First things first: I am only too pleased to announce that we will resume live services at 10:45 in St. John’s on Palm Sunday, giving us Holy Week and Easter in-person. At this stage, the lion’s share of our parishioners will have had at least one round of the Covid jab, making the return not risk-free, but clearly safer. I’m sure that none of us wish to go through a second online-only Easter, and — provided we still continue to observe government and Bishops’ guidelines — I am delighted and indeed relieved to be able to welcome you back to Church. We will, of course, continue our online broadcasts for those unable to be there in person.
Moving on, however: I have been preaching and talking about the Bishop’s Ministry Area plans — which are now rapidly coming into the action phase. I am aware, and do not underestimate, that the scope of these changes are large and, in many quarters, very unexpected. Possibly they shouldn’t be unexpected; we’ve been talking about these changes for 20 years. Perhaps it simply wasn’t anticipated that the Bishop would use the Covid time to formulate clear plans and take very firm steps to implement them. But here we are, either way, and there is something to be said for decisiveness.
The simple truth is that, although we’ve been using the phrase “East Newport Ministry Area” as geographical shorthand for some years now, we are not and never have been a Ministry Area. We are, as we always were, constituted as separate parishes (albeit with Maindee & Lliswerry grouped together), each with its own PCC and priest-in-charge. This will now change in the course of 2021; we are asked (told?) now to form a Ministry Area with a Rector and Team Vicars, and a Council structure comprised of all the parishes — now to include Caerleon, as well as those we already expected to join. The action will happen thick and fast, and I will do my very best to keep you informed and seek your advice. But it will be something entirely new, not merely a tweak to the old.
It’s fair to say that, if this directive leaves you unsettled, you are not alone. I can assure you, from the conversations I’ve had, that other parishes are feeling similarly. People are worried about losing what makes their churches unique. People are worried about how they’re going to engage with brothers and sisters from other parishes whom they do not yet know. And, of course, people are concerned about the financial arrangements. (For better or worse, ’twas ever thus.)
I cannot, of course, provide you with the answer that everyone really wants to hear: “don’t worry; nothing really will change”. But I can say, without qualification, that my job is not to take away from what makes each church in the MA unique. Quite the opposite: my role as pastor means that I am obligated to protect and encourage those things that make us thrive, and to offer those gifts to one another and our neighbours in a way that causes us all to shine. This is — emphatically — not just sweet Christian words that don’t translate into reality. I have to put these words into meaningful, tangible action. How I do so is part of the discussion we all must have. This is also not simply my own interpretation of the priesthood; the Bishop’s own language around this situation constantly emphasises not just management and governance, but the hope that what makes us unique can be all the more the “light that shines in the darkness”.
It has been my privilege, as the priest-in-charge of both Maindee and Lliswerry parishes, to find myself amongst a people who offer one of the warmest welcomes in the entire Diocese. I have journeyed with you these last few years, and I have been gratified, and thankful, and humbled, by how well and how genuinely lovingly the people of these parishes work amongst themselves and with each other. Tasks that might take other parishes elsewhere months to accomplish are so often done here with a just few words amongst parishioners who really and truly trust each other to have at heart the well being both of our buildings and our human community, to do it right, and to do it well.
It is our job to put in place structures of governance in the new MA that will continue to allow these relationships to flourish at the local level, and will allow each local church to retain a meaningful stake and say in their own day-to-day running. The new Council should be — and I am determined that it will be — a means of enabling that kind of cooperation, rather than something to impose itself upon us. This is not only permitted, but we are encouraged to make it happen.
It will also be worth saying at this point that — of course — if we really think about it — if we put ourselves in the shoes of the other churches joining us, it will be easy to spot that they all feel just the same way as we might; they have the same hopes and the same fears. (As we used to say about rattlesnakes back in Texas: “it’s as scared of you as you are of it!”) I’m not so naive as to think all will be sweetness and light as we hammer out the details — this is not my first rodeo — but, as we move forward, it will behove us to remember that the structures we decide, if they allow others to flourish as we ourselves would want to, then they will allow us to flourish in just the same way. These are the conversations we need to be having, and this is the attitude in which we need to have them.
Whatever else this reorganisation will be, it is not going to be a zero-sum game amongst parishes. If we succeed, we succeed together. (And, if not, I assure you, we all do that together, too.)
In the end, of course, all that we have — and, most especially, our church — belongs to God. We are here (to adapt Christ’s own phrase) not to do our own will, but the will of him who sent us; and this is the will of him who sent us: that we should lose nothing that he has given us, but raise it up at the last day. We have gone through the Lent of Covid. We are walking through the Christian year’s season of Lent. We will be walking (as, truthfully, we have already walked for the better part of two decades) through parish reorganisation. And now — just in the distance — we can see the Easter resurrection approaching for each of these things.
When the Church re-opens, the very first thing thing we will do is mark Holy Week, and the agony of Christ’s final hours. Perhaps some of us feel that the new MA plans offer us our own struggle. But, after death, came new Easter life. And I ask you to join with me — and our neighbours — in believing that, by finally taking hard and difficult action to end the decades-long talking shop around reorganisation, we may finally find ourselves at a moment of resurrection, hope, and new life.
St. John the Evangelist, St. Matthew, St. Andrew, St. Philip, St. Teilo, Ss. Julius & Aaron, St. Cadoc, & the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us.
Friends of Maindee & Lliswerry, pray for me.