If you are brave and go up onto the top of the church tower – I say brave because it gets a bit dicey towards the top – there is quite a view of the surrounding area. You can see over the buildings and off towards the surrounding countryside. From up there you get a different perspective to on the ground. The horizon is expanded and hills have the advantage of that. The topography of Newport is very different and the Deanery is on top of a hill with views across the Bristol Channel.
Peterborough sits at that point where the Northamptonshire hills meet the fens. “Upon this rock” is more than a moto; the geology changes at this point. It has its own micro-climate as a result and also stunning blue skies, characteristic of the fens. It’s a different vista that opens up. So perspective and vision changes when we can see further, wider, broader. In our gospel this morning, Jesus encourages his disciples to have a bigger vision of who should be counted in to his movement (John 10:11-18). He has other sheep not of this fold to be added to it. They are to think bigger than just the concerns of their small political nation. Jesus has his sights on the salvation of the world, of humanity in total.
Connecting with that role is a challenge, but one of the spin-offs of the pandemic has been how we have seen far more people tune in to our online worship than used to turn up in-person onsite before. There is interest but the walls need to open up to enable access. One of my passions has been to open access, to expand horizons and take our city centre location seriously. We have opened for events around us, invited those events inside and tried to make the connections where we could. Partnerships have been built and nurtured.
When the shops opened again, the queue for Primark stretched out of Queensgate and snaked itself back and forth across St John’s Square several times before making its way down Exchange Street towards McDonalds. Last week, when we came out of the church after live-streaming, the queue was already at the church door. Talking with one or two in that queue, the price of the goods was the deciding factor, and some of that is the lure of cheap and disposable fashion, which is problematic; some of it reflects the financial means of a large number of people in this city.
Those shoppers showed far more patience for shopping than I have, but when you want something enough you will queue for it. We have work to do in helping people think that when they are thinking of bigger questions of the meaning of life that this might be the place for them to come. There was a Leader article in the Guardian last month (28th March 2021) that talked about our society being not just post-Christian society, where institutional religion no longer carries the weight it did, but also a post-Secular one, where the atheistic pronouncements are regarded as being suspect too. There is space in that for a conversation to happen, but it has to be about God, spirituality and faith inspiring life. It require some fresh thinking, way beyond the churchy language of so much I see and hear online.
That conversation can only happen when we come alongside the other. It needs a calm space, a safe space for it to happen. This is where events, the café, things which bring people through the doors make a conversation possible which won’t happen if attempted cold. The city centre chaplains have often found that when they engage in simple conversations, even asking if there is anything someone would like praying for, people open up and speak, and they did that on the streets. It’s about how do we open the conversation in a way that makes the other feel they matter and their concerns are not dismissed. People approach churches with all sorts of preconceived ideas that need to be dispelled. And that needs to be done gently.
When Jesus looks beyond and thinks of the other sheep not of this fold, he is issuing quite a challenge. The job to do this is not just for clergy, though they have an important role, probably more as mission enablers for others, it’s for all of us. And that only comes if we are confident in our faith – not necessarily with every dot or squiggle of it, but with the heart of it: the reality of God in our lives, inspiring and igniting a passion that burns within us. When you are looking for your next Vicar, I think you need someone who can be a mission enabler because there is a big task – way beyond one person’s scope, and I think you need to make sure you don’t bog them down with other stuff that they can’t breathe and get out from the sheepfold to look for those other sheep not of this fold.
Life has changed a lot in a decade. And the missionary challenge has changed again, but there is hope. Post-Christian does not mean atheist, because it comes with an openness. I have thought for quite a while that we have been battling against assumptions and past experiences which have hindered us. The advantage of several generations of no contact with the church is that there is a blank slate. There is passion for social justice, for compassion, for the environmental challenge and for deeper questions. If a church is seen to be a place where these are advanced and engaged with, it will earn the right to be heard. Where it is not, it won’t.
So I leave you at a moment of re-thinking. I know that some do not have much appetite for that – they are fed up, tired, frustrated and want life back to what it was. I understand that. But we are emerging from this pandemic into a changed landscape. The missionary challenge, though, is always the same: to reach the sheep not of this fold, to draw them to the true shepherd who knows them deeper than they know themselves.
God bless you as you go forward in God’s future, aiming to be a beacon of faith, hope, and love in the heart of this city.
Sermon for final service, Peterborough Parish Church, 4th Sunday of Easter 25th April 2021