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Being a Blessing: Vicar’s Report to the APCM

News St Martin – Talking Points

Sunday 6 April 2014

St Martin-in-the-Fields is a unique institution in the centre of London in which thriving cultural, commercial and charitable activities are rooted in vibrant congregational life. It’s a privilege to be vicar of such a dynamic church. I want to say some words of thanks and also offer a perspective on past and the future.

I want to thank my clergy colleagues, Richard, Katherine, Clare, Paul, and Will. This is a wonderful team, in its faithfulness and imagination, its commitment and collaboration. I’d like to thank our assistant clergy Peter, David and Colin, and our Readers Jeff, Ruly, and Eugene, recognising Roger and Simon who stepped down in the autumn, Tricia our Mandarin Pastoral Assistant and John Falcone our pastoral assistant. I want particularly to thank our churchwardens Ali and Rod for their wisdom and dedication. Thanks to our treasurer Stan, who is an extraordinary gift to our community. I’m grateful to each member of the PCC, especially to those standing down this time, Philippa, Martin, James and Godwin, and to Catherine and Eugene, our deputy wardens. Thanks to the committee chairs and co-chairs, Martin, Caroline, Susannah, Bronwyn and her team, Philippa and Fiona; to Susanne who chairs the Friends, to all the members of committees and groups, to Sir Nicholas and those who sit on our Arts Advisory Panel, and to all who build up and serve the Chinese Church Council. Our Chinese Church is 50 years old and we’re very proud of them. I’m very grateful to Andrew, Nick and Matt for making music and to the choir and choral scholars and St Martin’s Voices for making music for and with us and for and with God together.

I want to thank Louise and all who prepare flowers and Adam, Charles and Helen and the enormous team who steward for services and Caroline and Helen and those who have worked with children and adhered to our safeguarding policy. I want to thank Angela and Elinor who support the clergy and parish and congregation in many ways, and our vergers Jacqui and Tony, welcoming Anna and Peter and Lee to the team and thanking Matthew and Bernadette for their time with us. I’m grateful to Sr Vivien and the lay chaplains and to our bell ringers and to Michael and the archive team. I want to thank all who attend worship and give generously and participate and support so willingly the many activities of St Martin’s life in worship by being an occasional singer or server or lesson-reader or chalice assistant or intercessor or member of the healing team, in education by planning or hosting or cleaning up, in hospitality by serving coffee or meals or making people at home, in pastoral care by visiting and supporting, in fellowship by joining with or leading the Cloak or the Archers or the Open Circle or Club Wednesday or the Meditation Group or cleaning the church at Easter or talking to a visitor, or continuing to pray and think and remember even when not able to attend, or in international links by maintaining close contacts with partners in South Africa and Berlin and Malawi and elsewhere.

It has been a terrific year for St Martin-in-the-Fields Ltd. SMITFL not only underwrites the maintenance and programming of our common life; in many ways it models to the whole organisation what it means to be a healthy, honest, and good enterprise. We all know St Martin’s simply wouldn’t be here without the business. But I’m even more grateful for the way the company embodies the generosity, professionalism, quality and grace to which St Martin’s aspires. I want you here and now to join me in thanking Ally Hargreaves, for her leadership, passion, wisdom, example, energy and collaborative spirit. Ally, you have achieved remarkable results and inspired us all to better things. I’m glad for our directors, John, Chris, and Matthew. I’m thankful for a terrific staff team: for Nadine at human resources, Ryan and Warren at estates, Idris and his finance team, Andrew and Caroline and the concerts team, Diane and her retail and box office team, Luis, Ladka and Adam and their food services team, especially all who’ve launched our wonderful new Café in the Courtyard, Julie and Marc in marketing and communications, and everyone that makes the business and administration of St Martin’s profitable, proud, and personable. I especially want to thank Luis and Diane for a combined 46 years of dedicated and hugely successful service as they depart in June to Cumbria for a new and perhaps quieter life. When the story of St Martin’s is told, they will always have a proud part in it.

And I also want to thank members of the wider St Martin’s community. I have in mind our development staff, Patricia who has been our endowment consultant and her assistants, and those who are on the Development Trust board. I’m thinking of Tim and the Christmas Appeal and VRF team, the Christmas Appeal Trustees and Dorothy and all the volunteers and our partners at the BBC, Diana and the Connection Trustees and Colin and the staff of The Connection, the Friends of the Connection, all who organise and join in the Pilgrimage and the Cycle Ride, those who help with the Vicar’s General Fund, all who promote and play in concerts and in Jazz nights, our American Trustees who send gold from afar, Edith and the Bishop Ho Ming Wah Association and Community Centre and Judith and the Ho Ming Wah trustees and Liz and Simon the Head and Chair at Archbishop Tenison’s and Christos and his role as a governor there and Lesley and Rosemarie the Head and Chair and all our friends at St Martin-in-the-Fields High School.

When I joined St Martin’s 21 months ago I found a vibrant organisation, freshly housed in renewed buildings, with a voluntary culture and professional aspirations, with a monumental national and international reputation and a lively congregation. But there was a paradox at its heart. The three things St Martin’s was most famous for seemed each to be things the congregation felt uneasy about. Let me explain.

St Martin’s is world-famous for its music. It’s the busiest concert venue in the country. And yet quite quickly I picked up a hint of cynicism that there was a lot of Vivaldi by candlelight on a Friday night, that behind the inspiring whole-site brochure the reality was more calculating and less aspirational. Likewise St Martin’s is famous for its work with homeless people. We have the busiest day centre in the country and a highly-regarded charity working to get people into housing and employment. And yet, again, quite early on I heard remarks that, since the creation in 2003 of an independent secular charity to run the homeless work, the culture of congregation volunteering has been eroded, and many of the people the congregation cares most about – those with no recourse to public funds – The Connection seemed to be constrained in helping. And then, third, I travel around the country and overseas, and everywhere I find people who’ve eaten in our café. The café, and the business in general, makes remarkable profits and is run with skill and professionalism by wonderful people. And yet ever since I came I’ve heard mumblings about whether we serve enough fair trade products or whether we pay our staff at a level that helps them cope with the cost of living in London.

I’ve pondered these concerns. Part of me thinks, however good things are, some people will always find a reason to grumble. But another part of me thinks, every organisation, especially every church, should be looking for ways it can better approximate what it truly stands for. And when people are uncomfortable about something, it’s an opportunity for all involved to have another look at what you truly stand for.

I want to commend to you our new action plan, most of all because it addresses precisely the concerns that have evoked this paradox, this ambivalence about what we’re renowned for. So, to take music, the plan is to develop a Sound of St Martin’s – a distinctive style of music that crosses over what used to be a divide between commercial and liturgical offerings. We’ll still do Vivaldi, but we hope what we’ll be most famous for is something that’s more distinctively in tune with our faith commitments and musicians’ talents and yet is still commercially viable. We hope this will make everyone at St Martin’s genuinely proud not just of our liturgical music but of everything musical that happens here.

To take homelessness, in October we started our Sunday International Group in which members of the congregation spend an afternoon with people who are outside the benefit system. It’s been a great success, not just because the participants love it, but because it’s begun to dismantle that sense of disempowerment many members of the congregation have felt about our overall work with homeless people. People feel so much more positive about the work The Connection does when they have a chance to contribute and to shape some of the thinking and direction of the work.

And to take our commercial life, you’ll notice in our action plan lines about attending to the level of remuneration we give our staff, and gauging the quality and appeal of fair trade products. We’re challenging ourselves to become an exemplary organisation. That doesn’t mean living in an idealistic bubble where we hide behind noble principles without ever expecting them to be implemented. It means bringing our faith and vision of redeemed and flourishing life into daily conversation with the realities and costs of organisational existence and enjoying the partnerships and patterns of life that result. I can’t think of a single organisation that’s better placed than we are to embark on this journey of discovery.

So the new action plan is about addressing the quiet misgivings some people have felt about the things we’re most famous for. But it’s also about something else. It’s about looking at the worship and common life of our congregation, at the dynamic vibrancy of our enterprise, at the popularity and renown of our cultural programmes and broadcasting, and the widespread appreciation of our charitable work and saying ‘This is too special to keep to ourselves.’ So each dimension of the plan includes projects that share our faith, commitments, experience and passion with other institutions and, through digital media, around the world. This isn’t hubristic over-reaching – it’s simply setting ourselves high standards and seeking to put to work the five talents the parable places in our hands.

Twenty-five years ago St Martin’s was famous for its heart, but had lost sight of its balance sheet. For the next ten years we got used to a new way of working, integrating commercial practices into the core of our life. For the ten years after that we were gearing up for, enduring, and getting used to the huge renewal project that transformed us into a state-of-the-art London institution. Now we’re setting about plans and ways of working that suit the buildings we’re in. That means taking pride in and integrating the full range of things we do, making the way we do things as important as what we do, and rejoicing in good things that happen for which we don’t expect to get the credit or receive direct benefits.

My prayer is simple. That we be a blessing. That we be a blessing to the thousands of people who come to Trafalgar Square, to work, rest, play, and pray. That we be a blessing to all who come onto our site seeking food for their heart, soul, or body. That we be a blessing to those who come seeking joy and any who arrive looking for hope. That we be a blessing to any who have practically given up on church, on God, on themselves, on life itself. That we be a blessing to any who might not be able to imagine how you can be congregational and commercial, you can be aesthetic and popular, you can be inclusive and faithful, you can be compassionate and pragmatic, you can be heaven and Charing Cross, you can be the church of the Admiralty and of the pacifists, you can be in Galilee with the outcasts and in Jerusalem with the rulers.

My prayer is that people encounter us, by website, worship, coffee, or concert, and they shake their heads, and say, ‘I didn’t realise this could be done.’ And then they open their hearts to the Spirit of the living God, and say, slowly and quietly, ‘Maybe I can do unbelievable things too. Maybe I too can be a blessing.’

Revd Dr Sam Wells
Vicar, St Martin-in-the-Fields