The Prime Minister, David Cameron, triggered a debate last week about whether England is a Christian country and by implication how that is sustained. The picture is complicated. At the last census in 2011 59% of the population ticked that they regarded themselves and their households as being Christian. That figure may be falling, down from 73% in 2001, and certainly among young people it is even lower than it is among older generations. But the number who call themselves atheists is not high, still in single figures and not rising. Linda Woodhead, who is a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University has carried out research into those who tick ‘no religion’ on surveys and found that they are far from irreligious. What ‘no religion’ seems to mean in the main is that they don’t identify with a particular religious group, creed or narrative. That means that they are what they would call spiritual, but it’s not focused down traditional lines. It is looking for something to make sense to them. The ‘no religion’ group does of course also include the atheists. But atheism offers ‘nothingness’, a belief in the ultimate futility of life because it is just biological and when it ends it is done. Most people seem to reject that.
This week the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has argued for the Church of England to be disestablished. I’m not that fussed really about this. For me establishment is about having a commission and obligation to serve the whole community, not just the club, and I’m very committed to that. It’s an attitude of outward looking love, not status. However again the picture is complex. There are places where we are still a trusted brand and I enjoy good relations with our city council and in particular the senior officers. Headteachers regard us as allies and value our involvement with their schools, however limited that might be: in particular Peterborough School, Thomas Deacon Academy, Kings and West Town Primary. Recently Rob has become a governor of the troubled Bishop Creighton Academy to try to help them with their improvement. This followed me hearing about them being desperate for help and I called in to see them. Even though they are not in the parish, they occupy the first site of this church before it was moved here in 1407, so I felt a degree of connection. The local vicar has given us his blessing to pursue this. St John’s is regarded as an important place in the city centre, valued by business and civic leaders. The partnerships through the St John’s Development Board display a high level of goodwill towards us. People call in for coffee when the café is open and appreciate the hospitality on offer. Nationally we seem to have suffered a massive blow from the central church opposition to the changes to marriage. The General Synod has said it wants to devote two years to discussing this so that we can see how we can respond more positively. I seriously wonder whether we have two years to sort this and a boat was missed when Civil Partnerships came in, but we are where we are and we will see.
So on one level we enjoy goodwill towards us, on another a falling number of people count themselves as belonging and that number is particularly acute among younger generations. Inherited faith cannot be relied on for much longer and Peterborough seems to me to be a place where this is more obvious than it is in some other places. It means we have work to do to tell the Christian story. This is the challenge this church has faced for over 600 years because each generation needs to hear it anew otherwise it dies out. But we can’t rely on a general background culture which does this with us and for us. The task is now urgent and if we don’t do it we will cease to exist. There are signs of hope and the three people who were confirmed last weekend are encouraging. All three have come to faith in adult life and found in the Christian faith we proclaim here a faith that is relevant, intelligible and credible. That is something that we are offering here. There are lots of people who stand in the city centre and they shout at people what I regard as utter gibberish and they give faith a bad name. Sadly I fear we may get tarnished by their brushes, so we need to find a way of making it clear we are different. I had an encounter with one of them in the cathedral last year and I clearly didn’t give the answers he wanted but then I think he knew that would be the case because he was aggressive in his questioning as if trying to point score.
So I want to offer a few ways that we can use to focus us on the missionary task that we face. This is far more important than anything else in front of us. They are location, love, live, longing and learn. They are not particularly new, they build on what I said last year about key values, and some we are working on already. But perhaps new packaging may help them feel a bit fresher, help us see them anew, and we need to be clear what we are aiming for. A recent church report, ‘From anecdote to evidence’, has highlighted that churches that are conscious about their missionary challenge and direction have more chance of growing than ones that are drifting, or unfocused.
‘Location’. This church sits in a prime location. You couldn’t ask for a better place. It should be buzzing and a hive of activity. It is at times, but not all the time. We will only make contact with people and stand a chance of drawing them into the worshipping life of the church if we are open and able to meet them. We have a presence which all other groups in the city would give their right arms to have. However, as we have seen, many people seem to be quite content to just pass by and ignore the building, or at least don’t interact with it much. The Good Friday hot cross buns after the Walk of Witness was an area where we got it right. The church buzzed. Coffee shops are good as far as they go, but why do we shut precisely when people want to buy lunch? I think we need opening this up on our agenda and it may be that we need to subcontract so that others do it, provide us with an income which we can use to develop the missionary work. We can think about activities which can take place at the same time, like story telling, and we may need to look at how we are able to use the different spaces in the church. A few ideas buzzing about, but the conversation needs to start so that we can make better use of this prime location.
‘Love’. It can sound twee, but if we are not a loving community, who on earth would want to bother with us? If we are loving we will welcome, we will care and we will display respect for everyone. I had to give one of the Holy Week talks in the cathedral and the text I was given included these words from Hebrews, which leapt out at me: “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (10:24). When anyone provokes us we usually respond in kind, with a sharp put down, with anger and hatred. The challenge is to be so filled with God’s love that we aim to bring that out of the other and incite love within them. Is this a community which schools us in this? If not how can we make it better? If it is, we need to celebrate and strengthen those areas because they are missionary in themselves in a world which thinks hatred and division is the way forward. If it is being worn thin, this should be a place where being provoked by love renews us, and we all need that from time to time.
‘Live’. The faith that inspires us is to be lived. It is to be put into practice so that there are good deeds flowing. We support the food bank, people are involved in so many areas of work from council, to other voluntary organisations, to cultural and daily working. If England is to be a Christian Country then our faith has to be what shapes our values and our thinking. Not in some kind of blind rule book way. Anyone who tries to treat the bible like that has fundamentally misunderstood it and will find themselves not wearing mixed fabrics, eating shellfish or bacon. But the faith we proclaim should be lived and we need to find a way of expressing the rationale behind that clearly, simply and intelligibly. Nationally we do not hear many good examples of this to model. We live in an age that doesn’t understand where our faith is coming from and so what we say needs translating and decoding. But the words and deeds without love are nothing worth!
‘Longing’. What do you really long for? One of the most important desires for the biblical writers is justice. It is for people to be treated with honour and respect, for riches to be shared so that they benefit all, for a vision of a world where we live sustainably and at peace. As soon as we say things like that they require a close look at the policies of those we elect to bring it about and that’s the world of politics. Christian living and mission can’t avoid that and shouldn’t. Do we long for full churches? Does that matter to us? The desire for mission is itself a crucial element in being missionary.
‘Learn’. How do we learn about our faith? Learning is life-long and there is no point at which we stop learning new things about our faith and seeing it in a new or renewed light. A church that doesn’t take this seriously stops thinking, stops being inspired by its faith; it stops being a church. A learning church is one that is equipped to proclaim the gospel. Sermons have a very limited impact here because they are brief and the liturgy moves us on quickly after them to the next focus. We held a series of evenings during Lent, not many people came. The church calendar helps us retell the story of Christ through the year. Not many came on Good Friday, or Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday. Clearly different things work better in different places, but we don’t have many places where we are learning. This needs attention.
So five words to think about when we think over what this church is for and how it can be a vibrant house of mission: location, love, live, longing, learn. I could say a lot more about these but that will do for an introduction.
When thinking about location, we also have a presence in West Town, which we don’t really make full use of. It’s a challenge, but the developer of the former hospital site is interested in how they can help improve the community provision and St John’s Hall site is clearly a key contender with this. There are some early conversations, not least establishing the ownership of the site, which is far from clear, but we are on the case.
Five words, five areas, five foci for mission. We can add another ‘L’: ‘Leadership’. Without it we don’t travel in any direction. It needs to be shared and there are limits to what any one person can do. Without Chris Brown’s daily commitment we are going to struggle and I want to thank him again for all he has given and done over so many years. The new administrator will be able to do some of the nuts and bolts stuff, but leadership and lay leadership in particularly is crucial. When we don’t have lay leaders it is a sign that something is wrong.
You may have noticed that there have been a lot of images of pieces of art in these slides. They are from our Artist in Residence project, which is a St John’s Development Board initiative. This has been a project that we have learnt through as it has gone on, but it has brought some interesting insights and challenges and made us think. The ‘Art at Advent’ calendar in the tower doors was a particular highlight for me. I am grateful to Garth for what he has given us. There will be an evening here on 12th July to celebrate the project. TV auctioneer David Palmer will be here to sell of the works and there will be entertainment and a talk about buying art too. Tickets are available.
I leave you with the five ‘L’s to hold in your minds: location, love, live, longing, learn. They are worth thinking through as we plan and shape the future direction of making this church vibrant in its prime location her in the centre of our city.
Address at the Annual Meeting, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th April 2014