By Lola Michael Russell.
On a recent Sunday in England, I worshipped at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, in the heart of London. I had been invited to and welcomed at All Saints previously, and I felt a connection through family. During conversation with the vicar, the Rev. Alan Moses, I mentioned the focus on Invite Welcome Connect in the Episcopal Church in Delaware. I asked him if he would consider writing about how All Saints invited, welcomed, and connected with people.
For a contrasting perspective from a rural part of the United Kingdom (UK), I contacted a former colleague, the Rev. Canon Thomas Miller. He and I worked together at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York. Upon retiring from the cathedral, Miller moved to the small community of Stromness in the Orkney Islands to serve at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin.
These churches have seen great changes in their parishes and are taking steps to be relevant and effective today. Both priests kindly agreed to share their thoughts on inviting, welcoming, and connecting in their parishes.
All Saints, Margaret Street, London, England
Built in the 1850s, All Saints is a short walk north of the Oxford Street shopping area. The parish consists of a few streets that once had a population of 5,000 but now numbers only about 100. However, thousands of people work there, and tens of thousands shop there.
Moses explained the church has an inviting presence in the neighborhood and is open on weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. They offer morning, noon, and evening celebrations of the Eucharist as well as Morning and Evening Prayer. “We have four Sunday masses, beginning with the Vigil on Saturday evening. The 11:00 a.m. High Mass is the main service with choral setting. It is followed by refreshments in the courtyard and a parish lunch on most Sundays. At 6:00 p.m., we have a choral evensong, sermon and benediction. For many of those who worship with us, especially during the week or on Sunday evening, All Saints is their second church — a complement to their home parish.
Parishioners don’t often have the opportunity to invite the neighborhood to worship with them. One occasion when they make a special effort is in the run-up to Christmas. They have two very popular carol services: a short lunchtime service with a section of their choir, and a candlelight Lessons and Carols in a King’s College style with the full choir. Moses explained, “We deliver leaflets to all the homes and businesses in the area and use social media to publicize these services. After each service, we serve mulled wine and mince pies and seek to establish at least initial contacts
All Saints’ location is close to a major public transport hub, which means they are easily accessible from much of the greater London area. This makes it difficult to engage with the variety of people.
Moses explained, “The increasing cost of housing in London means that many who work locally have to commute long distances to get here. The work force is predominantly young, and the turnover is high. Often the only place they have in common is where they work, so a good deal of their social life happens around us, especially if they are young. Many of them have little or no experience of church life; they may not even be baptized. And often, they have little sense of belonging to a community or institution.” So All Saints has formed a different kind
“Most of our regular Sunday congregation are not native Londoners. They have come to the city from all over Britain and the world, for study or work. Many of them are single people whose families are elsewhere, so the church becomes their family. We are an increasingly international congregation. For example, in our three most recent weddings, the bridegrooms were British, Greek Cypriot, and Swedish; the brides were Korean, Russian, and Ukrainian. The population turnover is very high, so we say that we have to run to stand still.”
“We know that many of the people we encounter are visitors rather than potential members of the congregation. However, we hope that in some cases at least, they will have a positive experience and communicate this to friends or relatives who move to London.
One question that Moses often asks is, “What are we welcoming people to?” He feels that this is a pertinent question for any church community – suburban, small town, or village. “The answer has to be something more than a place of warm sociability, although that is a good start. It must be to a place of worship and prayer; one where the Gospel is proclaimed and the faith taught and lived.
“To a good degree an iconic church building with an atmosphere steeped in prayer does that for us. But that prayerful ethos is sustained by praying people; both in the liturgy and on their own. Over the past few years, a church of which one cleric once said: ‘the odor of sanctity is eau de cologne’, has become a place of refuge for the homeless who sleep in an area at the back. This has given our ministry an unexpected degree of authenticity.”
A priest is available twice a day for confession. This valued ministry and that of spiritual direction are a significant part of the parish’s ministries; one which is not immediately visible to many of the Sunday congregation, nor is there a space for it in diocesan statistics.
Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Saint Mary’s is a very different church in a very different community, founded in 1885 to serve ‘churchmen living there, the tourists, and shipping.’ Stromness was a lively port and center for fishing, dominated by the Church of Scotland and two other Presbyterian denominations. Never large, Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church was known as the English church, experiencing intermittent periods of growth and decline.
By 2015 the congregation had dwindled to a handful. Easter attendance that year was five, two of which were visitors. A faithful couple had kept the church open on Sunday mornings for about a year during and after the illness and death of the priest-in-charge. They were often the only ones there, but they always read Morning Prayer to keep the spirit of the church alive. Most people in Stromness thought the church had already closed.
In addition to that committed couple, the then bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, the Rt. Rev. Robert Gillies, refused to give up on the church. He recruited Miller to serve as locum in March 2015. Although Miller had visited in previous summers, he had not appreciated the rich diversity of the community, which was made up of native Orcadians; retired or semi-retired people from around the UK; and a creative mix of artists, musicians, and writers. With a population of only 2,000, Stromness had also become a global center for education and development in the renewable energy sector.
Miller had quite a challenge ahead of him. The potential to attract such a population to the Episcopal Church with its breadth of Anglican thought and worship seemed obvious to Miller. He said, “Despite declining numbers, the interior of the building had undergone an attractive renovation by local artists. The question was, as always, how to get people in the door so they could see the beautiful and inviting interior not visible from the road.” They started with simple things:
• arranging pots of flowers around the entrance
• replacing the forbidding door with a handsome oak door of clear glass panels and an etched Celtic cross
• setting out a notice board on the main shopping street to point the way to the church and list service times.
During Miller’s first summer, the church was open several days a week. He walked around the town meeting people, and he continued to ride his bike rather than drive a car. His explanation: “Visibility counts for a lot.”
The first year was really just about letting the town know Saint Mary’s was open for business. Their guiding mantra was then and still is, “Open your eyes, open your heart – and open the door!” Saint Mary’s began to reach out to the community and other denominations and began to sponsor an annual Christmas carol service. It offers a home to the Stromness Writing Group and sponsors a Young Songwriters Workshop. Its weekday prayer and meditation service attracts Quakers, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians as well as Episcopalians, and even an agnostic or two.
“As Stromness is a popular tourist destination we take a sizeable ad in the yearly tourist magazine. In summer months, it is not unusual to have a half-dozen or more visitors. We also make sure services and events are announced on the local radio station and on notice boards around town — all obvious things to do. We try to be mindful of days when cruise ships are calling in Orkney ports.”
Turning invitation into welcome, the parish continues to make the church friendly and accessible for visitors. “It takes time to establish a trustworthy presence in a small town, but as with most people, if you show your interest in the town, the town begins to be interested in you and what you’re up to. Open minds and open hearts are the currency of growth, both being important aspects of hospitality,” Miller explained. “We have coffee, tea, and home bakes (rarely store-bought) after every service in our intimate social room, with chairs arranged in a circle to facilitate conversation. No one is ignored. We do not put out a begging bowl, and when people ask if they can contribute something, we suggest they put a donation in the poor box by the door.”
In 2018, the Easter attendance was 28. They now have more than 21 communicants and a membership of 30. Sunday attendance is regularly between 15 and 20, and with the growth in numbers has come a growing commitment to faith and to the abiding value of an Episcopal presence in Stromness. They established a music fund and recently purchased a new organ, which will make a recital series with guest musicians possible. Their annual Autumn Foy (an Orcadian word for talent show) is already a town tradition.
“As a congregation,” Miller observed, “Saint Mary’s identifies where God might be working outside the church, and we encourage each other as individuals and as a church to connect with those efforts, such as the food bank, hospital visitation, creative and performing arts groups, peace and justice advocacy, and overseas mission.”
They have been encouraged by their present bishop, the Rt. Rev. Anne Dyer, Miller explained, “to look not just to the future of the congregation but also to the emergence of the Kingdom of God, which has everything to do with why we are church in the first place.” The following is taken from Dyer’s charge to Diocesan Synod earlier this year:
“What I will be doing through the coming period is encouraging us all to turn our focus from church to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. I will be encouraging you to identify things that God is doing outside (beyond) the church, and join in. Through service of the Kingdom of God, I will be encouraging you to connect afresh with the communities in which you are set and of which we are a part.”
Miller commented: “This, to my mind, is a winning formula and reflects our mantra: ‘Open your eyes, open your heart, open the door – and get out there where the people of God are.”
The Rev. Alan Moses has been vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street 24 years and area dean of Westminster-Saint Marylebone for much of that time. Born and brought up in Teesdale in northeast England — an area with more sheep than people — he has, ironically, spent the greater part of his ministry in city parishes, having been rector of Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh’s Old Town before moving to London. He is retiring from All Saints in November and will become warden of spirituality in the Diocese of Lincoln.
The Rev. Thomas Miller has been minister at Saint Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, Stromness, for five years. He writes about religion and the arts and contributed to the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture. Born and raised near Reading, Pennsylvania, he was canon for liturgy and the arts at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York before his retirement.