Monday, September 18, 2006

St James' passover

After a week of hasty final preparations, including mounting a history exhibition in both school and church, and the re-publication of a guide to the church building, we opened St James' doors for the first and last time for a European Heritage Open Day from ten till five, last Saturday, before celebrating the final Eucharist there, and closing doors first opened for worship in 1894.

In the news
On the Wednesday before, I fired off a few judiciously placed emails to the BBC and local press, announcing the event. Thankfully this drew a swift response, next day, including a front page article about further decline in church attendance, citing St James' closure as a case in point. We made the BBC TV Wales evening news, and I was invited to take part in a lunchtime BBC radio phone-in. All this media attention meant the news reached much further than a few posters on church and school notice boards. During the day over 200 visitors came into both church and school, to look at registers and school log books, as well as the exhibition.

The aisle of memory
Many visitors had either been baptized or married in St James'. Others had been 'regulars' in their youth before moving away. A few couples came with fity years of marriage behind them to walk the aisle together and count their blessings, as they put it. Two generations of one family came with their baptism certificates, looked up their register entries, then posed for a photograph. Many were pleased to have a new audience for their reminiscences of times past.

Questions, questions
Apart from mounting all the historic photo exhibits displayed (all the rest was history work from Tredegarville school children), my main contribution was to run the digital slide presentation I'd created from four dozen photos taken during the demolition of the church halls. It happened when most visitors were absent on holiday, and its passing also needed to be recognised because of its long past importance. The hall probably held as much memory as the church for those involved with music theatre presentations, the backbone of much social life of St James for decades before the seventies. Some reminisced at length about the old photographs of the assembled company on stage back in the heyday, and recalled the names of long gone companions for the record. When I wasn't listening to stories I was answering the same few questions about the future of the church and its furnishings time and time again over the course of six hours until I'd nearly lost my voice.

Those who came
The visitors were mainly over sixties, with a sprinkling of more recent church-leavers, present day school staff, parents and children. Over in the school hall, tea and biscuits were served most of the day, whilst visitors sat and leafed through the school log-books to see if they could find references to either themselves or schoolmates.
Chris had printed fifty revised church guides to sell, plus a souvenir colour edition for St James' church electoral members of thirty. IN the afternoon she had to rush over to the school photcopier and reprint another forty to meet unexpected demands. Nearly three hundred pounds was taken in sales and donations, an undetermined sum in collection at the service, plus an anonymous cheque for £150, received later. This financial bonus means we can renew attractively the content of the church notice boards to point enquirers to the school, and some money to put towards the cost of re-locating the font, the eagle lectern and the parclose screen from the Lady Chapel in coming months.

Back to our roots with style, and then quietly
The first school was built in 1871 and the first congregation grew from there through a 200 seater iron mission church to the present building. A missionary congregation in the educational milieu to start with. That's what 'StJames@TredegarvilleSchool' (our suggested new presentation style) will now become.
There were a hundred at the Eucharist. Many of the St James' people were in tears, and were comforted by other parishioners in a moving way. Archdeacon Bill Thomas preached with gentle strong resolve about following the risen Christ. Jenny and Chris led the Eucharist with serenity and radiance. I just sat there in the sanctuary, quite exhausted after my six hour P.R. marathon - so many questions, so few answers to offer, as yet. At the end we paraded with the lit Paschal Candle, across the newly cleared space where the church halls had been, into the school yard and then the hall, for the blessing of the new worship space and the dismissal of the congregation. It was a memorable occasion. Despite the sadness, the hope of resurrection was not extinguished. It was an end, but also a beginning, full of compassion and kindness.

Next day, Sunday afternoon, I welcomed eleven people into the school hall, and used the Lady Chapel Altar and candlesticks moved the night before from church. We sang as best we could, and smiled and hugged. Paul, the Parish Rector's Warden came and joined us for the occasion. A quiet tower of strength he is, filling his new leadership role very nicely indeed. I was keen to take this service myself and give my colleagues time to recover from the palpable emotions of yesterday. I shed my tears at the AGM when the decision to close had to be agreed, an open admission of the failure to find the financial support needed to achieve our development plans. Having let go at that point, refusing to give up entirely, the decision to offer worship in the school had to be mine to make. What if nobody came? Well, that would be a sign that my offer was declined. In the event there were three churchwardens, the Head Teacher, one visitor to the city, two children and four adults, one of whom played the piano. I indulged myself and played the guitar as well. I haven't done that at a Eucharist I celebrated for more than a decade.

The right time
Some argue St James has been so weak for at least the past twenty years that it should have closed a long time ago. But, with such powerful and tenacious glory-day memories surrounding this once prestigious building on a landmark city site, it had to wait until a moment when community memory itself was losing its grip. For me, that moment arrived two years ago when no member of the congregation remembered it was the 110th anniversary of opening, so there was no special celebration to mark the passing of another decade. Memory loss and identity loss walk together. The hundredth anniversary had been marked by a week of special events. One decade later, there was no energy from within the congregation to do this. The clergy are easy scapegoats. "Why didn't you remind us? Isn't it your job" is the usual reproach. The clergy's priority is to remind others of what Christ has done for them, to help them celebrate their festivals and remembrances and find their spritual meanings through the life of faith. If they have nothing to recall or celebrate, Christ is still to be remembered and celebrated, first and last.

Finally, it was time to move on. At least, I hope and pray this will become clearer with the passage of time and the travail of re-building an education based worshipping community.

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