Rector's Report 2016
With relief I can note that I’m already doing one better this year than last by actually being here for this APCM – last year I’d had to be sent home by your churchwardens with the ongoing effects of food poisoning! It does mean that this year’s meeting will be longer than last, but even so.
As always, looking back over the last year brings mixed feelings. We’ve lost a number of members of the congregation, three of them of very long standing, Gwyn Keen, Phyllis Trower and Neri Thomas. Jill Hardcastle and Moyra Howes also came to the end of their long battles with their respective illnesses. A good number of new folk have joined the congregation but some have moved out again quite quickly, either because we’ve played a temporary role in their spiritual journey or because they’ve had to move away, most notably perhaps the Harpers – I say notable not because they were more important than anyone else but only because they were almost always here on a Sunday morning!
In terms of what we’ve managed to achieve, I look with great pleasure to the growth and development of the Toddler Group and the building up of a group of loyal regulars to the extent that I think we can begin exploring ways of developing faith with some of the parents who come. We provide the Toddler Group essentially as a service to the community, but the links between it, Messy Church, and our work at the Infants School are increasingly clear. We’ve managed to end this year with a considerably reduced operating deficit on the 2014 figure and thanks to some great acts of generosity we managed to pay off what we owed the Diocese. I will be writing to thank those who have joined the planned giving scheme as a result of our stewardship drive in the latter part of 2015 and early 2016. Lois has added a new Bible study group to the existing one and Maggie has led the formation of the Bethany group that provides spiritual fellowship for a group of older ladies in the congregation and both of these I think point in the direction we need to move. We’ve had the privilege of sharing in Donna Gibbs’s preparation for ordained ministry and hearing her preach twice. Donna now goes on placement to Hambleden church for two months but she isn’t leaving us permanently!
More problematic elements in our church life have been ongoing troubles with the young people who orbit around the church building, and the fact that we struggle to find people to fill positions that fall vacant. Many aspects of what we do, from flower-arranging to the MU, are suffering from the fact that the most loyal members of our church community are not getting any younger and it’s hard to recruit when people find they have to relinquish jobs they’ve done often for many years. Attendances at Christmas and Easter services were both down quite noticeably this year (Christmas 2014 and Easter 2015 were rather good in terms of numbers) and while that may be partly cyclical and to do with weather and when those big feast days fall we have to keep an eye on what’s happening in the long term.
Other than that the year has been marked by the intensification of our mission planning process. Working with Revd Steve Cox of the Parish Development Office we carried out a church survey which gave us some hard data to work with about what St John’s is really like rather than what we might think it’s like. Steve led an Away Day with the PCC in November and the results of that are being chewed over by a set of three working groups with the aim of producing a Mission Plan to guide our working over the next year.
I expect that the next year will be dominated by the finalisation of our first Mission Plan and then its implementation. As I just mentioned, the working groups have been taking the various areas of activity we identified at the Away Day in November and putting some flesh on the bones of those action points. The PCC will then approve a final draft which we will all discuss together as a church community before deciding whether or not to go ahead with it. At the moment, nothing the Plan envisages would result in very radical change: I never expected that and what we’re looking at is a far longer process.
It’s astonishing, in some ways, to think that you have now been putting up with me as Rector for well over seven years. For the first few years we saw attendances at church gently rising; for the last 18 months they’ve been gently falling. Again, I expected this to happen right from the time I arrived as older members of the church either died or found it less easy to come to worship, and had the numbers of people entering the church community been sufficient to replace them I would have been astonished, so as I say this is no more than expected. But, to be simply frank, the next ten years will demonstrate whether St John’s has a long-term future as a Christian community in Farncombe – and I think that the work we need to do will take ten years. The Church of England is ever so slowly facing up to the depth of the challenge it faces as an institution, and that challenge faces us locally too. Not every church will make it through. Some will cease to exist. If we look around us, Busbridge has a healthy church life though not without its issues; while no matter what problems may be apparent at Godalming, I can’t see the Diocese allowing a thousand-year-old parish church simply to stop functioning. So what will happen to us? We will only make it through if we find ways, perhaps dramatically new ways, to hold out the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our parish, and for people to find their way to the One who can change their lives for the better.
That means a number of things. It means being willing to try new things, which I have no fears about because you, the good people of St John’s, have in my experience always been up for trying new things. It also means being willing to measure and assess, which is rather more difficult. And to be willing to stop doing things as well. We will need to get into the habit of expecting that a lot of what we try won’t work. Things will fail. That means we’ll have to have some way of knowing when they’ve failed: so, every time we try some new venture, we’ll have to have an idea in advance of what success or failure will look like, and be pretty ruthless about culling that venture if it hasn’t worked. We’ll learn to be nimble and constantly open to possibility. If you find that idea a bit daunting, you’re not the only one, because so do I! But the point is that none of us is alone in this battle – we engage in it together. And at the heart of it all will be the same things, powering us forward as they always have: the Spirit-directed prayer of this church, the sacraments of Christ’s Kingdom, our attention fixed on Jesus.