The Revd Brutus Green
"We are approaching the close of the year. And we are approaching also… the close of my ministry among you.” Thus began the vicar of St John’s, Paddington, as this church was called, the Revd Dr Edward Goulburn’s penultimate sermon of December 1866. You may think that September is a little early to quote ‘the close of the year’, but for Bryan, our administrator, who begins his count down to Christmas each year at Epiphany, or in excitable years on Boxing Day, September 28 is most of the way there. Interestingly, Goulburn’s farewell sermons are on almost identical subjects to his successor Gilbert Karney’s, 40 years later; issues which at the time were dividing the church. So if it amazes you that the church can tear itself apart for 40 years over the same issue, do not be surprised. There is great precedent played out in the very church you are sitting in.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St Michael and All Angels, commonly called Michaelmas, and we have good reason to keep it. Goulburn’s successor built a chapel in the North of the parish called St Michael’s, which Irene used to attend - but it was bombed in the war. At the other end of the Paddington-Exeter train line, William Gibbs to whom Goulburn dedicated his collection of sermons, built another St Michael’s, where I used to sing in the choir next to his memorial statue. And, finally, this is also the last week that our school is called St James and St Michael, since its care has long since past to St John’s and the new school of St James and St John will gets its party next week. So just as the angel St Michael went out with a bang, so to speak, in defeating the Dragon and his angels, so I leave you this morning at at time of change and renewal, especially for our school and our church’s music.
But perhaps you will indulge me for a moment in thinking back over the past five years in the life of St John’s. The church looked very different, with peeling green carpet, an uneven floor, and freezing cold temperatures in winter. Robert was still saying after every big service that we’d done everything and had nowhere left to go. Count on it, he’ll still be saying it next year. Our organist Charlie was playing a better behaved Betty in his very precise way, Margaret was probably cavorting with young childless royals, and Steve kept calling me Deiniol. For a year and a half.
Since then many have left but more have come. The good thing about this is that few remember how badly I played guitar at the first playgroups or stumbled through the intercessions when I was made to do them again and again. And while some have moved on, my favourites are all still here, except those who have come back especially today. Helen, from whom I learned everything I know about children’s ministry, once tried to leave. We vetoed it.
But I would say that the character of the place has not changed. Some of the old saints of the church used to call this the ‘angel of a place’, which is something inherent in a building or location that builds up over time to create an atmosphere that is palpable even to those who have never been and don’t know the history. My phd supervisor wrote a book on this and I would tell you more about it but it’s been packed. Anyway, studies have been done and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that specific locations carry memories that we are unconsciously or consciously sensitive to.
So what is the angel of St John’s? When I first walked into the church I remember being unimpressed. I’ve been in a lot of churches and St John’s was not smart: mismatched pews on multiple levels, carpet held down with tape, a dodgy PA system and clutter everywhere; it did not inspire transcendence at first glance. But I grew to love it; people felt quickly at home and there was a lack of fussiness and prissiness; the vicar’s over-used simile of St John’s being like your old sofa rang true. And it’s funny because people come back from time to time and you can see they’re disappointed. They don’t always appreciate the beauty. They want to find the bald patch of carpet where their child was first sick, or the broken pew where they could nap through the sermon out of the vicar’s line of sight.
But now, of course, St John’s is very smart and uncluttered. Robin walking in with his Canadian swagger and west country beard for the first time 2 years ago would have been very impressed. But I think we have not quite lost the old sofa feel. This is a good thing. We pride ourselves on being welcoming, accessible and fun and even if we have more hard surfaces here now, hopefully we’re still a little soft at heart. Andrejs, a stern man when first I met him, has definitely mellowed over the years. I have heard that we’ve had visitors in the last few months who have reported that they’d not had anyone say hello over coffee so let’s not get complacent or cliquey. But I think this is rare and if we keep the old sofa at heart we’ll hold on to our angel, our character.
Another aspect of this angel though is that St John’s is not afraid of change. It took courage to re-order the church. There were no shortage of detractors and without the confidence of Steve, the PCC and everybody who contributed we would have floundered. This all happened, remember, in the middle of a financial crisis! But this boldness and innovation can be seen in St John’s history through people like Captain, the Reverend Cuthbert Scott. Scott oversaw the closure of St Michael’s in the parish, but went on to revitalise St John’s through the swinging sixties and inaugurated Horseman’s Sunday. His parish magazine, Saints and Angels, had full page adverts for rolex and Benson and Hedges and he encouraged Richard Branson, who was starting Virgin in the crypt. So while we’re still an old sofa at heart we need to keep hold of this spirit of getting things done. There’s a long shopping list - a font, an altar not bought at MFI, permanent seating, and what every creaky old sofa needs, an excellent music system - Betty 2.0.
So if the angel of St John’s has the friendly heart of an old sofa and yet with it the bold heart of enterprise; it also has an understanding heart that can cope with difference. That is what struck me most about those sermons I came across from previous vicars. They were concerned with the issues of the day: the catholic revival of the nineteenth-century, the return of vestments and bells and smells. On such issues St John’s occupies a very similar position today. There is a sort of common sense approach with an aversion to fussiness, prissiness and superstition. But what is clear from the sermons is that first and foremost the vicar cares about the people: will this help them in their lives and do they feel included? This final aspect of St John’s angel as I have been calling it then is that we are not afraid to have an opinion on the matters of the day, whether its women bishops, issues of human sexuality or whatever the next thing is, which God willing we will move on to quickly. But, at the same time, we can cope with difference. We are not a single-issue church and we are here for everyone. We do stand for certain things but we aim to carry everyone with us. Looking back, the time I most respect Steve for is the pastoral care he had for the old evening service, keeping it going even when it felt tired and out of date, and his curate was playing the cello badly, out of loyalty and care for those who came. There are, of course, many matters on which Steve and I disagree but the conversation is always worthwhile and even when he refuses to admit he’s wrong and doesn’t apologize I know that deep in his heart he knows the truth. Once Robin starts reading an adult paper he’ll be allowed opinions too.
These are the things then for me which characterise St John’s, the angel of our church: her friendliness, her boldness and her inclusiveness. I am known among my friends as the ‘perpetual curate’ because I have been here so long, but it’s because it is a joy and a privilege to be here. Change is always difficult, which is why it’s so important to carry everyone with you. As I leave today, though, it is I who will carry all of you with me, in my thoughts and my prayers. I will trust St Michael to keep the dragon from the door and Bryan in his office, and I will trust the angel of this church to remain as it is, bringing the good news to the Hyde Park Estate. And I leave you behind with the last of this venerable line of vicars, with a man who has been unfailingly supportive at the shaky beginning point of my career, and with a team and a congregation that it has been a pleasure to serve with. I wish you all the joy that the love of God and a glass of good champagne can bring. Amen.