“How Awesome is this Place!” – 40th Anniversary Sermon

40th Flyer -2

40th Anniversary 28 October 2018

Genesis 28.11-18, Matthew 21.12-17

The 1970s were a challenging time for the church.  It looked as though religion would play a smaller and smaller part in the lives of people.  Church attendance was falling, but the C of E still had large churches to maintain.  There had been much building of churches in the Victorian period, and actually quite a few of those churches even then did not have congregations to match their size.  During my time as an adult churchgoer, starting in the late 1970s I have belonged to four churches, five including this one, where a Victorian church has either been demolished and replaced by a more modest multi purpose building or the old church building has been radically modified inside to provide community facilities.

The new builds could not have been more different from their Victorian originals.  Victorian churches were built to stand out.  If possible they had a spire.  Their focus was upwards, heavenwards.  The new builds were built low, as if wanting to blend in with their surroundings and stay close to the ground.

Our architecture can tell us a good deal about our values, our beliefs.  The bricks and mortar of our churches communicate our gospel, our theology.  In Scottish Presbyterian churches, for example, the pulpit dominates the interior because it’s a church where preaching the word is central.

So, what does the architecture of this building convey about our theology?  If we were to use images from the bible about how a group of Christians are to be in the world, the Victorian model of church (our old St John’s in Watlington St) was about being a light set on a hill, definitely not under a bushel (whatever that was!) whilst this newer build was more about being salt and yeast in the community, an unobtrusive, but none the less influential presence.  Perhaps a little subversive too?

Its theology is more horizontal than vertical – this is a community minded building, its interior designed in a way that enables us to see each other as we worship.  Its accessibility and meeting space offering hospitality to the neighbourhood.

The history of St Stephen’s and St John’s coming together in a building that fitted in with the new housing also conveys an incarnational theology.  During a period of major redevelopment it was as if the church was saying to its neighbours, ‘We want to be with you on this journey.  We too will give up our old buildings and move into something new.  We’ll all be in this together.’  This was the church, the Body of Christ, expressing Immanuel, ‘God with us’, not in the majesty of a cathedral like building, but in one on the same scale as those around it.

The church building is physically linked to the church school, joined at the hip, as it were.  You’ll know this if you are here during the week.  We each have to watch out for the other so that we don’t both try to use this space at the same time!  In collecting memories I gathered that this close link was central to the vision of the 1970s PCC as it looked to the future.  Our shared premises (again that horizontal theology, the community focus) convey the high value placed by this church on the nurture of children and young people in the Christian faith.  This value continues, strengthened by the gallery extension, and the opening of a morning café for parents who drop off their children at the school.  There has always been robust representation on the governing body, with some church members offering many years service.

When neighbourhoods are broken down and redeveloped (and to understand just how much change was taking place in those days read John McKechnie’s booklet ‘Happy are they’, on the table at the back with other memorabilia), there is much community building to be done and this was the case not only in New Town itself, but also in the coming together of the two churches.  Although St Stephen’s and St John’s were both Anglican they were rather different flavours if you like.  And it was the St Stephen’s church that was demolished.  (St John’s was eventually sold to the Polish church which still worships there).  St Stephen’s congregation had to worship at the old St John’s for a while.  One memory shared was that when in St John’s St Stephen’s members would try sit in a pew that was a near as possible in the same location as the one they had occupied at St Stephen’s!

There needed to be an even handed surrendering of the old on both sides as they entered a new era.  One thing remembered by several people was the fact that there were new hymn books.  Each side had to surrender their familiar books.  They also needed to get to know each other better.  Gradually a pattern of Friday night is family night developed with a good cross section of the congregation of all ages gathering round a meal on the same night that choir and children’s and youth groups met.

In a church as diverse as ours community building is more than a one off event.  It continues through our monthly church lunch, home groups and café communion.  The latter also connects with our neighbourhood as do other groups taking place here – baked potato club, Monday Monsters, Fireside.

What light might our readings this morning shed not only on the past vision for our church, but also its future?

Jacob was fleeing for his life from his brother Esau.  He’d left the safety of his extended family and was on the run into an unknown future and it’s in this place of danger, challenge, change that he has the dream about the ladder standing on the earth and reaching to heaven.  Like Jacob, St John’s and St Stephen’s in the 1970s were facing challenges.  Their large, old premises were expensive to run, cold, too big and somehow out of place in the midst of a neighbourhood whose features were changing so rapidly.  It’s significant that Jacob encounters God in a place of challenge and danger.  ‘Surely God was here and I didn’t know it’, he says.  And that seems to have been the case for St John’s and St Stephens.  As they faced the challenge a vision emerged.  They discovered that God was there.

I love Jacob’s vision!  It’s so apt for a church.  What he sees is something that is both grounded and at the same time pointing heavenwards.  Isn’t that exactly what a church should be like?  Firmly rooted in its neighbourhood, there to serve its neighbours and at the same time pointing to something/One far greater than itself.  Only a church offers worship, that pointing upwards, and that worship has to be fleshed out in the second of the two greatest commandments – loving our neighbour.  Our architecture and much of the last 40 years indicate that we take the horizontal axix of our church seriously – the loving the neighbour, and being rooted in the neighbourhood.  The challenge is perhaps to honour the vertical enough.  How to generate a sense of the awesomeness and otherness of God – lifting our eyes to the heavens whilst keeping our feet on the ground.  Our current vicar, Fr Vincent, has helped us to pay more attention to the vertical focus in our worship.

What about our gospel reading?  Jesus driving out the money changers and market stalls from the temple?  It’s a reminder that there is always a possibility of things going wrong in a holy building.  A building set up ostensibly for worship and service can end up operating in a way that undermines both.  Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, says that God’s house is intended to be a house of prayer.  The full quote is ‘a house of prayer for all nations’.  For everyone.  By setting up special temple coinage and therefore the need for animals to be purchased within the temple precincts the temple authorities were severely limiting who could access God’s house.  In order to do anything deemed holy you needed money.  If you were a non Jew, a gentile, you were only allowed in a small section of the temple – the court of the gentiles.

Although we don’t deliberately set up barriers to people entering our buildings churches can unconsciously act in a way that makes it hard for outsiders to join in.  This is very often because things have developed over the years in a way that suits those who regularly worship there and because we feel so at home in our church we fail to see that others don’t.  If this results in a core of believers committed to one another and caring for one another – all good things – we might not notice those who come occasionally, who don’t so easily connect with others over tea/coffee, who perhaps want to belong but don’t know quite where to start.

Then, let’s notice what Jesus is doing in the temple – healing the blind and the lame, those on the outskirts of society, and presumably having some banter with children as they too are mentioned.  Our accessibility to and involvement with those on the margins is another litmus test of our authenticity as a church.  Over the years this church has done reasonably well on this – contact centre, ESOL for Nepalese women and more recently becoming an eco congregation.

The challenge continues to be how we hold on to Jacob’s vision of a sacred space where heaven and earth meet, paying attention to both the vertical and horizontal aspects of our faith, reflecting this in how we worship and who feels welcome here.  And we do this, remember, in a building that emphasizes the horizontal.  Or does it?

When I first came here I was intrigued by a feature of our building that drew my eyes upwards, namely the window in the roof up there.  It triggers a number of images for me.  Jesus calls the temple a house of prayer for everyone.  Our church is to be a house of prayer too.  A space where ‘Prayer rises like incense’ – drifting out into our neighbourhood and far beyond.  Drifting out through that window up there.  Our bishop calls us to be a contemplative church.  Our prayer is like our breath, floating out through there, blessing our neighbourhood.  Then, another image – Jesus’ ascension – being caught up with him into something far greater than ourselves.  This reminds us of the invitation to surrender ourselves in worship, to allow ourselves to be transformed into his likeness, a helpful balance to the strong drive we have to transform the world.  And then, and this is a more violent image, that space in our roof through which something can break in, just as those friends of the person who was paralysed broke a hole in the roof to let down their friend in front of Jesus.  If we are a church where people can encounter healing (Jesus’ healing the blind and lame in the temple), where those on the margins are welcomes, where barriers between us are broken down, where subversive activities like challenging climate change or universal credit are going on, we can expect some breaking into our comfort zone.  And what Jacob’s vision and Jesus’ activity in the temple demonstrate is that the breaking in is actually God himself, demanding our attention, responding to our prayers, turning our world upside down.  And in the middle of it all we find ourselves saying, ‘Surely God was in this place and I didn’t know it’.


Christine Bainbridge

Associate priest