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Learning from London: Day 4

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

Hello from Poplar! Today we went to two parishes. In the morning we went to St. Peter’s in Bethnal Green, which is right in the middle of Poplar, and tonight we went to Church E20, which is in the Olympic Village.

First, Poplar. This part of London, the East End, exploded in the 1830’s with the industrial revolution. Manufacturing and shipping drew people from throughout England, and the Diocese planted 10 churches to join the two that were already there. St. Peter’s was the first, opening in 1841. (For comparison, our church was founded the late 1830’s—when HF was growing because of the mills—and our building was consecrated in 1842. Sound familiar?) After WWII, however, the East End fell on very hard times. Bombing had destroyed much of the area. The remaining neighborhood became a haven for immigrants and the poor, largely because everyplace else was too expensive to live. St. Peter’s also dwindled. By 2005, they were down to about 5 people. Now they could have closed shop, but they rallied. Before I tell you about that, let me give a little context. All clergy in England are paid by the Diocese. Each parish, regardless of size, pays the same amount into a common fund to the Diocese. Currently that amount is the equivalent of $100,000. So, they needed help if they were going to survive. They prevailed upon the Diocese, which gave them Sister Judith from the local abbey. (Yes, there really is an abbey of Anglican nuns in Poplar). Now while this was going on, Holy Trinity Brompton (I wrote about them on Sunday) started a church plant in Shadwell, a neighboring area to Poplar. Sister Judith conferred with the thriving parish in Shadwell, and they agreed that a small group from Shadwell, including the Shadwell curate, would join St. Peter’s. That was nine years ago. What followed on was a deep process of learning, listening to the Holy Spirit and building relationships with each other. They knew they had to take risks, and they likened it to a tied soccer match going into overtime. When it comes down to those final plays, in which you will either win the match or not, you have to take risks you would not otherwise take. So they did. After multiple experiments, they have settled on two things. One is their worship. On Sundays, they have a traditional Eucharistic liturgy at 10 am. They then have a shared tea and fellowship time. At about 11:30, they take their tea and coffee to have a more contemporary, evangelical liturgy. Taking all this on meant they had to be open to change. Their pews, for example, are no longer attached to the floor. They took up the bolts, and now they can move them as needed. (In fact, our group needed to take a walk around the neighborhood for a bit, while a local group came in to the sanctuary for the weekly Zumba class!). That wasn’t an easy move. One of the older St. Peter’s folks said to the vicar: “Don’t you dare move those pews! They hold memories.” Here’s the question, that strikes me though: when does holding memories also hold you back? Not that I’m advocating taking up our pews, but it does cause me to wonder what we could do, whom we could welcome, what we could explore, if we thought creatively about our space. By the way, they partitioned off a part of their rather small sacristy (which they call a vestry) to make it a small workspace for food prep. They have a small rest room and two additional sinks, in addition to the piscina used by the Altar Guild. After listening a lot to what was going on in their neighborhood, St. Peter’s also became a local site for SPARK, which provides workforce empowerment and employment coaching to people in the local neighborhood. Each year, hundreds of people go through the program, which is housed in the first floor of the vicarage. The program changes lives. Like us, St. Peter's has a Parish House. It’s about half a block away and requires crossing a relatively busy road. The building is not convenient and has some major deferred maintenance issues. After lots of prayer they decided to lease the space to a private day care company, which will provide all of the building improvements as part of their lease. In return, the day care gets a 12-year lease, which they can opt out of after 8 years. Did the parish give up their parish house for a long time for this? Yes. But in the grand scheme of things, going for 8 to 12 years without the building will allow them to get back a better functioning building in the end. It was a deal that works for them. In the meantime, they flex to where people are. A fun example: when the local shop keepers do their Christmas market, St. Peter's puts a piano on a trolley along with 4000 photocopied song booklets, which they take to the market for a massive carol sing (see video). It’s now one of the most popular parts of the Christmas market. People discover their love of singing carols, and want to know more about this church on wheels. Through it all, one hears a sense of immense humility, openness and gratitude to how Jesus is working in their lives. It’s that kind of openness that welcomed 11 crazy North Americans into their midst for breakfast, morning prayer, a neighborhood tour, talking with parishioners, and lunch today. They can’t wait to share how much their lives have been made better, all because a small group of people got together with another small group of people, to come alongside each other and alongside God. I’ll write later about E20, the brand-new church with a super-dynamic priest in the brand-new neighborhood that was the 2012 Olympic Village. For now, know that the Holy Spirit is alive and VERY active here in London. I’ve seen such a sense of hospitality and joy, as well as an abiding sense of opportunity. I keep scribbling notes and pondering what it may mean for us. I deeply thank God for the opportunity to be here, to be listening, to be sharing with you, and for the ways in which God’s love is moving in all of us. Sleep tight.

Copyright © 2019, St. John's Episcopal Church All rights reserved.

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