4th Sunday of Lent: State of the union
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
An ambitious prophecy of Isaiah, who I’m sure knew, then as now, that getting the people to understand that God might be doing a new thing is no easy business. That the jackals and ostriches of St Margaret’s – you know who you are – do not always take kindly to this new thing, preferring the safe territory of former things and things of old. I can joke about this here because actually if there are jackals and ostriches they are keeping their heads low. What struck me in the parish profile and has been confirmed in the last six months that there is a desire in this parish to grow, to do new things, to engage more, and the versatility to adapt to the strange ways of this new interloper and his wayward family.
And this has been a very significant year, with a great deal of change, some significant trials and challenges, which are not yet all overcome, but also some great steps forward and some wonderful moments of celebration. On coming into post on 20thNovember, there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that having been assured that the building was in good order at interview, dry rot had appeared and I had a mere week of grace before a gathering cloud of scaffolding appeared.
The good news was that the parish had been led through the interregnum by an outstanding team headed by Janice, Mark and Hilary, Helen running the office, and the lively Community Development Team, chaired by Andrew. A huge amount of work had gone into setting up the appointment with Sarah’s excellent parish profile and then arranging for the parish visit and interview process. In the meantime Laura had run the parish’s first Alpha course, which brought together a new and diverse group of people. Then the CDT led the parish’s St Margaret’s Day with glorious weather, 2 baptisms, and a wonderful picnic. After the Summer we continued with a very colourful, welly-wearing, beautifully decorated Harvest, and the centenary anniversary of the end of the First World War.
My introduction to the parish arrived with a well-attended and organised licensing service, led by Bishop Richard. Helen, as usual, performed wonders in putting on a delightful reception with Sarah. After that it was into the Advent and Christmas whirlwind, kicked off by an excellent Christmas Tree festival, with Laura, Helen and Becky on the Jingle and Mingle, Jo doing the leg-work with the Christmas Trees, and Helen, Jo and Geraldine heading up the Saturday Fayre. Over the weekend most of the congregation contributed in many and varied ways, not least Father Christmas, and it was a wonderful way to get to know both the congregation and people across the parish. The Christmas season brought in many of our local schools, as well as our local funeral directors, and took me out into the community, including some fun carols at Ashmead care home. We brought back the Nativity Play and our Christingle proved more popular than ever. Mark put on a very fine carol service and our Christmas services recorded a record attendance in recent years.
Then we eased into the New Year, christening the vicarage with a parish-housewarming and our first Epiphany Carols, for which the choir were superb and gave us a chance to bring out the sherry. Our events continued with Mark running our pub quiz in church. We split the money between the Roof Appeal and Trinity Hospice, raising over £1000 for each, and having a fantastic evening. Our Pancake day drop-in brought in lots of new families and signalled the beginning of Lent. Clare then ran a superb World Day of Prayer multi-media service, which brought in a good congregation from across local churches. We also drew in good numbers from Churches Together in Putney and Roehampton earlier during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and it’s exciting to see a real energy behind this movement.
In general, our ministry with children has been gently building, through our new playgroup “little Maggies” which began a few weeks before Christmas, our new open-door policy and a rejuvenation our children’s work led by Ben and Bryony, assisted by Charlie (who has now moved on to pastures new) and with the return of Jo. Importantly, Sunday School has now realigned with our main service and the children show-and-tell at the end of every service, rejoining us for communion as we come together as a church family. The introduction of a children’s choir led by Rhiannon and Ben has also brought a little more sparkle into our Sunday mornings. With our increased focus on our work with children we have also updated our policies on safeguarding and engaged with wider training, making sure our volunteers have had the correct training and clearance and running a safeguarding here course at St Margaret’s, overseen by safeguarding officers Natasha and Helen.
Liturgically, our Sunday mornings have become more consistent, which was a primary aim of mine coming into post. Our all-age services continue but linked with appropriate festivals in the church year. The building works have brought the altar forward, to unanimous approval, linking the congregation with the liturgy and creating a more accessible service. Here Mark has stepped in fabulously and provided a Dais which transforms the worship space and is in perfect keeping with the building.
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable change has been in our new website and branding. Laura has done an incredible service to the church here in replacing what had become an obsolete and distracting page and providing us with a simple and highly effective site. But the branding goes further and has given us a chance to reflect on our mission and purpose, as developed in the parish profile, consider how we better connect with the community, and grow in faith and confidence looking forward. With this has come a decision to move to single-use orders of service at the 10am, which again make our services more accessible and straightforward, and we have off-set environmental costs by moving the office to 100% recycled paper.
Lent has given us a chance to begin some Christian education and we’ve had a really well attended admission to communion course that has provoked lively discussion, hard-fought memorising of prayers and commandments and a good introduction to the fixtures and architecture of the church. Our Lent course has been fascinating in thinking through the spirituality of the different parts of the church and speaking frankly about what we believe, how we worship and why. This Lent has also given me the chance to get out into the community, connecting with several local schools and charities through assemblies and events, as well as a local Muslim community, whom I’ve joined for a lunch and more recently a vigil remembering the tragic killings in Christchurch.
Music is gaining ground as a priority. Epiphany carols has made an excellent addition to our liturgical year and we will build on this in the summer with a Whitsun carol service. The choir are a huge addition to our Sunday services and we will look to increase the regularity of their appearance moving forward. It’s an important part of our mission to enhance the cultural life of the parish, and last night our silent film, with live improvisation was a really exciting new adventure and speak to anyone who is there, they’ll tell you just how good it was. We will look to further expand our hosting of concerts. Mark put on an excellent show in November and we have begun a collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music, the first concert from which will be in May.
For the PCC, there’s been a reawakening of subcommittees: Fabric and finance, the Community Development Team, Children and Youth, Design and Media and Liturgy and Education, all of which have already been building the vision of the next steps for St Margaret’s. There’s also an active pastoral team that works hard to make sure we continue to minister to all our congregation and parish, and I’ve had the privilege of taking a significant number of funerals in the last few months, whilst also looking forward to a ministry in weddings and baptisms in the summer. I can only thank the PCC from the bottom of my heart for the support I’ve received coming into post, for their openness and trust in what I feel has already proved a dynamic phase of life for the church.
St Margaret’s is growing. On recent years the last quarter has seen a rise in adult attendance of 20% with many more children and the highest week on week attendance in over ten years. I believe this is largely due to the energy created by the CDT in connecting more with the community, a greater openness, inclusiveness and accessibility in our day to day approach, and the positivity and welcome of the congregation. Nothing would be possible without the backroom work of Helen in the office and the attention of Janice and a few other stalwarts in keeping on top of things, from faculties to the silver, the flowers and the linen. St Margaret’s is a team. Everyone has a role to play but despite the financial and fabric challenges we’ve faced over the past two years I believe that right now we are in an excellent place to grow in faith, in numbers and in service, and to have a wonderful time in the process. The next year is going to see some exciting projects coming together. Obviously we need to complete the work in hand and this will require more fundraising. We also have a busy summer ahead with the Dover House Estate centenary and St Margaret’s Day. As amazing as it sounds plans are already moving forward on Harvest and Christmas already so we can count on being well prepared.
But my main goal for the next year is to start work on our gardens and outside area. I believe the technical word is our ‘curtilage’. We are a community church and our outside area is the first thing that people see and understand what we’re about by. At the moment the garden at the side of the church are a wasteland, and there is huge potential for doing more. Lighting is an issue and we’ve been waiting to address the bent spikes of the delapidated fencing for a long time. St Margaret’s in the past has had a reputation for being a green church and I think we can develop this. So this project provides a great opportunity to connect with schools and community groups, to use the space for education and make it beautiful, more accessible and safer. To create a space that is a sanctuary and an attraction, that speaks to our care of creation and our welcome and hospitality to all God’s creatures.
There are many other things that I would like to say to you but you cannot bear them now. Helen and I have a joke in the office that most mornings we get to lunch and think: “well I wasn’t expecting to be doing that this morning.” But we will continue to develop our music and our ministry to young families. We will offer more and varied services and groups to reflect on our faith, our vision and our mission. We will connect more with local businesses, charities and institutions. We will grow and prosper, in faith, in friendship and in fun. And we will look forward positively to the opportunities that the next year will bring.
See, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?