Sunday, 26 April 2015

Annual Meeting Address

Last Monday I went to St Martin in the Fields in London to an event celebrating the life and writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a German pastor and theologian, who during the Second World War was a leading light in what was known as the Confessing Church.  This was a group of German Evangelical Christians who opposed the Hitler regime.  Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler and 70 years ago this month, at the age of 39, he was hanged at Flossenburg in the dying days of the Hitler regime.  The world was robbed of a brilliant mind and who knows how he might have helped shape Christian thinking had he lived.  He was asking the questions about how we integrate faith and life, how we take seriously the intellectual questions and challenges of our day.  He asked what it means to be a follower of Christ and his writings have inspired students of theology since, including me.  His works were part of my degree course 30 years ago, so I went to brush up my Bonhoeffer and was reminded just what influence the thinking forged in the crucible of stark conflict and oppression brings.  Sadly this crucible is a feature of the Christian church throughout the centuries and we are seeing it today.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but he felt he was dealing with such an extreme regime that
extreme action was called for.  If a maniac is running down the street and murdering, we have a duty to intervene.  That is how he saw Hitler.  For him we have no choice but to take seriously where we are and enter the waters of human affairs.  These are murky and compromised; there is never perfect vision at the time.  We will face a backlash from those who disagree and if they are the regime with coercive power there could be life and death consequences.  That has been the case for two millennia and it is the case in parts of the world today.  Being authentic and faithful to our convictions is impressive.  The Archbishop of Canterbury told mourners at a funeral in Africa recently, who gathered to pray and to praise Christ just days after a massacre, that their witness in the face of a great atrocity, which was costly and dangerous, was nonetheless an inspiration to those of us in much less violent places.  This is why we display ‘We are N’ outside this church – the ‘N’ standing for people of the Nazarene because it is daubed on churches and houses in Syria to mark them out for persecution.  ‘N’ is our badge of honour because we share in the name of Jesus.  We identify with our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted for their faith – ancient churches, in the case of Syria who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.  We are reminded in doing this that faith can cost because it matters so much to us.

Location is one of the ‘L’s that I gave last year at this meeting; taking where we are seriously.  We are not anywhere else.  This church sits in the city centre and our mission ground is around us.  This brings tremendous opportunities which we only scratch the surface of.  Having the personnel to do this is always our challenge.  Others will move in and do and we don’t always share the same outlook as them.  I told some Christian rappers yesterday that they were being too loud and they were surprised when I told them that we are here all the time and the businesses and people who live in the city centre are our neighbours.  We have a calling to be the public face of the church in the public square of this city and proclaim the love of God in Christ, in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer taking the intellectual challenges and the political and social issues of our day and place seriously.  We do not have exclusive rights over this, but we are here all the time and that brings responsibilities and challenges with the opportunities.  How we pick those up is always a challenging question.  But we do far more than many realise.

On Friday night we hosted a hustings for the General Election Candidates for the Peterborough Constituency.  It was a lively event and got a bit heated at times.  Everyone I have spoken to was very grateful to us for putting this event on.  A number of people said they had never been to a hustings before.  It is a way that the church can help stimulate involvement in the political process and be a place for public debate.  I also heard from a number of people that they were coming because it was the church hosting it and they believed we would be fair in how we held the ring and that was my aim in chairing it.  It was a challenge at times as passions ran high in response to various comments from the candidates, not least with microphone problems, and there were a few jaw dropping moments, particularly when the UKIP candidate said that climate change is not happening.  That is probably the only moment that the majority of the audience were united in opposition.  There are no serious scientists who would support that view.  Peterborough is not a place that can be complacent about climate change.  If sea levels rise we don’t have any high ground to take to!

We were only able to host the event because I brought in stewards from the cathedral.  Without them we would not have been able to run the event, we just didn’t have the personnel from within the church.  We needed them because they ‘sat on’ one or two of the more militant hecklers and brought some restraint, even if they were not able to silence them and I would not have wanted people to be completely silent.  Politics needs passion because the issues matter.  But it needs respect too.  The problems with stewarding events has been a recurring theme this last year.  Our administrators have had difficulty staffing some events and we have not accepted some bookings due to this.  That impacts on our income, but it also impacts on how much reach we are able to have in this place and from this place.

One of the opportunities that we have here is to be a beacon of hope in the city centre.  It is important that we remember what this place is for: it is much more than a location for the arts and culture.  Bonhoeffer was clear that everything he said and wrote, everything the church does has to be rooted and grounded in prayer.  It is the powerhouse of the church, the place from which we draw our sustenance and if we do not do this, if we are not people of prayer, we have nothing to offer the world.  These are words easily said and I hear them in many church circles, but we know when they are real and when they are just pious padding.  Prayer changes people.  It gives focus, it brings a stilled-attentiveness and it proclaims our place in the bigger picture that comes from God.  We are not here by accident.  This church was put here because Abbot Genge of Peterborough Abbey knew the people needed a church in their market square, as a stilled centre around which the busyness of trading and living takes place, so he moved it from its former location on the site of Bishop Creighton Academy today.  We still have that vocation and it is our primary one.  So in all the activity, being here, and being here means more than just taking up space – being prayerfully here – is transformative.  There is a confidence in God’s Kingdom and God’s saving love which comes from the centuries these stones have been here and housed prayer, and we continue to keep that beacon shining.  Prayer also has a way of leading to action and setting the course of travel.  We are not left undisturbed by the Holy Spirit who calls and challenges with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ and making that known afresh to our generation.

One of the ways we will be a beacon of hope is that we are going to be the meeting point for the homeless night shelter project pilot which will run through May.  People will be referred to the project and those running it need a place to check that everything is in order first before taking them to the church hosting the shelter that night.  They needed a central location and we are able to offer that.  There are parallels between St Martin in the Fields, where I was on Monday, and here – we are both in the public square and host many events.  We also have opportunities to respond to the human need that is around us.  We continue to support the foodbank.  I fear this is being normalized, though there have been food larders and such like for many years in various places.  I remember there being one in Bournemouth when I went there in 1985 to work with ex-offenders.  So perhaps, as Jesus said, the poor will always be with us, though what brings them to our doors always needs looking at; the causes need treating along with the hunger.  We enter the murky waters again and so we should.

This has been year of changes and disruption.  We have suffered from a lack of stability in the church office.  For reasons all particular to the individuals concerned we have had three administrators during the year and our fourth started on Thursday.  Every change takes us back to the beginning as they need to find their feet and make the job their own.  Stephen George, our new administrator, is excited about working here and has a good understanding of churches and the Church of England in particular.  As before if there is anything that you think is not being done, it needs to be focused through me because I am his line manager.  With such a rapid turnover there will inevitably be things that I think I have mentioned but will actually have told one of his predecessors.  It may be it is just taking time for him to get to grips with everything that needs to be done.  The Administrator role is a key and complex one for how this church functions.  Without it we could not function in our basic administration, financial processing and recording, and in how we coordinate the events that take place here.  This is a busy church and some events come at us with little notice and without adequate planning or thinking through on the part of the organisers.  It is the administrator’s key task to sort this out and bring clarity so that the event runs well to everyone’s enjoyment.  We’ve learnt a few lessons the hard way here.

We have also welcomed Ashley as our caretaker; another key job, after Gordon Little retired last August.  The churches sparkle and he takes great care over his duties.  He is also cleaning St Luke’s and we have found things have been done without asking, which is the sign of someone who is taking the job very seriously and cares.  Judy line manages Ashley, so everything needs to be fed through her so that she can support and manage his time.  It is important that people know who they report problems to and who will give them direction on what needs to be done, otherwise messages get mixed and confusion reigns.

After ten years as our organist Stephen Barber retired in November and we welcomed Elizabeth Barter as our new Director of Music.  Elizabeth has settled in quickly and has thanked everyone for making her so welcome in her report.  We have bought new hymnbooks which we will start using fairly soon.   The new book was only published last year and is the latest in the Ancient & Modern series, incorporating the best of the traditional and the more recent ones which have proved longer lasting.  They are a better size for the pew shelves and while every hymnbook edits the words these seem to be more sympathetic.

The faculty has been granted to repair the organ so we can now tell potential funders, with confidence, exactly what we intend to do.  The fund raising now needs to start with gusto and more will follow on this.  We will need to raise around £120,000 so it will not be easy.  There is expertise we can tap both from within the church community and with the fundraising department at the cathedral.  The organ is used by a number of students and it helps to be able to say that it is used for educational purposes.

Another project that is coming to fruition is the Book of Remembrance, which will be located in a new cabinet in the Lady Chapel.  The book is currently with a calligrapher and I will soon be putting out a sheet with details of how names can be entered.  I know this is something a number of people have wanted to see for many years.

The Lady Chapel curtains and the curtains screening the organ area are being replaced.  Judy has these and we can expect them to appear any moment.  A new altar frontal is also being commissioned from leading church textile artist Juliet Hemingray in Derby.  New ‘white’ vestments were dedicated last Sunday.  We also have been given Joyce Ellery’s piano and need to work out the best place for it to live.  Children have become more visible with one of the new noticeboards being dedicated to displays produced by the Sunday School – well part of it.  This visibility means that we send out a message that children are welcome and have a place here.  That is noticed and people comment on it.  The other board improves out ability to communicate and let people know what is going on; to show the vibrancy of this community and the arts and cultural events we host.  We are not standing still.

Earlier this year I took over the responsibility of Rural Dean.  I have two assistants to share the load – and there is more to this than meets the eye.  There are layers of governance and conversations taking place with neighbouring dioceses that I am being drawn into.  Some of this is a natural role for the Vicar of Peterborough because our location naturally brings us into contact with those wider questions.  Diary management is proving to be a challenge.  There are times when I just have to draw stumps.  Recognising this Rob Deans will be licensed by Bishop John as Associate Priest on a house for duty basis on 14th June. 

There are many people who do a considerable amount to sustain what we do now.  When I read recent reports on what churches should do to grow, to be vibrant, we can tick a lot of those boxes.  And there are people taking on leadership roles at this meeting who a few years ago were not in the congregation.  That is a sign of health and vibrancy.  This is not a static community.  I am grateful to those who do so much to sustain and develop our mission and ministry.

There is much to be thankful for in this house of prayer, this house of vibrant action inspired by prayer.  We make a difference to the city centre, not by just occupying space, but through so many ways: the arts and cultural activities, services and special occasions to mark city civic occasions, through being a place of quiet and sanctuary, through hospitality and stimulating the public space, through finding ways to tells the story of Christ which is what guides everything we do.  We have contact with a number of schools and colleges, with a variety of groups.  There is a lot of quiet caring goes on too.

Today is a day to celebrate the life of this church community.  And I for one rejoice in what we have.

Address to the Peterborough Parish Church Annual Meeting, 26th April 2015

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