Vicar's Report to APCM
Usually, over the last decade or so of ministry, my reports to APCMs have followed a similar pattern. I have told the meetings about the number of Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals the Church has seen, the pastoral visits and children’s ministry and soup lunches. Maintenance of the building. Fetes and Concerts and Activity Mornings and Assemblies. I’d have told the meeting about the pattern of worship, the services over Christmas and Holy Week, the number of attendees on a Sunday. I’d dress it all up really nicely in some Bible verses and throw in a few gags for good measure, but basically it was always a list of what we’d done and what we’d achieved.
You may be glad to hear that I’m not going to do that this year. I’m not going to do that for three reasons:
Firstly I’m not going to do that, for the very good reason that I haven’t yet been here a year – in fact it was on the Sunday of your APCM last year that my appointment was announced. Since strictly speaking the Vicar’s report to the APCM should cover the calendar year 2021, I’m unqualified to speak about half of it!
Secondly, and following on from that, because I haven’t yet been here a year, not only would there be things I’d forget to mention, there would be people I would forget to mention and to thank. The reports in your booklet reflect the full range of mission and ministry expressed in this Church, and I’d like to thank every single person mentioned therein by name or role.
Finally, the reason I am not going to give you a list of what we have done and what we have achieved in the past year is because of the question I have asked so many times since I arrived here. What is the purpose of this meeting? Or rather, what is the purpose of this report? That list of activities I could reel off are recorded on our pew sheets and on our website. They are explored in the reports section here, our PCC minutes, the Parish Profile. There is no legal or Diocesan requirement to reiterate them here. What, then, is the purpose of the Vicar’s report? Hmm. Shall I simply stop talking now and let you all get on with your Bank Holiday weekend.
No, not just yet. I think the purpose of this report is to reflect on where we are as a Church with God and where we have travelled in the last year.
Let’s go back then to January 2021. The country was in lockdown. Our children were being home schooled. The vaccination programme had barely started. COVID was on the rampage. Church was closed and we were worshipping online. The choir were doing virtual rehearsals. The Wardens were writing endless risk assessments. Christmas had been cancelled along with weddings and birthdays and operations and holidays. We were beyond weary. St Andrew’s was in vacancy, the job ad for your new Vicar ready to go.
Without becoming maudlin or self pitying, I want to mark just how difficult that journey of COVID has been, not only for the country in general but for this Church family in particular. Psychologists would tell you that we have suffered a collective trauma, and collective trauma has deep and long lasting impacts. St Andrew’s saw everything we knew stripped away; our means of worship, fellowship, communication. Everything. And St Andrew’s rose to the challenge phenomenally well, with livestreamed worship, pastoral phone calls, Fairtrade deliveries, Out of the Ark, and meetings and all age worship on Zoom. This response was the achievement of the whole Church family, but especially of the Warden Team: Ian and Diana, John and Carol, the Office Staff Karen and Kelly, The Ministry Team: Diana, Elisabeth, Duncan, Ian, Belinda, Peter and David, and those who take a lead in our worship: Gareth and Paul.
Reflecting on our Gospel reading this morning, for me there are striking parallels between the then and the now. The disciples too had been through a collective trauma, the collective trauma of Holy Week and Easter. They must have been reeling emotionally, physically, spiritually. Yet at this point, when they were so vulnerable, Jesus charged Peter, the leader of the new Church, and in the power of the Spirit, to feed his sheep and tend his lambs. And that’s exactly what St Andrew’s did during COVID. Through worship and word and sacrament. Through phone calls and emails. This Church family fed and tended, and that’s why so many people have returned as COVID has receded.
In many ways, however, opening up has been harder than shutting down. The adrenalin of crisis took us all a long way. But for us, there was no revelation of the empty tomb, one moment of release and new life. Instead there were a whole series of tiny resurrections, signs of new life. Each incomplete, each an echo of the great resurrection. Reopening for worship, renegotiating social distancing and how to administer the Eucharist. Beginning to sing once more in Church. Sharing coffee together. Restarting Children’s Groups. Each of these things and many more had to be risk assessed, pondered, prayed over, prioritised. At this point I’d like to thank the PCC and Staff Team for the work they did on our behalf leading this process. I’m sure that more than one heart must have dropped when you saw the item ‘COVID precautions’ on the agenda - again. After all that corporate effort, it is natural, like the disciples, to want to go back to where we started, to return to the safety of our boats and our nets. And indeed the Gospel of John leaves the disciples on the lake shore, in the presence of this risen Christ. But that is not the end of the story. Peter does not stay in the boat to feed the sheep and tend the lambs that are already on board. In the power of the Spirit, the disciples leave their nets once more and go on to spread to Gospel of Christ to the ends of the Earth.
That part of the story is of course what we know as the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early Church. That extraordinary story of faith and passion and risk taking which saw the Jesus movement explode, from a few frightened men in an upper room, to transform the lives of people across the known world. A story of how a handful disciples came through their collective trauma and used a life changing experience to change the world. Now, that makes it sound straight forward and easy and seamless, but reality was far from that. The story of the early Church is one of persecution from outside, but also of conflict from within. New followers of Jesus, not present in Jerusalem that first Holy Week, were viewed at best with suspicion, at worst with antagonism. There were arguments about who was in and who was out, about what you could eat, how you should behave, how resources should be used. Yet, despite all these challenges, the Church was united by a single vision and single purpose, so compromises were made, ground was given, and after some very long meetings, change was eventually accepted for the greater, global good: namely spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Church today is part of that same story, we are still writing the story of the Church, in this time and in this place. We are not a social club, we are agents of the Good News, and together this Spring we have discerned our common Vision, what we have called the ‘5 Ships’ of worship, discipleship, fellowship, kinship and stewardship. These values are deeply rooted in Scripture and the tradition of the Church, and I hope will help unite and focus the St Andrew’s family in the same way that the early Church was united and focussed. But I’ll say it out loud. If St Peter and St Paul could come into conflict in their time, it’s almost inevitable that there will be conflict in our time. We are individually flawed and failing, and members together of an earthly Church that is by definition flawed and failing. What is important is not that there is conflict – after all conflict is a sign of passion, commitment, caring – what is important is how we deal with the conflict that does emerge. I believe that this Church is strong enough to stick with it, to stick together, to find creative ways of working that will bring us through the stormy waters of COVID so that we can set off united, together into the deep waters of mission and ministry. Mission and ministry that is recognisable from what has gone before, but renewed and fit for the new waters we find ourselves in as the world outside our door changes too.
To close, some more personal reflections if I may. I believe absolutely that God has called me to St Andrew’s. That God called me out of a boat that I loved and where I was loved, to jump ship and land here with you. In St Andrew’s I have found people of profound gifting who leave me breathless at their ability and ministry. I have found people with vast depths of spirituality who have watered the dry ground of my post COVID soul. I have found people with that hardest of ministries, the ministry of turning up when not to turn up is the easier path. I have found people who will listen and advise and correct me as I have learnt the ropes and made mistakes. For all of you, I am grateful beyond words. And I believe that God has brought me here for a reason too; I have my own small part to play in this particular stage of our journey. I am here simply to steer, to fix my eyes on what is ahead and to steer our ship. To plot the course we have discerned together and to make the adjustments to the tiller that keep us on that course. Through the grace of God, in the presence of the risen Christ, and with this extraordinary crew, that is exactly what I hope to do.