2017 Annual Report




So, Teresa May [the Prime Minister] needs a new mandate.  The news just revealed is that we go to the polls once again in June, to elect a new government.  She rightly feels that she needs a stronger sense of support; she needs a clearer idea of where her vision for the country can go; she needs to know that the majority are not only behind her, but also pro-active in their backing of her principles and hopes.  She needs to know – and the only way to do that is to take the political gamble and put her personal future on the line.


Such moments in time are necessary in order to establish clearer values and vision.  Whatever organisation it is – be it a country or a church – those who are charged with its governance need to know where they stand; they need to know the perceived direction that the core membership want to pursue; they need to know that that same core – and hopefully one that numerically forms a majority of opinion – is behind them, is incentivise, and is eager and keen to evolve, develop and progress.  Without such motivation that same organisation runs the risk of stagnation and eventual collapse.


Inevitably, sound leadership is crucial to any success plan, and politicians among others know only too well just how vulnerable they are when the forces outside of their control appear to collude against them, squeezing the very lifeblood out of that same organisation.  Teresa May needs a clearer mandate – in her speech she made reference to those who were working against the perceived flow of progress; those who – in her opinion – were acting contrary to the well-being of her style of governance.  Such can happen in other places – such can, inevitably, happen in our churches.  Such, I feel, could well be happening here.


This past year has been particularly challenging – and putting to one side any personal reasons for that, I do feel it has been so on a professional level.  Like Teresa May, I am mindful of a groundswell of evidence that suggests all is not as it should be within the life of our church and its witness to the locality.  I am aware of the dwindling nature of our existence, falling at times to a critically low level despite the valiant efforts of the stalwart who are doing their absolute best to maintain a spark of hope.  I am also aware that I myself am filling every available hour with attempting to fulfil the expected demands of the job, and yet something is clearly going wrong.  Change is happening, and it seems to be happening outside of our control.  We are corporately losing grip of ourselves as we watch the very same lifeblood mentioned earlier drain away.  Our challenging year needs to be a springboard into a renewed year before it becomes the one where the death-knell tolls far too loudly.


Like the political world, I believe we are standing at a crossroads.  We have every chance to pick the right road forward; we have every ability to read the signpost; and we hopefully have enough energy to travel its length.  We can also make the wrong decision, and journey in a direction that is contrary to our desired goal.  Or, we could simply stand at the crossroads, look bewildered and lost, and retreat back down the familiar but pointless route that lies behind us.  Only we can choose – so we need to find a means of choice – we need, like Teresa May, a renewed mandate to guide and direct us.  Where, though, to find such?


Unlike a government, we will not be going to the ballot-box!  In the first instance, we turn to the most powerful source of guidance we can believe in, that of God and the faith we subscribe to.  Deep down inside, we know what that relationship is doing for us, with its overwhelming and motivating force for good, nudging, cajoling, encouraging.  We feel secure and confident in that position.  We feel protected and entwined within the loving care of a mighty power and influence.  But, outside of the sanctuary of our inner souls comes the reality of the pounding pressures of the world we exist within, and in that space and time come the many distractions – distractions that force us away from exercising our faith in the way that enhances witness here in this place.  We might think we are right in what we do and say  ‑  and for the most part we probably are – but when we look around, can we be so sure?  Individual witness is to be encouraged, but what of the corporate image – is that faring well?  Whatever number we may have on our membership roll, are they here today?  Has God triumphed as the priority motivator for this crucially important meeting?  Has the lure of mammon, so adopted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in this year's Lent book, been allowed to prevail?  What future are we envisaging for our parish after this APCM?


As with other organisations, we look to the leadership to encourage us – and for our country that is currently Teresa May; and she has bravely decided to put herself up for re-adoption in order to succeed, with the inevitable risk that if the country does not want her and her ideas they will make it plain via the ballot paper.  What for our church?  Is it the current leadership that is at fault?  Should the Vicar fall on his sword and go?  Should invigorating fresh blood be voted on to the PCC?  Should dynamic new Churchwardens be found?  Where do any of the fault lines lie?  And if the current management of our parish all resign en-bloc, who will replace them?  Where are the 'missing' from our electoral roll?  Where are the residents of our parish whose faces we never see?  Can we reverse the current trend of a dwindling and ageing membership?  Can we revitalise and strengthen those of you who are so loyal?  Can we reawaken the very existence of these bricks that stand on this street corner?  And do we even want to?  And do we even need to?


We are living at a time when organised religion is certainly evolving at a rapid pace, and is  ‑  in some circumstances – becoming ever-politicised.  Our world is full of mixed, and often confusing, images of faiths that seem at odds with society, each other, and often themselves; it is little wonder that the vast majority of the population do not engage, nor see any point to engaging.  The political fear of such an attitude is the election of government by minority – is that the plan for religion?  Mere existence by minority?  Holding on when all around appear to have let go to little ill effect.  What now is our role here in North Camp?  Are we just a mere convenience when some need the pastoral offices of baptism, marriage or funeral?  Does our version of God appeal beyond our seemingly impenetrable doors?  Is the model of witness we provide meeting any need?


These and so many other questions are almost impossible to answer – of course what we offer is relevant to some; if it were not, you would not be here, week by week loyally offering prayer and witness, just as the Remnant of Israel did in the rich history of the Old Testament era.  And if we turn to Jesus, we see an itinerant messenger, a random gathering, a community fragmented and spontaneous, so perhaps we are not doing anything wrong, and can confidently continue as we are.  After all, we are surviving, however precariously it may feel both financially and as far as our dodgy structure of a building are concerned.  But is that really an encouraging mandate for our future?  Teresa May could no doubt have survived, but she wants to be stronger; she wants clarity of vision; she wants to move onto new life and hope.  We, too, surely desire that, for it is exciting, potentially rewarding, and without a doubt the best way to survive.  We will eventually die as far as the current statistics show: we have insufficient finances to maintain the current style, and lack human resources to be more effective in our witness.  We need incentive.  We turn to God, but we need also to turn to each other and to ourselves.  What do we want to do – and what can we do?


Over the past year, we faced the challenge of this future when we invited the Revd. Alan Hulme, Diocesan Director of Evangelism, to lead us in a project of discovery entitled, "Seeking the Future".  We spent the day reflecting, praying, discussing and wondering about what makes us tick, what might improve that 'tick', and how we respond to it.  Deliberately, there were no immediate 'cure-all' answers produced – instead, we were challenged to go away, and think and pray about the future.  To aid such reflection, the PCC have set up a group to co-ordinate the way ahead.  It is in its infancy, but we are hopeful for the future, and look forward to its evolving agenda.


As part of that agenda – and in response to national church direction – we have begun to investigate producing 'Fresh Expressions' events.  'Fresh Expressions' is a national initiative whereby churches are encouraged to lay on worship and events that are specifically designed to attract and invite a clientele beyond the usual one.  Such events are meant to provide a moment of contact which then has the potential to develop.  In that vein, we recently held our "Messy Mothers" Afternoon, an activity-based time set around the theme of 'Mothering Sunday', which also included some worship, time to meet and chat, and enjoy tea together, all of it based upon the national 'Messy Church' formula.  Over fifty invitations were sent out to every family we knew of who had a child aged six or under; of which eleven responded, and nine actually turned up on the day.  The whole event proved a wonderful afternoon, which ended with a splendid tea party as provided by our caterers.  The question now will be to see where such an event might lead?  We have plans to make contact with the many individuals who have recently left our church, and see what might grow from that?  We wait and wonder.


As a church, regardless of size, we do seem to have plenty of opportunity to socialise in our own unique kind of way.  It is important to do this as it allows us time to relax, get to know each other outside of worship, and simply enjoy being members of this church.  Food dominates much of what we do, and the highlight of our year were the celebrations for Her Majesty the Queen's ninetieth birthday, a full day that included worship, and involved quite a number of other guests [including Sir Gerald and Lady Howarth], all of whom seemed to enjoy themselves.  Like the 'Messy' event previously mentioned, these celebrations were not explicitly designed to bring people into our church, but there was always the hope that they might.  They have not, as yet – but hope should never be far away.


Hope by interaction with public opportunity is part of the background thinking behind our 'Open Saturdays' programme.  Each month we try to open up our church building for any who wish to wander in, take a look around, chat if they want to, quietly pray if they would prefer, and generally say "hello".  Again, food is often available; and the idea behind the day is to quite literally draw people inside.  To be fair, it has generally failed as a project, with very few takers – and what compounds that is the poor response from the established membership of the church, the majority of whom rarely call in.  We had hoped that they would provide the backdrop to the day, perhaps bringing their neighbours, or arranging to meet friends, or just being part of the sense of welcome, but that has not really panned out.  Whilst we intend to keep the 'Open Saturdays' project going, we do need to ask the question: "Who are we open for?"


Being physically open is – from a structural point of view – showing signs of being a somewhat challenging issue over the next few months, as we cope with failing electrics, dodgy roofing, invading dry-rot, and ever-reducing resources, viz-a-viz the collapsing pipe organ and the unreliable PA system.  When listed in this rather sombre way, the picture of life here at St. Mark's looks quite forbidding.  Yet – and despite of – we refuse to let any of it get us down – and full credit must go to each and every one of you who are part of the loyal core, because it is through your energy and determination that the priority role of this place continues – that is, its witness and its worship.  The lighting might create dark patches, the sounds might come across disjointed, the fabric might creak, and the water might well drip down your necks … but prayer is undiminished, and God is supremely present.


Whilst declining numbers across the board make our worship on paper look poorly supported and questionably needed at its current scale, take comfort from the fact that we have yet to reach zero, save on the occasional Saints' day, so there is the wonderful knowledge that what the church is all about, i.e. being a place to engage through faith with God, is truly being fulfilled.  If I was someone who worried about a minimum quota of worshippers required to validate a service, I would have had to resign many years ago – but what we lack in quantity, we most certainly make up for in quality – and never more so than during Holy Week.


Once again, it was wonderful!  The spiritual journey through the amazing events of that first Easter was as vibrant an experience as ever – and for those of you who engaged with such, I hope you will agree that our contact with Christ's Passion was a moving sensation.  How do we 'bottle' that, I wonder?  To be effective evangelists, we have to find a way of convincing others to share in it – the great gift of Resurrection was a mighty springboard that made those of the day go out into their world with an eagerness and determination to draw others into this new and dynamic faith; you only have to read the Acts of the Apostles to realise this.  Twenty centuries later, can we still do this?


In some sense we can and we do.  No doubt each of us tries as best we can to reflect our faith in the very person we are.  Each will be uniquely different, and each will be just as valid as they carve out direction and choice.  On a corporate level, we use the opportunities that come our way – and here at St. Mark's we have, by example, just completed a Lent House Group, using material provided by the diocese through its recently-launched evangelism campaign, "Transforming Church, Transforming Lives".  This house group grew out of another initiative that came from our "Seeking the Future" experience, where we were encouraged to view more flexible models of engagement with faith and with each other.  We hope very much to see future growth of this 'house group' format – and take this opportunity to say "thankyou"  to those who hosted.


Other corporate moments have seen the use of spiritual reflection in presentations at our Fellowship Group, and whilst this has not perhaps generated animated discussion, it has  ‑  we hope – provided 'food for thought' that may well continue the inward stimulation of those around.  This process is essential for all of us – and during the year we have seen examples of faith evolving, not only in our young people who have formed our new Serving Team, but also in adult enquirers seeking their next stage.  All in question are prime candidates for Confirmation, which we hope will follow in due course.


Becoming full sacramental members of our church is the ultimate goal for most people, particularly in the Anglican tradition exercised here at St. Mark's.  Receiving communion is vital to our well-being for its stimulating elements enrich our inner lives and intimately link us to the person of God.  Feeling so connected is, for many, an unquestionable asset to our very existence, so should never be taken for granted, but hallowed for the richness it symbolises.


Never is this aspect more profoundly true than when recognising our 'Housebound' community.  For those from our wider church who, for a variety of reasons, can no longer exercise their faith here in this place, the receiving of communion at home provides a powerful link not only to God, but also to the memories and moments that once were filled with a more active faith.  We here at St. Mark's have developed an extensive 'Home Communion' network, which by its very nature is a fairly private but essential area of parish life.  However, as more people seem to fall into this category, its impact inevitably affects our current active membership, and brings us back to where we began this review, in raising questions of our future.


I would certainly like to think that there is a future – and, like Teresa May, I sincerely hope that that future involves me and you working together with lashings of enthusiasm for witnessing to God here in this building, and making St. Mark's a fit and fitting place to do so.  As with elections, the power lies with the people – the power lies with you.  No one outside of those doors can hear the words of this review unless each of you rises to its expectations in whatever way you can.  You are the 'ballot-box', you are the 'X' on the voting slip – only you can influence and make all manner of exciting things happen.  We – that is, you and me  ‑  simply have to want to!