The past few days have been quiet, not many demands upon me pastorally. The routine of ministerial life is either intensely busy or so quiet you wonder if you've been forgotten. It gives time to recover, to reflect, to catch up on unfinished tasks. The pile of unread documents goes down, either by reading, by consignment to the waste bin, or by filing for reference. There's time to start thinking and planning the months to come, and to wonder what the New Year will bring, and how unexpected events will re-shape attitudes and priorities. 2005 has been overshadowed by huge natural disasters, terrorism, and other kinds of blood-letting. Will the coming year be a case of more of the same? I can't help thinking that environmental change is likely to become more of a pre-occupation. I was thinking recently about how this is already affecting management of our church buildings. Wales may eventually get warmer and drier in summer, colder and wetter in winter, and adaptations will be needed to cope.
Wales has always been a rainy place. These days we get much stronger downpours, and winds gusting in new directions. Apart from wind being able to damage pinnacles, something St John's knows about all too well from recent experience, it can cause a buildup of outflowing water from high up roof gutters, leading to water finding its way up and over the tops of walls instead of down the drainpipes. The result is internal damage, costly redecoration and repairs needed. To prevent this happening, somehow in the not too distant future funds, will have to be raised to modify both roof leading and cast iron water collectors to cope with changed weather. Repairs to the central heating which broke down before Christmas will have cost several thousand pounds more than the cost savings because we didn't have to switch on until late in a mild autumn.
Making the building more thermally efficient is a responsible but expensive choice. If we were to have much colder winters, we might not be able to afford church heating bills at all, already it's a heavy drain on church resources. We'll need to be imaginative and far sighted to address such practical challenges with so little financial support from ordinary donations. We are forced to rely on applications to large grant making bureaucracies to pay for major renovation work. The competition for funding is intense, and the application process is invariably complex, and demanding to ensure success. It requires administrative skills which are not usually those expected of a pastor, and eats up time remorslessly. I feel more like a curator of buildings than a pastor these days.
When I was younger in ministry, I swore I would never put buildings before people. I'm now in my later years of public ministry, in a society where faith in Christ is no longer common among the population. I realise buildings aren't quite so dispensable to the propagation of the Gospel as I once considered. They represent the city's history and culture, but more importantly they are symbols declaring the presence and purposes of God in a society that seems hell-bent on ignoring or denying the truth and reality of faith.
Many people seem to be allergic to sharing in public worship, yet are still eager to soak in the tranquil atmosphere of a sacred place, and attempt to find their identity and purpose in relation to it. It's one place where Christians still have the right to speak of God and interpret life in a religious way. Everywhere else in the world we have to earn the right to speak of the God we worship, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that we are too easily drowned out by voices promoting alien gods and ideologies competing for people's loyalties and cash.
Social transformation needed
I opened the church briefly just three times this past week for the advertised services. The first day, none of the regulars attended. The second and third times, I had the usual handful of familiar faces with me for the Eucharist. But on all three occasions, having spotted the doors were open, visitors came in, sat quietly, lit candles, looked around, and left without joining in the service. The building means something to them, though not enough for them to want to share responsibility for its future. Sure, some people put a donation in the wall safe, but it's never enough to help us make ends meet. We couldn't sustain the practice of charging a fee for people to visit the building, morally or practically, but without more help the future is far from certain, even for an architectural gem and cultural treasure, at the heart of the capital city. I just keep on praying that visitors will turn into pilgrims, that interest will transform into commitment, that matches that shown by the hard working faithful core membership we still have. After all, the future of the church is not ultimately in my hands but God's.