone who will work collegially across the Anglican Churches. No, it doesn’t mean you’ll go to a service in a different church every week; and no, it doesn’t mean you won’t know who is at the front. It means a collegial commitment to one another on the part of the clergy; and it means a sense – that is already growing – of a common task in mission between the Churches.
One thing everyone is agreed about: that the person who comes is the person who feels truly called to this role – as I felt called here in unusual circumstances two and a half years ago, and feel called to my new role in East Ham. So pray for that person – whoever they may be.
Interregna can be good times for parishes; times of huge growth, times when people discover their skills and their calling; and in this sense, my hope is that God is doing a new thing here too.
Don’t be tempted to go back to ‘business as usual’ in the interregnum – start in the faith that God is doing something new, and that you might need to as well.
Don’t stop asking questions – and don’t be tempted to murmur and speculate about what is going on. Ask someone – probably in the first instance one of the wardens – who can tell you.
And remember that tradition is about having a baby – not about wearing your Father’s hat!
You can pray, think and talk together about what St Faith’s is called to be. My sense of a starting point is ‘confident catholicism’ – both in the narrow, and the wider sense; a Church that is confident in its sacramental tradition, firmly rooted in the Church of England, and unashamed of it; and also confident in being catholic in the wider and more literal sense of ‘belonging to the whole’ –able to recognise and celebrate the value in other traditions, to remain curious about them and to offer our own riches freely whilst being willing to learn from others.
Learn to bear with one another – one of the joys of living in a Christian community is we must do this. It isn’t about who is ‘in charge’ – and, whilst authority is important, we all have authority as baptised Christians. Sometimes, you will get to work with those you think of as your friends, and sometimes, you will need to work with those that you actually resent and find irritating beyond measure – but this is a gift – for as a Church, we are first God’s friends, and only then one another’s; and if you really struggle with someone, well, then you have the gift of being able to pray for them and leaning to recognise the image of God in them, however infuriating they may seem.
There are challenges ahead, to be sure, and those are named in the Future Plans of the Annual Report.
Whatever the specifics of those are, we are called, as the writer to the Hebrews makes us aware, to be faithful. And we are called to be faithful because, first, God is faithful to us; sometimes it is hard to discern how – yet our fragile faith is moulded on God’s promise.
And in this respect, Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity, is deeply counter-cultural; because culture has it that we live in times of scarcity.
Yet, a sacramental faith insists on abundance – on enough; God has done enough for our salvation in the Jesus events; and we have enough – enough in the sacraments to make new Christians, to be God’s friends, to sit and eat with him, to be comforted in illness and distress, to put things right when they go wrong, to belong to one another and finally to be prepared for death and the life of eternity – to let go, and to take up again. We have enough – and that needs to become our starting point. If – we are willing to depend on God, and not on our own strength. Friends, I commend to you the life of this Church as I move on in faith – asking that you also move on in faith in the God who is first faithful; I have done what is mine, may God give you the grace to do what is yours.
13th March 2016
The 2016 Annual Parochial Church Meeting
The Annual Report, financial report and minutes of last year's meeting
Index page to reports on previous APCMs at St Faith's