Modern Church, Ancient Ideas

By Revd Vanessa Conant, Rector, St Mary’s Walthamstow

In the earliest years of the life of St Mary’s, some 900 years ago, the church was given into the care of Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate, City of London.

An ancient monastic order, Holy Trinity Priory was founded by Queen Matilda I, and developed under the advice and instruction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. Indeed, St Mary’s first recorded priest was a monk – almost certainly one from this priory.

Our National Lottery Heritage Fund project, ‘A Creative Church for a Creative Community’, which will begin in just over a year’s time, seeks to connect us to the stories of our past, helping us to rediscover our foundations and allowing them to breathe new life into our present.

So how might our monastic heritage, an ancient model of mission and ministry, find life and expression in Walthamstow in the 21st century? What does our church building project, which is now set to begin in early 2021, have to do with monastic life?

At the heart of all monastic life was the church – the abbey – the centre of prayer and worship from which all else flowed. For us too, our church and common life is the centre of this project. With these renovations, we plan to make the building more accessible, welcoming, flexible and user-friendly as an expression of, and a context for, the transforming love of Jesus.

Our church was built to help people experience awe and wonder in worship, and to glimpse something of the beauty and love of God. The architecture behind our project wants to do the same – to enhance beauty while pointing people to the source of it.

Our vision is to be a church community which includes the wider community. For example, once our regeneration project is completed in late 2021, someone might come in for a coffee on the way to work, notice Morning Prayer is happening in the side chapel, and decide to give it a try.

Whilst the church buzzes with people exploring our building’s heritage and art, or meeting friends, there will be a constant heartbeat of prayer and worship which sustains all things and is the foundation of all we do. And as always, there will be a gentle invitation to join in.

Monasteries were (and still are) centres of creativity, places where beautiful things were created to help people make sense of the world. For thousands of years, monastic communities have produced glorious paintings, illuminated manuscripts, written stunning music and created icons of intense beauty. At the heart of our project is a desire to express the creativity of our church community – and to connect with the creative spirit of Walthamstow more broadly.

The building will be a hub of creative arts, showcasing local talent through gallery exhibitions, playing the music of our diverse community through the St Mary’s Music Hall and connecting with children and young people through our community arts programmes. Pope Francis has described artists as ‘Apostles of Beauty’, people who communicate something about love, hope and wonder through creativity. Our project will commission new Apostles of Beauty.

In ‘The Rule of St Benedict’ – one of the earliest texts on monastic life – there is a chapter calling for faith in action, a living out of one’s Christian commitments in the wider community. Rather than being insular, walled-off places of piety, monasteries were thus intended to be boiler rooms, sending people out to do the transformative work of changing lives, serving with faithfulness and love, and, in so doing, introducing people to Jesus Christ.

Some real necessities – repairs, money, practicality – have given urgency to our regeneration project, but much more than that is our desire to be part of this transforming work of God, whether that’s through our churchyards – a place of well-being and community where people can find healing and friendship by caring for the earth – or through our commitment to celebrating the immigrant histories of Walthamstow, which often go untold.

Our vision is to have a building that is open throughout the week, one where people of all backgrounds can come and find peace, refreshment, friendship and hospitality. But we have also have a vision to be a church where people can be resourced, equipped, encouraged and sent out to work for the Common Good, to pursue justice and to build the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom of upside-down values, where the poor are blessed and the broken-hearted are comforted.

One of the reasons monasteries flourished in the mediaeval era was that they had learnt to be self-sufficient, growing their own food and harnessing an entrepreneurial spirit to build sustainable communities. We too need models that allow us to be sustainable, which is why our project has a business plan; this, alongside regular congregational giving, will help us to raise the income we need to maintain our regenerated building and minister to our community.

It can be tempting to become nostalgic when we think about the past, to imagine that it was better in some previous era. But this is not about nostalgia. This is about us remembering and treasuring the gifts of the past in order to discern its gifts for the present. Perhaps we are building a new monastery – a centre of arts, prayer and transformation for the 21st century, a new layer to our history, one which offers hope for the future as we follow the Spirit’s leading.

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