Who we areAnnual Parochial Church Meeting

The Vicar’s Address to The Annual Parochial Church Meeting (18th March 2018)

Adapting to change

'Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.' Words of the late theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking no doubt uttered for a scientific audience, but nevertheless his words are apposite for people of faith.

The other day I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury in his presidential address to General Synod say that while change can unsettle us individually and collectively, ‘dependence on God alone is the key mark of the community of faith.' I thought it certainly rang bells for us at St Paul’s.

The Archbishop said that dependence on the faithfulness of God allows us to adapt to new circumstances in the changing times in which we live. However in times of change – such as ours - he warned us of two opposing temptations: either to insist on change for its own sake or to change nothing. Neither are appropriate. Quoting Professor L. Greg Jones, he said, “Any tradition that is incapable of adapting is also one that is doomed to death. People who bear a tradition are called to be relentlessly innovative in ways that preserve the life-giving character of the tradition”. He said that we require “faithful improvisation full of love for one another”.

As he spoke, I realised that his words encapsulated our aim at St Paul’s over the past four years, as we have put numerical and spiritual growth at the top of our agenda and Mission Action Plan. We have had, slowly and carefully, to be relentlessly innovative in ways that preserve the life-giving character of our rich tradition of life, prayer, liturgy and worship. We haven’t tried to change everything and thereby risked throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but on the other hand we’ve resisted the temptation to try to preserve St Paul’s in aspic, because any church tradition that is incapable of adapting to the new situation in which it finds itself is doomed to death. So we’ve adapted, improvised, experimented but in the knowledge that God is faithful.

So I want to thank everyone at St Paul’s who have implicitly recognised that the world has changed, but who have prayed, been bold and taken the risks which faith and trust always involve, in enabling our church to speak to our own generation. In particular I thank the churchwardens, the PCC and all its subcommittees, who have understood what is at stake, and developed a Mission Action Plan.

A good example of adaptation is our All Age Eucharist – how we have adapted, hoping to ‘faithfully improvise full of love for one another’ in just one service per month, so to enable more families to worship with us. The evidence is that this strategy is working. Not only are we slowly growing but, as a member of the PCC said to me not long ago, there is now a real, warm upbeat tone to our other services at St Paul’s as a result.

Last September Fr Phil and I attended a conference entitled, Leading Your Church Into Growth, or LYCIG for short. It was the most useful conference I think I’ve ever attended. Its aim was not to propel us into a whirlwind of new, manic activity, but to help us stop, reflect and inform what we are already doing; and give our existing Mission Action Plan cohesion and direction. Our Lent Course is running along similar lines.

The course is helping us to address four areas: if mnemonics aren’t your thing then please forgive me, but for those who find them helpful, these areas are Prayer, Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion. Already we have achieved significant progress. First, Prayer: Last summer we encouraged everyone to join in the prayer for five people at 5pm, in October we introduced our Mission Prayer card asking everyone to pray for our growth every day. If you don't have a copy please do take one from the back and use it. Presence: we have expanded our engagement with the people of our town. To the Ashing in Harpur Square at the beginning of Lent and handing out palm crosses in Holy Week, we’ve added harvest rolls in October. Proclaim: we’re finding new opportunities to tell people about Jesus, such as short homilies in our Christmas and Candlemas Carol services for which we had record attendances this year. Finally: Persuasion. The clergy have made themselves available to listen and talk with people about their faith following the major festivals. Whilst modest, these are steps in the right direction. Please note: growth is not recruitment. The church is not in the business of recruitment but evangelism: Making New Disciples.

Over the next couple of months we are forming a cockpit group initially under Fr Phil’s leadership, effectively a subcommittee of the PCC, to reassess and take forward our Mission Action Plan, especially to work on our numerical and spiritual growth.

People

I want to thank everyone for all you do for the work of the Gospel at St Paul’s. Not just those in the more public roles, but the quietly done, hidden stuff. In the PCC subcommittees: catering, outward giving, fabric and action groups. It is noticed and it is appreciated and I thank you all. It is a huge privilege to be Vicar of St Paul’s and I thank you for your love, support and fellowship.

I am sure I speak for us all when I say that it has been a real blessing to have had Fr Phil with us, who has been an outstanding curate-in-training and an excellent colleague. We have to remember that he is not here simply an extra pair of hands. That said, he has contributed so much. The privilege of training a curate is just that, a privilege, not a right. I also thank Fr Clifford Bradley, James Beauchamp and Cliff Harris our readers and Margaret Blake our Authorised Lay Minister. Wendy Jones has also been authorised as a Lay Leader of Worship. I thank them all for their ministry.

Finance and Fabric

Our finances have greatly improved, although there is still more to do. Nevertheless, I thank the congregation for their generosity. I thank Kevan Morrison who has worked hard as a conscientious Treasurer and also Alison Phillipson who has brought her professional experience and expertise to bear in effecting a rigorous budget and more stringent financial controls. A modest increase in Stewardship was supplemented by the Christmas Tree Festival and Flower Festival at Candlemas organised by the Flower Guild, both real team efforts across the church, for which I congratulate everyone involved. I thank Judith Howard and the Friends for their invaluable financial support towards fabric projects. They have also funded our membership of Cathedrals Plus which is helping to put St Paul’s on the map nationally, which, we hope will raise footfall through the building and increase visitor giving. As we are a Greater Church in everything but name, we are hoping to join the Greater Churches Network which we hope will yield similar benefits among others, and part of my Extended Study Leave will be devoted to researching this.

In mentioning fabric, I wish to salute Richard West, whose dedication, diligence and hard work has been second to none. His illness has not only been devastating for him, it has meant a huge loss to St Paul’s and to us all. I thank James Stephenson for so nobly and ably stepping into the breach as chair of the fabric committee with energy and efficiency.

You will like to know that we have applied to have a new Curate in 2019. This is a matter of faith, because we still need both to find and fund one. We need to raise giving between us 3-4k per year for four years, equalling 16K in total. We cannot have what we cannot pay for. But if everyone on the electoral roll gave just 40 pence per week over four years we would do it. This will be a major plank of our Stewardship campaign towards the end of this year.

Staff

We’ve had a number of changes in our staff. Joanna Clifton replaced Gwen Hills who retired as our cleaner. Joanna is making a wonderful contribution to the life of St Paul’s, well beyond the remit of her cleaning duties. Maddy Gamble took over in the office on Anne Mills’ retirement and is already making a huge difference to our administration, with the additions of day to day management of our accounts and as PA to the Vicar. Robin Bartlett has assumed the role of Centre Manager as well as the role of Pastoral Assistant and has a plethora of responsibilities. I thank both of them most sincerely for all they are doing to keep the day to day ministry of St Paul’s going. The office is often the first port of call for congregation and visitors alike and they are faced with constant demands and interruptions, so it can be an incredibly busy and stressful place. I sincerely thank those in our congregation who have given them the necessary space, love, support and respect.

That said, it really grieves me to have to say that there have been a number of occasions over the past few months when ministers, church officers and staff have been subjected to quite unreasonable behaviour. In particular both Robin and Maddy have been subjected to requests from members of our congregation, who appear to possess a misplaced sense of entitlement, and treated them as personal, private servants. They are not. This has made their lives intolerable. I am sure you will agree that this is unacceptable behaviour in a Christian community. I do ask everyone to understand that all those who work here deserve respect, that they already have a very full programme of work, to accept that they will not always be available to help, and requests may be met with a polite, ‘Yes but not yet’, or, ‘Sorry, but no’. I thank you for your cooperation.

I said a moment ago that the church does not recruit, but evangelise. That said we really do need some extra help. Keeping this church open day by day as a place of welcome and hospitality is the bedrock of our ministry in Bedford; and I thank our team of Welcomers. We do need some more help so if you or someone you know could give just a couple of hours per week, please do have a word with Robin Bartlett or the Churchwardens. Again, we have a good sound system but it will be turned off and the services muted unless we can find extra help to run the rota. We have a loyal but small band of servers, but again a few more would help us enormously. We have a magnificent choir under the direction of Ian Runnells, which is a unique selling point, if you like, of our church. But we dare not take this for granted, and we are seeking to recruit competent singers. So I ask everyone to consider whether you could help.

Conclusion

In closing, I wish to thank everyone for your care and support of me, as your Vicar. In particular I thank our splendid wardens. Alison Phillipson and James Collett-White, who work incredibly hard behind the scenes for us all. I thank them more than I can say for their loyalty and kindness to me, and for their advice and unfailing support. They are nothing short of superb. Alison, thank you for everything you’ve done this year with such care, determination, sensitivity and efficiency. James, as you stand down, I thank you for bringing such a conscientious heart, passion and love for the people of St Paul’s, with enthusiasm and kindness.

Professor Stephen Hawking said 'Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change'. I thank them and all here who have displayed in that rare ability in bucket loads, trusting in God who is utterly faithful and dependable. Thank you all very much.

Father Kevin.