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Learning from London: Day 3

Yesterday I wrote quite a lot, so tonight I’ll keep it fairly brief. Today we went into the oldest part of London, to a Christopher Wren-designed church dating from the 1670’s. (The original church, dating from 900 AD was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666.) Churches in this part of London are so prevalent that you often see them within a block or two of each other. They all are historic, and many have ties to key benefactors or guilds. Though they have ties, they don’t have people. As the city grew and people moved out from the center, churches in areas like Bank Street (so named as the banking center of the City) lost their parishioners. This particular church, St. Edmond the King and Martyr, stopped functioning as a parish church in the 1990’s. Today it houses the Diocese of London’s Gregory Center for Church Multiplication. Why, if the Church of England is finding itself with more buildings than people, would it want to undertake church planting? Why not just sell the churches and make a killing in real estate? It’s all in the numbers. London itself is made up of 3 dioceses: London, Essex and Chelmsford. The Diocese of London has more than 500 worshipping communities and 1,000 clergy. Even so, fewer than 10% of Londoners attend church on any given Sunday, and of those, less than 2% are Anglican. So…what’s going on with the other 90%? That is the question posed by the Bishop of London in 2013, when he framed the extremely ambitious Vision 2020 plan. Among other things, it called for planting or reinvigorating 100 churches in 7 years. That’s a LOT. To focus on the task, they consecrated a Bishop under the Diocesan Bishop, whose sole job it is to grow churches. That Bishop has a staff of 10, and they are in the Gregory Centre. Questions they ask include:

  • How do we respect every legitimate strand of Anglicanism, and allow it to grow?

  • How do you lower the threshold so that people who have never been associated with a church can enter?

  • Who is the church NOT reaching in a neighborhood, and how do we find out what that population needs?

  • Are we helping the Spirit to make churches live, or not letting go when things need to die?

These are also the questions of St. Luke’s Walthamstow, a church I mentioned yesterday. This is the church that operates in a Sunday farm market, and that has no building. St. Luke’s had a building They were an expansion of St. Mary’s Walthamstow, opening in the early 20th century. However, as the neighborhood morphed, the congregation dwindled, and their building fell into disrepair. They asked themselves: “When thousands of people walk through our area every day, how do we connect with them?” The answer was not by asking people to come to their decrepit building. They sold the building, bought an awning and some tables, and set up a stall at the market. Everything they now own fits nto a garden shed at one of the member’s homes. For many years they had a vicar. (Note that priests in London are all paid the same, and they are paid by the Diocese, not by the parish.). Once their vicar left for a new call, it became clear that the Diocese would not be filling the role. Nevertheless, St. Luke's persisted. Their wardens and their key leaders continue to worship together and to draw people in. Their vision statement reads: “A creative worshipping family, holding out hope, welcoming all, and becoming like Jesus together.” Every Sunday they are at the market. They hand out coffee, and tea, and pieces of cake to anyone who wants. They pray together—sometimes in different languages, and welcome all. They invite whomever would like to come to join them at a local, Muslim-owned café for breakfast and bible study. It’s all covered through donations and a dedicated group of about 12 key volunteers, ranging from age 12 to age 85. They engage what they call 3D listening: loving service, growing community, evangelism and discipleship, and evolving worship. They are completely lay-led. They know they do not have all they answers. They must be doing something right, because they’ve been at it for 12 years. They serve the homeless, the addicted, the lonely, the tired. They provide friendship and presence in a changing community. They have no goal but to be an example of Christ’s love for each other. As one of our class observed: everything they do is about finding ways to say yes to God. How do we at St. John’s say yes to God? … in prayer, worship and study? … in the outside world? … in the wider church? … within the community itself? I’ll close with this, from the warden at St. Luke’s: “It’s easier to be welcoming when you don’t have walls.” What walls is Jesus asking us to remove (or let go of), so that we can welcome God more fully into our midst?

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