Building for Life – the Master-plan

Peter Seal, 15 May 2016

Acts 2: 1–21; John 14: 8–17, 25–27

Today is the eighth day of a nationwide week of prayer. Many people have been praying for a renewed outpouring of, and response to, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. From the prophet Joel, as quoted by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, we heard:

God declares,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams …
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

Today is the feast of Pentecost. Today’s gospel urges us to live faithfully, abiding in the Father, so that we may know him. There’s a powerful theme today of both prayer and action.

I want to take a look at where we’re at, as Christians, in this place. Lots of things are going well in our parish for a whole range of reasons; not least, a growing commitment to prayer and action by so many of you. Together we can bask in the achievement of our splendid Community Day and two other examples of success: (1) pastoral care: our splendid team of Parish Visitors continue to offer much-valued care. We have new opportunities and we need to recruit more Parish Visitors. (2) Beyond Ourselves: in the past year there’s been much good work and a sense of renewed energy. Christian Aid Week begins today and thanks to our dedicated team of collectors we already collect more than any other parish in Winchester. We’re ambitious in our desire to be alongside those who live in poverty.

I want now to focus on what we call Building for Life. We’ve got a good track record of caring for our buildings in recent years. The need to make changes on this site has been a subject of discussion for 20 years (if you don’t believe me, ask Michael Joseph). For several years now the Diocesan Advisory Committee has been encouraging us to draw up a Master-plan of everything we need. As you’ll have seen at the Community Day and from the display at the back, we now have a Master-plan. This is a significant achievement. It has been made possible by using some of the money from the Ken and Freda Wilkins Bequest. To tweak the prophet Joel’s words, you could say: we have a young person’s vision and an older person’s dream.

We can truly say God has already poured out his Spirit and continues to do so. And, of course, we want more and more of the Lord’s blessing and wise guidance. We’re now at the beginning of the next stage of seeking to turn our vision into reality. Increasingly, I believe, we will be seen as a local parish church serving the people in our community, with a big and ambitious long-term project – a project rooted in prayer as we discern God’s wise purposes for us, in the short and the medium term.

I believe we will be seen as a local parish church serving the people in our community, with a project rooted in prayer as we discern God’s wise purposes for us.

In any big project there’s the challenge of communication. As you’ll have noticed, there has in recent weeks and months been a careful, ongoing explanation of how our draft plans are progressing. To take words from the Acts of the Apostles: we each need to hear in our own language. In other words, our ongoing communication needs to be in ways that everyone can understand and appreciate and, indeed, speak confidently about with others.

Dear friends, we’re doing what we’re doing because it’s what we discern God wants us to do. It’s important to realise, without wanting to blow our own trumpets, that if you use statistics based on church attendance, here in Winchester we are the second-largest Anglican church, after Christ Church. And miraculously we’re managing to do this with some of the poorest church and community facilities of any church of any denomination in this city. It’s nothing short of a miracle, given the woefully inadequate facilities it has to work in, that our Pre-School was judged as ‘outstanding’ last summer.

Our buildings at St Paul’s are now in good shape in terms of their long-term future – by which I mean we have splendid newish roofs, which are watertight and well insulated. Now we can focus on what’s underneath them. The reason we’re doing what we hope to do is to provide for the future. We’re doing what we’re doing as an act of faith – indeed as an expression of faith. In effect we’re saying, ‘We have such confidence in God and what God is enabling through us in this place, at this time, that we believe in the future; we believe there is an exciting future for the people of this community and everyone drawn from beyond our parish to St Paul’s. We’re saying, ‘We want to get ourselves on the front foot rather than the back foot in terms of the facilities on this site’.

Instead of people saying: ‘Where’s St Paul’s?’ as they usually do, people will be saying: ‘Ah, yes, St Paul’s, that’s where the church has that beautiful altar dais; that’s where there’s that small, intimate Resurrection Chapel where you can pray quietly every day; that’s where the kitchen at the back of church means you can hold your reception after a funeral; that’s where the chairs are comfortable but not domestic and can easily be cleared to provide a big community space; that’s the place where the outstanding Pre-School meets in that fantastic, purpose-built community hall and where the links with the church are so strong; that’s where the superb support and administrative services mean paid staff and volunteers work so effectively together; that’s the place where they had the vision to build staff accommodation for that helpful site manager and that inspiring youth-work assistant; that’s the place where disabled people feel welcome, safe, warm and cared for; that’s the place where the church still feels like a church and has a sense of awe, wonder and holiness; etc., etc. … I could go on and on!

I hear your cry to God go up: ‘Lord, how long, how long will all this take?’ Answer: a long time! But what our Master-plan gives us is a way of taking one manageable step at a time, as and when we can afford it. It’s worth remembering that it took our faithful predecessors an amazing 40 years to build St Paul’s. I have in my mind 10 years for all we hope for, but who knows? It could be quicker. What we have is a draft Master-plan. Nothing is set in stone; there’s lots of time for lots of ongoing discussion. If by any chance you think all this is moving too quickly, take heart – the hugely complex planning and permission processes will slow it all down!

The changes we hope for here in St Paul’s need the consent of the Victorian Society, English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the local Conservation Officer, the Winchester City Council planning department and the Diocesan Advisory Committee. This can be the stuff of nightmares rather than sweet dreams. But in our architect, Antony Feltham-King, we have someone of vast experience who has been through all this many times before. We have huge confidence in him – to lead, guide and act on our behalf.

You may be asking: when can we see something begin to happen? The quick answer is tomorrow, when carpenters arrive to re-model the altar dais and the Lady Chapel will be moved to the chancel. These changes won’t be finished next Sunday but it will look and feel different. The permission for this temporary change lasts 15 months, so the ambitious plan is that we can begin the first phase of a permanent change here in St Paul’s in September 2017. Yes, we will probably have to worship somewhere else for a while; this could be in the hall at Western, our church school. This sort of change, while unsettling, can also be energising. And then there’s that other question: how much will this cost? The truth is, as yet we have only some approximate figures. Antony is working on this for us. As I said, the plan is to work on a manageable and affordable first phase, which is likely to be the all-important levelling of the floor.

We have someone doing some excellent preparatory work on what grants we might be eligible for. And in due course, when costs are clearer, we will launch our own fund-raising appeal. In summary, I really hope that you’re getting a feel for what we might be able to achieve together in this place – not really for ourselves, but for those we hope to welcome and care for, and share the gospel with.

Lord, on this Pentecost Sunday send us, we pray, your renewed Holy Spirit for the task ahead.