A little rough and ready, maybe, but I am only going to do one report this year to the APCMs rather than try to pen four different ones. After all, we are all in this together...
I want to take this opportunity to look back on 2011, and try to get a glimpse of the next year or so as well. We are now a single Benefice of four different Parishes, and so I intend to say broadly the same thing to each APCM as we cannot ignore our shared life together.
I am not going to pretend that last year was a particularly easy one, there seemed to be a lot of issues forcing the agenda which meant that it felt like being on the back foot for most of the time and therefore there was little space for reflecting and trying to direct the four Churches.
One significant success was the outstanding rating given to WInsley School for their OFSTED and their SIAS inspections. They had been working on a series of words to describe the School which you may have seen on the hoarding next to the Co-op which says Challenge - Cherish - Enrich. I want to use these three words as headings for what I want to say today.
There are many challenges that face us as a group of Churches. If I concentrate on what we might think of as external challenges then for me the greatest is the gulf that is growing between those for whom Church is a normal thing to do, and the increasing number in our society for whom Church is the thing they would now least likely do on a Sunday morning.
At Christmas we talk of Christ’s coming into the world as the Incarnation - God comes into an existing culture and set of circumstances, and makes his home amongst those he finds there. We are challenged to be as equally incarnational, whereas I think we tend to want Church to somehow remain a constant in this changing world. There is something in this, of course, our faith is an inherited one which is based on truths that stand outside cultural and historical changes, but if our primary concern remains on ‘preservation’ of a form of expression of that faith then we are accepting our becoming irrelevant to the lives of the majority of the population too lightly. This also misses the point of a second really important theological word, discipleship. Our middle class culture encourages us to be tight lipped about things like faith or some of the more internal aspects of our lives, but we are called to live in the world, confidently as disciples - followers of Jesus with him as the one who sets our values and priorities.
We need to mention at this point The Ark at Christ Church as an example of something taking place outside the normal four walls of Church, to which there is an open, generous welcome and which has Jesus at the centre. This has grown quite rapidly and the efforts by the volunteers every week in term time need to be applauded. We have Sunbeams at Winsley too with a similar set up and similarly generous volunteers - perhaps the local context is different, but for whatever reason that isn’t growing in quite the same way. Something for us to think and prayer over.
It is much more comfortable and reassuring NOT to look outside, but when I read the stories in the Old and New Testaments I see no parallels with the teaching of Jesus, in the dynamism of the Book of Acts or in the Epistles and Pastoral letters of the New Testament. The only parallel I see is in the Old Testament where the people gradually lose faith and lose heart, they become introspective and eventually get sent into exile as God’s way of bringing them to their senses.
We need to remember that Church is meant to be Good News, because it should be the place where the Kingdom of God is most clearly seen.
Another significant challenge is that of resources. Money is tight everywhere, but this is more than simply money. It is possible that by the end of this round of APCMs we will have only 3 Churchwardens when we ought to have 8. I appreciate we have some really good people who would be willing to stand were it not for other issues, so this is not meant to be a statement critical of individuals, just a broad observation.
As a result of this situation more responsibility is loaded on fewer and fewer people. I think we need to recapture a sense of people feeling cherished. I think it is true to say that most of those who hold a post in Church receive flak in some form or another from within the Church community. I know often we say things off the top of our head, or because we believe something strongly, but these things are rarely received as gentle reminders but as criticism or worse. Church should be better than that.
We need to learn to cherish each other with Christ’s love, building each other up - even if somebody’s performance is not to the standard we would like still we should build up rather than chop down.
We need to do some humble cherishing. I think we have glimpsed something of this at South Wraxall. In order to get around the fact we did not have a Churchwarden a scheme was hatched which, if I am honest, at the time seemed quite complicated. In reality we now arrive at St James to find a wonderful, committed core of maybe half a dozen people all actively getting the Church ready for worship and talking together to get things done. Wonderful. So for those who are standing down this year because your time is up - thank you. And to those who are continuing (despite the rest of us) Churchwardens, Treasurers, PCC Members, those involved with young people or our older folk - an enormous thank you. We love you and want to cherish all you do for us. This extends particularly to the Ministry Team; Clergy, Lay Ministers and LPAs who support, pray, talk and share ministry with me and each other.
There is a reason we do all this Church “business”. We are called to be part of God’s plan to be a blessing to all the families on earth, as he originally called Abraham to be. I see this as a call on us to enrich our neighbourhoods. We have our Church Schools, which are vital links in this direction - and certainly I want to celebrate the move of the Family Service at Christ Church into the School and at Winsley the cafe style Sunday mornings we are calling ‘Refresh’. I appreciate these are not to everyone’s taste, I wish I could make it otherwise.
In the villages we have also been hosting ‘Village Breakfasts’ and those need to be something we keep doing. We may not be feeding the hungry in quite the way Jesus mentioned, but bringing the villages together is crucial - and if the Church doesn’t bother then who else will?
I find the idea of gift very helpful here. In offering breakfasts in the villages we are extending a gift - a bit of food, but more importantly some time and space to meet those we live with but tend not to meet very often. God’s economy seems to have these beautiful side-effects. I wonder what ways we as four Churches can be gifts to our neighbours in the year ahead.
I believe with all my heart that the only way we can be truly enriched as human beings seeking to become enriched as children of God is for us to grasp these nettles; to be outward looking, to be encouraging each other and to be willing to become vulnerable to one another as fellow disciples.