On Not Packing It In in Piccadilly

A decade ago, the little church of St. James's, Piccadilly, in London had six members and a $20,000 debt when the Rev. Donald Reeves became rector.Since then the macro trend in London's Anglican churchgoing has worsened: In the diocese of more than 3 million, membership has dropped from 66,000 in 1979 to 46,000 - a decline of 30 percent. A general unhappiness has settled on modern major cities. The public would pack it in, were there someplace else to go. Some 46 percent of Boston's citizens, in a survey just reported, want to live someplace else - about the same proportion as want to abandon Los Angeles; even more would leave New York. This dispirited urban milieu weighs on city churches. St. James's has resisted. Its membership is now in the hundreds. It bustles with church services, public discussions, musical performances, lunches for the poor, a crafts fair, and starting this week, an art exhibition. No thanks to the diocese. "There has not been one emergency meeting to deal with it in 10 years," Mr. Reeves says of the London diocese's failure to respond to its decline. "There's a dreadful complacency. The Church of England in London could collapse unless some significant changes are made. They cannot rely on the personality of the clergy all the time to save it." Designed by Christopher Wren, St. James's was built in 1684, after Wren's masterpiece, the St. Paul Cathedral. Success' is an odd word to apply to a church," Reeves replies when asked about his first 10-year plan for St. James's. That plan has recently been followed by a new one for the '90s called "A Vision for 10 Years," which a visitor can pick up for 50 pence from a little rack inside the edifice. "St. James's has become part of the life of London," Reeves answers. "Many churches show sectarian tendencies. We are attracting quite a variety of people who have had no connection with religion before." "The churchgoing habit in Britain is not the same as in your country," he explains. "Many Londoners know very little about Christianity." "New Age" religion? "It is an umbrella phrase for a great number of people discussing religion: much of it nonsensical, all of it a reflection on the established church's failure," Reeves says. Included are courses like "inner transformation." Misgivings aside, "we have a space in our program for it," he says, "because I feel these are very disenchanted Christians - mostly young middle-aged, middle-class, and mostly women - who have drifted off." Why publish a vision document? "It was a response to the enormous amount of publicity I and the church get. And it became a framework for developing the church's programs." Reeves says, "The basic question is whether London has a future. There is no mayor of the city, no overall government of the city. London's been privatized. The sidewalk outside the front door of St. James's has been replaced by a private company. London has lost its identity. There is a chaos about transport, education. The gap between rich and poor has grown. An incredible number of flats and shops are empty. This is because of the recession, but it is here to stay. We're addressing it. "We're holding public conversations and discussions - something in which the ordinary Londoner can take part." The written word? He's published two books. "But only those already in the know read theology. There's been a whole loss of reading in our culture. Most reading is done on holiday. The market forces now control what is published, and that means everything has to be 'accessible. Does he sermonize? m a good preacher. I take a lot of time with my sermons. I speak to the congregation for about eight minutes. Then they talk to each other for five minutes. Then they ask me questions. Then I go on for another eight minutes. I can't do this every Sunday; it can take an hour and a half." Pray? "I have quite a combative relationship with God. If you're up against it in a situation, you are called to talk to God. The Jewish tradition in this regard is good. Christians want to be very quiet and still, like monks and nuns." The future? "We need more space. They're closing churches down in London like ninepins. But we need another church, another building to expand in." That debt? "We're still in arrears. That's the way a church should be."

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