And so, in the immortal words of Pete and Dud, “Now is the time to say goodbye”. I leave St. Mary’s with a huge feeling of thankfulness for the constant warmth you have shown to me, Maggie and Chris since our arrival in September 1997, and thankfulness for all that we have shared as priest and lay people in the nineteen-plus years of my ministry here.
Some of you may recall my arrival in Lymm was delayed by the fact that there was no Bishop of Chester (the Patron of the living) in post at the time, so the Right of Presentation, as it is called, passed to the Lord Chancellor. The fact that there was a General Election in 1997 delayed things further, until the relevant papers could be slid across the desk of the new occupant of No. 10. I used to dine out on the story that I must have been one of the earliest of Tony Blair’s ecclesiastical appointments. I do that rather less now, as reputations (as Tony Blair has himself found) can change over time. I do recall, even before my service of Induction, being asked for my advice as to whether St. Mary’s should have a Book of Condolence for the recently-departed Princess Diana.
Events, great and small, impinge on the life of every parish. But it is the events of daily lives, lived out in all their particularity and individuality, that make up by far the major part of the life of a local church. Looking out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, every single person has their own story to tell, their own journey of faith and life, their own share of joys and sorrows, moments of celebration and times of pain and sadness. It has been a privilege and a humbling experience to be invited to be a part of your lives these years, and to walk with you at least some of the way on your own journeys. No-one’s experience of God, or of life, is exactly the same, and for a priest that rich diversity of how God is at work in and among people is one of the greatest joys and rewards of priesthood.
There is much talk in the Church of England these days about how best the Church can reform itself in the 21st century. That has to mean more than getting a few extra people into the pews so that the Parish Share can be paid and the whole institution carry on for a bit longer. It also, I believe, has to mean more than a current Report before the General Synod, which, while properly pointing out the vital role of the laity, then goes on to advocate training up select individuals who can more effectively ‘evangelise the nation’.
Parish ministry is very much about context: what works in one place may not necessarily work in another. And sensitivity to local life and local culture is a vital ingredient in any ministry. There is a danger the Church of England is drifting towards a ‘one size fits all’ model of local church, and even more alarmingly is going back to a time when shouting more loudly at Johnny Foreigner to try to make your message understood was seen as a way of tackling growing secularism.
But the local church is first and foremost called to model a community of love, based on our understanding of the mutual love that flows within the Trinity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is called to be a place of welcome and acceptance; a place where people can discover their true identity in Jesus Christ, and find healing, reassurance and hope in a world where loud and ever more strident voices are plunging it into danger. It is that kind of community of love, with mutual care and concern for one another, that I see in the people of St. Mary’s. You cannot become that kind of community by following diocesan programmes or modules in managerialism or leadership. As has been well said, Christian faith is caught rather than taught. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, “Preach because you must: use words if you have to”. It is the quality of Christlikeness in our lives that will ultimately draw others to faith. It is that way of ‘being Church’ that St. Mary’s so evidently displays, and which it can take into its future with sure hope and confidence.