Vicar’s Report APCM 28 April 2024


Last Sunday I lamented the fact that our lectionary almost carelessly split up the parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10 – and perhaps even more that it separated it from its theological context in John chapter 9, the healing of the man born blind.


Today I must say that the lectionary has fully redeemed itself by the choice readings it has given us for the Sunday when we have this year’s Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM). Of course, the lectionary was not really able to anticipate that, but it does go to show that the way in which our appointed readings correspond to each other, and more importantly so, how they speak into the situation of a small English village church from across the divide of 2000 years and as many miles. It is quite a beautiful thing!


There are, of course, many burning questions for us at the moment: how can we live out the gospel in a contextually appropriate, lifegiving and genuine way here at St Anne’s? What are the challenges and obstacles we are facing to make that happen? And how should we in faith, love and trust proceed from here?


There are not many readings I can think of that speak more beautifully into that set of questions than the three readings the lectionary gives us this morning (albeit that we only heard two of them): the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, the commandment to love one another from the first letter of John and Jesus’ iconic image of the vine and its branches.


It is as if those three readings form a theological symphony just for us. A symphony that has a very simple and yet unmistakably beautiful and encouraging message: ‘If you are branches that stay connected to me, the vine, you will be filled with the perfect love that casts out all fear, a love that makes it no longer possible for you to hate a brother or a sister. The kind of love that makes you eager to share it with others, even with unlikely people who are very different from you, who literally or metaphorically speak a different language and may have no idea about how much God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them.


The kind of love that enables us to become the Body of Christ we are called to be at St. Anne’s. A community whose habits and practices anticipate and portray the life of the kingdom Jesus was talking about in the parable of the Good Shepherd last Sunday.


But before we look into how we may be going about that, I would like us to pause just for a moment to look back at the road we have travelled together since 2015 and become aware of a few facts:

  • Congregational numbers: Since 2015, 27 regularly worshipping members of our congregation have died (that is over a quarter of the electoral roll and nearly half of our Sunday congregation) and yet the church electoral roll has grown from 105 in 2015 to 112 at present.
  • Financial demands: The financial demands on us as a parish have increased substantially. Our parish share in 2015 was £62,000, in 2023 it had grown to £84,000. Our total expenditure in 2015 was £90,000, in £2023 it was £142,000.
  • Societal changes: Society around us is changing. This can be seen in, among other things, the decreasing numbers of occasional offices (baptisms, weddings and funerals). Whereas funeral numbers have only marginally decreased in the nine years since 2015, weddings have roughly halved, and baptisms have even more dramatically reduced. In 2015 we baptised 43 children, in 2023 we did not even baptise a third of that – only 13 in total!

Out of that situation I can see a number of challenges arising. The following three seem to be among the most urgent:

  • Leadership: Finding people who are willing and able to take responsibility in various areas, be that as Churchwarden, PCC member, as part of our finance or pastoral teams or to become a leader of an activity such as a homegroup, a social outreach project or a new service or fellowship event. Having said that, just in the last six months we actually had a number of people join St Anne’s, some of whom have already started to get actively involved or have enquired about it.
  • Finances: Securing enough finances that will see us become financially sustainable. Particularly focussing on regular income via planned-giving through the parish giving scheme will help us to make sure we have enough money for the year. Again, having just identified this as a challenge it is worth realising that we also just had a number of people join the planned-giving scheme in the past few months!
  • Focus: Drawing up a church development plan that will give focus to what we will do in the coming two years and create energy, excitement and willingness to get involved among the existing congregation and  also among those members of the wider community, which is what we need in order to become a more vibrant and relevant community in which people of all walks of life experience something of the joy of being a part of the Body of Christ. 

I know that for some, all three of these challenges are a cause of acute worry and even anxiety. How will we be able to find a new churchwarden and other leaders who can take on responsibility for things? How can we meet the financial demands of a growing church that is looking to grow further and engage meaningfully with its wider community? What kind of changes will the new church development plan bring, and will we continue the things that many have enjoyed so much over the years?


Let me just say - all of those questions and worries are perfectly normal! And I know that some of you feel them quite acutely at the moment – and I would be lying if I said that I did not occasionally worry a bit myself.


But I want to assure you that this journey we are on is not a journey that will see us make changes rashly or simply for the sake of them. St Anne’s will not suddenly become unrecognizably different overnight – because there is much about what we do at present that nourishes people and already helps them to grow deeper in their faith and in their relationship with God and each other. We’re not going to rip out the organ or suddenly swing incense around.


But what we will be doing is prayerfully asking ourselves and God how we can become more explicitly who we've been called to be. How we can more clearly emphasize that which is important for us and do more of it. And that may well lead to us doing a little less of that which is perhaps more peripheral and less significant to the core of our identity.


We want to become more fully a church that is a blessing to all in our community. That provides a space, worship, relationships and activities that people find deeply life-giving and transforming – and out of that transformational experience with God and His people put their whole heart, mind and soul behind to help it grow!


For me, that vision is hugely exciting. But that does not mean that sometimes even I wonder how I am supposed to make all of that happen – and that then makes me worried! Of course it is not all up to me, but the journey is one we are all on. And how and when we will reach the destination that God is sending us towards depends on us all.


So, let’s make the first step, because nothing in life is ever standing still when you are genuinely trying to follow God’s call. That was true for Abraham, Moses, the prophets as well as Jesus and his disciples. To be called into the fellowship of God and His people means to pick up our bag, sandals and staff and to start moving towards the people God has placed at our doorstep. The people we need in order to become the church God is calling us to be.


Every time I stop and consciously look around at what kind of faith, hope, love and wisdom I see in the people around me here, I cannot but imagine how much more of a difference we could make in the lives of hundreds of people in the wider community. People who often have no idea how much God loves them and how their lives would be transformed if they would encounter God’s love made manifest by you and me in this place.


A love that not only nurtures those who receive it for the first time, but also those who give it and have perhaps been giving it for a long time. That is the beauty of love – the more you give it away, the more of it you end up having for yourself.


But it is not just about nurturing new people! I firmly believe that it is the nurture of BOTH, our existing community as well as those who we seek to reach out to that makes all the difference. Because the more we develop habits and practices that anticipate and portray the life of God’s kingdom, the more we nurture BOTH the existing part of our church family as well as the parts that we are seeking to grow. St Anne’s simply becomes a place of nurture in which it doesn’t matter if you’ve been here already for half a century or if you’ve literally just walked in for the first time. You’re a child of God in search of meaning and that is all that counts.  


So, the imperative to nurture and connect to God’s people is what is driving this process! It is first and foremost a divine imperative (and not an organisational necessity), an imperative that is rooted in God’s very own desire to be in relationship with His creation (e.g. expressed by the vision of all people journeying to God’s holy mountain in Isaiah 2) and manifested in Jesus great commission in Matthew’s gospel. But it is also the ONLY way in which we will be able to solve the challenges of leadership and financial resources.


Only if we create a place that nurtures both new and established members of the community, a place with a vision people are genuinely inspired by, a vision and modus operandi that captures peoples’ imagination, a vision about a community in which people are unconditionally embraced, welcomed and transformed, ONLY THEN will we find sufficient leaders and financial resources to make it happen! Only then, not a minute earlier!


But it is not all hardship, challenge and change! There have also been a great many things worth celebrating in 2023. What comes to my mind particularly are three areas:

  • Community events: Our pixies playgroup, which has been super busy and has a wonderfully happy vibe (despite the occasional temper tantrums). Pixies has also led to several baptism already! Furthermore we had a lovely Quiz night, Eco events such as litter picks and the bee evening (with wine and beer!), Holy Week Meal, Harvest Supper and especially the Christmas Tree Festival which saw 38 trees, over 1300 people visited over the 3 days and net proceeds of £2k for St Anne's and £2k for Shooting Stars. And I am super glad to say that we will have another festival later this year.
  • Eco Church: We achieved the Arocha Silver Eco Church award. Our community bee project has grown in leaps and bounds. Recycling efforts continue with an ever-growing variety of items being collected. A particular thanks goes to the flower team who have made an outstanding effort to reduce the use of floral foam and continue to decorate the church very beautifully for our various festivals and services.
  • Inclusive church: We finally became an inclusive church in 2023. This was quite a milestone for St Anne’s, and I am hoping that the new church development plan will see us further connect with people who may have experienced exclusion from the church in the past.

So, where do we go from here and what comes next?


Well, having spoken for months now about the theological principles and general approach, the coming two months of May and June will actually see us putting together the church development plan. This will be done in a way that will include everybody, both in services as well as stand-alone meetings. It will involve debate, prayer and careful strategizing. And everybody is encouraged to participate!


In that context it may be helpful to note a few important things:  

  • We don’t have any ready-made answers, only the vision to grow as a church that connects well with the people in the wider community, becomes a blessing to all it comes into contact with and leads people into a deeper sense of faith, hope and love with God and each other.
  • We also don’t have a clear destination of what St Anne’s will look like in the future, that is for God to show us and for us to discover as we begin the journey.
  • And thirdly, we don’t know how long it will take for us to get there. But I sincerely hope that it won’t be as long as the 40-year journey of the Israelites through the desert.

The imperative to start the journey while at the same time not exactly knowing the destination is, of course, somewhat nerve-racking – but also exciting! But it is the only viable option for us at this stage. The ancient motto continues to hold true for St Anne’s as well: Ecclesia Semper Reformanda – the church is constantly renewing.


In the same way in which the people of Israel only had a vague idea of what that promised place might look like when on that fateful night they hastily painted their doorposts with the blood of the lambs so the angel of death would pass over them, but faithfully gathered their things and fled head over heels towards a water barrier they had no idea how to cross – so must we set out on that journey God is calling us to.


Of course, the temptation is to just stay at the ‘Egyptian meat pots’, to keep clinging to the notion of a culturally embedded, institutional Christendom in which the established church need not do anything else, but fling open its doors for the people to flock through in their droves. That would be nice – but is that realistic and, more importantly, is it in keeping with God’s command?


It is as much keeping with God’s command as if the people of Israel had stayed in Egypt and still expected to somehow end up in the promised land.


Or as if the disciples had simply stayed in Jerusalem after the resurrection and expected the world to come to them rather than to go beyond Jerusalem, Samaria to the ends of the earth in order to spread the good news and baptise people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So, the journey is part of our DNA. We HAVE to journey, to travel, to develop, to mature in order to live out our calling! We have to let go of the certainties, the meat pots of Egypt, the familiarity of the streets of Jerusalem, the comfort of these walls and go in search of the people we need to connect with in order to more fully become the kind of Body of Christ we are called to be!


Before I will come to the customary and most heartfelt thankyous, I want to leave you with a quote by two contemporary theologians, Nigel Rooms and Patrick Keifert, who describe the nature of the challenge ahead of us beautifully when they write about the missional journey of a church as an adaptive challenge. I know I used parts of this quote in last year’s report, but as it is so topical in our present situation, I want to remind us all of it:  


‘For a congregation to take on its adaptive challenges, therefore, requires experimentation and failure, the ability to be consciously incompetent and to learn from mistakes. Adaptive challenges require change and transformation on the part of those facing them, in contrast to technical problems where there is a known solution, and no change is required. Technical problems (even though they may be complex) can be solved with knowledge and procedures already in hand. In contrast, adaptive challenges require new learning, innovation, and new patterns of behaviour. […] Adaptive challenges often appear as swamp issues entangled, complex problems composed of multiple systems that resist technical analysis and thus stand in contrast to the high, hard ground issues that are easier to address but where less is at stake for the organization or the society. They ask for more than changes in routine or mere performance. They call for changes of heart and mind—the transformation of long-standing habits and deeply held assumptions and values.’[1] […]


‘We can see a wonderful illustration of adaptive work and leadership in Moses, who over the long stretch of the Exodus and wilderness journey engaged in helping former slaves make the transition from one reality, slavery, to a new and different one, freedom lived in covenant with Yahweh. […] But this change is a long and labored one, filled with difficult learning for all concerned. […] Time and again, during the years of the wilderness journey Moses was confronted by those who wanted a quick fix, a technical solution. They wanted him to assume the role of the expert who had the answers. […] As in adaptive work, the problem or challenge that Moses and the people faced was not clearly known or defined at the outset. It was much more than making it through the Red Sea and gaining freedom from Egypt. That was the “freedom from” aspect of the story. But that was followed by the “freedom for” element. To discern what they were free for required learning and change of hearts and minds. Nor was there any readily apparent or clearly applicable solution for this huge adaptive challenge. The solution, such as it was, required making the journey, living into the new reality of being God’s faithful people in the midst of an uncertain situation.’[2]  


So that is what I am asking you to do. Join us in the journey, join us in discerning what living into the new reality of being God’s faithful people at St. Anne’s will look like in the coming years.

[1] Rooms, N. and Keifert P. (2014) Forming a Missional Church. Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, p6.
[2] Rooms, N. and Keifert P. (2014) Forming a Missional Church. Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, p44.