Vicar's APCM Address 2022
'Crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension and all in a little over forty days.
From sadness to guilt, to hopelessness, to fear, to doubt, to hopefulness; the feelings of the disciples have been a roller coaster.
Jesus has told the disciples that he had to suffer but would be raised in three days. Did they believe him? No! Peter even rebuked Jesus, saying that this could not happen, leading to Jesus calling him Satan. Then Jesus was arrested. And then Jesus was crucified. In three days, the stone was removed, and the tomb was empty. Angels and even Jesus himself appeared to tell his followers that he was raised, and still they doubted! He had to show up inside locked doors, on the road to Emmaus walking with some disciples, and by the beach to cook breakfast with them, just to convince them that he was raised’.
A roller coaster for sure, but that new movement that begun with Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers set off a radical approach to God that a new religion called Christianity was born and 2 millennia later we are here at St Mary’s, Ilford as inheritors and successors of it.
We know something of what it means to have ridden a roller coaster over these last few years – the pandemic has set our lives as human beings and our lives as Christians within a context that none of us would have ever imagined possible. We have been stretched and challenged in ways that we thought impossible, and rather like the flexing of usually unused muscles on a new exercise regime, we continue to feel the effects – physically for some of us, psychologically for many of us, and spiritually for all of us. We have been changed and so has the world, whether we like it or not. This is a fact.
What is true for us as individuals is also true of the Church as a family here locally at St Mary’s, and across the land. Change is afoot and is already happening. Some if it because of the pandemic yes, some of it using the pandemic as a convenient excuse, but much of it because of the very quick and seismic shift we have seen over the past few years in the Church’s relationship with society. We live and minister not only now in post-Christendom, but even in a post-Christian society – and the Church’s approach to mission and ministry has not kept up and has now fallen into crisis management.
To be frank and honest, for those of us leading churches locally; clergy, lay-leaders, wardens, PCC’s – the fast and changing expectations on us in such a short space of time has been both discombobulating and exhausting, as we are left to make sense of exactly what it is we are meant to be doing, and to keep up with the latest scheme handed to us on high that demands so much of our time and human resources but is here today and gone tomorrow, often without even the opportunity to ask why we’re meant to be doing it in the first place, and without a great deal of support or resources from those making the demands on us.
It gives me no pleasure to say that the Church of England nationally is in chaos and that secular society has lost confidence in it to work for the common good. And it is in chaos because, in the words of a Roman Catholic bishop to me just a few weeks ago, ‘it has taken leave of God’.
Amid this comes our great celebration today of the Ascension of the Lord. When it seems, in the story of our salvation, and in the dramatic offering of the liturgy, which is meant to reflect that story day by day, that we too are taking leave of God. Or perhaps, even worse, God is taking leave of us; that certainly could be one interpretation of those words from the Acts of the Apostles ‘as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’. One interpretation of that could be, that Jesus took leave of the disciples.
It’s almost as if just as the disciples are expecting Jesus to do something radical – in fact they ask the question ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel’ – just when they thought, yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for, Jesus bids them farewell, and is taken physically from their sight and returns to the Father and they’re left on their own to work it all out.
Except, they’re not. Even though it must have felt like they we’re alone, fudging around in the dark, expected to take this mission entrusted to them by Christ forward on their own without him by their side, guiding, prompting, challenging - they were in fact not alone. Jesus himself says to them ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. 
Next Sunday we will celebrate the coming of that Spirit at Pentecost and that confidence perhaps lost by the disciples when their Leader, Master and Lord left them will be restored, and they will be given the gifts that they need to fulfil all that had been asked of them.
We are left today in our gospel reading with a sense of that confidence and trust that the disciples had in those words of Jesus, as they returned to Jerusalem ‘with great joy, and were continually in the Temple, blessing God’.
We’ve been talking a lot about love over the last 7 weeks of Eastertide. One thing there is no shortage of in this place is love; and that is a mark of a Christian community that is seeking to live out its primary calling to be a community where God is found – because God is love. We seek to be a place where there is no such thing as a stranger, only friends yet to be made, and a place where when the going is tough, either for our community or as individuals, we walk alongside each other and bear the burden, just as when the going is good, we celebrate together and share in each other’s joys and happiness.
I don’t know if that bishop I was talking to a few weeks ago is correct - that the Church of England has taken leave of God - certainly, aspects of it feel like it has at higher levels. But it’s not the case on the ground where it really matters - in the parishes, in the chaplaincies in the new Christian communities were day by day and week by week and year on year the ministry of love is lived out, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances and sometimes, it seems, despite the Church of England rather than because of it.
That ministry of love is lived out here at St Mary’s. I have the privilege of seeing it daily and of being part of it for the last 12 years as your Vicar. You have that privilege also - the privilege of witnessing how as a household of faith we are working out our salvation together. There is no issue in this place with the quality or depth of faith or the care we offer to friend and stranger alike, or our response to the needy, the poor and the downtrodden. All the kinds of people Jesus told us to seek out and care for and love.
However, we do have a problem. Not a problem of faith, or a problem of love or inclusion; not a problem of meaningless dissent or of cliques or even a problem of ministry in general – it’s a problem of commitment, and of priorities and of expectations.
What I’m going to say now I cannot sugar coat and I cannot dress up because there are hard truths that we need to face and come to a decision as family about how we want to address them if we do indeed want to address them at all.
From this point on today, the PCC and I will not be making decisions about the mission and ministry and the future of our life together here at St Mary’s, nor about how to address the pressing questions about the future. We won’t be doing that as our default position anymore.
Instead, as a church family we will make those decisions together. As I said a few weeks ago, the process of the change in the way ministry is offered at St Mary’s begins today and will conclude in September at the Patronal Festival and in-between we will listen to each other. Sometimes by conversation, sometimes by using questionaries and other tools, but all the time watching closely and looking at how these listening exercises begin to change the way we approach our relationship with this church and our expectations of what we want from it and of each other.
I’m not talking about people to help polish the brass, or clean the windows or mop the floors, yes, these things need doing and more people need to be pulling their weight in doing them, but that’s not what I’m talking about right now.
What I’m talking about is a deeper commitment to the working and spiritual life of the Church in this place which goes far beyond coming in at 10am on a Sunday morning and leaving at 11.15am. Sometimes of course we all need to do that for a myriad of different reasons, but that cannot be the default position. We are not a shop where we come and pay for what we want and take it away and return when we want some more; we are a family household of faith and therefore we each share equal responsibility for the household and for one another.
The long and short of it is that we have come to end of exercising ministry in this place in the way it has been previously done. You may remember that I have been saying this year on year for the past 6 years at each successive APCM, reminding you that the time will come when radical change must be made, but year on year little has changed, and now the time is up.
The process of change and the willingness to be changed needs to begin today. It is pressing and it is urgent, and the changes that need to be made will, I hope, become evident over the next 4 month's as we engage with the prescient questions:
Questions of how we can justify the huge costs of running and maintaining this beautiful church - £80,000 a year - when it’s open on average for just 5 hours each week?
Questions of how you we afford to maintain a full-time priest here in the future, when year on year our deficit is £35,000 and the pool from where we pull that deficit is emptying quickly.
Questions of how we can maintain our pastoral presence in a parish of almost 30,000 people, with only a few people doing that ministry and with no help in terms of human resources from the diocese.
Questions about why so few of our church membership of 75 people are involved in the ministry and work of the parish, and, more importantly, what we can do to change that.
These are prescient questions for which there are no immediate obvious answers, and therefore questions that we need to try answer together.
I said a few weeks ago that today I would set out a short- and medium-term vision for the direction of travel we need to be heading as a church family; but I haven’t come with a blueprint because there isn’t one. Where we go from here is up to you. It’s in your hands. This is your church.
If what we begin today does not bear fruit, then the ministry of this place will be significantly diminished, and once the ministry of a church is significantly diminished by lack of commitment or willingness to engage, then the result is almost always management of decline until death. That’s the reality. It’s happening to churches all around us.
However, if what we begin today does bear fruit, even if in small ways to begin with, then that decline is not inevitable, and resurrection is on the horizon and within our grasp. I believe truly that we can do that. I wouldn’t be here today speaking to you in this way if I didn’t believe it.
Yet the truth us that I can’t do it. The Churchwardens can’t do it. The PCC can’t do it. The small group of volunteers that keep this church functioning can’t do it. The only way we can do it is together. That’s going to require a significant change in our approach to this place, for all of us, including me.
Now is a watershed moment; and the way that it goes is in your hands.
When Christ left his disciples and returned to the Father, he promised that he would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who would lead them into all truth – and they went off joyfully and confident in what was to come. What came was the transformation of the world through the truth of the Risen and Ascended Christ.
If that handful of disciples could change the world 2 millennia ago, then in the power of that same Holy Spirit, surely, we, the handful of disciples in this place can transform St Mary’s so that the ministry of love not only continues but grows and flourishes and changes for the better this bit of the world that we inhabit.
Brothers and sisters: Are you willing to engage with the work we need to undertake over these next months; work that will demand honesty, sacrifice and sometimes a long hard look at ourselves? If the answer to that question is yes, then we have a future, and that future is hopeful and bright, because God will bless our efforts and make up whatever is lacking in them.
However, if the honest answer is no, we’re not willing, or even that we can’t do it. If we have become ambivalent about living out the faith in this place and contributing in a real way to our common life together, then at least we do so knowing well what the consequences may be, and we go into that inevitable management of decline and death with our eyes wide open and the responsibility for it laying squarely with us.
I’ve already made my choice. I know the answer that I will give and the road that I will take over these next months.
Now it’s for you to do the same.