I say, I say, I say, “What is the secret of good comedy?” The answer is, of course, timing but when our timing is out it can all fall a little flat.
Well the timing of our annual report this year certainly does seem to be a little bit off. This meeting should have been happening in the spring and we should have been reflecting on an annual report of activities from 2019 which we could clearly remember!
If we had met then, as planned, we would have been discussing our developing families work the new connections being made by our Little Pips toddler group and our new Teatime Church service at St James’ school. We would have been talking about the recent departure of our curate Natalie Burfitt- who is now acting as chaplain to the Diocesan ministry experience scheme for young people. And we would have been talking about the departure of our administrator, Laura Evans, and the arrival of Hannah Leckebusch.
We would have continued to reflect on our newly established Community Groups and the growth of our choir and music group. We would have been talking, in excited terms, about the recent visit of our friends from Ramallah and our renewed vision for our partnership. We would have been talking about joining Inclusive Church, our ‘Harvest with Hawks’, continued Camelot lunches and the discipleship of our young people through Rock Solid, Next Gen and Sunday morning coffee gatherings on the Bath Road. We would also have been talking about appointing new architects and the recent tendering process for the contractors.
A yawning gulf
Despite the delays in holding this meeting, it is still important to acknowledge all of that and the vision, rotas and hard work which lies behind it. Between us and those events, however, there lies a great gulf. The gulf of the pandemic and lockdown- events which have changed our landscape beyond recognition.
At Pip and Jim’s we did, of course, have one particular advantage this year. We were the one church in the country which knew that it was going to be closed for several months and we had made plans accordingly. We had already realised that we are a pilgrim people. We had realised that we need to have structures to care for one another, even when we are without a building. We had realised that being the church involves radical change and movement and that we, as the body of Christ, are part of an interdependent world. These realisations have served us well during difficult times and are a testament to what has gone before. And for all of that and for all who have made it possible, I want to say thank you and to give thanks to God tonight.
A Sleeping Church?
Reflecting on the pandemic, the Bishop of Burnley, Rt Revd Phillip North, has suggested that those churches which have gone to sleep during the pandemic may well find that they stay asleep as time progresses.
We have not fallen asleep, but it has taken us some courage to keep going and, as I stand here tonight, I am particularly mindful of all of those who have ‘kept on keeping on’.
Those who learned how to join Facebook, those who cooked meals for others, those who rang friends and neighbours and gathered in community groups. Those who produced and adhered to risk assessments. Those who bought cleaning equipment and exercised elbow grease in applying it! Those who took the risk to come to church and those who stayed home and stayed faithful. Those who continued to fundraise and to give. Those who kept the reordering project going forward and those who kept me on the straight and narrow! Those who discovered the combined strength of our south Cheltenham team and what it offers. And for all of those people I give thanks tonight as well.
It is, of course, invidious to mention any individuals, however if you will forgive me, I need to mention at least three. Firstly, I want to mention your Churchwardens. Hazel has, as ever, been a pastoral lookout, ensuring that no one is left behind, attending to the details and ensuring that we actually managed to leave the church building in good order! Meanwhile, Peter has brought huge energy to our fundraising, strategic vision to our re-entry plans and a fresh eye to those things that had become a little dusty! Lastly, I want to mention David whose quiet determination has ensured that our reordering juggernaut has kept on track and on time- so that knew heating is in place, space is appearing, pods are arising and we are on target to reopen in spring 2021, despite everything that has happened. All this has been done despite significant health concerns for David and Hazel I’m thankful to them tonight and for the many that stand behind them I would ask us to show our appreciation tonight …
Tonight is not only an opportunity to review last year but also to look to the year which lies ahead. And I would like to suggest to you this evening that it is a year which will be shaped by at least three key factors; the continuing pandemic, the resource of our South Cheltenham team and our newly reordered space.
A New Normal
Let me begin by reflecting on the enduring nature of this virus. It has been it has become clear over recent months that this virus will continue to shape how we live and what we are able to do at very least for the next twelve months. Over the summer, there was much talk about the need to discover ‘a new normal’. As that ‘normal’ has tipped into autumn it seems to have been postponed, changed and become significantly more challenging.
The Thursday applause has gone. The social restrictions have become piecemeal. And the continued correlation between poverty and the pandemic seems to be high. I’m not sure that, as the people of God, any of us would wish to embrace this kind of normality. Indeed, as a people of lamentation, hope, justice, love and joy we need to seek something better for our communities, our nation and our world. And that is one of the key tasks which lies ahead for us this year.
Secondly, I would like to say something about our south Cheltenham team. A team which has enabled much in recent months as we have supported one another; enabling worship and singing, gathering and serving. Returning to a de facto congregational style of working over the coming months will not be possible and, I would suggest, neither is it desirable. We have shown that we can achieve far more when we work together. Clubs may survive for time in isolation but movements need to network and we, as a Pilgrim people, are a movement for the love of God.
We have things to learn from our team and we have much to offer to our team but to do so will require us to change and broaden our vision. We have an opportunity to explore that in our big Christmas crib blessing in December and in a few weeks’ time representatives from across the team will be gathering to explore this further and your south Cheltenham team reps and churchwardens will be a part of that conversation.
A House of Good
Our third and final context for the year which lies ahead is, of course, our reordered space. If you were going to pick a year in which to close a church this would not have been a bad choice! What has become clear, however, is that we will be reopening into an ongoing pandemic situation.
This will give us significant challenges but will also offer us significant opportunities to play a role in rebuilding our society and responding to its needs. This is, of course, something which churches across the country are doing every day. From city centres, to outer estates, to market towns and high streets the length and breadth of our country, church buildings are providing a focus for community activities; food banks, clubs and societies, youth activities, after school clubs, counselling services, blood transfusion services and a myriad of other graceful gatherings which build social capital.
A report launched this week by the National Churches Trust has audited the social benefit of the community use of church buildings. At a conservative estimate, they suggest that church buildings contribute over £12 billion pounds per annum to our society. Indeed, for every £1 invested in church buildings, there is a social return of £3.74. What this means for us is that in the year ahead we have the potential to make a huge difference to the life of our community and that is a huge opportunity.
An opportunity to reject the mirage of any knew broken ‘normal’ and instead to offer a generous welcoming place where people can build community, find hope and experience love- and wonder at the source of it all.
Last Sunday, Bishop Stephen Cotterell was enthroned as the 98th Archbishop of York in York Minster. And I would like to finish by quoting from his sermon which I think speaks to us gathered here tonight.
“Let’s put this sign up outside our churches. Let’s wear it on our sleeves and declare it to the world: Everyone is welcome. Here is a place and here is a people where you will be safe, where you will be loved, where you will be accepted. This is where you will find hope for the world and a new vision for a new humanity. Enter here and be changed. Not into somebody else, but into the beautiful person you are meant to be. Then join with us in changing the world.”
And to that I say Amen, Amen, Amen.