Messy Church and Tidy St. Paul’s aren’t natural bedfellows but amazingly the afternoon of 25 January they got on far better than many of us had feared. Of course it wasn’t really proper Messy Church – where was the paint, a food activity and of course the meal, to mention just a few, vital missing ingredients? But nor was it tidy St Paul’s – there was noise, there were children, there were bubbles and there was excitement! And I suppose at no point was the difference between the two more acute than when it came to the celebration. Although Mary’s storytelling was excellent and the children’s drama very well done, nothing could be further from a messy celebration than an anthem from a robed choir, the overwhelming wordiness and length of the order of service, the choice of hymns and the sheer weight of clergy present. But this is St Paul’s and this is the sort of church it does, and does well, though it wasn’t particularly family-friendly for many of the Messy Church people who came.
But we knew this in advance and we had agreed to work with it and make it the best of it we could. Lucy and I got to meet several interested in starting Messy Church as well as ‘discovered’ others that are happening in London, unknown and unregistered. The Messy Church teams who came from across London to help out on the day met each other and shared their expertise and experiences and did a wonderful job in providing interesting, creative crafts (that avoided too much mess!), which told St Paul’s amazing story alongside a number of more general Baker Ross crafts available from the Cathedral tables. The Diocese will get photos and stories; Messy Church had a significant profile and presence (our Messy Church pull-up banner was up there beneath the pulpit during the worship); and people from all over London plus many unsuspecting tourists from all around the world enjoyed the afternoon (probably over 1000 in total) and got to hear of Messy Church.
It was definitely a successful first step and this partnership with St Paul’s was mutually beneficial. It brought in many more families from across the capital, so many more that the numbers were almost double those at last year’s family activity day. And from the Cathedral staff’s perspective, there were lots of children and families present at ‘The Patronal Eucharist’ – the Dean seemed very chuffed – and there even smiles on some of the faces of the vergers.
There were a few complaints of course: about the presence of latex balloons; the fact you couldn’t hear the headphone commentaries because of all the noise; and some expressing their annoyance that things weren’t signposted better. Could we improve it? Of course! Where were the activities for teenagers for example? And might not the prayer zone activities have been better separate from the bubbles, shrieks and balloons from the crowd around Mr Squash the entertainer? And maybe the welcome could have been better – perhaps messy stewards on the door to guide people in to where all the activities were? The uniformed officials on the desks had a challenge dealing with paid tourists at the same time as the free entry Messy Church families. And, of course, oh for a more slimmed-down, appropriate family-friendly celebration.
However, every hesitant new relationship has to make some compromises and so for the moment this was the best we could do. From my point of view I just think it was amazing that the day ever happened at all. The Messy Church teams who came with their wonderful ideas and enthusiasm were brilliant – a testimony to the calibre of our messy community that is ready to rise to any challenge. And all this, by the way, was done in well under a month and mainly by email. Thank the Lord for the Messy Churches of London who worked so hard and engaged so many, so creatively, for so long.
And I must mention Janet Marshall, who is the brilliant Education Officer at the Cathedral. She wrote a book for us at BRF many years ago. She was so encouraging; she was so willing to welcome this partnership at such short notice; and surely she is someone who has made amazing progress in terms of turning St. Paul’s just a little bit more ‘messy’ than many could ever have imagined.
And guess what? I got to shout at the top of my voice, right under the Dome. I could hear my words echoing around the gallery above, as I was the voice of Jesus calling out to Saul on the road to Damascus turning his tidy, controlled life upside down and making a mess of all his plans. Amazing!
This was surely an important start for our Messy Church/London Diocese partnership as part of their Capital Vision Programme, and who knows what will come out of this day? As the voice said, ‘Go into the city and find out what you are to do next’