Rector's Report 2020
It feels in some ways that we’ve been marking time a little over the last year. Our PCC Away Day in February 2018 resulted in a lot of ideas which we put into a new version of our Mission Action Plan, outlining a series of modest actions which we did more or less put into place over the course of the rest of 2018 and 2019. We held a reunion party for former Messy Church regulars, for instance, and carried out a survey of family groups who regularly attend the church as well as a slightly different version for families we had contact with via the infants school but who weren’t church attenders. However, interesting though the results were they didn’t identify a clear way forward for developing what we do. I also had an aim of developing two more home groups associated with the church. I was delighted that Bethany 2 emerged from this process, and that Sheila Smith agreed to host its meetings and Heather Bryn Thomas offered to co-ordinate it. But I had also wanted to start one for parents of younger children and at present I simply haven’t been able to get that going.
Our finances are still relatively healthy but we can’t assume that will always be the case. The new parish funding system is intended to reflect more of the real cost to each church of having stipendiary clergy and that is supposed to produce significantly above-inflation increases in our Parish Share for the next couple of years. Meeting those targets will be a challenge and we are already close to capacity in the renting of our church facilities, which raised nearly £25,000 last year.
We met the challenge of the General Data Protection Regulation which I referred to last year and now have a more robust system for holding and processing people’s details. Greater awareness of safeguarding means we have to be more cautious about taking photographs of church events and activities. After Martin Hollister moved away to Somerset we decided it was time to rethink the Taize service we’ve held on the 3rd Sunday each month since the late 1990s and changed it to Taketime, a contemplative event based on principles of Ignatian meditation and which Maggie encountered through working with Clive McKie, the Methodist chaplain at Send Prison. That’s been the only major shift in our worship, for the time being. Sue Petty’s idea for a Hearing Aid servicing clinic has blossomed and has even gone on tour to Broadwater Lodge, and it’s a great pleasure to be able to find a creative way of serving the community of Farncombe that meet its true needs. Sue and the pastoral team continue to work on ideas in this area. We went out carol-singing at the new estate at Greensand Place – such an apparently old-fashioned thing to do but by the finish we had gain quite an audience and won a round of applause! Lois Warden relinquished her longstanding role as Reader but took on a new brief to look at the spiritual life of the church and especially people on its edges.
Ray celebrated his 50th birthday with an afternoon, and evening of song!
Alan and Judith Smith’s daughter Christie married Tom Constable in April, just before the last APCM in fact but I didn’t mention it last year! It’s the first time I’ve ever been asked to use the 1928 order of service so that kept me on my toes. We celebrated one other wedding and 18 christenings, but funerals continued to be low at only 9. In fact I’ve done as many this year already as I did in the whole of 2018!
As always a number of our fellowship moved away from the area. We also said goodbye to Corinne Cooper, an important part of St John’s for so long, to Margaret Tingley, Peggy Priestman and of course Bert Mullard. It seemed as though Bert would be here forever and when he fell poorly it was quite disorientating and strange. We still don’t know when Bert’s funeral service will be but I know lots of people will want to be there if they can be.
There are endings and there are beginnings and the life of God’s people can never stand still. I am now in my tenth year as Rector of Farncombe and it would not be right for me to assume that I can carry on in the same way as before, or indeed that carrying on here at all would be self-evidently the right thing. I asked for some help thinking about my position here and have been put in touch with Christopher Herbert, the retired Bishop of St Albans, and I’m going to have my second conversation with him once I come back from leave. I still think there is plenty for me to do in Farncombe, but I have to be sure that what I do is more good than harm!
Don’t be in any doubt that St John’s faces challenges. It should not have missed your attention that our Sunday numbers are fewer than they used to be a couple of years ago. Strangely, when I came to tot up the figures for the annual Mission Statistics Return, counting everyone I knew about who’d stopped coming and the ones who’d started, the total size of the church was barely any different from the figure I sent in in 2018. Two things seem to be happening: first, that people come on Sundays less frequently than they used to – say, once or twice a month rather than three or four times; and secondly that the majority of our growth comes through Messy Church, a group of people whose faith, however we might describe it (and I have been told very explicitly by some parents that they come to Messy Church not because they believe anything themselves, but because they think it’s ‘important for the children’) is very hard to develop into anything deeper such as private prayer or Bible reading. More than once I’ve had people who are responsible for organising aspects of our church life saying to me that they can’t find anyone to do X or Y, and this is because we have fewer and fewer able-bodied people to go around. Unless we can work out some way of generating more bodies in church (and that’s basically what it means) we will have to face decisions about what we stop doing and what we carry on – decisions about what’s really important.
One thing I have asked for help with is the question of introducing less formal worship into the church, bearing in mind that our long-running Family Service now rarely has any families coming to it. From the conversations that I have it seems to me that the dividing line in the minds of many people who are on the edges of the Church is between an experience of worship where they read from books and leaflets and one where they don’t, and it’s the process of reading from paper that creates the sense of uncertainty and fear of getting it wrong that keeps people away from church. If they want paperless worship they have to go somewhere else and I think that’s a bad thing. I’ve been speaking to the Diocesan Advisory Committee about ways we might introduce a screen into the church which can be used when we want and folded away when we don’t. I will tell everyone more when I know more!
I am also very concerned about the spiritual lives of our younger families and my failed efforts to start a house group for younger parents makes me wonder whether we have to start even further back in the process of faith development. That may be a proper enquirers’ course, making an effort to introduce the idea of confirmation to some parents, or finding ways to inject spiritual practice into people’s home lives – probably all three.
On an even broader scale I think of the challenges that face not just this church, but human society in general. Opinions among scientists about what we can now justifiably describe as a climate emergency differ over how far humanity can avoid the worst effects over the next century. Some are more pessimistic than others. By nature I am not an optimist, and whenever I pick up a baby to be christened I have begun wondering not only what evils will face them as an individual, which I always think and pray about, but whether they will truly be part of the Last Generation. That makes our task as Christ’s Church even more urgent than ever: whatever befalls the human race, we will need the Christian virtues of truth, love and sacrifice, if we’re to stand any chance of making it through and making life possible for those babies.