My Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This will be my 13th Annual Report here at St Stephen’s. I normally give my report (rather than the formal statutory report) in the form of a homily. This year however, because we are having an extended fabric report from our parish architect, I have decided to write it.
I’m never sure how much people listen to spoken reports (or sermons!). Firstly they are out of date even before they are written and secondly, I am not convinced that anybody reads written reports either! It has been pointed out to me, we have a magazine and we speak to each other, so what is the annual report for?
Really,it is for one thing alone, which is to fulfil our obligations as a charity and to file a full set of accounts and reports at the AGM each year, which could be a very boring task indeed– and in many places it will come as no surprise to you to learn that it is just so.The good news for us is that we actually do have things to talk about.
We do good things and it helps to discuss them at the APCM because it might just be that it will help us to do them better—and maybe some things are not quite as well received as we might like to think that they are.Personally speaking, I try and review what I do and how I do it and to change as much as I can every year or so,otherwise we get a little stale,a little too used to something which maybe some people never really understood in the first place.
So what important things do we have to talk about regarding 2017?
First of all, we continued to praise God here in His church,which is what we are called by Him to do. Secondly, we did so as a visibly full member of the Diocese and Church which is important. Thirdly we fulfilled all the requirements made of us by the laws pertaining to charities and places of worship. So far so good.
In addition to that we have had good attendances – though sadly, numbers are falling. That fact we cannot escape. We have lost a significant number of faithful worshippers this year. Sadly we are not gaining enough new members to make up for their loss. Nevertheless, though we most certainly should not be complacent, for a geographically small urban parish we do very well. But as we all know, to cease to grow is to die.
Another inescapable fact is that those who have died have, as it were, taken with them their regular financial contributions. We are more and more more reliant on our income from the hall, Friends, fundraising, grant applications and one off donations than ever before. Bluntly put, we are reliant on people who are not generally part of our worshipping community to subsidise us. This is not good and it raises questions about how realistic our expectations are of ourselves and our site.
If I were to put this another way, it would be that if we did not have the unutterable good fortune to own a hall and the Friends, a flat, we would not be able to remain here, which is a sobering thought. For the past thirteen years since I have been here, we have fought very hard to find the means to restore our buildings and bring our hall and flats up to a lettable standard and there is a lot more work to be done—too much, maybe, for the very small group of people who do most of the work.
There is the thought again in my mind that if this work was not done for the years preceding where we are now, will it be done in the years after where we are now? This is related to how we view our site and mission once again, in that we all need to take much more responsibility for this place which I have grown to love and which I ardently hope you have loved for much longer than I have. Growth as a community over the coming years surely has to incorporate this growth in confidence as well.
None of this is meant in any way as a criticism, but sometimes the balance sheet throws up facts which, uncomfortable though they may be, nevertheless are facts and have to be shared. We have vastly increased the revenue from our site over the last five years, but we need to continue to vastly improve the estate as well and we are not yet finished.
How many of us know our landlord’s selective licensing designation, or the limits of our insurance policy, or the type of roof tile we have to use (down to the type of clay and soil) or how we operate under new data protection laws? All these things concern us all, particularly the PCC.
And what else do we need to do? We must make sure that we continue to welcome a changing parish into our church and to find new ways of engagement. If the parish didn’t change, then nor would we need to, but we move at such a rapid rate we need to keep up. Fundamentally, I think that what we do is what is wanted. We worship God in a way which is timeless and familiar to so many people. What we do is clear and familiar and I hope comforting to those who are seeking and challenging to those who are comfortable.
However our social occasions tend to be dominated by the same people and that is a slight cause for concern—I know its easier to arrange things with people we know, but if it leads to a sense of comfortable familiarity then we can end up as a clique and that simply will mean decline.
I have not spoken directly about money very often in the thirteen years I have been here (by the time you read this it will be into my fourteenth year as Vicar, and there’s been some truly tough, hard times and many joyful ones) but this year is a year in which we need to continue to work on our buildings and to keep the maintenance going.
As our architect will show us, though there is nothing terrifying, we need to keep on top of maintenance and we simply, as a community, do not generate enough cash to pay for it all. I know that I can push myself too hard sometimes and maybe you feel I drive the church too hard as well, but I long for the day when we have only to do maintenance and not constantly juggle major repair work. It’s exhausting and I would like it to be over. This is no easier to write than it is to read, as I hope you know.
So we wondered what this report was for and in part we have found out, whether we like it or not!
Added to this though must be a healthy dose of positivity. That in a changing world and a changing parish and a more and more hostile environment to the faith, we continue to teach it and attract new people to living their lives as part of the family of faith here. Often for short periods, as they move in and out of the area so fast, but as I have said before, being a priest in Blackpool feels more like running an urban pilgrimage centre than a parish and I’m quite content with that, it’s where we are and we are an authentic part of it.
I also want to thank you all, fellow pilgrims, for sharing your journey with me. Never forget that this is your church far more than it is mine, most of you were here long before me and I understand that we might bring culture change with us, but I hope that you know it’s one born out of love for God and for His people.
I don’t know how many more of these I will be writing, but I am already planning what I hope to say in next years at least, which is that we are many steps closer to the restoration of our buildings and the cementing of a culture of corporate responsibility and mutual working.
There will be challenges ahead, indeed this year has already thrown some up and it’s only April, but we carry on in faith, hope and charity, seeking to raise up the downcast, to speak of freedom to the oppressed, of love to those who have given up hope, of mercy to sinners (which is good news for us all) and of the day when Christ will come again in glory and all creation will be manifest as His own, called out of darkness, redeemed by His blood and sanctified by His holy church, to which we pledge ourselves for the years to come, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
To God alone be the Glory and to His people be the work.