Simon Morris explains the particular challenges faced by churches in the city
I want to tell you what happened one day as I was putting on a chasuble to say Mass. There was a loud crash. I decided to go and investigate and discovered that a labourer who had been up a ladder had fallen onto the sedilia from a height. Thankfully and amazingly he turned out to be all right. My training incumbent was at a meeting so, as a rather terrified curate, I telephoned for the ambulance. After a couple of hours of activity I could continue to say the Mass.
So often the city can be a place of chaos. Contrast the heavenly city, which is without sea, that symbol of disorder. Our churches that are placed in hectic environments are called to be oases of calm in these settings and so we do well to ensure that our main purpose, prayer and devotion to God, is clear in our places of worship and that there is not too much else to distract those who come. I once attended an Anglican Church, and as I walked through the door the first thing the welcomer said to me was, ‘Good morning.’ The second was, ‘Do you pay income tax?’
The city can also be a place where change happens daily. The systems of social housing can mean members of our communities have to move often and quite far away. In Tottenham it is not unusual for members of the congregation to spend six months in London and six months back home, wherever that may be. People move on, and this is shown in a significant turnover in our electoral rolls. It means parish churches cannot be places where people need to have been worshipping somewhere for ten years before they are seen as eligible for PCC membership. Equally, it is never a good idea to bombard new people with pleas to sign up for rotas that desperately need filling. A tricky balance.
High transient rates can also lead to frustration when you invest in someone, giving them experience and training to fill a role of leadership, and then you get told they are moving on. This must not deter us from encouraging people to hear God’s call to serve. And nor must it deter us from long-term planning. During recent years, Anglo-Catholics have all too often been plagued with doubt over the future: ‘Will I still be welcomed in the Church of England in five years’ time?’ This will have handicapped us in our ability to make long-term plans and to ensure our parishes have Mission Action Plans.
It is crucial that more than one individual in each parish knows the answer to the question of where it hopes to be in three years’ time. And that is not just the incumbent’s job, it should be part of everyone’s hope. I once joked in a sermon that I could be vicar of St Mary’s for forty-three years. No one laughed. The congregation smiled and nodded. That is not what I mean by long-term planning.
It is hugely advantageous that the Church makes the commitment to be present in communities permanently. In negotiating a lease for the new church in Tottenham Hale, the developers were delighted that the Diocese of London wanted to speak in terms of centuries rather than decades. This could also be said in our attempts to broker partnerships with other organizations. So often our buildings have been seen as millstones round our necks, but actually they can be mission-enabling gems. Projects to have nurseries, housing, post offices and even gyms in church complexes can bring fresh money to our parishes. This is not about selling off the family silver, but ensuring we have a future. Developers are often greatly impressed when they see the extent of our work with the community, the young and the vulnerable and this will lead them to want to do business with us.
I often recall those great words from the Common Worship Ordinal: ‘You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged.’ We need partnerships to ensure we can live out the vocation God has given us. One thing I know I need to do soon is go and introduce myself to a new headteacher at a community primary school in the parish.
These links are crucial. It also ensures we continue to be a servant church if we go to other groups in our contexts and say to them, ‘How can we help you? What do you need?’ Roman Catholics often seem better as these sorts of partnerships than we are and perhaps this is owing to the confidence many Catholic institutions have. In the new dispensation that we live with in the Church of England, where we are ncouraged to flourish, hopefully we can have that same confidence. ND