January 27, 2019
St. James Cathedral's Annual Meeting
The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington
One of my earlier memories, from when I was a rather precocious seven-year-old, living as an only child with my parents, was witnessing a moment that was, if you like, an extraordinary “coming out.” A statement that, in effect, was saying, “Just because it used to be this way, doesn’t mean it can’t be different in the future.” It was not, however, a “coming out” of great seriousness. It occurred during what I believe was the ninth episode of the anarchic TV series that changed the face of British comedy in the late 1960s, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Although Python was never quite as popular over here as in Britain, some of you may recall the extraordinary sketch when Michael Palin plays a miserable and hopeless barber. He suddenly announces to a customer, his girlfriend, and an unexpected male chorus of Canadian mounted police, that he had never wanted to spend his life cutting hair. In a cheeky pastiche of a Mozart aria, he sings about his desire, rather, to be a lumberjack.
At the risk of sounding frivolous, I confess to having found myself humming the Lumberjack song only last week, when I had the great joy and privilege to be in the Galilee, visiting the site associated with the story we heard read earlier this morning as our gospel reading. A story which has Jesus articulating a change of vocation that eclipses anything Monty Python could ever have dreamed.
Jesus was on a roll. Excited and encouraged by the spectacular ministry of his cousin John, who is out there in the thick of “the people’, telling them it’s time to have a change of heart and a change of life, Jesus is baptized. He is given the most wonderful sense of affirmation of being God’s beloved child, hurled into the wilderness to try and make some sense of what that might mean, and rolls up back in the Galilee, his hometown, where everyone has known him since he was a kid.
It is there and then that he makes his extraordinary statement. A “coming out’, if you like, when, with every eye upon him in the one and only synagogue in town, he tells his neighbors, friends, colleagues, and quite possibly his extended family, that their expectations of him are misplaced, and he’s not content to be the next generation of the family carpentry business. He’s got a different vocation.
Michael Palin sang out, “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay…” Jesus sings out that he is more than just okay. Jesus says that he is the personification of the good news promised by God many centuries before. He is the fulfillment of the good news promised to the poor, the release promised to captives, the gift of sight to the blind, and the freedom for those oppressed by the woes and injustices of life. He is not just the carpenter’s eldest child, stuck in the family business. He is the fulfillment of “the Lord’s favor.” And, pace Monty Python, it’s not just okay... it is good! Jesus’ newly claimed vocation is to be the ultimate Good News.
A few minutes ago, Lisa spoke to us about how parishes can transform themselves regarding their size, and the impact on their activities and you all have in front of you details of some of the transformations that have taken place here at St James in this past year. An 8% increase in attendance; a 10% increase in meals served to our guests on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings; a 44% increase in children enrolled in our formation programs; the average pledge increased in by 30.6%, taking us comfortably over $600,000, a rise of over 65% since Lisa, I and most of our colleagues arrived as your new staff team in 2015.
This is transformation. This is, in some ways, a different kind of cathedral to what it used to be. And it is manifestly good news. These are, without any doubt, glad tidings, which is why we have been singing: Publish glad tidings: tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption, and release.
And one of the reasons for these glad tidings of Good News are that we are getting better and better at living out the message of the other Scripture reading we heard just now: that vital passage from Paul about how the body has many members that are called to work together. That’s been a very important part of the narrative of this last year.
Your Chapter and your wardens have exemplified this. They have demonstrated a deep and prayerful commitment to the life and growth of St James Cathedral, taking decisions that have been vital and visionary. While I hope that Erin, Craig and all the Chapter members would say that we work well together, let me assure you that such a sentiment should in no way be taken as meaning they simply rubber stamp my ideas. You should all feel very blessed at the level of thought and scrutiny that has gone into the decision-making process that is at the heart and core of the life of this cathedral.
And if the elected lay representatives of the cathedral have demonstrated this, so too have the staff, which continues to be the most remarkable group of people with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work. It has been a sadness that we had to bid farewell to that luminary musician Dent Davidson, whose stay at the cathedral proved to be much too short. But we rejoice with him in the creation of a new full-time post at the magnificent parish of St Bart’s in Manhattan, where his skill and enthusiasm will find a very natural home. We also said goodbye to Timothy Beltran del Rio, as we re-assessed our administrative needs, but we are pleased that he was immediately appointed to a similar position working for our immediate colleagues and neighbors in Episcopal Charities.
And, of course, we have rejoiced in the arrival of Anna back last summer. At this point last year, when I outlined the steps I intended to take to appoint a curate, I said:
The most important thing at this point is to find the person whose personality and energy will best fit into the current staff team. I would rather have the “right” junior priest join us and work with us in a way that will build and enhance our team than limit my search of seminarians or junior clergy by restricting it to a particular talent set.
Well, at the risk of making her blush, I think you’ll all agree that we found the “right” person. Anna’s presence among us has enhanced the staff team and brought great gifts to the mission and ministry of our cathedral community, and very particularly in the context of our work with young adults, and our outreach ministries, as you have heard.
Anna’s appointment (and, indeed, the sadly short-lived appointment of Dent) was due to the foresight and vision of Chapter at the end of 2017, which approved a budget that increased staff numbers because it was convinced that this was how growth would be achieved. Again, as I reminded you last year, in the current climate, churches do not tend to stand still. It is rare, at this time of year, that you get rectors and deans talking to their church families at meetings like this, just saying, “Oh, it’s been another year like last year. Here we all are, no change.” As I told you last year, not to grow or to plan for growth leads inexorably to decline.
So I hope you will feel more than pleased that Chapter’s strategy has, indeed, brought us growth. We are not where we were this time last year, and we are most definitely not where we were when the other members of the staff and I first came to St. James in 2015. And that is because we – you, me, all of us – are committing ourselves to a ministry that demands that we hold our heads up high and proclaim Good News. We are committed to rejoice in being called to publish glad tidings: tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption, and release.
So what of the year to come? Has the vision been fulfilled? Are we now who we are meant to be? Have we found the Good News and lived it out?
Of course, while it is good that we can feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment in much that we have reviewed this morning, the answer is “no!” And our readings from the service this morning shout that out loud to us for two reasons.
The first is that, quite simply, this wonderful “lumberjack” moment from Luke’s gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In the bizarre and anarchic approach to comedy that Monty Python gave the world, Michael Palin’s lumberjack also reveals near the end of his song that, "I put on women’s clothing, and hang around in bars." The muscular, macho Mounties who have been cheering him on, walk out on him, as does his disappointed girlfriend!
In the rather more serious case of Jesus of Nazareth, it takes only eight more verses of Scripture before the crowd that are his neighbors are trying to murder him. Nineteen chapters later, he is nailed to the cross. What we have achieved, although it is certainly Good News, is something like a good base from which we can grow and expand our ministries, and, indeed, conduct a capital campaign.
We are now in a position to show both our members, and, more importantly, the rest of the world, that we are not a church stuck in a rut, or looking inwards, or facing decline. We are a church which can do some extraordinary things when we turn to God in prayer and focus our lives with the help of the Holy Spirit. And, my friends, we are going to need to carry on doing some extraordinary things, if we are going to be truly effective in publishing those glad tidings of redemption and release.
And the second hint about why this is only the beginning of what we should be doing comes in that wonderful passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the complex and rather divided church in Corinth that he has founded. Strive, says Paul, Strive for the greater gifts. Now, I grant you, that this could sound like advice from Nike Whitcomb, who is working with us to ensure that our campaign will do all we want to do, and perhaps more as well. And we will be striving for great gifts in our campaign.
But you and I both know that Paul is talking about something even more important when he says this. Because if you read straight on, he talks of a more excellent way. That way, of course, is about being rooted in love: a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. We are beginning to model our investment in such a love... but we are not there yet.
We all have got to keep growing in our discipleship. That means growing in prayer, spirituality, and commitment.
Have you made an effort to come and discover the quiet joy of Morning Prayer as a way of starting your day? Have you carved out some lunchtime chances to come to a weekday Eucharist? You saw the increase in the number of liturgies being offered here this last year. For the committed Christian, coming to church once a week is the starting point of spirituality, not the endpoint. In a way that is wonderfully unexciting, disciplines like this can change your week for the better, rooting and grounding it in God. Have you thought about coming on our parish retreat in March with Fr. Lister Tonge, and seeing what God can do for you in the context of a quiet weekend away to refocus your life?
Have you told your close friends, neighbors or colleagues what you are doing right now? We are growing, but let’s grow more. Do you know anyone in your friends, or your family, or your workplace, or anywhere else. Do you know anyone who wants to hear Good News? Do you know anyone who could do with a dose of “redemption and release?” We have it aplenty! That’s what we have been talking about all morning. So let’s make sure we share it.
God is calling us into a remarkable 2019, and into something remarkable that will go beyond 2019, and ultimately into eternity. And I think we know that God’s Good News is life-changing. And the reason we do what we do; the reason we use our money the way we use it; the reason we want to grow and change our plant and facilities in a great campaign; all this is because we want as many people as possible to experience this Good News.
That wonderful mission hymn with which we closed our service, and which I have been quoting, it has a sting in the last verse, when it makes us focus on when Jesus will come again. It challenges those who sing it by saying: let none whom he hath ransomed fail to greet him, through thy neglect, unfit to see his face. Let’s make sure that is not us, and those who join us here at St James Cathedral. Let’s make sure that as we head into this year, and head onwards in the grace and power of God’s Good News, let’s make sure that we can always: Publish glad tidings: tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption, and release.