Parish churches are the Church of England’s best answer to our Brexit-divided country because while Brexit is driving people apart parishes are bringing them back together again.
Our raison d’etre is to gather those who are of different races, cultures and types; it is only thus that we demonstrate that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28)”.
Archbishop William Temple’s comment that the Church exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members has echoed throughout my time in Shepherds Bush. When it was announced that I was due to leave the parish the following post was put up on a local website: ‘I’ve never met Bob but I’ve seen him walking around in the area. It became clear he was bringing the community together. I am grateful for that and also the feeling that there was always Bob I could go to. Even though we never met, I will miss you. Polly’
When we arrived in the parish a Polish family parked their car in our drive for a month and lived out of their car while they looked for work. They were wonderful people and came back that Christmas with a Christmas card and a bottle of wine. A homeless man came to the vicarage every evening for five years. I used to call him my teacher because he helped me to see the world through the eyes of the poor and dispossessed. Eventually he left for a flat in Earls Court and his eventual death.
My vicarage has become a safe-haven for vulnerable people on crowded London streets. People knock on the door after they had been released from Wormwood Scrubs with nowhere to stay. I sit late into the night on the steps of the church and talk with them. One Saturday I sat with a concert-goer and talked through the night about why he should not commit suicide. I was in church, a few hours later, preaching about the love of God in Christ Jesus.
A No Deal Brexit would push more people towards Food Banks operating out of churches and community centres across the country. The churches’ concern for the poor is the only public voice that challenges the way that the Brexit discussions are all shaped round whether leaving the EU will make us more or less prosperous as a nation.
So ingrained is the rationale of consumer choice that we fail to realise how pitiless it has made us as a society. An old Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.” It has taken someone from outside to draw attention to what is actually happening in the UK.
A United Nations’ (2018) report on poverty in Britain has concluded that British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach.”
As vicar at St Stephen’s the Biblical mandate to care for the poor and dispossessed has left me at different times feeling angry at injustice, frustration at unfairness and grief at unkindness from one person to another.
As I prepare to leave St Stephen’s I find myself with a new emotion that is none of these. For the first time in my life I am ashamed. I am ashamed of the institutional racism shown towards the Windrush Generation, the design and delivery faults in Universal Credit and the fact that we are seen as punitive, mean-spirited and callous in our approach to the poor.
I put my trust, as I have always done, in the living Lord and through his grace God puts his trust back in me. Parish churches form the bedrock of the Church of England’s mission to the country and still form the heart of her identity in the community.
Newbigin (1989) wrote: ‘I do not think that we shall recover the true form of the parish until we recover a truly missionary approach to our culture. I don’t think that we shall achieve a missionary encounter with our culture without recovering the true form of the parish.’
There is nothing so capable of transforming people’s lives as a church in love with Christ. A believing, celebrating and loving Christian congregation, rooted in Christ, committed to each other and invested in the life of the community will not be able to withhold from others the secret of its hope.
The Rev Dr Bob Mayo is the Vicar of St Stephen and St Thomas Shepherds Bush and is due to start in March as the Chaplain at Rochester Prison