'A Sharp Song'?
Ministry Team letter, as published in the March 2016
issue of Newslink'
Last week, we had a PCC – my penultimate PCC, and this is my penultimate ‘From the Ministry Team’ letter. With just 5 weeks to go, it is swinging round to ‘last…’ and ‘second to last…’, until I say farewell to you all on 3rd April in what I hope will be a joyful Paschal Evensong.
Last week’s PCC was pretty much two years to the day from my first PCC at the beginning of 2014. That first meeting was a ‘baggy’ PCC – an opportunity for you to ask me anything that you liked, with a promise that I would answer as fully and as honestly as I could – a grilling, if you like; rather appropriate, given the fate of our patron St Faith!
I came as the Bishop’s appointment into a Church hurt, divided, angry, bewildered and disempowered. From the moment just after Christmas 2013 when I got a phone call from the Archdeacon, I felt a vocation to come to St Faith’s and to put myself in the middle of it all. And if I could go back to December 2013 and that phone call knowing all I know now, and having experienced all I have experienced, I would still say yes – to the Archdeacon, to St Faith’s – and ultimately, to God.
One of the joys has been that, like all Catholic parishes, you know how to love your priests. I was clear from that very first PCC that my role meant I had to honour what is actually always true of clergy – our canonical obedience to the Bishop – in a very particular and intense sort of way, whilst at the same time striving to keep my independence of mind and my heart open. That’s not always been an easy tightrope to walk, and I hope I’ve done it well enough. From the first, I was touched and encouraged that you were willing to offer me your love, even though I’d effectively been imposed on you. I also think that one of the tragic aspects of 2013 – for both you and for Fr Simon – was precisely that St Faith’s does know how to love its priests. Love, however, can be painful – and I’ve sometimes thought of ‘all that’ as love gone wrong rather as we all know it can, sadly, in marriage breakdown. But I rejoice now, and I hope you do as well, that Simon has gone on to a fulfilling role in a place where he can flourish – a role he just began this week - and there is a lovely card from him on the notice board thanking St Faith’s for the icon we gave him on his departure. Do take the opportunity to read it if you haven’t already.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since 2014, of course. What none of us anticipated then was that a great deal of time, energy, effort and money would have to be devoted in 2014-15 to repairs after significant metal theft from the roof. I still don’t know quite what significance all that had in the grand scheme of things; I certainly don’t think of an interventionist God that works in that sort of way. Nevertheless, God’s presence or absence in events is not all or nothing. The metal theft made me think, and pray very hard, and question as to whether my task was to help St Faith’s to die with dignity. I honestly believed then, and believe even more now – that the answer is no. God isn’t done with St Faith’s yet!
There is a little rhyme about the Easter Season that goes like this:
Fifty days for our delight
For Christ is risen as all things tell
Good Christian, see ye rise as well.
What is striking about this is that Resurrection life is something we choose. Sometimes easier to stay asleep in the tomb. We’re offered – thrust, if you like – into new possibilities, if we can engage with them. I sense that its true of St Faith’s at the moment.
Of course, we’ve not reached Easter yet this year, we’re still in Lent. The day before the PCC, Revd Stephen Gough led one of our ‘Wilderness’ sessions for this Lent – a wonderful session on the Jesus prayer. If this is not something you’ve tried, it is worth engaging with – it is one of the simplest and yet most powerful forms of prayer. There are instructions for how to do so elsewhere in this Magazine. Stephen shared with us his love of Russian Orthodoxy – the Jesus prayer emerged from the Orthodox Desert Fathers – and how it reverses some of the assumptions of Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, in ways that cast a surprising, and often helpful light on some of our presuppositions. For example, whilst the ‘epiclesis,’ the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the Gifts at the Eucharist in the Western Church makes them into the Body and Blood of Christ, in the Eastern Tradition, the Holy Spirit lifts us up throughout the whole Liturgy from Earth to heaven, where the bread and wine are always already the Body and Blood of Christ. Hence, a remark by the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann that Western Christians focus on the Sacrament and forget about the Liturgy!
Another reversal is that, whilst in the West, we tend to think of moving through Lent towards Passiontide and the Cross to the Resurrection beyond, the Eastern tradition is that everything is in the light of Easter and we live even our Lenten discipline, even the Cross, in the light of the Resurrection.
So it was that, when I first arrived, I found myself quoting to many of you Mother Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ Easter was there, even in those dark and difficult days, and even when it was hard to discern. God’s grace is always present, though sometimes what happens to us, and sometimes the hardness of our own hearts makes it invisible. When we are thrust out into the wilderness –we need to have the discipline and patience to learn to perceive Easter, and live it even there, or, perhaps, trust God to live Easter in us when we cannot. I began my ministry here at the beginning of one Lent, I am leaving at Easter two years later; so perhaps the intervening time has been one extended Lenten journey.
I see my departure, its nature and its timing, as Resurrection for you, and it’s quite literally a new life in London for me and my family. Back in September, when I knew I had to move on, but it was as yet unclear to what, the Old Testament passage one day at Morning Prayer leapt out at me. It follows the passage known as the Prayer of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 19. It was not the prayer itself, but what immediately followed it that struck me:
And this shall be the sign for you: This year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that; then in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downwards, and bear fruit upwards; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (2 Kings 19.29-31)
Well, at the time, I was puzzled. I did indeed feel that in 2014, we ‘ate’ – dealt with – what was. And last year unfolded from that – even the roof theft. But the third year? Well, of course, I’m only just beginning a third year here – and I do feel it’s begun with planting a vineyard. Vineyards were – are – a luxury crop – they take a great deal of time to do anything at all. I feel, with you, I’ve been able to dig a bit and plant a bit. And you are certainly a band of survivors!
My hope then, is the future into which you are called is something to do with stability and yet renewal – with taking root downwards and bearing fruit upwards.
What does that mean? Well, at a very concrete level, there are the two processes going on parallel tracks – forming a Team Ministry in Waterloo, and the appointment process. Pete Spiers, our new Archdeacon, came to the PCC last week. He has been to the Waterloo Group Council, met the Wardens and Treasurer and in due course will do an exit interview with the Standing Committee. I feel – but more importantly, I think our Parish Officers feel, that he is determined to make the process as open and as good as it possibly can be for all concerned. This goes some way to addressing the need to rebuild trust both with the Diocesan authorities, and with St Mary’s, with whom we’ve been working on this both in the Waterloo Group Council and at Standing Committee level. Through the Group Council, four very different Churches are learning to get to know one another, to trust one another, to work together for the good of the Kingdom in this area, and to recognise that, even if we worship in very different ways, there is huge richness in that; it might sometimes be a challenge, but it is also a gift, and belonging to one another doesn’t mean we have to be the same!
Second, whilst we have lost some people through death or moving on, we have seen some new people – 7 new people on the electoral roll at the revision for the APCM, all of whom have become part of our worshipping community. Not spectacular – but there are some green shoots quietly sprouting here.
Third, at the PCC Away Day, some people expressed the hope of being ‘true to the foundation stone.’ I think this refers to the inscription above the Choir that reads:
THIS CHURCH OF SAINT FAITH IS DEDICATED TO THE GLORY OF GOD AS A THANKOFFERING FOR THE REVIVAL OF CATHOLIC FAITH AND DOCTRINE IN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND…
Of course, it goes on to say ‘during the reign of Queen Victoria.’ But what would a revival of catholic faith and doctrine look like in the 90th birthday year of Queen Elizabeth II, in 2016? This is something that has been very much in my thoughts and prayers these two years, and will continue to be. I think sometimes there is a temptation to feel the Church of England is dominated by evangelicals at the moment. At one level, I suppose, that’s true – yet I continue to believe catholic faith and witness are vital to the health, flourishing and to the depth and breadth of the Church of England; and might it be part of St Faith’s vocation, non-defensively, creatively to explore that?
I think part of it is that, in an age of austerity, catholic Christianity is, before all else, a proclamation of abundant life. In two senses: God gives us too much – look at the stories of the Wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000 and Moses encountering the living God on Sinai. God pours out the riches of his grace – and, like Moses, who could not bear to look on God, and who covered his face, the sheer generosity of God can be too much for us. Yet what catholic Christianity gives us is a series of spiritual disciplines – regularly feeding on Christ in the Sacrament, regularly reading scripture and the psalms prayerfully in the Office, unfolding the story of God’s salvation in the rhythm of the liturgical year, that allow us to receive the energy of God’s excess. In another sense, God gives us enough; the sacraments give us enough to incorporate us into Christ, to feed us for the journey, to repent when things go wrong, to belong to one another in marriage, to comfort us in sickness and to prepare us for death and resurrection life. What more do we need? And a properly catholic understanding of mission is that the world becomes Eucharist, and so lives the generosity of God. Plenty of ‘missional ambition’ there! Is that what St Faith’s is called to do and be?
I have long been fascinated by the relationship between living in religious community and parish life – in some ways they are very similar, in some very different. The Community of the Resurrection, with which this Church has a long relationship is one example of a catholic community that has seen renewal. It is true that they don’t have the 70 or so brethren they once had; nevertheless, in the last decade, they have undertaken a multi-million pound re-ordering of their Church, raised the money to do it, and are thinking about the next phase of their building project; opened what is fast becoming a very successful B and B; have some younger brethren in the community, including a novice under 30, and have reimagined their relationship with the College of the Resurrection, the Yorkshire Ministry Course, and with clergy and lay formation in the new Diocese of Yorkshire and the Dales; and they have a properly catholic, very correct, reverent and beautiful, but simple and unfussy liturgical style, entirely based around Anglican liturgy. Are there lessons to be learned from that about how St Faith’s is to live its vocation?
There are challenges of course – and the building is one of them. It is a Grade II listed Victorian building, and as such, maintenance needs to done regularly and pro-actively, using proper contractors. Further, even the most proactive and regular maintenance will probably never entirely eliminate surprises! Planned giving is down from its highest point in 2012 after the last Stewardship Campaign. It’s a regret that we haven’t managed to do another one – one is long overdue – in my time, but I presented a paper on Stewardship to the PCC and there is no reason not to run a campaign in an interregnum. There has been an over-reliance on fundraising at St Faith’s – very effective in the past, but with a smaller and older congregation, fundraising becomes more of a pressure rather than being fun.
There is also perhaps a tendency to ‘sweat the small stuff,’ to get worked up too quickly about things, when we sometimes need just to wait and do nothing. There is a bit of a tendency to struggle with boundaries and authority. And there’s a bit of a tendency to ‘doing things St Faith’s way,’ and to see any criticism – even friendly critique – as disloyal.
None of this is insurmountable – and all of it first needs to be reflected on and prayed about. I found the session on the Jesus prayer most powerful when we were invited to pray it sitting in different places around the Church. It felt as though the fourteen or so people there were calling on God’s grace for the building itself and for the life of God’s people here. Not a bad place to start.
And at last week’s PCC, we had an extra member. A little robin had got in to Church, and chirruped its way around the place, happily hopping around the pews, with no apparent shyness or anxiety, and seeming to know exactly what it wanted. Eventually, our little visitor sniffed the fresh air and made its own way out, thank you. I’m sure it knew what it was doing and it looked at us with great intelligence and quizzical wit. And it made me think of R S Thomas’ poem, Song, which features a robin as an image of Christ:
Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness
But with a sharp song.
God, in Christ, comes to us in weakness; but for us to accept the use he wishes to make of our weakness and suffering, we need to learn to accept ‘a sharp song.’ It’s a very unsentimental, down-to-earth image of redemption and resurrection. Not a bad image as we come to the end of my time here, and as Easter and the Resurrection approaches.
With my love and prayers