Posted: Wednesday 25th April 2018
The Gift of Diversity- Talk to Deanery Synod 24th April 2018.
The Gift of Diversity.
A Talk given to Westminster (St Margaret’s) Deanery Synod
24th April 2018 in the Speaker’s House of the House of Commons.
I’ve been asked to say something about diversity from the local perspective – that of St Anne’s Soho. Let me begin in 1895, or there about. The Rector was John Henry Cardwell a man who did something that, if they’d been broadcasting Round the Horne in those days would have had Julian and Sandy exclaiming “ooh, in ‘e bold!”. What did he do? He invited the Roman Catholic Priest from St Patrick’s Soho Square and the Rabbi from the Synagogue on Dean St (now the Soho Theatre) to join the vestry, the PCC of St Anne’s. It was I believe a radical, daring and far-sighted ecumenical and inter-faith gesture. Cynics may say “the lengths some people go to, to get someone on their PCC who might stand as Deanery Synod Rep”, but I disagree. It was a courageous act which reflected the hospitality of Christ and that peculiarly Anglican vision of the parish church existing for all people within the parish: the ‘cure of souls’ not just of those who were C of E, or regular worshippers, but really for everyone. As Archbishop William Temple was to say fifty years later “the church exists for its non-members” a shocking phrase drummed into me by my RE teacher at comprehensive school.
The vision of the parish church existing for all was of course much simpler in the past: those halcyon days when everyone, with few exception, was Christian and almost all were C of E. But, as Karl Rahner wrote in 1985, “our present situation is one of transition from a Church sustained by a homogenously Christian society and almost identical with it, from a people’s church, to a church made up of those who have struggled against their environment in order to reach a clear, explicit and responsible decision of faith’.
The landscape in which our churches operate is not only completely different to that of Cardwell’s time but changing more rapidly than ever and in a secular direction. Christ’s call to the church to be in the world and not of it, and yet for the church to be able to speak of Christ to those from whom it is becoming increasingly estranged requires not just ‘Reform and Renewal’ but courage. Dare I say ‘the courage of Cardwell’.
When I moved to St Anne’s people said one of two things to me – either “there’s a place with a lot of souls who will need saving” or “good luck with that one- you won’t find many churchgoers in Soho”. Both suggestive of a gulf between church and community. However, what immediately struck me when I arrived was that whilst numbers in church had fallen very low – for particular, understandable and well documented reasons- the desire of the local population and community to have a church and a priest there for them again was still strong. There were people and organisations keen that they should be relevant to the church, and that the church should care for them and speak both to them and at times for them. Diverse groups from the local school, the Collective of Prostitutes, Kingsway College, The Soho Society the Police and Samaritans all came knocking on my door. As a colleague from a different parish observed a while ago, “Most clergy are desperately trying to find ways to connect with their communities, you seem to spend half your life trying to fight them off!”. It’s quite surprising.
So, let me root this in some examples, a few brief snapshots if you like, of life at St Anne’s Soho. These are initiatives that have emerged in the last five years that I’ve been there as Priest-in-Charge and then Rector. Ventures I’ve supported, encouraged or taken on – whether courageously or naively, only time will tell.
1: Next door but-one to us is 56 Dean St the largest and busiest sexual health clinic in Europe, and they approached me to ask how St Anne’s could support them, not least in helping their clients whose sexual dis-functionality was often related to their religious upbringing or a result of a disconnection between their faith and sexual orientation. This has opened the door, not just to one-to-one pastoral engagement with clients and clinic staff, but also to a rolling programme with the lead psycho-sexual therapist specifically aimed at enabling gay men to integrate their sexuality and their spirituality: to live lives characterised by wholeness rather than fragmentation. The conversations in this series are honest and, taking the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well as a biblical model, work on the basis that there is nothing in anyone’s past or present that need stand in the way of an encounter with Christ. Jesus is big enough to cope with who we are, whilst we are led to a fuller understanding of ourselves through that conversation, just as the Samaritan woman was.
As more than one person has said after these sessions, “I never imagined I would be able to have this kind of conversation in a church with someone in a clerical collar”.
2: The church building of Henry Cardwell’s day was very different to the building of which Bishop Richard handed me the keys. Reordered by the Luftwaffe in 1940 the new church interior is prayerfully simple, but the main entrance opened in 1990 was a disaster, bland, dark and easy to miss. So, my vision for a new front- which resulted in us having the church’s name in neon lights- required imagination and a lot of fund raising. When it was suggested that we would have a fund-raising a cabaret evening I was surprised that a young and quiet member of the congregation should ask to be able to host it. Noticing my surprise he said “not as me of course, but as Lady Lambrini”. Trust me, you never know which member of your congregation might secretly be a drag queen. Fast forward two years (with the new entrance well and truly open) and our Quiz Suppers hosted by Lady Lambrini have raised nearly three thousand pounds to support our work with homeless and vulnerable people who turn to the church for help when they don’t know who else to turn to. But just as important as what these events have helped us do for others is the fact that well over half those who attend each time are not church goers. They’ve seen the night advertised on Eventbrite, or know Jacob (Lady Lambrini) through the advertising agency he works in. We celebrate that this is an event of St Anne’s not just in it, and in my opening words each time spell out that all are equally welcome in this, their parish church. We normally begin with a prayer but for Lady Lambrini’s Harvest Ho-down I gave out hymn sheets so we could all sing ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’-which they belted out- but I always end by emphasising that the church, the gospel and I are here for them- whoever they are. We’ve been slow on making the most of the contacts we’ve made, but I have no doubt that we have given all who attended a very different experience of a church community to what they perhaps had imagined or feared…. if they’d thought about it at all.
Then finally, let me just say something about Sunday mornings. I hope we characterise that ‘generous orthodoxy’ through the liturgy and preaching which touches all to some degree and excludes none. We are fortunate that the rebuilt church gives step free-access throughout and accessibility (in every way) is essential to embracing the diversity of people who associate with Soho and enabling that diversity to come in and feel at home here. In some ways we are liturgically traditional and yet the atmosphere is informal, without being casual: a ‘relaxed dignity’ which connects with a diverse range of experiences of what for some church was, or they never thought would be. Where word and sacrament, worship and welcome are open to all. For a diverse regular congregation who really do try to live out the “all are welcome” sign – offering a worship experience that is a combination of the expected and the surprising seems to me to be a gift to those coming for the first time to a church they didn’t realise was in some way already ‘theirs’.
I could say so much more, but I think I’ve already failed to keep to the Area Dean’s time limit. Just one more thing- If anyone says to you “St Anne’s- isn’t that the gay church?” please slap them on my behalf. We’re bigger than that- though we are explicit in our unconditional welcome to the LGBT+ community; something we believe is appropriate for the parish church of Soho to do – especially at a time when the C of E is sending out mixed and confusing messages to that section of our community. St Anne’s is far from perfect, and embracing diversity requires us to hold a faith which often values and practices charity over clarity, and that’s not always comfortable or easy. But, in our experience, receiving diversity as a gift has brought innumerable riches and blessings and is central to the vocation of this parish church and imperative to our mission and ministry.
Rev’d Simon Buckley.
Rector of St Anne’s, Soho.
 K.Rahner. The Practice of Faith: a Handbook of Christian Spirituality (London, SCM 1985) p.30