In the spirit of anticipation, amidst the unravelling, a church turns decline into renewal
Signs of profound and rapid change are appearing amongst many churches across most traditions. Many leaders feel distressed and confused, recognising they are not well prepared for this moment. But some churches are weathering the storm. Father William Taylor and his congregation prayed for a work of renewal in their church, wanting to see growth but also to build meaningful relationships with their neighbours. Rooted in Anglo-Catholic spirituality, they bravely opened themselves to missional approaches they had never considered before, and embarked on a combination of common good interventions unique to them and their neighbourhood. As a result, mission is now at the heart of church life and they are on the move.
Sometimes it seems that the world is unravelling before our eyes. War and pestilence, storm and drought, hyper individualism, inflation and now the Cost of Living crisis: we all know the diabolic mayhem that these can bring to our lives.
We know this, too, at St Thomas’ church in our corner of North East Hackney. Certainly, we shrank with the lockdowns of Covid and we have continued to feel vulnerable in the face of this trajectory of unravelling. Actually, if we are honest, our tradition of sacramental Anglo Catholicism has been on the back foot for a generation or more.
And it’s not just us. Signs of profound and rapid change are appearing amongst many churches across most traditions. Many leaders feel distressed and confused, recognising they are not well prepared for this moment.
But we have stayed the course. Our congregation may currently be small at around forty, but we returned to numbers that we had before the pandemic and we are growing. We have continued to be open to what the Spirit is doing. We celebrate the Mass and we have been praying together for a work of renewal in our church. Our elders witness faithfully to the mighty righteous hand of God leading us into an uncertain future, and this Advent marks a step change for us as we move into this new future.
Lighting a candle in the darkness, against all the odds, now we are stepping onto the front foot. As we enter the new Christian year we are setting the clock to begin a new five year timeline for the regeneration of our church.
Two years ago we were certainly in a fragile place. But we asked God to guide us and remarkably we arrived at a unique set of new approaches. An unlikely combination, but right for us as a community of people at this time, and in this place.
We have made a fundamental shift in emphasis. We are not asking “what has gone wrong?” anymore. But instead we are asking “what new life is asking to live in this place?” We have a new spirit of anticipation.
We know that God is at work not only in the sanctuary of our church but also on the estates and in the streets of our parish. We also know that there is deep reciprocity between the heavenly realms and the earthly realms. What we do in church, we do for the world. And where Christ is, there is the church.
In 2023, our longing to welcome this new life of the Spirit will be expressed in some specific ways:
Renewing our covenant with our parish
Warm Welcome: this winter we are opening our garden room for two hours on Wednesdays to serve a warm meal for our neighbours so they get to know us and each other better.
Community Organising: with our partner Clapton Commons we are building relationships on the local housing estates with communities who have not benefitted from living in the borough with the largest percentage increase in property values over the last twenty years of anywhere in the UK.
Chatterhood: with designer Nick Bell we are cultivating covenantal listening between the women elders of St Thomas’s and their counterparts in the Charedi community, to build a common good across diverse parts of our neighbourhood
Discerning the work of God in our midst
Alpha: with the help of our deacon on secondment from SAINT, we will be running an Alpha course to enable our neighbours and friends to ask questions about Jesus and Christianity, provide a flavour of the intimacy of small group discipleship and offer the chance to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit
Omega: through our weekly silent prayer Angelus group, and a new monthly evening session, we are deepening our knowledge of the Christian Wisdom Tradition. We recognise with John of the Cross that silence is God’s first language and that we need to learn the pattern of kenotic self-emptying to discern the movement of the Spirit
Hearth: to bring the sacred to our homes, our new Children and Family Leader is creating “home holiness kits” to help families inhabit their faith at home.
Building local relationships with our neighbours in practical ways
Common Rooms: we will be opening our undercroft as a community hub with a canteen and a studio space with meeting rooms and better access, generating income as well as new energy
Common Voices: our resident ethnographer Holly-Gale Millette will be helping us excavate our heritage to tell our shared story of the last 250 years though twenty five local voices
Common Space: we will open up the nave, making it available as a small venue for music evenings with the help of our partner HeartEdge. Our acoustic is terrible for speech but wonderful for voice and single instruments.
Building on years of patient groundwork, our key partner Clapton Commons is at the heart of all of these interventions – having already helped St Thomas’s deepen relationships with a range of neighbours and local institutions, opening up our undercroft and regenerating a toilet block on Clapton Common into a shared community space.
Indeed, throughout lockdown, on the Common, with Clapton Commons, we hosted “We Grieve” gatherings for the whole community to honour their dead, and then, as the world opened up, a series of “We Welcome” events for refugees. These public practices of lament and radical hospitality are just part of the reweaving we are attempting, to counter individualism and demonstrate ways in which we as church can live in solidarity with our neighbours.
Three years ago I would not have thought any of this was possible. Through Clapton Commons we built many local relationships, but our congregation wasn’t growing. We had cast off into the deep but we weren’t drawing in the net.
Early in the pandemic I was invited into a small conversation group convened by T4CG about the vocation of the Church and the profound changes of the new era. Because it integrates different traditions, this group has tested my lazy assumptions (as an Anglo Catholic) about mission and what it entails – in particular through the international duo of Al Roxburgh and Martin Robinson. This encouragement to learn from one another is the genius of T4CG.
Above all I have I realised that we need to get out of God’s way and allow the Holy Spirit to do the Holy Spirit’s work of renewal. I have been helped in this immeasurably in my parish by a new small team who are committed to this work and who are helping me (as vicar) do things I could never do on my own.
Together we are ringing the changes. In 1773, the year that John Newton wrote the words to the famous hymn Amazing Grace, the bell hanging in our tower was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry just a few miles away. In 2023 it will be 250 years old. Recently when the engineer visited, I learned that it is tuned to A for Anticipation.
This longing, this spirit of Advent, is not just for Christmas. Adopting a posture of anticipation as a way of living is the way of the followers of the early church. It is the right attitude for this moment, as we live through times of darkness and confusion, to discern the realms and become more attentive to the new life God is seeding in the midst of the unravelling.
Certainly we are grieving the passing of the old, but we are also surrendering to the call of the Holy Spirit as we welcome the fomenting of new life in our midst. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Father William Taylor
Father William Taylor is Vicar of Saint Thomas’ C of E Church in the London Borough of Hackney and co-founder of Clapton Commons. Follow William’s blog at http://hackneypreacher.com/ or follow him on Twitter at @hackneypreacher.
This article was featured in the Christmas 2022 edition of the T4CG Newsletter.