A quick flash through the last eighteen months of this blog makes me realise that some themes keep coming up. One of them is our perception of time. And on a hot, sunny day off in Croydon, it has crept back into my thoughts again.
This might be because I had two brilliant and apposite experiences in the last week in parishes in my Episcopal Area (comprising 102 parishes).
Last Sunday I spent most of the day in Thornton Heath celebrating the third anniversary of a Lugandan congregation that is part of (yet separate from) St Jude with St Aidan. The service lasted two and a half hours and involved choirs from a South Indian congregation, a West Indian Pentecostal church, the Lugandan lot and others. It was vibrant and time flew by. This was the best example of different congregations serving God and their comunities differently, but together. None of the headline-grabbing antagonism that dominates media perceptions of Christian churches – just wonderfully celebratory and serious-minded service. It all ended after lunch with dancing… (But they are not good at telling their good stories and don’t have a website!)
Then, yesterday I visited the suburban parish of St John, Old Coulsdon. This year they are celebrating their 750th anniversary and they are doing great stuff, using the gifts of the loads of people who belong to the church, and keeping their outreach simple. One of the best things is this: they are taking a card round to every house in the parish and inviting people to write on it something that is ‘good news for me’. They aim to pull together 750 of these and tell something of a good news story for that community and the whole community is getting involved.
This starts where people are, invites people to tell their story and doesn’t simply dump on them a message they aren’t either ready or willing to hear. It assumes that there is good news to be told and good news to be heard. Even the local newspaper has picked it up and given it space. And some of the cards I read yesterday were moving, some were banal, some indecipherable and some instructive. They all form the context in which the Good News of God in Jesus Christ can be seen and heard – the local church seeking to reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.
But, what struck me in both these parishes is the fact that the church has been there through generations of a changing world. In the 750 years of St John’s, Old Coulsdon, England has seen plagues, wars, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), world wars, the Cold War, the Civil War, the birth and death of the British Empire, the Elizabethan Settlement, etc. It has even seen Manchester United equal Liverpool’s record of domestic football dominance (which just goes to show that there’s a down-side to everything).
Yet, we are still here, still worshipping, still praying, still serving the local communities. Every generation thinks it is the ultimate point in history and that the ‘now’ is all that matters. Every generation thinks its problems are the greatest and that the whole of their existence is threatened by whatever the latest fear might happen to be. And, of course this is nonsense. Today is simply tomorrow’s yesterday – and we need to recover a sense of perspective on time, history and the importance of ‘now’. There is little that is original in life – we have usually been here before. Which brings me to John Donne…
I was reading a sermon by John Donne (for pleasure, not punishment) and then an hour later saw it referred to in Third Way by the always-interesting Lucy Winkett. On page 10 of his sermon, preached at St Paul’s Cathedral on Whit Sunday 1629 (two years before his death), and speaking of those in the Church who find their raison-d’etre in arguing the toss regardless of how this looks and sounds to the outside world, he says:
They dispute, and they wrangle, and they scratch, and wound one anothers reputations, and they assist the common enemy of Christianity by their uncharitable differences…
Nearly 400 years gone and still we think we are original, that current circumstances are ultimate, and we still don’t listen to that simple admonition.
All the machinations in the Anglican Communion might be entertaining to the outside world (although the outside world seems now to be totally indifferent or bored by it all), but they are consistent with behaviour throughout the ages and this will probably never change while human beings are involved. However, Donne’s frustration was real and it still resonates today.