The 29th February 2020 sticks in my mind – as the date of our Parish’s last, organised Social Event.
That evening we gathered some of the Altar Servers and their families, for skittles and pizza, little knowing what sweeping changes were just around the corner.
Since then families, and individual households, across the UK and elsewhere, have been through the most enormous challenges:
the strain of financial uncertainty – whether through loss of jobs or loss of interest on savings;
the emotional strain of disrupted lives and separation from loved ones;
and, for many, the loss of loved ones in the most awful circumstances.
And I don’t believe that there is a single family, in the broadest sense, that has not been changed by the experiences of the past 15 months.
Faced with those pressures, some families have drawn closer together – helping each other out as best they could, keeping in touch more frequently, through whatever means was possible.
Other families have fallen apart – as individuals at breaking point have lashed out, and caused hurt that cannot easily be forgotten or forgiven.
And I think those same pressures have faced us, as the family of the church.
You’ve already heard the challenging financial situation we find ourselves in – and I don’t want either to overestimate or underestimate the seriousness of our situation.
What I do want to say, first of all, is thank you.
We have weathered the past year far better than many churches. And that’s due, at least in part, to those who responded to our pleas last year to join the Parish Giving Scheme, so that we have known that regular income was coming each month.
And, irrespective of how you gave, thank you for continuing to give – despite the worrying economic backdrop.
The life of our churches has been disrupted, just as significantly as our home life. None of us has been able to worship as before; weddings and funerals have been curtailed; patterns of prayer and the way we receive the sacraments have had to evolve – none of which has been without emotional cost.
So, once again – thank you.
Thank you for being bold, and coming to church even when you weren’t completely sure it was the right thing to do.
Again, we have managed to do far more than many neighbouring parishes: partly because of the size of the building here, we were able to keep at least two services going every week, at a time when many churches had their doors firmly shut.
And our celebrations of Confirmation, Christmas and Easter – here and at St Catherine’s – gave a much-needed lift to many of us, I know.
Like so many others, our family has lost some of its members – and we miss them and all that they brought to us. We have also gained new members; and fresh insight, as a result.
We are not, then, the same mix of people that we were 15 months ago.
And almost certainly, as individuals, we have been changed by our experiences – and we mustn’t forget what we’ve learned from that, as if it was all just a bad dream from which we’ve now woken.
We’ve learned over the past year that we can adapt what we do; that our services can be shorter, without losing the essence of our worship – and that has been crucial for some of those currently attending church.
It also opens various possibilities for outreach into our communities if we are confident enough to explore them.
It’s tempting to fall back on familiar ways, and the reassurance that provides – but we are entering new territory now, and we need to be aware, that anything which we now take up again means diverting time and energy away from both our current activities and any such future possibilities.
So we will need to think carefully about what it is we are really trying to do, and what will be most effective in helping us achieve it.
Much of this past year has been spent reacting to events – responding to each new development sometimes in hope, sometimes despairing as we seemed to lose ground again.
Now, at last, it feels as if we are entering more of a recovery phase, and can start to plan ahead with a little more confidence.
Now, we need to keep on being both generous and bold.
If we are going to flourish, as the church family of Wilton with Netherhampton and Fugglestone, we need to keep coming to worship as frequently as we can.
Simply by gathering in sufficient numbers to feel a part of something significant, we can support and encourage each other.
And if we want this family to grow, then we need to demonstrate by our actions that worshipping together is important to us – otherwise, why would anyone else want to join in?
One of the first tasks of the new PCC will be to review our worship, in the light of recent developments.
We’ll need to find a new pattern of services that will work for all of us, across the parish, including those who have not yet had any of their services restored.
That IS going to need generosity as we adapt to each other’s needs, and flexibility, over timing and content of services, as we work out what we can sensibly manage, and still offer the best that we can on each occasion.
There is still uncertainty about a number of things, and we really do need to pull together, in the months ahead, as one parish, to ensure no part of our family is overlooked, or taken for granted.
I began by looking back to our last “family gathering” on the 29th of February – which has been enshrined on the noticeboard to my left for the past year.
We have to wait until 2024 for the next 29th February – and I very much hope that by then we will have pulled though and bounced back, as a parish, stronger and more confident than ever.
But it IS going to be a long haul – and we will need to pace ourselves, and to be careful not to expect too much of any one member of the family.
Individuals, like families, can be broken and are not then easily fixed.
I want to end with a familiar tale of two sisters – Mary and Martha.
In Chapter ten of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is described visiting their home, where Martha scurries around preparing dishes, serving food and generally doing everything she can to make him welcome.
Mary, on the other hand, sits around, listening to Jesus – without lifting a finger to help.
And when Martha protests to Jesus, he takes Mary’s side!
She, it seems, has noticed that Jesus is worth paying attention to, whereas Martha effectively treats him like any other house guest – getting on with her familiar tasks as hostess.
We have been kept afloat, over the past year and a bit, by a number of Martha’s – who’ve beavered away tirelessly to keep things going as best we could, and without whose efforts we may well have fallen apart by now.
But they too need the chance to draw breath and reflect on all that’s happened – all of us need our “Mary moments” – otherwise we risk being so wrapped up in our own endless round of tasks that we too miss the point of it all, and fail to pay any attention to what Christ himself is saying.
The beginning of this period of recovery is both a call to action – for all of us to get involved and share the load, as Martha would have liked; and it’s also an invitation to watchfulness – making sure that we ourselves make time to stop and pay attention to what’s going on; but also looking out for other members of the family who may be wearing themselves ragged and encouraging them to slow down.
And if, along the way, we notice that certain things are not being done – then there is a choice: either to get involved and do them, or simply to accept that sometimes there will be more important things going on.
Our family can flourish again, if we commit to the welfare of all our members, and if we pay attention always to Christ as its head.
As we prepare ourselves for all that the year ahead will bring, then, perhaps we can adopt (as our family prayer) the word of Richard Gillard’s hymn:
Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.