State of St John's Address: 2014

The Revd Brutus Green

Today’s readings are about resurrection. The dry bones of Ezekiel, the spirit that brings life to our mortal bodies in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel. When I think of resurrection, my first thought is of a sort of zombie apocalypse with the dead pulling themselves out of the ground from the Mount of Olives and hauling themselves towards Jerusalem: ‘Dies Irae, Dies illa/ Solvet saeclum in favilla’ - ‘Day of Wrath, that day/ will dissolve the world in ashes.’ Less dramatically, the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last words as he was hanged in a prisoner of war camp 70 years ago this Tuesday were: ‘This is the end; for me, the beginning of life.’ We don’t know Hitler’s who died a week today 70 year’s ago but they were probably not as witty as Voltaire’s, who when asked on his death bed if he rejected the devil replied “now is no time to be making enemies”.

But St John the evangelist, the patron of our church, writes of resurrection as a present reality. So when Martha says that she knows Lazarus will rise again on the last day, Jesus counters with those first resonant words of the funeral service, ‘I am the resurrection and the life… everyone who believes in me will never die.’ The Gospel was completed late, when many Christians had died - so this was not mere wishful thinking! St John held that the resurrected Christ is present within us today and though our bodies die, we remain with him and he with us. While it is natural to be anxious over our mortality, and our loved ones; we just heard the shortest, bluntest verse in the (King James) Bible: ‘Jesus wept’; our faith encourages us not to fear death, symbolised by the durability of this building which has seen generations come and go. But faith also encourages us to live with this spirit of resurrection today. Like the Christian Aid slogan, we believe in life before death, and a life emboldened by the hope and energy of the resurrection.

It is with this confidence that I bring you today’s ‘state of the union’ address. Of course, as most of you know, we clergy only really work on Sunday mornings which makes it very hard to get anything done; but we have a few little projects on at the moment, and today gives us a chance to hear about some of the longer-term work that the church is doing.

The first and most important project we’re engaged with at present is the organ restoration, nicknamed “Save Betty”. Betty is Robert’s name for the organ, named after his first love, who was a tortoise. The organ has been deteriorating for years and at several points last year she looked like packing up altogether, leaving Nicky with nothing to play but one of playgroup’s xylophones. So fundraising began in June last year, along with a whole string of events aimed at all the community, from the children’s Disney party to sophisticated coffee morning recitals. Our fundraising continues to tick along, which is important, but it is a large once in a lifetime restoration that is needed. Betty has chugged along for 150 years and this work of £350,000 is intended to see her through the next 150.

The good news is that we have a first-rate organ. Imagine the care you would take with a violin made by one of the finest violin makers in the world that was 150 years old. Well this is like that but it is about a thousand times as big! It is more highly listed than the church - so in case of a fire, the first thing that needs rescuing is Betty. This means that the Heritage Lottery Fund, HLF, may well help us with a good deal of the costs. Having crashed an organ launch back in August last year we also know that the current head of HLF for London is very keen on restoring organs, so now is a very good time. To say that achieving HLF funding is time-consuming does not begin to describe the length and the detail of the process of application. We succeeded in getting through the first round of the process, with its extended application form, supporting materials and gallery of photographs, but this is as a primary school report to the ph.d. of the second round application mountain we currently traverse. There is a vastly amplified application form, an activity plan of eighty pages with budgets, time forecasts, job specifications, audience analyses, and consultations. Then there are the reports on the organ and pipework, and piles of evidence of working partnerships, consultations, correspondence, archival research, comparisons with other projects, and so much more. We have taken on two consultants but there remains much to be done; not least, meetings about the work, the projects, consultations with schools, choirs, colleges, and other partners and presentations at the Heritage Lottery Fund offices.

For the current stage the lottery has already generously given us £20,000 to prepare the initial drawings of the organ, plan the changes, analyse the pipes for restoration and begin our research and planning of activities. The reports are now largely back with us and we have two months exactly to draw everything together for our submission in June. It would be better this year not to ask me how my Easter holiday was.

To give you some idea of the projected timeline, if all goes according to plan: the HLF will make its judgement on our project in September. If successful, the organ builders will entirely remove the organ in January 2015, opening up this corner of the church for the first time in 135 years. The organ will then be back in early summer with a little fanfare and some minor events. When she is settled, in Autumn 2015, we will begin major events, including a recital of a high profile commissioned work for organ and orchestra and a combined schools performance, kicking off Betty’s 150th birthday. It is a lot of work - I can heartily recommend reading this excellent bedtime reading by Mr Thistlethwaite, it has a whole section on Betty - but it will bring a lot of new opportunities and restore a wonderful piece of mechanical, musical Victorian heritage, and it will stop the dreadful hissing that fills the church when the organ’s switched on.

***

Now, I wonder now how many of you remember the old higgledy-piggledy floor with its patchy bald green carpet? Though its almost exactly three years since we left this building I confess I hardly remember it. The works though remain unfinished. The next stage has been slowly developing over the past 18 months with the Vicar, architect and lighting engineers & designers designing a new lighting system that reflects the reordering. Vicars are not the only ones apparently who only work one morning a week! We are looking at beautiful lighting fixtures that both enhance the architecture and are flexible to different uses of the building. A provisional outline of a scheme was presented to the buildings committee in January but, with some technical issues, there is some considerable way to go before plans are ready for wider consultation. We have some money set aside for this from the last appeal but progress will be dependent upon costings and other maintenance priorities.

We have also recently had a 5 year building inspection. Substantial work must be carried out within the next year or so on the drainage gullies on the roof, along with high level stone work. The lead lined gullies that drain the water away on the roof have failed and so water has over decades rotted the wooded structure which must now be repaired and reloaded. This will be a major repair and restoration with quite a bit of stone replacement. The Vicar and standing committee have been working with the architect to get a more detailed specification and pricing, while the Vicar and treasurer are exploring how to finance the project. When the specifications are ready there will be a presentation to PCC and the congregation. We will explore the possibility of taking a loan from the diocese for partial funding for the project, paid back over 5 years.

***

The Vicar also serves with the churchwardens as trustee of William Gibbs Religious & Educational Trust, which supports St John's generously together with other educational projects.

With our increased staff, the vicar has had time to move ahead on a major capital investment project on behalf of the trust. This has taken up a lot of time over the past 15 months but will bring long term benefits to St John's mission and ministry. William Gibbs is actually a figure dear to my heart, since as well as living in three different houses in this parish, the last church I used to regularly attend was paid for by him. It can be found immediately at the other end of the Paddington/Exeter railway line. Now this weekend I happened to buy a collection of sermons by the second ever vicar of St John’s, published in 1867. His name was Edward Goulburn. He’d arrived from being headmaster of Rugby school and went on to become Dean of Norwich cathedral. The dedication reads: “To Mr and Mrs William Gibbs, and, generally, to the members of the congregation of St John’s, Paddington [the old name of this church], these few words of parting counsel, and of guidance on some grave questions of the day, are offered with warm gratitude and affection, by their late pastor and constant friend”. I was pleasantly surprised in reading the sermons to find he was a very sensible man and would be quite at home with the character of St John’s today.

It’s a nice reminder to come across a book like this. These things I have mentioned today, the 150th anniversary of the organ, which Goulburn and Gibbs would have seen built, the lighting system to be built to properly light our new church floor, the essential roof works, purchasing accommodation in the parish, are not the vital things of the day to day life of the church as we build and care for our community together, or as we “recklessly” raise money to serve the poor of this world. But they are the things that maintain what our predecessors spent their lives building, and they are the things that will mean St John’s will still be building the kingdom of God in Paddington and the Hyde Park Estate in 2164. Isn't this living life with the confidence of the resurrection? And perhaps a young priest will discover an old book of the Reverend Stephen Mason’s farewell addresses, dedicated to your good selves. It is a thing I feel you should greatly encourage him in!

The heart of any church, regardless of building and even quality of organ, is its people. Expanding our clergy team to include an Associate Vicar and a training curate is a major project and a major financial commitment. We have met the challenge so far in the first 6 months, but it will continue to be a challenge, albeit one that we believe is within our stride. This growth in the clergy team is what enables us to pursue major projects simultaneously, where other churches would consider just one of these with great trepidation, as well as growing our mission and ministry in congregation, community & our Church school, St James and St Michael’s. We continue to grow in numbers, in carol services and in ambition! And if we enjoy and are confident in what we are doing we will continue to grow - if we make it “the most fun you can have on a Sunday morning”! The curate’s holiday ended this morning as he returns from his own successful church growth project. We wait eagerly to see what Meredith will bring to our capital works projects.

And speaking of new life, how appropriate it is at this point in the year when we take stock of where we are and plan for the future, that we have a baptism. It is a concrete reminder of our heritage that goes back past this young building to the days of Christ and the apostles; and a reminder of our shared baptism and the promises we inherit with it: most especially that we all with Caroline have a share in Christ’s resurrection, and that this resurrected life is with us as we go about each day, announcing and building the kingdom of God in our generation.

The Vicar & I, along with the churchwardens & PCC, thank you all for your continued support both financially and otherwise, for all the differing aspects of our life together at St John's. We have achieved a great deal in a sceptical world and continue together, to build a church that we can be justly proud of and that reflects the love of God for the world and the great things he has in store for us. Thank you. God bless you and God bless St John’s.