Rector’s Report – APCM 14/10/2020

2019 was a good year for St Mary’s which ended with a hugely enjoyable Christmas, attracting large attendances and supported by a great team effort especially from the Choir and the Crib Service cast.

There had been some excellent developments following the last APCM in April 2019.

Susie Boxhall (Youth & Children’s Worker), still very new, quickly developed Little Fish into a thriving group, led a successful youth weekend away, and took the December rush in her stride.

Paul Wheeler (Curate) was a gift to us in July 2019, as Rob Icke, Paul North and Dot Woods became gifts to other parishes. Mary Harris was licensed as a Pastoral Worker in October, and with others was looking forward to developing Open House into a weekly place of welcome.

The Visitors’ Centre had a successful year with increased turnover and profit under Anne Metcalfe’s management. Andrew Spiers was leading a group developing plans for a relocated centre for the future.

An enquirer’s course was germinating under the leadership of David Taylor and Paul Wheeler. A stewardship appeal had made a moderate difference, and a time and talents survey gave the promise of releasing new gifts. The Dementia Friendly Group’s large and enthusiastic membership was very promising. The PCC had resolved to allow services of celebration for same sex couples. The newly formed Fabric Committee was getting a grip on the work recommended by the recent Quinqennial Inspection and on other tasks such as lighting, and the Preservation Appeal Trust was ready to deal with pigeon fouling and window protection. A steady trickle of new people were attending our services.

Then we moved into 2020, and firstly the tragic and sudden death of our Associate Minister, Bernard Moss, on Sunday 12 January. It was very shocking, especially as Bernard’s zest for life and infectious warmth and enthusiasm were evident to the end. We look to God with thanks for Bernard’s years amongst us and hope for the world to come.

Immediately afterwards, the Covid-19 crisis began to build, and then, on the evening of 23 March, 27 million of us watched the Prime Minister say ‘I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home’. Churches were closed for public worship for the first time since the same day in 1208 when Pope Innocent III imposed an interdict in England in order to punish King John. The Chapel of Wych Malbank, the predecessor of this building, would have been silent for 6 years.

We were closed for 3 months, opening for worship on 4 July, the first day possible, with Morning Prayer and a wedding, and staying open thanks to our churchwardens and stewards. But we were open in a sense throughout the lockdown, with regular online services and groups, for adults and children, some of us developing new skills, and very glad, when back in church, to let Paul O’Brien pick up the audio-visual technology and take it to a new level with online streaming of live services. We are investing in new equipment in order to provide a more user-friendly facility, operated from the back of church, allowing live-streaming fairly routinely.

The online services have been greatly appreciated in the lockdown and subsequently by people not yet able to come to church. And throughout the crisis I have been impressed and grateful for the way the people of St Mary’s have looked out for each other, helped by those taking particular pastoral roles, and the many existing groups and friendships. We have been kept apart but at the same time some people have become more connected and new relationships have been built. And special mention must be made of both our Choir and the Worship Band who have produced music throughout, to lift our spirits.

Since the last APCM there have been various retirements: Dorothy Relton as Baptism Co-ordinator, Lynne Marsh as a Reader, Anne Metcalfe as interim Shop Manager, recently Alison Long as Magazine Editor, and from the date of this meeting, Jo McCauley as Safeguarding Officer for Vulnerable Adults. We are grateful to them, and to those who have retired from various other roles such as Stewards or Shop Staff, for their ministries.

We are grateful to Jo McCauley for taking on the Baptism Co-oordinator role. We welcomed Alan Thompson as a new Reader in March. The magazine is currently under review and more will be said soon.

Belinda Coghlan has kindly agreed to take on the role of Parish Safeguarding Officer as a whole. As I indicated in my sermon on Sunday, safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. The Church of England has a shameful history of being a place where abusers can hide or be quietly moved on. St Mary’s must do better, and that means we should never regard safeguarding as tiresome bureaucracy. When you receive from Belinda or me information about undergoing training, or renewing a DBS check, or updating volunteer agreements, or codes of safe practice to read, it needs to be acted on with urgency and enthusiasm. We are not bearers of the good news if we are not good news for children and vulnerable adults.

The Church of England has to prove itself in this regard, at a time when it continues to decline numerically, as the 2019 statistics published this week show. In the last 10 years the national decline has been 17% in attendance, 42 % in weddings and 37% in baptisms. On top of that the economic impact of the Covid crisis on our diocese and the whole C of E will be critical.

At St Mary’s we have much to be thankful for. Our treasurer will speak more of the finances, but the recent appeal has done remarkably well for this year’s figures thanks to all who have contributed, and some who have contributed very substantially. However, the challenge will continue into next year, as income from various sources remains low due to the limitations on our activities.

It will take time to build back to something like what we were. I long for when we can sing and eat and drink together, with unveiled faces. Meanwhile we continue to walk carefully and prayerfully, and live with hope. We still need to be pursuing all those things I mentioned earlier, some of which have been put on hold.

The Visitors’ Centre group, led by Andrew Spiers, has been moving forwards. Vanessa Layfield, to be ordained deacon in 10 days’ time, will take over as chair of the Dementia Friendly Group and of the Mission Support Group. There are various projects on the building to move forwards. The time will come for an enquirer’s course.

At my first APCM here I mentioned music and children as key areas for our focus. It’s not that they are more important than anything else. It’s rather that the experience of so many churches is that if the resourcing and support of those areas is allowed to slip it is very hard to build the work back up. And music and children are so essential to our being a church which feels alive and joyful. In these difficult times, a quick check of our health is how well those areas are developing. And I would add a third – the Mission Support. I believe we need to pay our own necessary bills and maintain prudent reserves before we can give to other charities, but it must be our aspiration to be outward looking and generous, and to benefit ourselves from those relationships we build with fellow servants of Christ in our region and around the world.

Finally, a word about our Covid measures. In the new system we are in the high alert category, the middle tier. That makes no change to us as a church, but it does focus my mind on where we could do better. And the area where we are not compliant enough, I believe, is distancing. We should aim to keep 2m apart. On entering for a service, people should go straight to a seat. At the end, we move outside promptly. We shouldn’t stand around, and this includes clergy, wardens and stewards, where people have to come near us. Today I heard of the first case of a person who attends St Mary’s being tested positive for coronavirus. She’s doing well. But on Sunday we had 170 people in church across the four services. That’s heartening and quite a responsibility at the same time. Let’s keep vigilant, and thereby keep open, and trust that by our next APCM in 6 months’ time, we’ll be in a better place.

Thank you to so many, whom I have mentioned and whom I have failed to mention, who contribute to St Mary’s and make it a place of hope. I remain proud and privileged to be here among such an extraordinary mix of lovely and interesting people.

In the words of St Paul: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ concerning you.’

Mark Hart 14/10/20