Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
From 20th of this month I start my short summer break in our South German home. Many of you have returned from your holidays and the children are back at school. I trust that this summer has brought to you all refreshment and much joy of meeting loved ones and friends, experience of new places or revisiting old haunts. And even if you remained in Hamburg may you look forward to the time ahead with fresh confidence.
Last Sunday, 18th August, the New Testament reading was the paradigmatic 11th chapter on faith in the Letter to the Hebrews. What a panorama of individuals who placed their faith in God the writer of this letter sets out from the earliest times of biblical history! The author refers to them as ‘such a cloud of witnesses’ which surrounds other people of faith, and that includes us today.
The stories go back to the earliest figures in the Book of Genesis, to Abel and Enoch and Noah. Then we have the testimony of victory and freedom. By faith Moses leads the people through the Red Sea. This is followed by Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho and bringing down its walls. These are stories where the ‘good’ triumphs over the bad and there are losses only among the’ bad’ people.
The chapter, however, becomes difficult as we read along. From the accomplishments of triumphant stars the reader is suddenly confronted with grim situations. Reward to the ‘good’ and punishment to the ‘bad’ is not so equitably distributed. These stories seem to tally better with our own experience, just as the distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ become more indistinct.
Friends, the letter to the Hebrews is telling us that our faith journey is part of the bigger, complex picture. Our individual faith story is not just for ourselves; it follows on and links in with the faith stories of people down the ages and across the world.
The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that each one of us is part of the bigger picture and, like all the heroes of the past as well as all those whom history has not lifted above the mainstream, our faith is connected in, is vital to the body of the whole. Or to take the picture of a relay race, ours may be a place somewhere in the middle where no great achievement is noted, yet we are an essential runner in the big race.
Dear friends, we may be just one participant, but we are of significance. Our task is to run to the best of our ability, persevere and then carefully and safely pass on the baton. I am aware that in St. Thomas à Becket we have entered a phase when quite a lot of baton-changing is in the offing.
A lot has happened over the past months of this year in our church. Our Annual General Meeting was conducted in good spirit and elected a Council that has experience, youth and diversity. We can be thankful for God’s enduring mercies to us and for our church community whose members give of their precious time and energy, so contributing towards making our church a friendly and welcoming church for the glory of God. The 180th anniversary of our church, for which so much well-spent, creative effort was invested, is behind us and we are the richer for all we discovered, put together and experienced in connection with this commemoration. With these reminders of our church’s memorable story, we are now already into the eighth month of the year 2019 and there is more to report.
The newly elected Chaplaincy Council met on 1st June for an Away Day and there was general agreement that this was a worthwhile experience. Many ideas were shared, matters to be taken forward and given priority discussed and listed. These include encouraging and equipping the youth and younger people to volunteer for tasks in the church, to build a younger team of apprentices for the various bazaar stalls and to get to know each other better. One idea that I have begun to implement is to mention the names of those who come forward for their birthday blessing and the birthday song.
We also decided to retain the name of the church as St Thomas à Becket and to use this name whenever the church is referred to or mentioned, since this was the name our church was given at its dedication and it is the legally correct name. The Bishops of the Diocese in Europe, the Chaplain’s licence, all diocesan faculties, our bank account and the constitution only use this name.
Our most recent Chaplaincy Council met on 7th August and made a number of key decisions concerning the future. It put in place a plan of succession with a number of fresh personalities for those who after running the race so successfully are now passing on the baton to others. As some of you will have witnessed on Sunday, the leader of our Junior Church passed on the baton to her successor safely or in safe mode. This, as with the other changes, was not a sprint to win, but a relay race, a team effort, so that the next person can carry the baton confidently. We win the race together. This outlook is indeed the something better that the letter to the Hebrews is talking about. No one is left out; those who have contributed enormously in the past and those doing tasks now and in the future all continue to be part of the strong narrative. It is together that we are stronger; it is together that we can make an impact. The whole story of faith is the key, not just our story.
One of our congregation members, in keeping with a calling for full-time ministry, will be going through a process of discernment and then training and study in the Church of England on the way towards full-time ministry as priest.
Three of our congregation members will be doing the formal reader’s ministry training in the Church of England. The Church of England sees this particular formal training as a necessity for all those who wish to take some responsibility in an official capacity as readers in parishes. The course also involves being immersed into what Anglicanism is all about.
Church expansion: The Council approved this project at its meeting on 7th August. In the meantime most of you will have seen the impressive selection of plan’s and artist’s impressions of our church as it would look following a planned expansion of the space under the roof, i.e. its third floor. This would include the installation of a lift at the west end, the essential gap at first floor level being created by removal of large organ bellows, long out of service. The plans have been prepared by our church architect, Alk Friedriksen, entirely pro bono in long months of consultation. This project will require a separate scheme of fund-raising and will not draw on regular giving.
The extra storey would be lit by crescent-style E, S and W windows attuned to similar features in nearby buildings (Even without the project, the current roof-level windows would need to be replaced. They are in poor condition). The congregation would benefit from a central open space of 82 square metres, four compartments of eleven square metres each plus other smaller ones. I see such a development as fulfilment of STàB’s urgent requirement for non-sacral space but even more so, as the embodiment of the encouraging momentum so vividly evident just now in its congregation. The work is subject to approval from the Denkmalschutzamt, and could be completed in about a year’s time, once funding has been secured.
The Council also unanimously approved that the Chair and Vice-Chair would work together on fund-raising initiatives for the project, both short- and long-term and that the wardens would be the point of contact for all matters associated with the project. Expertise could be drawn on as and when needed.
Currently all the drawings, consultations with structural engineers etc. have not cost the church anything. There may be need to use some of the funds available in the fabric account to fine tune and get approvals. For the project itself a separate scheme of finance will be prepared with funding from other sources. This was also unanimously approved by the Council.
I am grateful to all congregation members who engaged with this project on Sunday. Please continue to discuss, keep this matter in your prayers and let us look forward with excitement to further developments in faith.
Finally, regarding the finances the Council affirmed that expanding the donor base was an ongoing task. Some steps in this connection have already been put in place. Council also affirmed the current stability of the finances with grateful thanks also to the many co-workers who may not be able to contribute financially but do still contribute through their time and free services, thereby reducing costs.
Let me now close this letter in Pentecostal mode:
What the Apostles – gathered in an upper room, uncertain and anxious about the future after their Lord had left them – experienced and were overcome by, was an inexplicable transforming energy and power. Like a fresh wind it swept over them. It fired them up. A new spirit entered their lives. No longer can they hold back; no longer are they tongue-tied and timid, they find their voice and take courage. Where they had feared being misunderstood and not being able to communicate, they find the message about Jesus, their Lord, spilling out from them and it being listened to and understood by complete strangers and those who spoke completely different languages. It was suddenly a message to the world at large and for all time. The event of the Pentecost and St. Peter’s sermon resulted in three thousand people becoming believers and being baptized. And so, the first Church was founded as the Body of Christ, and it changed the course of humanity.
Today, over two thousand years later, Christians around the world, including us here in Hamburg, still gather in His name. In many parts of our globe such gatherings are as hazardous as they were in the early church. We in our part of the world are fortunate that we can meet in freedom and need fear no reprisals for living our faith. May we not take this for granted; instead may we wait on God’s Spirit to inspire us and move us forward, celebrating our differences as a way towards genuine inclusion and being witnesses to the good news in our very own neighbourhoods. Our agenda is on the move. As we continue to grow and mature in our faith, and contribute towards building the church, let us remind ourselves that we are a pilgrim people and live to be renewed and fostered spiritually every day by the Holy Spirit.
And in the spirit of the letter to the Hebrews: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Leslie Nathaniel August 2019