St James's Church, Hampton Hill

Chapter 9 - Brief Notes on Some Modern Trends

'The Birth and Growth of Hampton Hill'

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A hundred years ago, and up till the outbreak of the First World War, the Church was the leader in many spheres of life, and often the dominating, directing force in any particular locality. There might seem little that was democratic about it, much that was dictatorial - but the system worked. The bishop was monarchical in his diocese, the priest in his parish. They led, and they expected to be followed.

The first vicars of Hampton Hill were indeed parsons, representative persons, persons of authority, marked out both by their office and the character that matched it to command and guide and control, and to get things done that they considered to be for the good of the community. Well they did their job as they saw it, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude today. They - and their helpers - were constantly active for the welfare of every member of the parish: and for them welfare was a matter of body and mind as well as of soul.

This was the pattern and mode of working in the Church of England generally, and not only in Hampton Hill. It came to its heyday in the Edwardian era. Dr. William Wand, who did a great work as a reforming bishop in this diocese after the last war and who will be remembered by many parishioners as the initiator of the “Mission to London” of 1949, writes of this period in his autobiography (“Changeful Page,” published January 25th, 1965, the author’s eightieth birthday): “The first decade of the twentieth century has been described as ‘the summer of the church.’ The nineteenth century had been a period of great missionary expansion. The effort required had enabled the Church to feel its own strength. The open practice of religion was a part of the normal person’s life: indeed, if one did not attend church one was scarcely regarded as a member of respectable society. The shock of the Boer War had induced a serious note. What were later to be known as Edwardian manners had not yet filtered down very far.”

The difference today is obvious. Religion, the Church, the parson are not now in the powerful position that they were. There are many in this and similar parishes - often friendly and delightful people (though sometimes wistful underneath!) full of good works and enterprise - who openly call themselves atheists, or agnostics, or humanists, and no longer feel that they are swimming against the stream. On the other hand, the number of people who profess Christianity - and certainly the proportion of these who attend public worship - has declined. In this parish, for example, the number of Easter communicants seems to have reached its highest level in 1914, when it was four hundred and sixty-nine (records are missing for 1904-1913, but in 1903 the number was four hundred and sixty-five; in 1902, four hundred and sixty-two; in 1900, four hundred; in 1895, three hundred and nineteen. These figures are much higher than those we have now, though the population of the parish has doubled in the last 50 years). In England as a whole, according to the statisticians, the high-peak year was 1911, when 9.8 per cent of the adult population of fifteen years of age and over - almost one in ten persons - received communion in their parish churches on Easter Day. There was a steady fall from this until 1948, when a slight turning of the tide began which seems to have been maintained. If figures such as these are thought to be significant in parishes like ours it is now the number at Christmas which gives a more accurate indication. This is now much larger than the figure for Easter, and similar to the number for Christmas, 1914 - two hundred and forty-eight. (The reason may partly be the growing popularity of the Midnight Euchanst, and also that many more people now have an Easter holiday by the sea.)

But today, we do not lay as much store by the exceptional figures for Festivals as by what happens on an ordinary Sunday. For the health of the Church is much more dependent upon those who worship regularly than upon those who come only once or twice a year. And here things are much more encouraging. The Communion has been restored to its original and rightful place as the main service for every Sunday, and the number of those who attend is steadily increasing. At the breakfast which follows, fellowship is deepened, and newcomers begin to feel at home and strangers no longer.

Though the proportion of nominal as well as committed Christians may now be much smaller than it was 50 years ago, it has begun to increase again, and the Christian Faith and way of life still exercise great influence. I find that some people are beginning to see that the present-day stress on “responsible action” as itself a sufficient guide through life begs too many questions. Others are becoming aware of the pressing need to find a meaning for their existence, and to subordinate the whole of their life to that meaning. This situation provides a fruitful sphere of ministry for the Church. There is also the increasing number of those who break down under the stress of modern life, the vast growth in mental illness and emotional distress, and in face of these the Church is deepening and developing her own specific ministry of healing, as well as working in ever closer accord with the medical profession. The conception of the Church as a Therapeutic, Reconciling, Accepting Community is becoming increasingly relevant, and the need to make it actual in every parish increasingly urgent. The drive to do this is a very good modern trend, and one about which I am much concerned, and should like to write at some length - but space and time (the pressure of the printer’s deadline upon me as I furiously type away!) forbid.

To return to the fallible human beings who make up the Church. The vicar today is no longer the dominant figure in any parish that he used to be - and many will say “thank goodness for this!“ He could not be this even if he wanted to. The population of the country is now far greater, the total number of members of the clergy much less (taking active and retired together, in 1901 it was twenty-three thousand six hundred and seventy; in 1951, eighteen thousand one hundred and ninety-six). Faced with much larger numbers, the modem incumbent often lacks many of the resources and a good deal of the help that his Victorian predecessors had. A whole host of chores which they had done for them he now has to do himself. His wife often has to go out to work in order to help make ends meet. There are many who say that he should not in any sense be alone in his work, but part of a “group ministry,” in which each man can specialise in what he can do best, and also have adequate time for rest and recreation, and avoid over-tiredness, the besetting condition of so many priests today. The Paul Report and other modern trends are now bringing the whole pattern of parochial ministry into the melting-pot, and what will eventually emerge no one dare prophesy.

But though the vicar is now no longer the big man in the parish, there are some who think that he is far too central in the life and worship of the congregation. Mark Gibbs and T. Ralph Morton say in a little book which aroused much attention in 1964: “Without deliberate planning and certainly without any nefarious scheming on the part of the clergy, the congregation has developed a structure that depends entirely on the minister. The life of the congregation has grown up round him and depends on him and it does not matter whether he is called priest or pastor, rector or minister. His central position has determined the organisations and activities of the congregation and the nature of its piety. This is seen as so natural that most people will say that it is only right; that this is why you have ministers at all; that this is their job; for this they are trained. But for all that, this is what is crippling the life of the Church.” (God’s Frozen People, page 47.)

I think the modem trend is modifying this rather dismal picture, and getting things in a better perspective and balance. The Church of England, for instance, has slowly been taking congregationalism into its system (just as our Congregational brothers seem to have been making room for a modified form of episcopacy!), and though this minister-centredness affects all churches alike, the break-through is being mad; and many think that it has gone far further in the Church of England than anywhere else. In informal parish meetings as well as in such legal and democratic bodies as church councils, laymen meet with clergy to plan policy and discuss action in regard to all the issues that affect the Church’s life and witness and the welfare of the whole community. “God’s Frozen People” are, I think, fast thawing out!

So what about the layman? Where does he fit in? What is the “modern trend” about him? In the past he was often seen as, at best, a “helper of the dear vicar,” at the lowest as a passive pew-sitter of whom little could be expected. Rigid distinctions were often made between those who were teachers and those who were taught; between those who did good to others and the others who had good done to them; between those who were the givers and those who received what they gave. The tradition of “being at the receiving end” dies very hard; numbers of people still look to the Church to give all kinds of things to them; that they should ever be expected to give to the Church passes their comprehension! But now the layman is seen to be much more than the poor helpless sheep beloved of the Victorian hymn-writers (“ O bless the shepherd, bless the sheep;” “And give their flocks a lowly mind to hear - and not in vain”). He is now seen to be more of a sheep-dog or a shepherd himself. Or perhaps we ought to get away from this whole analogy, with its sharp distinctions, and think of ourselves as indeed laity, people, members of the Laos, the People of God, with all its richness and varieties of ministry; and then try to find out what our own particular vocation and ministry is, and how our money time, abilities and talents are to be used in God’s service, in His world as well as in His Church. For some, their vocation may involve a deeper involvement in the affairs of the Church as an institution, its administration, its leadership, or its direct mission in the local community. For others, a fuller immersion in some secular sphere of service, in their own profession or business; or on the Town Council instead of the Church Council, or on the committee of a political party instead of taking the chair at the meetings of the Church of England Men’s Society.

What trends then seem to be establishing themselves? They can perhaps be best summed up in two key-words - Service and Mission. These words apply to the Church as a whole in her relationship to the world, and to the priest and layman within the Church. Here, for instance, speaks an active young clergyman with many irons in the fire and a wide knowledge of all the movements within the Church, the Reverend David L. Edwards: “. . . the Church must become more, not less, of a community, and must be reborn after the pattern of Jesus the Servant. A community - but not an ingrown community. The Church’s ways of worship, work and doctrinal formulation must be drastically revised so that they meet people where they are, not where (in the Church’s opinion) they ought to be. Preservation of the Church’s customs and historic monuments must be reckoned secondary to the tasks of the Christian in the world. The clergyman must be seen as no longer the parson, the person of the place, but as the minister, the ‘servant’ of the laity in Christ’s name. And the layman must be seen no longer as the condescending evangelist, but as the servant, doing a job of work for the sake of Christ and the people, not seeking a prominent ‘religious’ label.” And here is a veteran battler for reform within the Church, the Reverend Christopher Wansey: “. . . the parish . . . now no longer a unit of Christendom, but a far-flung outpost of the Empire of Christ in a worldly world which knows Him not. There is a real sense in which the ‘parish priest’ is the only Christian in the parish not properly entitled to that form of address! In this new mission field he is set apart from mission to be the servant of the missioners.” (These quotations, from men of, in many respects, widely differing points of view, are taken from the Church of England Newspaper, October 2nd, 1964, and January 1st, 1965.)

So the modern vicar emerges now as one called to be in his ministry primarily the “servant of the servants of God” in a particular place. Secondarily, of course, because his heart goes out to all, whoever they are, whether consciously or unconsciously servants of God or not, he will be prepared to give to them as much of his time and strength and skill as they may claim. If he is versed in certain arts, such as mending broken marriages, or healing emotional distress, he will serve in this way as many as he can, whatever their belief or lack of it. But he knows that in every parish there are far too many who need help in these ways for him ever to be able to minister to them adequately himself, and he rejoices that he is no longer the only minister in this field, but that many of the laity, in their full-time or part-time ministry, are doing these works of compassion and pastoral care as well as, or better than, he could do them himself. So he turns again to his primary task, of helping the laity to see and respond to the many calls for service and mission that come to them in this difficult modern world.

So the layman takes his rightful place as the servant and son of God not only in church, but out also on the frontiers of life, mixing with people of all kinds and going out to them in love. The layman has many pressing problems to face, especially as he tries to apply his faith to his life and daily work, and he too, like the priest, needs much training and help if he is to discharge his exacting but glorious vocation and ministry as it should be discharged.

This is then how we now see the Church: no longer trying to be everything and to do everything: no longer the Leader, the Big Noise, the Monarch, the Dictator, the Arbiter; but the church as the Servant, existing for God and His world and all the people in it. So we get the modern concept pro-existence coming to us originally from a Church functioning cheerfully and constructively in the difficult atheistic environment of a Communist state (cf. “‘Pro-Existence’: Christian Voices in East Germany “ - SCM Press, 1964). As Albert van den Heuvel writes: “There can be no co-existence of church and world in which they are both independent entities with their own rules, their own powers and who exchange ambassadors - but pro-existence, the church which is there for the world, on behalf of the world, for the welfare of the world. We are not more than our Master and we therefore take on the form of a servant.” (The Death of the Church, quoted Prism, December, 1964, page 6.) In the Body of Christ the Servant we all have our differing parts to play. But when we speak of service we must still remember that the best service of all is to bring men to a knowledge of God and enable them to receive eternal life. Yet if people do not want this, or are not ready for it, then we serve them where they are in all the ways we can, with no strings attached - for this is Agape, this is how God serves us.

All this, of course, may sound very fine in theory, we are tempted to say, but it is far from easy to apply. Indeed, it is not easy. Things are not now so simple and clear-cut as they used to be. But we can, I think, find illustrations of the kind of difference there is between the modern trend and the older approach. In the Victorian days, for example, when the Church was strong in resources and manpower, the vicar and his helpers would see that the poor and the unemployed were looked after, and that no old person went short. Today the Welfare State and its officers have taken over much of this responsibility, but some gaps are still left, which the Church on its own may not be able to meet even if she wanted to. So normally the Church, seeing their need, calls on all people of good-will in the neighbourhood to get together to do something about it, and does not just try to tackle it by herself alone. This happened in our own parish with regard to the formation of the Old People’s Welfare Committee. The Church became aware of the need, called together representatives of many different organisations, and the committee was set up. In the early days the Church provided most of the help that was needed, but now it stands firmly on its own two feet, in no sense run by the Church, but with members of the Church working alongside those from many other groups in this important sphere of service.

Again, a hundred years ago, the vicar and his leading laymen watched like hawks over the interests of the local community, and took all the steps that were open to them to prevent spoliation and injustice and to encourage healthy use of leisure. The Church was the guardian and champion of human rights and dignities - as indeed she is today, but now no longer on her own! What happens now when the established village life and amenities of the neighbourhood are threatened by many forces, and cultural activities dwindle, is that members of the Church work - together with members of all political parties, and of none, to form a Hampton Hill Association and, once formed, to make it increasingly effective for good. This is the modern trend.

Within the Church itself, the modern trend is for reformation and renewal. It is acknowledged on all sides, for instance, that the services of the Prayer Book need to be revised in shape and in language in order to make them vehicles through which modem man may be uplifted to God, and his worship made real and vital, spilling over into and inspiring his everyday life. So the trend goes on, becoming a tide, to take every step possible to make life with God and for God shine out as the grand and wonderful thing it is. There is indeed a great ferment within the Church - and I believe that we shall all live to see “No Small Change” (the title of the Lenten course of study on which we and 7,000 other parishes in England will shortly be embarking).

One final point - the trend for unity in the Church, proceeding from strength to strength. How different from a hundred years ago! There was little thought of unity then, and even within the Church of England herself often bitter conflict and party-feeling. When St. James’s was consecrated in 1863 the Congregationalists, who had a centre here before we did, resented our coming and looked upon it as a threat. And we returned their feelings in good measure - they were nonconformists and rivals; how could we think of them as friends? There was often tension too between the mother-church at Hampton and her daughter here. We can hardly imagine this today, after ten years of working together in the Hampton Council of Churches, learning to appreciate one another’s ways, sharing in one another’s worship, growing in mutual respect and understanding. And now the Roman Catholic Church herself, under the influence of genial Pope John and the Vatican Council, is beginning to stretch out the hand of fellowship to her brothers in Christ in the other Churches.

(One other modern trend which should also be briefly mentioned, because it has been greatly developed in the district both by us on our own and latterly by the Hampton Council of Churches, is the revival of religious drama as a means by which some of the great truths about God and human life can be brought home to men in vivid and compelling ways. From 1952 onwards, when the St. James’s Drama Group was started, up to such productions as “Christ in the Concrete City’! by the Council of Churches’ Group into which ours has now been merged, many fine plays of first-rate quality have been lovingly and strikingly presented.)

One could go on indefinitely, looking backward, looking forward. I would just conclude these brief and inadequate notes by saying that I find most of the modern trends in the Church hopeful ones. They combine with other things to make me feel that this is indeed a great time in which to be alive and to be a Christian. Laus Deo! May our successors in 2063 A.D. feel the same!

St James's Church
The Parish Church of St James, Hampton Hill, TW12 1DQ
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