The beginning of a new era in the life of a parish prompts a fundamental question: what is the Church here for? And that is perhaps three questions: What is this church building for? What is our public worship for? What is the purpose of the church community within the wider parish? I want to begin my time as parish priest here in Fairwarp by considering each of those questions in the light of two brief texts from this morning’s Epistle and Gospel. From the Epistle, St Paul’s ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’; and from the Gospel, ‘Those who drink of the water I give them shall never be thirsty’.
So my first question: what is this church building for? All over this country, our churches and cathedrals are a tangible reminder to us all of faith, of God. A cathedral is unignorable. And a parish church in a village stands for the ongoing life of the community, linking past and present and future. It represents the eternal realm. It points us towards God. It reminds us that humankind does not live by bread alone. It lifts our eyes above the here and now. So it is a holy place, a heavenly place, a sacred space. But equally it is a common place, where all are invited and all are welcome, without respect to class or social position, to gender or sexuality, political opinion or wealth, age or generation – or any of the factors that we so often allow to divide us. The church is a place of welcome for all; for we are all children of the same heavenly Father. And in this sacred, common space we can find equality before God and before one another. And we need the church to be a place of openness but also of one of dignity and beauty. How fortunate this parish is in having Christ Church; but how much we need to care for it, to conserve it, to ensure that meets the needs of our time as a place of worship and common gathering. This church building is here to point us to God and to raise our hearts to him in thanksgiving and praise: for we know that ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts’.
Second, what is our public worship for? It is our sacrifice of praise; it is to honour God, and so must be the best we can offer: the best words, the best music, the best liturgy, the best of our of our hearts and minds. Before all else our worship must bring into the present the events of our salvation history, above all the great drama of redemption enacted in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God. And that means that each Sunday we live those events again in the Holy Eucharist, the very central act of Christian worship; which down the centuries has been the rite where Christian people have found in the Sacrament the very living water of which Jesus spoke. But our public worship is also to entice our wider community towards faith; so we also need to provide services which can be accessible and meaningful to those who want to look towards God but are not perhaps ready for the Eucharist; those who may be uncertain about faith, embattled by the world, or simply puzzled by the complexity and pain of human life. Our worship is our sacrifice of praise; but it must also be a means of spiritual outreach to the wider community.
Third, what is the purpose of the community of the church within the wider parish? A priest friend of mine once embarrassed himself in a rural community by announcing that church people should be ‘the best lovers in the village’. You can perhaps see why his remark was treated with some hilarity! But it remains a basic truth that Christian people are to love and care for those around them; to live lives of humble service to others; to be generous; to be hospitable; to share with friend and neighbour something of the overflowing love which the Holy Spirit of God has poured into their hearts. So those who worship week by week are not some holy club, a special privileged group, but simply a community of service, prompted and inspired by the Spirit of God.
That is what the Church here is for. In this new era for the parish, let us join together to make this vision a reality. And let us be people who are ‘drinking the living water’, enlivened and refreshed by God, so that we are fulfilling the calling of the Church to serve him in the world.