The Dean's Annual State of the Cathedral Address

January 27, 2020

The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington's remarks to the congregation at the 2020 annual meeting held Sunday, January 26, 2020.

I doubt that there is anyone in the room who is not aware of my passion for the Holy Land. As many of you know, for over twenty years I have been taking people on pilgrimage there, and in partnership with Bishop Lee, have taken two large groups from this diocese in recent years. In addition to leading pilgrimages myself, I have helped countless other clergy undertake such trips, and I suspect that I have been responsible for several thousand people visiting Jerusalem, and, I hope, having their lives and their relationship with God changed and heightened as a result. 

You will not be surprised to know, therefore, that a question that I have been asked a great number of times over the years, is, “Is it safe?” For reasons that are entirely valid, people have anxieties both about the conditions within Palestine and Israel, and also about the issues affecting the wider region. I delight, therefore, in being able to boast that in over two decades of such ministry, nothing has ever happened to a single pilgrim in my care, and everyone I have ever taken – or helped others take – has returned home full of joy at the quality of the welcome they have experienced from the local population there, and the sense of security which they felt they enjoyed. 

And – usually – such a reply satisfies those asking the question, and, if time and money permit, they come and join me along the way. But, of course, there have been those who have listened to other voices, whether just the tremors of their own heart, or their family and friends, and who have concluded it would be safer not to head towards Jerusalem, and remain in the security of their own home. 

I mention all this not as a plug for my next pilgrimage – although when that time comes, I will be delighted to twist as many arms as possible to come and join me – but because, as I was listening to the passage we heard read as the gospel earlier this morning, when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him down a three-year path to Jerusalem, I was struck that they did not ask Jesus about whether it would be safe. The way Matthew tells the story, they appear to give no thought either to what you might call their economic safety, let alone their personal safety. And that’s rather a good thing – because if they had done, I very much doubt that you and I would be sitting here today. And, if they had done, then there is no doubt – just to pick up a theme from our other reading from First Corinthians – if they had given a thought to their safety, then, without a doubt, the cross of Christ would have been ‘emptied of its power’.

Jesus’ call to the fishermen, of course, is intimately connected to the inbreaking of light for people sitting in darkness, so Matthew told us using a quotation from Isaiah, and it was intimately connected to the presence of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants the four fishermen to up their game – if they follow Jesus, they will be fishing for people. People who are up for a change of heart and, hopefully, a change of life – people who are up to encountering light, even when the world feels dark. And it’s a job that needs doing by people who are not too bothered about safety… 

So, I guess the question with which we need to deal with this morning as we review this last year, is how much light have we generated when there has been darkness around? How much have we helped build the kingdom of heaven? How well have we fished for people? 

Well – there are some very encouraging answers to these questions in the facts and the reports to which we have already paid attention today. To touch on just a few: 

  • We fed over 3,500 guests across 24 meals in this very room in 2019. 
  • In serving 24 campers (three more than the previous year) over two wonderful weeks in the summer, SITC, consolidated its links with churches on the south side in a very effective manner. 
  • Our contribution to various charities both at home and abroad increased in generosity to very nearly $100,000 and our participation with the Revive Christmas Basket program saw us more than double the number of individuals who were supported in 2018, with an estimated spend almost triple that year. 
  • St. James has become nationally regarded for its work with and participation in Invite, Welcome, Connect, and I am delighted that Lisa has joined its Advisory Board. Making St James a yet greater place of welcome is a great gift that bears continuous fruit. 
  • Our ministry with children has continued to grow in terms of activity and number of participants, and, as of the start of this month, as we have heard, has blossomed into youth ministry as well. We have also seen the creation of a junior choir that will act as a feeder into our chorister program. 
  • Our young adults group has grown and consolidated, generating two baptisms and thirteen confirmations, as well as an ever-growing sense of fellowship and discipleship. 
  • We have had a remarkable year in terms of Christian formation, with a profoundly important Lent offering that was indebted to the work and support of the diocesan anti-racism commission, and the creation of a whole new series of discussion and fellowship groups on Wednesday evenings, starting with The Way of Love series flowing from the teaching of the Presiding Bishop. 
  • And, of course, impressed by what he had head of the vibrancy of all that was happening here, when deciding where he would like to visit in person to speak about The Power of Love, the Presiding Bishop put St. James  at the top of his list, and spent the night of July 31st speaking to a packed cathedral about Jesus, love, and his ministry as the leader of our church. 
  • And as if all that were not enough, our Average Sunday Attendance this last year has crossed a significant line and is now slightly over 300. That is one bit of numerical light in the darkness of ever declining numbers for church attendance across the nation. 
  • On top of that, our pledges for 2019 were over $100,000 more than the previous year at $664,000 and we already have $679,000 pledged for this year, with an average pledge of $4,326 – 68% of which are either new or increased pledges from the previous year. 

That’s a lot of light in darkness, and a lot of fishing for people. That’s a lot about the kingdom of heaven, and even about that much less significant institution (at least in the eyes of Jesus) which we call ‘the church’. In short, that is a lot of good news, inspired by the real Good News that comes from and is rooted in Jesus. 

And this has come about – this has all come about – really because of three groups of people. The first, and most important group of people, is… you. Because I am certain that this wonderful crowd of people gathered here right now includes folk who have: 

  • Cooked and served meals on Tuesdays or Sunday
  • Been a face of welcome to people arriving at St. James at a Sunday or weekday service
  • Given to one or more of our charitable appeals
  • Maintained and possibly increased a pledge to our mission and ministry
  • Turned up and prayed, and by your prayers supported the work of others that you might not have been able to undertake yourself. 

I suspect that this brief list – which is certainly incomplete – covers every single person in this room. (I have to say that if it does not, I’m honestly not sure why you are here!) So, I want to offer my grateful thanks to you all, and to all our friends and members who cannot be with us at this meeting. 

Secondly, I want to acknowledge our Chapter and our wardens. The governance of the cathedral community requires prayer, wisdom, courage and vision. And I need to tell you, my friends, that you have been profoundly well served by those you have elected to serve you in these positions. Even in a context of growth, leadership of a church community is not a straight-forward task, and your Chapter, wardens and officers have demonstrated leadership that is prayerful and courageous, and I will be touching on some of their major decision as I speak further. 

And the third group of people I must name, of course, are your staff. I have said before that I have never worked with such a wonderful group of people, and that I continue to make such a remark is a tribute to them that is utterly fitting and wholly deserved. It has been a year that has seen some changes in our team. As we knew would be the case Mary Pan, our first Organ Scholar in this current era, moved on after two years at Stephen’s right hand, and is currently undertaking a similar role at Gloucester Cathedral in England. She was replaced in the fall by Isaac Drewes, whose skills we have rapidly come to appreciate. That Isaac’s position with us is partly funded by Anglican Association of Musicians, putting us in the company of such churches as the National Cathedral and Trinity, Copley Square, speaks volumes about what Stephen has accomplished here in a short period of time.

We have also rejoiced in the presence among us of Jackie Lord, “Chef Jackie”, who has become kitchen manager for this building, delighting both cathedral members and our diocesan colleagues and visitors with her consistently excellent cuisine.

A change of staff that was not expected was the departure of Alan Taylor, who resigned shortly before Christmas, and left us earlier this month. Alan gave a vast amount to the cathedral, not only as a staff member, but also as a sometime member of Chapter, a member of our stewardship committee, and, most memorably, as a tenor in the choir. In the time that St James was both his place of work and his spiritual home, Alan’s life changed and developed, and, as he left us, he got engaged to his beloved Calvin, and we hold them both in our prayers as life continues to unfold for them in Glen Ellyn. 

I had not expected Alan to resign. When he did so, I did not expect to be able to replace him quickly and easily, but, in fact, this was exactly what did happen, and we have been delighted to welcome Alexandra Kunath to the second floor. Like Alan before her, she comes to a staff position from the Choir, and she is already making her mark, and finding her place in our committed and tightly knit team. 

We are also delighted that Bishop Lee has appointed the newly-ordained Brenda Kilpatrick to serve as a deacon here, after some eighteen months without a deacon on our staff. As you all know, Brenda was ordained just before Christmas, and it is good to have her among us, and to have the liturgical ministry of a deacon modeled here at the cathedral.

I should also remind or tell you that there will be a temporary change in the staff in the Spring. Lisa will be taking a very well earned three month sabbatical from March until June. While it will be hard to imagine this place without her – and let me say this is true for nobody more than myself – it will, I hope, be a chance for rest and refreshment for her that will be an investment in the next phase of her ministry. And although we will miss her enormously, I am delighted to tell you that Stuart Hoke, who preached such a memorable Holy Week for us in 2018, has agreed to spend the weeks Lisa is away here with us in Chicago. Those of you who were here for his Holy Week will, I know, be delighted by this – and those of you who have joined since then…. You are in for a treat!

So, I hope that, like me, there is much – very much indeed – about the last year with which to feel pleased. Genuinely, we can speak of things that have built the kingdom and shone light in darkness. Genuinely, we have tried, and had some degree of success in fishing for people. I hope, however, that we have not played it entirely safe – and I hope that this will be the case as we move through 2020…

Certainly, while they demonstrate a deeply responsible approach to the fiduciary responsibilities that are thrust upon them, that does not mean your Chapter has made what you might think of as safety as its first priority. That is, I believe, implicit in the budget that has been set for 2020, and what it implies for 2021.

Three years ago, as many of you will be aware, the cathedral received a large and completely unexpected legacy from a member who died in the 1950s. This gift of over a million dollars came out of the blue and was simply left to the cathedral for its regular operations. No restrictions were made on its use at all. The timing of this gift was, to my mind, heaven sent, for it came at just the point that I, Lisa and Robert, had got our feet under the desk, altar and pulpit, and had identified so much potential for growth in this beloved church community.

But, as some of you will recall, as a staff we were already at – if not beyond – capacity, and while supported (as we still are) by many wonderful volunteers, we were clear that, if we were to grow, we would need extra staff to make this possible. And thus, when this remarkable gift appeared from nowhere, Chapter decided it would use it for a three year period as the tool to see if we could achieve the growth we thought possible.

This led to the creation of our curate position, our Director of Children’s Ministry position, and funded the organ scholarship and our growth in communications work. And – just to reduce this to a very simple conversation about numbers, which is not what this is really about, but it will do for now – if you look at our growth in membership and pledging, you can see how wise Chapter was in making such a decision. It was not a safe decision. Safe decisions usually have words like ‘investment’ and ‘deposit’ in the minutes and resolutions which accompany them.

But, in mentioning all of this, I am reflecting and reminding you of the recent past, in order to make sure you see the likely direction of the future. This year is the last of the three years in which the fund Chapter created from the Taylor legacy will figure in our budget.  In the year Chapter received the legacy and decided how to use it, our pledges for the year were just over $450,000. As we go into 2020, they are at $679,000 (and with 38 pledges from 2019 yet to be renewed – wake up, guys!). And our congregational numbers have risen as well – especially at the 9 a.m. service, where the fruits of Alison’s work in children’s ministry are mainly to be found.

So I simply tell you that, before Chapter signed off on the budget in your binder for 2020, I explicitly asked it if members were of the opinion that, when it is time to set the 2021 budget, they would feel it expedient to abolish the organ scholarship, curate’s post and children’s ministry post – because that is what would be needed to get us even close to a draw of no more than 5% on our investments in 2021. Chapter was not of the opinion that this would be the right way forward, and that will have implications for 2021 that will be missional – but not (at least in some people’s minds) safe – notwithstanding that our assets grew by 21.6% in 2019.

One person asked me what I thought the answer was to the issues these figures represent. Let me briefly share with you my own analysis of the situation, based on my knowledge and experience of St. James since I arrived in the fall of 2015.

At the point I arrived, St. James had been in a rapid downward spiral, partly brought about by the very sudden staff changes in December 2014. I inherited a climate of acute financial concern, coupled with low morale, and a level of distrust between the staff, the Chapter and the congregation as a whole. All that is a very distant memory now, and we have watched membership grow – and we have watched pledging grow substantially, which is usually a sign that church members are feeling confident about their ‘investment’ in their church community.

When, in late 2015, I looked at the list of extant pledges, let alone the list of people who worshiped regularly here but did not pledge, I was aghast. A considerable number of people who attended frequently had no commitment to giving, and a good number of those who did were exhibiting a pattern of giving that could not be called generous. There was room for growth!

And the growth has – frankly – exceeded any hopes I dared have. Broadly speaking, I would say that almost everyone I recognize as a regular worshiper now has a pledge, and  many of those pledges represent generous and deep commitment to our work here. And that means that our next challenge is about evangelism – it is about growing our church family, and drawing more people to Christ, who will, in time, join the rest of you as committed, generous, sacrificial givers to the mission and ministry of Christ’s church.

And that’s not safe, either! We flirted with a bit of evangelism in the fall, with the ‘Season of Invitation’ – something modeled on a very accepted custom in the Church of England, and very consonant with our enthusiasm for Invite, Welcome, Connect. But there is no doubt that the ‘I’ part of Invite Welcome Connect is what we all find the hardest – and the response to our attempt to have everyone do some inviting showed how sometimes we do like to play it safe, and not take the risk of rejection. But, my friends, this does not grow the church let alone build the kingdom, and nor does it help us fund the kind of church life in which we believe, and which we want to sustain and develop – indeed, the kind of church life that creates the kind of environment which people want to join, as the last three years have demonstrated so very conclusively and clearly.

So, I hope that we will not worry about ‘safety’ when the exciting challenge of invitation rolls around again this next fall! Because God, in Jesus, is calling every single one of us to fish for people, and you do not need me to tell you that is about more than just being nice and welcoming if they happen to walk through our doors. It is about having a heart and mind actively to go out and fish – even if that does make us feel just a little unsafe at times.

But if we are going to talk ‘unsafe’, I need to talk with you about what will, without doubt, be the most far-reaching decision that your Chapter has taken in some decades – a decision it took at its most recent meeting, only a short while before Christmas.

My appointment as Dean of this so very wonderful cathedral was announced both here, and in my previous parish in England, in the Lent of 2015, and the very week after the announcement, it was a delight for us to welcome Bishop Lee in Kettering as our guest preacher. Chatting with him over lunch about his desires and mine for the future of St. James, he mentioned that he had always hoped to see the cathedral re-ordered before he retired. And when, a few months later, I arrived and started work here, I became convinced that the bishop was utterly correct in having such a desire. In particular, as you will all know, I was profoundly ‘convicted’ that we needed to find a proper way of connecting the plaza to the church, let alone dealing with a host of challenges that come from the combination of the inappropriate and extravagant marble altar platform and the lack of ‘cathedral chairs’ that would give flexibility to our worship space.

We have danced a long, slow dance since then, working with the brilliant English architect Ptolemy Dean, who, some while ago, provided a vision of how we could re-work our building to make it so very much more adaptable for mission in the 21st Century. From the acorn of this beginning, we have seen quite an oak tree grow in terms of activity and information.

You all know that alongside this vision for our building, we recognized that the current organ was at the end of its life. In his report to this meeting, Stephen remarks that ‘the condition of the Cathedral organ continues to deteriorate, and its inadequacy for service-playing and accompanying becomes more pronounced…’ – and, believe me, he is neither joking nor exaggerating. And so we formed an organ committee a year ago, which is now close to the point of identifying a builder to create a new organ for St. James that would stand as a fitting testament to the legacy of exceptional music-making for which this church is known.

On the structural and architectural front, working with Ptolemy, our local architect Paul Steinbrecher, and Pepper Construction, we have worked out all that would need to be done to enable the building not merely to be redesigned to suit our needs, but also to deal with a very considerable amount of deferred maintenance.

And, in financial terms, again as many of you know, Chapter asked Nike Whitcomb to conduct a feasibility study to research two questions for us: was there money in sufficient quantity out there in places accessible to us as a church family, and, if so, did we have a chance of persuading its owners to make a gift to us to help us tackle issues of the past and lead us into the future.

To cut a very long story short, Nike’s conclusion is that it is most definitely possible for us to raise a substantial sum of money towards some or all of this work. Her report to Chapter concluded that at the very least she is confident we could raise $10 million – and, quite possibly, considerably more. And on that basis, Chapter’s final decision of 2019 was to say we will start a capital campaign to address these very necessary and vital aims.

That means much more conversation and consultation – with all sorts of people, most particularly with you, our members. The little exercise in which you took part before we began the meeting is iconic of that. And there will be plenty more conversation to come, as we seek to work out together, in the light of the professional guidance we have received, how we take St. James forward, not just into the coming year, but how we set it on a path that will influence its mission and ministry for years to come.

The path is a hugely complex and challenging path, not helped by wearisome and, frankly, rather dispiriting issues about the ownership of the church building, this building and the plaza, and how they are operated. We will have to address the challenges of neglect from years gone by, which do not do either the cathedral or the diocese great credit, and we will have to be courageous about the future.

And while we have an exciting future in which I have been able, with utter legitimacy, to talk about growth, both congregationally and financially, you probably know this is set in the context of Bishop Lee’s imminent retirement, and a decline of almost catastrophic proportions in diocesan finances, the implications of which have already had a considerable impact on the operation of this building we share. That has created a climate of unease in the wider diocese that will make the ministry of the 13th Bishop of Chicago profoundly challenging, to say the least. 

And let me say at this point I cannot predict, and I do not want to predict, what the outcome of our campaign will be. But that Chapter feels it is worth pursuing is, itself, Good News. Indeed, as one long-standing parishioner currently serving on Chapter said recently, the very fact that, as a church, we could aspire to dream of raising a sum like $10 million is extraordinarily good news. And it is news that shows that here at St. James, the cross of Christ is not being emptied of its power, and that we are allowing values like mission and growth to define us, rather than simply going for what might appear ‘safe’, whether it be financial safety or ecclesiastical safety. 

And if you are excited by this, I need to ask you to do something important. And if you are scared or worried by this, I need to ask you to do something important. I need you to pray. I need you to be committed – all the more committed – to the life of this wonderful church and the service of our God, and that means I need you to be rooted and grounded in prayer. I need you to make Sunday mornings the cornerstone of your life. I need you to grow in faith and prayer, through our weekday offerings of Morning Prayer and lunchtime Eucharist if you can. I need you to take advantage of our faith formation offerings and our chorister Evensong on Wednesday evenings. Next week, we will launch this year’s parish retreat, led by Bishop John Pritchard, who will immerse us in resurrection as we journey through Lent. Not everyone will be able to spend 48 hours in prayer up in Racine, WI, but if you can, you will be transformed and uplifted by doing so. And that is what we need. 

Because let me tell you that the road to success of a vast capital campaign will not, ultimately, depend on Nike Whitcomb’s professional skills and experience, enormous and inspiring though they are. They will not, ultimately, depend on the beauty of my English accent and my eloquent pleas to you and to others to write us large checks. Ultimately, the growth and flourishing of St. James Cathedral, whether in a capital campaign or anything else, will depend on us being rooted and grounded in prayer, so that God’s love shines through our words and actions and intentions. Prayer, and only prayer, can be the backbone of our mission and of our ministry, and in that we all have to play our part. 

Many of you will have read C.S. Lewis’ tales of Narnia and encountered the great lion Aslan. Young Susan is taken aback to discover that this kingdom is ruled by such a beast, and not by a man, and she asks Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe. His reply is, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.” 

This morning we heard again the call to help the King build the Kingdom. And, actually, we have been hearing that call throughout all that we did in 2019, and it is writ large in the pages of these important documents – and it is the same call that is drawing us onwards into 2020 and beyond. 

It wasn’t safe for Simon Peter or Andrew or James or John to follow Jesus’ call they heard at the lakeside 2000 years ago. For them and for so many others, it turned their life upside down, and led them to a martyr’s death. But, like Narnia, they never said anything about ‘safe’, because the cause of the Kingdom goes beyond safe. 

And, as your Dean, I am profoundly grateful I am hearing and living this call in a church community that strives so well to follow that same call to follow and to build. For, my dear friends, in a place like this we don’t do ‘safe’, and we are not going to start doing ‘safe’, because, as Paul knew so well, ‘the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Amen. 

Author: Robert Black