Who we are, not what we do

As I head off on leave, I have a few thoughts about our life together at St Mary of Bethany in this ‘recovery’ season. Over the last fourteen months, many of you have taken an enforced sabbatical from church ministry. For some, this rest has been refreshing, even when you combine it with the many losses and traumas of lockdown. But it has left a small number of people carrying the burden of a great deal of our church’s ministry. Don’t get me wrong: we have been called to this, for this season, and it has been a joy to serve and see others growing too.

Now, as restrictions are being lifted, we look forward to a more ‘normal’ situation emerging, even if this doesn’t happen completely on 21 June. The break has given us all an opportunity to reflect with God on the new season we’re entering. As we’ve always said, some of our ministries won’t restart; some will relaunch in a new form; others will look much the same. For some of you, God is calling you to leave aside something you’ve put down over the last year; maybe he’s calling you to take up something new too.

We recently launched the Shape Course, to help you think about your unique gifts, enthusiasms, life experiences and calling, and the first group is likely to start the course in June. This is offered as a tool to help you engage with the Holy Spirit’s calling in this new season. If you’re in a homegroup, speak to your leader about doing the course as a group; if you’re not yet in a group, contact the Office to say you’d be interested in an upcoming course. It’s a really useful way to go deeper in your journey with God.

Working with Associate Vicar Bekah and Curate Sarah has been a great blessing to me and to the Church since lockdown. One of the things we’ve noticed is what an activist church St Mary’s is: we do a lot of things. As we’ve started thinking about being a truly intergenerational community, one thing people at church have often said is, ‘What do we need to do?’ But we think God is calling us to be, not just to do¸ in this new season.

There are many things which get said of our church: we’re a safe place for people with messy lives, if Carlsberg made churches…, we’re God’s transforming people in our parish, and so on. One of the things Bekah is helping us to think through in her role heading up our mission and evangelism, is what intergenerational church means: a community where everyone at every age and stage of life is equally welcomed, valued and plays a part. In my sermon for Pentecost last Sunday (available to watch on our YouTube feed here), I talked about some of the people of God who have blessed me in my life. Some of them were never aware of the blessing they were.

We want St Mary’s to be a place where you can bring yourself, and where we help people to take the next step on their walk with God, but also where we make the most of the blessing that you are. The fact is that you don’t know how you will bless the people around you; it could be as simple as the smile you give someone, an encouraging word or a prayer offered up silently. I have been blessed by the unconscious, the incapable and the sick, as much as by the energetic, the fun and the thoughtful.

Part of our journey to being an intergenerational church will be to spell out some of our values. Schools do this well: these days every school has a set of values which help define their community and which the children learn, things like ‘resilience’, ‘determination’ and so on. As we work through our vision and planning cycle over the autumn and winter, we will set out some words or phrases which sum up who we are at St Mary’s – what sort of community we are, how it feels to be here. It’s a slightly more nebulous thing than setting out our vision, but it will help people outside the Church to get a feel for who we are; what the Church ‘smells like’.

This summer brings opportunities to step back gently into our Church community, at whatever rate and in whatever space you feel most comfortable. If you’re planning to come back to Church onsite, talk to our team about what we can do to help you. If you’re desperate to get back to a particular service or ministry that’s still suspended, pray and engage with the obstacles which may exist to restarting in our context.

One concern that some leaders have around online church is that it may have pushed some people into being passive recipients of church, because it’s something you can access in the same way as you would a TV programme. As churches everywhere grapple with what it means to be a hybrid church (one where some ministry is onsite, some is online and some is both), I encourage you not to be passive. As a wise member of our Leadership Vison Team said last week, ‘Don’t be the person sitting complaining that you want a cup of tea; be the person who puts the kettle on.’ There’s a subtle distinction between your starting point being a place of ‘being rather than doing’, and becoming a consumer of something which is being done to you.

I leave you in the capable hands of Bekah, Sarah and Youth Minister Dave, with one last piece of advice. Paul writes to the youthful church leader Timothy, ‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.’ (1 Timothy 4:12) We are blessed with Bekah as our Acting Incumbent for this season, someone who is comfortably younger than the average St Mary’s member. We are used to having younger people in leadership (for example former curates Barney and Zoe), but perhaps Bekah also brings something new as a single woman.

In our culture, young women leaders often receive casual sexism and condescension. In a church context this is probably quite unintentional most of the time. If the last fourteen months has taught me anything as a middle-aged, middle class white man, it is that I come from a place of immense privilege compared to many other people: for example, the woman who has to plan carefully how to get home from a night out; the black doctor with a nice car who needs to put a soft toy in the back window to avoid getting pulled over regularly by the police; the young man with learning difficulties to whom people are routinely rude or short-tempered at the shops. My work with curates sometimes depresses me, when I hear what young women leaders occasionally have to put up with. I have found St Mary’s to be the kindest and most generous church community in which I have served. Be the best you can be with your leaders in this season.

This blog will be a bit quieter in the next few weeks, but do keep an eye on it for developments at St Mary’s. And keep praying for each other and all of us; God has great plans and it’s an exciting time to be part of his kingdom!