Vicar of St Paul’s to retire

On Friday 21st April I celebrated the 18th birthday of my induction as vicar of this church and parish. I remember that when I rang the bell at that service to signify the fact that I had taken “real, actual and corporeal” possession of the benefice, the Archdeacon got worried because I kept ringing it. Some people believe that the number of strikes of the bell indicates the length of tenure of the new incumbent. I’m not sure if any of you counted the strikes – I certainly didn’t! I just enjoyed doing it – as I have enjoyed ringing it for the 9am Morning Prayer most days, for weddings, baptisms, and funerals – and being your vicar and parish priest for all these years.

There were three things which initially attracted me to this church: the fact that it was a one church benefice, that it was in an urban priority area and that the church “welcomed the ministry of women and gay clergy”.

That last sentence, an addition made to the parish profile by the archdeacon at the time, was an indication to me that this church wanted to be on the move, open to change, a pilgrim church, welcoming and hospitable to all comers …

For me, that’s been the hallmark of St Paul’s: to be a local and yet at the same time a global community of searchers, seekers and travellers, diverse and yet one in Christ. I believe that to be an important – if not the most important – aspect of Christ’s vision for the Church’s ministry in the 21st century – and I think our young people here at St Paul’s show us best how it’s done: to welcome newcomers and integrate them within a couple of weeks!

This necessarily goes together with the theological ethos and outlook of St Paul’s; many of us here are refugees from churches with a more fundamentalist outlook for whom living with the questions has become more important than getting (easy) answers. If I were asked what is at the heart of this church, I would say: “meeting the Risen Christ in word, in sacrament and in community”.

St Paul’s has always had and shown a concern for the local community; as an urban priority area we have made the expression of care for that community a focal point in Parkside Project and the Community Centre and of course in what is called the “cure of souls” – which means the availability of someone from the church to be attentive to the physical, spiritual and existential needs of anyone within the parish (and that boundary has never been rigid!).

But that local community has changed beyond recognition which has been and still is a big challenge to the life and ministry of this church. Beginning with the sale of social housing, the provision of smaller but high-end properties meaning that the parish is no longer a UPA area, the diversification of the social, ethnic and religious make-up of the local community on one hand and the increasing secularisation on the other has had a significant impact on the number of occasional services requested and other activities offered by the church in the past, for example the Summer Club. This is a significant challenge for the future of this church. How does it need to change to relate to the area as it is now?

The last three years have shown high activity in upgrading the fabric of the church and the community centre; projects to the value of £220k have been made possible by the great generosity of our members, and good stewardship of the PCC, the Community Centre Management Committee and the tremendous support of our treasurer. Thank you!

The annual report accounts for that and all the other activities carried out by many members of this congregation. Thank you for your commitment, dedication and love expressed in this.

And now for the bit you’ve all been waiting for for the last 18 years: As I will hopefully complete the 65th year of my life at the end of this year and reach what has traditionally been retirement age, I have been thinking about my own future – as well as the future of the church – and I have come to the conclusion that it’s time for me to retire. Not today or tomorrow, but at the end of January 2018. I’m  telling you this today so that we can all get used to the idea and so that the PCC and the Churchwardens have got plenty of time to get into gear and prepare all the necessary for the search for a new vicar … who will take this church into a new phase of its history and journey.

Heinz Toller