Heritage and renovation

This is the sermon for the “feast of consecration” – the anniversary of the dedication – of the parish where I am the vicar.  This week marks sixty years since the completion of the building, and forty years since the loan was paid off and the building consecrated.  Therefore we were celebrating some significant milestones in the life of this community.

I was so intrigued to see the interview in the Women’s Weekly when this building was opened, where young parishioners described the building as “really cool.”  I don’t know what it would take to have a church building described as “really cool” today, but I’m pretty sure no matter what, it wouldn’t be in the Women’s Weekly.  How times have changed!

But the people of the parish then decided to build a “really cool” church for a reason.  I suspect that it was partly to demonstrate that in a new era of society and Australian culture, the church could still be relevant, and focussed, and part of the progressive momentum which inspired such a vision of a better future.

Rather than this building representing the dead weight of conservative forces, it could be an icon of hope to the people around it.

This is a model of mission that’s sometimes called “institutional renovation;” you take something fundamental to Christianity – in this instance, the concept of a “parish church” – that’s declining in significance, or being increasingly neglected, and you present it in a way which is fresh and invites people to make new connections and discover new meaning (or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover old meaning).

This isn’t a new idea, of course.  Think of St. Francis and his sense of call to “build my church.”  Francis started out by literally renovating a neglected church building, but eventually working out that what God wanted him to do was start a movement of people who lived out being Christian in a fresh way, one which drew in people who had been indifferent and apathetic.

Or if you want a Biblical example, you can think of Nehemiah and his project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; and with them, to rebuild the people of Israel’s sense of identity as the people specially called by God.

It’s not the only model of mission, of course, and for us right now, I think it’s probably not even our strongest.  This parish’s long focus on social justice issues, for example, probably impels us to different ways of being church than just this kind of renovation work.  We probably want to respond to the needs of the world out there, as much as we want to renovate the church as an institution.

But those aren’t entirely unrelated things, actually.  The more we can position ourselves to build points of connection between us and the wider community, the more we’ll be well placed to respond to the needs of that community out of an absolute treasury of authentically Christian spirituality and wisdom.

In order to do that, we need to know what’s in our treasury, and how it might speak to people in our contemporary culture; which is, again, a kind of renovating, or updating, or translating, even, of old treasures into a style that fits where we are now.

Think of it like this, maybe; if I ever inherit my mother’s engagement ring – and God grant that it might be a very long time before I do! – I’ll probably have it remade.  Not only are mum’s hands tiny compared to mine, but dad’s taste when he bought it was – ah – well, not really my taste.  For it to be something I could wear comfortably, it’d need to be remade.

And so it is with how we express ourselves as church.  Not that the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian, to love God and our neighbour, change; think of that as the diamonds, maybe; but that what that looks like and sounds like and feels like, how we set those diamonds into something people will want to wear, changes as our neighbours change.

And so it’s helpful to recognise that that’s what was happening, in the decision to build such a radical and different building, and to see that this kind of renovating approach is part of who we have been; part of our DNA as a parish, as it were.

In a way, the conversation that parish council has begun to have – and that parishioners are being invited to join – on the identity and future intentions of this parish is a similar sort of exercise.  We might know, intuitively, who we are as a parish, and what we value; but getting to the point of being able to articulate that, to communicate it clearly and effectively to the people around us; and to be able to thus communicate our relevance to the people around us; that kind of – for want of a better word – rebranding exercise is also a kind of renovation and, crucially, an invitation to new relationships.

We want to proclaim the good news in ways which genuinely answers the needs of people around us; well, just like the people who built a “really cool” place to encounter God, we need to make sure that the people who receive our message are hearing what we are trying to say.

So just like the architects who avoided the clichés of generations past in making choices about shape and style and materials for this building, we might follow their example by making sure all our communications avoid Christian jargon, or theological terms which mean little to people with no theological grounding.

Or rather than focussing on the fact that we no longer have a Sunday school with hundreds in it, we might realise that helping to foster Christian maturity might need totally new patterns of teaching and nurture; or we might even find that much older patterns of teaching and nurture, ones much more embedded in community and much less dependent on being “in church” at a given time, can be updated for our current context.  It might take some digging into the treasury to explore that.

Those are just examples, but I think you take my point.

Even as we’re engaged in building a picture, a vision of the future we want to aim towards, we can think of the past, and what we’ve inherited from the past, as the frame through which we look at that picture of the future; what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and how we’ve done it, will set some parameters about what will make sense in our picture of the future.

Just as you wouldn’t – I don’t really know much about art – but just as you wouldn’t put an incredibly modern abstract piece of art in a heavy antique baroque gold frame, and expect them to “go” together, we can’t build a future that’s out of keeping with who we have been.  So getting beyond the surface of “they built a really cool building” to see what’s behind that – an attempt to renovate the concept of “parish church” to be relevant to a new age – helps us see what will be in keeping with that legacy, as we keep working to renovate and re-present the treasures we have, to meet the needs of the world around us.

It’s an exciting approach.  It invites us to be creative, and innovative.  To listen to our neighbours and one another and dream about how things could be different.  To try to anticipate what the needs of the next sixty years might be, and how we might answer them with the resources we already have.  And to see that, not as new and a scary challenge, for which we’re ill equipped, but as something we’ve been doing since the first conversation about the possibilities for a new building here.

And long may it continue!


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