Canon Simon Butler reflections on the life of our church in preparation for St Mary's Annual Church Meeting
This address replaces the sermon on the Sunday of St Mary’s Annual Church Meeting. It’s meant to be a chance for the Vicar to reflect on church life, to set out some personal reflections and to set something of a tone and shape for the year ahead.
This is my eleventh Annual Report as your Vicar and if I may be permitted the indulgence of focusing for a while on speaking to you personally. A number of people have inevitably asked me in one way or another how long I’m staying. I’m pleased to say that it’s always couched in terms of, “you’re not going to leave us, are you?”, or, once in a while, something like, “I want you here to take my funeral!” No one has said to me – yet at any case, or at least not in my hearing – “isn’t it time you moved on?”
Time is passing, however. This year I will be 58, which gives me about another ten years of stipendiary ministry. Paul and I celebrate 20 years together this year – we met on Christmas Day of all days, which is partly why I have decided to allow my study leave this autumn to run across the Christmas period and to return in early January 2023. As a civil servant he has an earlier retirement age than me – so the next major life event for both of us will be retirement. That is of course some way off, but it does mean that within the next year or two, I need to discern whether to look for pastures new or to continue to serve in this parish until that transition comes.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to remain – you know me, I know you, and we work well together, there’s plenty to do and I’ve not lost my energy to serve here – but I do think it’s right to ask the question about what is right for you and what is right for me, and where the will of God fits into that.
But that’s all about me; what about you? I’ve always said to other clergy that the strengths and weaknesses of churches often reflect the strengths and weaknesses of their clergy, particularly their vicar. Would it be good for you and for the mission of God in this church and parish for me to serve here for another ten years? What is it that you need in this place? More of what I bring, the shape I bring to being a Christian and a priest? Or do you need something a bit different, some other aspects of the Gospel’s rich message that isn’t what I bring or prioritise? No minister can bring everything to a church’s life or priorities. I’ve never been one of those clergy who see the ministry as a career path, despite my strategic – some might say over-strategic – view of the place of the church in the 21st century. And that means that what is right for me needs to be informed by what is right for you, and what is right for the life of St Mary’s.
So here is an invitation to you for the coming months. I am taking a period of study leave this autumn – mid-September to early January – and you will be left in the capable hands of the church wardens, ably assisted by Aaron and Joe, supported by Harry, Katy, Leslie and other key leaders and staff. I’ll be taking time to discern my future in this period of sabbatical; some of you have kindly noted that all the work of the past two years will have inevitably taken its toll, and that is right. I need a break. But I’ll be using that break in part to think about the coming decade of my ministry. Why don’t you do the same? While I’m away from the parish, talk together about what you need in your Vicar in the coming ten years. Pray about it, too, and share your thoughts with the wardens, with my colleagues, so that when I return we can share what we have discerned about next steps for St Mary’s and for me. I’m serious about this, brothers and sisters; it would be the easiest thing for us to carry on together without asking this question – the older I get the more settled I become, and the longer I remain here, the more you settle into an accustomed familiarity. But let’s not just settle. Let’s reflect and talk maturely about this matter, and perhaps in doing so we will discover the will of God for you and for me in it.
Let’s move on. I’m not going to rehearse the past year in this address: you can read all about it in the Annual Report. But instead let me offer some thoughts on the challenges we face, as we emerge from the pandemic. Three brief points today.
First, I’m sure I’m not the only one who senses a weariness in church life at the moment; we’ve all been through a collective trauma in the past two years, the like of which we have never seen in the world before. Mass isolation, the closing down of society and the shift to the digital world for a season, which has been a godsend, but has had a negative side too. We are slowly having to learn to relate to one another again, to be a gathered as well as a virtual community; in that time, it’s inevitable that priorities have changed too. Coupled with that we have a serious amount of international tension, a cost of living crisis, and a government which increasingly seems to be departing from the historic ethical Christian norms we have always valued in this country.
So I sense a weariness – or is it a wariness? – about doing stuff again. I think we’ve seen that in the past year, as a number of things we’ve put on have attracted minimal interest and attendance, although I pay tribute to Joe and Aaron for the successful Alpha Course. We are finding it hard to recruit people to serve on the Church Council this year, and attendance at church has not yet recovered to its pre-pandemic norms, despite some encouraging moments.
I wonder if this is because, at St Mary’s, we have pushed to re-open, pushed to relax the rules as safely but as quickly as we can, and have started putting stuff on in good amounts as soon as we can. I know much of this has been welcome, and visitors tell me that they are amazed about what we have achieved. I think we’ve done really well and I thank the PCC, the Wardens and my colleagues for their part in that. But I wonder if we have been going a bit too fast; perhaps there’s still recovery to do, perhaps all that has been going on in the wider world alongside the pandemic – Ukraine, inflation, a lack of truthfulness in public life – is having a deeper effect. People have been asking me about doing more things, and I’m not so sure if we should be increasing our pace too much more at the moment. Our discipleship conversation programme seems like a good idea – spending time with people, giving time to listening and sharing our experience seems like a godly and pastoral thing to do right now; our Diamond Jubilee event seems like a great opportunity to have a party alongside two specific community groups we are inviting. But more than that, well, I think I want to know what you think…are we going too fast? Are you tired? Is it time those of you who have been doing things for a long time – serving on the PCC for a decade, running groups, organising rotas – to take a step back and have a break yourselves? That’s my first challenge – the challenge of pace.
The second one is the challenge of money. Much of the annual report you have received is, inevitably a legally-required account of our use of funds. It tells a story of a church with increased assets, which has weathered the financial storm well. But it is, I am afraid, a picture that lulls into a false sense of security. Much of the health of our situation is down to one-off investment gains, thanks to excellent advice from Richard Cross; and we know that, despite some swift decision-making to maximise profits in recent months, that situation will not be reflected this year. The finance working group are working hard to ensure that we do our best to respond to the expenditure challenges – such as a doubling at least of our utility costs – by addressing some of the income challenges. So the rental for Thomas’s Kindergarten is under review and Harry is looking at the best ways to increase income from use of the churchyard and church for events.
But the real challenge is giving. We’ve not given it significant attention during the pandemic and the underlying reality is that, as people move on from St Mary’s we tend to lose regular givers who are replaced by people who, for entirely understandable reasons, don’t immediately or don’t regularly give. I also think we need to be honest enough to say that our internal processes around giving and communication have not been great either, and that has contributed to the situation too. In a period where the cost of living is going to affect those on restricted income more than those who are earning salaries or dividends, we are going to need to rely on the generosity of our earners more. To that end, next month we’re going to start some slightly more directed giving campaigns, focusing in May on those who are not yet giving through one of our regular giving schemes or who are new to the church, or who have not understood the reality that churches run in the main on those who are its members giving generously. I’m very much hoping that we can give some real time and attention to this matter, so that the projected deficit beginning to emerge for this year can be reduced as far as possible.
But let me add this. We are an extremely fortunate parish to have a balance sheet of £2.2 million. It is my job, as the leader in mission, to help you spend that money. We are not a fund manager, we are a Christian church. In the other charity I chair, admittedly with funds of £130 million, we think the rainy day has come and we need to spend at a far greater rate than we have been used to. I will always be pushing the PCC to spend for mission (and invest for mission) now and to trust God for the future. If that means reducing our balance sheet for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of our church right now, then so be it.
The final challenge I want to reflect on is that of prayer and worship. We are not a parish where we talk easily about our faith and when the PCC met a few weeks ago we observed a corporate sense of anxiety, lack of confidence and even fear about talking about our faith with those who are not church members. There are understandable reasons for his, among which (and this is not a criticism) is the formal nature of our worship, where the time-honoured words of liturgy and hymns often do the heavy lifting of faith sharing for us. It can easily be the case that such glorious words make us less confident about using our own, both when talking to God and when sharing faith with others. In recent months we have tried to begin to introduce some more informal elements of faith sharing into our worship, and even the videos which we showed during Lent spoke in a much less formal language to us (it was interesting to note the comments about this we received in feedback from some who found them too informal).
Ironically one of the things we learned from the pandemic was a real sense of human connection in the virtual space. This is something we shouldn’t lose, as we return to normal. There should be a slightly more informal, more human, new normal, about our worship and prayer life as a church. We should model in worship ways in which we can pray and worship when we are not gathered in church. Prayer and worship are the lifeblood of the church, as we connect with and sustain a relationship with God; if we can try and encourage one another to pray and worship when we are apart as well as when we are gathered, to pray and worship, and to talk about God in ordinary language as well as in the formal language of liturgy, we will start to take some steps to break down the self consciousness, anxiety and concern about speaking of matters of faith in the public square. We are really good at connecting with other people in hospitality and service; but we need to grow in connecting people with the God we worship in our words as well as our deeds.
I always start writing my annual report to the church wondering what I am going to say, and then in the end it becomes the longest thing I say from this spot all year round! So let me finish ever so briefly by thanking you all – clergy colleagues, fellow PCC members, the staff team, especially our retiring Church Warden Sheila, and you, for making this an endlessly rewarding place to serve and minister. I feel truly blessed and supported by you all. And, however long the good Lord wants us to continue to do so, let us journey together into the future.
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