Welcoming as Christ: APCM Address 2016

IMG_4482On a Sunday morning I am often one of the last to leave the church after the service. The coffee afterwards is one of the main opportunities to meet people and catch up with them. The coffee time can require more energy than leading the service, which is why I often fortify myself by being one of the first to sample the Jaffa Cakes, though there are members of the choir who can give me a run for my money. If you’ve wondered why the procession ends at the back of the church, this is why. It’s not really anything to do with facing the world we are about to be sent out into ‘to love and serve the Lord’; it’s so that I and the choir can raid the biscuits first.

There are occasions when I can find myself having a conversation in those final moments that I know I wouldn’t get at any other time. Some conversations are as much about being in the right place at the right time as anything else. And recently I have had a few which have been extremely encouraging. One person told me that, for him, this church is a place where he feels cared for, by which he meant there are people here who genuinely care for him and he feels it. He didn’t have to say it and it was offered without prompting, which made it all the more striking. Over the last year I’ve been on the receiving end of that care and concern for myself and I know others have too. We’ve had people who have recently found a spiritual home here because they have been made to feel welcome.

How we make people welcome is a key area for any church, but one in a city centre where so many people come in at different times it is particularly important. Whether they are passing visitors, people new to the city, customers for the café, coming for concerts or exhibitions, someone looking for a church or just wanting to find a moment of peace in an otherwise frenetic city, how we greet them and make them feel welcome matters enormously. The 6th century monk St Benedict, the father of monasticism, wrote a Rule to govern the life of the monastery. It is the basis of most monastic rules today. In it he reminds his communities that everyone should be received as Christ (Chapter 53). It is a reflection of the story in Matthew’s gospel of separating the sheep from the goats, where those being praised are the ones who cared, provided and loved. These are told that what they did for the stranger among them they did for Christ. If everyone who comes through those doors is viewed as Christ in disguise, how does that change how we receive them? Viewing some in that light can be easier than others, but everyone carries something of the image of Christ in them and that is the spark to greet. We can be an agent of their blessing though the love which transforms us and changes us. It might take a few deep breaths, not least if other pressures are stressing us, but it makes a tremendous difference. Let everyone be received as though they were Christ.

Every community is a mixture of blessing and challenge. There are times when it can seem that there is something in the water that is making everyone sick and testy, and on those occasions it’s important to remember the voices who have found welcome and care and remember this is true too to restore balance. I think our society is one that struggles with real community. The church is one of the few places left where community is still truly diverse and open. Anyone can belong to us, can come through our doors, and they do. In so many other places ‘community’ is controlled. Social media friendships are often tailor made to who we want and who we don’t. Most clubs and societies are membership based and there are so many ways to edit out voices we don’t want to hear. A church is a place where that is harder to do and so we are less well prepared today than we might have been in the past to deal with the challenges communal living brings. Even the places where we find the greatest peace, in monasteries and religious houses, the monks and nuns who live there know that community is hard work and it requires some serious honesty to face up to what builds and what damages. If we are going to be a place where the care and welcome, the love and holding, which many have spoken to me about recently, is what dominates then we have to make sure we renew ourselves in it because it is not the dominant feature of how we tend to see community in the rest of our lives. And this is about more than customer care; it is something much deeper than that.

I’m quite alert to this because I see a lot of events taking place in the square. Some seem to be just for a particular group, but others draw a wider spectrum of people. Part of our vocation here is to relate to these diverse bodies and we end up with a unique window onto what makes this city tick. It is the privilege of being present all the time here, not just commuting or visiting. Here’s just a few that have taken place this past year [Coke truck, Cadbury’s, Harvest, Market]. The challenge from St Benedict is how we show the love that would greet the stranger as if Christ had called by.

There is another aspect of our life I want to briefly touch on, broadly under the banner of welcome and it is our children and young people. The first response I want to encourage and celebrate is to delight in their presence. The demographic of our congregation is actually quite young in comparison to lots of churches. If you cast your eye around on a Sunday morning we are quite a young bunch and I no longer find myself among the youngest people in the church. I said this to a bishop a few years ago and he said well it comes to us all. That said, I am still below the average age of clergy in the Church of England, which after over 20 years at this is quite a surprise.

How we provide for children goes in cycles with the availability of leaders and ages of the children we have. Some things work well for a time and then it has to be re-evaluated and something else tried. One of the things we have been doing is trying to encourage greater participation of the children in the service. And we have seen that many of them enjoy being able to join in and be present. We are going through a bit of a transition at the moment and you will have noticed that more are making use of the tables at the back during the service and others sitting in the pews. We are exploring pew bags with age appropriate materials in and there’ll be more on this in the weeks to come. But our aim is not to keep children out of the way so the proper business of worship can take place uninterrupted but to be a family at worship and explore how we can encourage greater involvement from all ages. All who come are part of our community and worshipping life. In partnership with the CIC – St John’s Development Board – I am delighted to see Piccolo pre-school music develop this past year.

Related to children and young people, but not exclusive to them, is the growing world of safeguarding. You will have seen the poster that we display on the noticeboard on the north side here with Megan’s photo and mine. Megan is our Safeguarding Officer and we are very fortunate to be able to draw on her professional knowledge. It is an area that covers everyone because its scope now encompasses not just children but also everyone who has vulnerabilities, and it won’t take you long to realize that that can be any of us at certain times of our life. As this gets more involved and complex, so the human brain needs to reduce it down to something that we can get our heads round. It comes down to how we respect one another as though the other is Christ. Sometimes it means we have to protect and put in place structures that make sure we don’t harm anyone and no one else is given scope to either. This covers health and safety, food hygiene and everyone who makes cakes in the café has had to supply their list of ingredients in case someone comes in who needs to know, and making sure that we look after the wellbeing of those we come into contact with. Respect, protect, wellbeing. Keep those three words in your head and we will find the policy and requirements probably fall into place. Every now and then we will need things pointing out where this is falling short, but this is not political correctness gone mad, it is doing no more than we would want to do any way as a caring, loving, Christian community.

It’s been another full-on year. Various projects which I mentioned last year have come to fruition. There are some new ones being progressed, like the new pew cushions. Others are ongoing, the organ being one of them. The blower motor burning out has caused significant damage and we await to hear how much our insurers will cover, but we have launched the appeal. It was being planned any way and the sponsor a pipe was in the pipeline, if you’ll excuse the pun, but it seemed to me that it needed to be rushed out to take full advantage of the immediate publicity we were given. Money is coming in, many donations showing great generosity. We haven’t had 76 Trombones yet, but I remain hopeful! There is clearly a lot of good will to see this restored. I am grateful to Elizabeth and the choir for their forbearance through this.

I continue to juggle with the different roles I have. Many of them actually interweave and there are moments when being Vicar of Peterborough, Canon of the Cathedral and Rural Dean gives me a joined up perspective that would otherwise not be there.   It can be a diary challenge at times though. And I am grateful to Rob and his ministry and the ways he takes up any slack there might be.

Since sometime in the 1970s we have leased St John’s Hall to the City Council and it has been managed by the West Town Community Association. For the last 4 years we have been working to try to get that lease renewed and the City Council have stalled; their budgetary constraints have meant that they have had community centre provision almost constantly under review. They have now decided that after March 2017 they will no longer want to lease it. They aren’t technically leasing it at the moment, what they are paying is something called Mesne (pronounced ‘Mean’) Profits, which is feudal in origin and effectively pays the same but without the same legal tie ins. We are exploring what this could mean and the potential for that site in whole and in part so that we have the full picture. There is no plan at the moment, whatever else you hear in the rumour mill, we are just looking at our options. Because of the way the money is being paid, i.e. late, this won’t affect our income until 2018. So we have time and are making use of it. I am happy to answer questions on any of this report at the end.

This parish is not reliant on any one person and it is clear to me that so many people work with great dedication and commitment to further its life and mission. The greatest assets and resources that we have are our people and without you there would be no living witness in this place. So today is our moment to celebrate the life and witness of our ministry in this parish and commit ourselves to it, as we seek to put into the practice the call from St Benedict to greet everyone as though they were Christ and thereby be a transforming presence in the heart of this city.

Address to the Annual Parochial Church Meeting for Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th April 2016

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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