The Resurrection, Clapton

a detail of The Resurrection, Cookham by Stanley Spencer

a detail of The Resurrection, Cookham by Stanley Spencer (1924 – 1927)

In the days after Easter I like to walk through Abney Park cemetery and sense the mighty stirring of the dead as cow parsley spills out of the graves and the arrival of Spring promises the thrilling renewal of all things.   Since I last visited the cemetery high winds have felled a number of trees and the scene resembles Stanley Spencer’s vision of the Resurrection in Cookham churchyard.

It was also a bit like that last Sunday at our Annual Parochial Church Meeting after Mass.  It was the first annual meeting we have held in person since the successive lockdowns and represented something of a reckoning. Scanning the assembled members of the church community the storm of the last years of the pandemic has evidently taken its toll.

Our electoral roll numbers are now lower than they have been at any point over the last 13 years of my incumbency.  I’m slightly embarrassed to share chapter and verse on this but suffice it to say that our current total resembles the lunchtime batting score after an all too familiar collapse in the England top order.

There are a number mitigating factors and I’m tempted to list them here. One reason I’m tempted to list them is because our new archdeacon has just emailed all the clergy in the area saying he would like to pop round and visit us individually and then adds that there is no hidden agenda. Actually, it seems to me, the agenda is entirely transparent. How are we going to make a case for the viability of our parish as we pass through the storm ahead? Will we be able to rally before stumps?

Many Anglo Catholic parishes such as mine are going through this same trial by numbers.  What we do in church is strange and, without the cover of Christendom, is altogether too strange for most of those who are not already part of it. This makes growth a challenge.

It’s the charismatic evangelicals that are so much better at sharing the Gospel from a standing position. Their worship is more informal and accessible and they have things like the Alpha course to provide pathways into faith and fellowship. My bit of the church has tricks to learn and maybe a few to share.  Actually many of those in my parish from West Africa or the Caribbean have a Pentecostal edge to their spirituality  and I have wondered how the two traditions might blend.

Well, quite soon, we are going to find out.  My church’s patron is the Rector of Hackney, Al Gordon, and I’ve been badgering him for some help for a while now. Under his guidance Hackney Church, now branded SAINT with its various affiliates, has seen eye watering growth, particularly amongst those in their 20s and 30s. His church is itself a plant from Holy Trinity Brompton. Now Al is offering  us one of his assistant curates to join us on secondment after his ordination in July.  He’s going to help us become a bit more user friendly. The bishop has agreed to this plan.

Toby Thomas is the candidate and he seems up for the challenge. A few weeks ago he came to preach for us and in doing so discovered quite how terrible our church acoustic is for speaking (mind you, wonderful for singing). Since then he has turned up in church with second hand rugs and mics and headsets and sends me links to buy stuff online to help address the problem of our over active reverberation.

“If we are going to preach our way into a new season” he tells me, “we’re going to have to start by making sure people can hear us.”

Although he’s from the HTB family of churches Toby is also open to the liturgies of our sacramental life and the work of contemplative prayer – what you might our Omega practices.

Recently, in the early evening, as delicate fingers of light flooded through the clerestory windows, I came in to find him staring up quietly towards the chancel at our hanging rood of Christ the King, made by the Warham Guild, a gift in memory of those who died in the First World War.

“What do you think?” I asked tentatively, not wanting to break the magic of the moment.

“That’s actually a perfect location for a screen,” he said.

“A rood screen?”

“No, a projector screen. So first-timers can easily follow along without having to shuffle all the paperwork you give them when they arrive in church.”