What a weekend….It looked mad in anticipation, and felt madder as we lived through it, but it was generally a good, rich madness with lots of God in it!
The flowers were utterly amazing, overwhelming, beyond belief . If nature abhors a vacuum, the flower ladies of St Mary’s are clearly natural to their very bones (though some of their materials, including polystyrene doves and faux silk rose petals are less so) as there was not a nook or cranny of the church left plain and unadorned. When I wandered into church to say the Office on Friday morning, to say I was surprised would be a massive understatement. (Note to self, try not to be away from parish in the week leading up to flower festivals in future…it is just possible that your vision of what a church is for might not exactly match with that shaping the festival)
Sunday morning with the Bishop was fantastic (not least because his highly expressive eyebrows told their own story much of the time). He had clearly listened very hard to all that the vicar and I have told him about our struggles and longings for the church in this place, and reminded us all of the real reasons for church buildings…as a place of prayer, a place of forgiveness/reconciliation and a place to play at heaven. He did, though, observe that there wasn’t perhaps much room to play in St M’s at all, as we are rather "over furnished"...but managed this with a degree of gentleness and tact that nonetheless allowed nobody to doubt his meaning. I loved his observation that processions were designed to replicate pilgrimage in little, and thus that a procession that took you round in a circle, returning you to precisely where you had started might seem a little disheartening….it also struck me as a very good metaphor for some aspects of life here. But God is moving things…and it’s going to be quite a ride! It was a measure of episcopal skill that one of our most determined preservers of the status quo was nonetheless quite happy to shake his hand afterwards…if the vicar or curate had dared to say some of those things from the pulpit, we’d have been lynched (quite possibly literally).
Zimmer frames gave way to buggies and bikes in a dramatic change of mood as we welcomed the first arrivals for OpenHouse, which was all that I'd prayed and more.
When people arrived, we had an overhead telling them to be comfortable and at home in their Father’s house, - and that’s truly how it seemed. 28 children and about 30 adults filled the nave, swarmed all over the pews, shouted, helped tell the story of Creation and build a felt frontal, and generally made the church feel like a very happy, relaxed sort of place to be. My favourite moments probably featured D (the child who took over his own baptism a couple of weeks ago, recognising that a pitiful drop or three was a woefully inadequate representation of the divine grace)..His mum has MS, so his wilder explorations of the church involved all sorts of other adults in rounding up exercises, and drew the community together instantly.
The M.U. members who were serving tea joined in the service too, and were great at the action songs. Lovely that this made us a real all age community, and in fact extra granny figures were in great demand as the afternoon went on. Some of the visitors from our link parish, St Johns Ladywood, also drifted in to add to the fun. Their home style of worship is far less formal than St M's, so they were probably relieved to see that we can, every now and then, throw caution to the winds and praise God without looking over our shoulders to check we're meeting the regulation standard of perfection.
Tea was yummy, and some of the mums set to with dustpans so that the transepts probably looked cleaner, after 2 dozen children eating cakes, than they had before. As people departed their general cry was like "See you next month" I am realistic enough to realise this is more a statement of goodwill than a definite promise, but nonetheless, the whole afternoon was hugely encouraging. Thank you all for your prayers, but please don't stop. We have, after all, to sustain this.
Down to the pub next, for MORE tea and skittles with the Ladywood crowd. Got the best hug of the day (sorry, +M...you are just not in the same class) from C, a Birmingham friend who has cerebral palsy. He remembered me from July last year, when I'd first visited them, and more than made up for the intervening months by both the number and intensity of the hugs he delivered. His Amens (full value, at least 3 for every prayer) added considerably to the experience of Evensong. This is normally a rather attenuated service, where the choir always outnumbers the congregation, but on Sunday it was an exceptionally jolly experience, with 30 visitors in the nave, - at least 20 of them under 60. Quite what they made of our more abstruse remnants of former glories I can't imagine, but they took it all in good part. My one regret (and it was a big one) was that St M's is still so hooked on its perception of excellence that C's request to do a reading was politely turned down...I accept that nobody would have been able to understand most of his words, but the reverence with which he delivers his God talk would put all of us to shame, I know. He bore no grudge, but I felt diminished by this, as it seemed downright inhospitable on a day when we were trying to become an Open House.
At 8.00 our visitors departed, after which it only remained to drop in to the Youth Group with the remnants of the tea, and the day was finally done. So many people. So much variety, but very nearly All Good.