Within a few minutes drive of this Church building – depending on the traffic on the New England Highway– there are two hospitals. Most of us, at some time or another, have been a patient in, or have visited some else in one or other, or both of them. If you head towards Newcastle it won’t take you long to reach Maitland Private Hospital, if you head towards Singleton, you will find Maitland Public Hospital very soon: two hospitals serving the people of the communities of this local area.
Here is an interesting and obvious fact about those two hospitals: women who are in labour – who are about to give birth to their child – only go to one of them. Both of them are hospitals: they both have doctors, they both have nurses, they both have wards full of beds and equipment. So why do pregnant women only go to one of them? Is it because of the parking? Is it because of the interior decoration? – No: pregnant women only go to one of those hospitals, because only one of them has a Maternity Department.
Now let me say two things at this stage, in case you think I am putting myself forward as an expert on all things maternal. The first is that self-evidently I have never given birth! And secondly, I have a pretty bad track record of being present when my wife has given birth. I was there in the hospital with her for the birth of our second and our fourth sons, but I was not present when our first and our third sons were born. In fact when Joshua was born I was away working on the other side of the world. I was there when Malachi was born in a hospital in Perth, and when Nahum was born in Newcastle. So I have a kind of idea, having observed it a couple of times, of how it all works!
When Malachi was born it was a fairly predictable affair. A doctor came in and out of the room regularly, a nurse was there with Luisa. I had the bright idea that I would video the occasion and she hit me, so that was not to be. When Nahum was born, things were altogether different. Luisa was very unwell, she went in to hospital a few days earlier. Whilst in hospital she picked up an infection. When she was in labour it felt like the whole world was in the room with us – doctors, nurses, experts of one kind and another. When Nahum was born he was taken away very quickly to the high care unit where he stayed for some time before we were able even to hold him, and then some time later bring him home.
They were very different experiences. But the one thing that they had in common was that they took place in places that had been specifically set up to help women through the process from labour to birth, and then afterwards in the first moments and days of the life of a new born child. When Luisa and I were looking for the hospital in which our child would be born, we did not simply choose the nearest hospital to where we lived. The first question for us was not, “is it round the corner?” it was “are they set up to help Luisa give birth.
So when Nahum born in Newcastle, we drove past two hospitals on the way that were nearer to where we lived, but which did not have maternity departments. They may have been great hospitals that provide all kinds of other care. Not any hospital will do when you are having a baby.
The amazing thing about hospitals that have maternity departments is that they never close. Maternity departments don’t have certain hours when they are open to deliver babies, and certain hours when they are not. They don’t just open for a special event once a year for everyone to turn up and give birth. They are set up, all the time, twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year, ready to welcome women, expecting women who come to give birth to their child. There must be times when no one is having a baby, even if it is just one hour every few months. But nevertheless, maternity departments always stay open. Always ready with the plan and the expertise to help women through the process of labour.
One of the foundational images that we find in the teachings of Jesus is the idea that God calls us, wills for us, to be born again into the life of his Son Jesus, into the Body of Christ. The simple fact is this. Some churches are set up and ready to help people through that process, and others are not. There are some churches that are ready and waiting to help visitors to become part of the life of the Body of Christ, to be born again through Holy Baptism by water and the Spirit, and to grow and mature in faith, and there are other churches that are not set up to do that. Some churches are growing, and others are not. Growing churches have maternity wards, declining churches don’t. It depends where their leaders and their congregations choose to use and prioritise their time, resources and energy.
Bishop Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford in the Church of England puts it like this, “a Church which is not deliberately set up to nurture people into the Christian faith is like a hospital without a maternity ward. No wonder no new Christians are born there!”
Churches that have maternity departments are like hospitals that have maternity departments: they don’t just start thinking about how they will help someone to grow into faith when the person arrives. They already have a plan, people know that it’s the place to come to if you want to find out if God is real, and the Gospels are true. Churches that have maternity departments are ready at any time to help a person to be born into the Christian life, and to grow and to thrive in it.
One of the first conversations that I had when I arrived here in 2012 was with a parishioner who said to me something like, “you need to help us to hand this Church building over to the National Trust, so that when we are all gone they will look after it in the future.” He said that to me because of a deep and faithful love for God and this building, knowing the reality that by and large the congregations within it have been growing older and getting smaller for many years now. Every now and again when I am driving around the parish those words come back to me. I wonder, ‘is that really the plan?’ or is the real plan to do exactly the reverse, to ensure that there will be a Church of Christian people here in the future even when the building is gone.
Today we celebrate the great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemass. This is the last day of the forty days of the Christmas season. It is the day when we remember Jesus’ parents offering him for the service of God in the Temple. It is also, in Australia, at the beginning of February, the time when the year really starts to get going again. Christmas concludes, January is over, it is time to turn our minds to what we plan to do and to achieve this year.
On Saturday morning your Parish Council met to set the direction for ministry for the coming year. The Parish Council has set just one primary ministry goal for 2014, and that goal is to focus the ministry time and resources of this Church on connecting with young families.
We are working with the parishes of Morpeth and Thornton-Beresfield to offer a youth group. We are beginning a new family Eucharist once each month on a Sunday afternoon at 4 pm. We are making Play Time (and mother’s and children group) and our baptism and wedding ministries priority areas where we can connect with young families and present to them the good news of Jesus. We are working to grow our Junior Choir and our Sunday School at the 9.30 am Sung Mass. We are working to develop our connections with local schools, and to make this site a place that they can visit and learn from.
We are like a hospital. We already have some wards in place. We offer beautiful and meaningful worship. Our Pastoral Care Workers do a great job in helping us all to care for one another. We have some opportunities in place for those of us who are already in the Church to grow in our understanding. We have programmes in place to support those who are on the margins of society that operate from our ministry centre. We are a recognisable presence in our local community.
Over the last year we have been able to help some people come to faith in Jesus, not many but a few. Over the last year we have been able to help some people to re-connect with the Body of Christ after years of not being connected to the Church, not many but a few. We really don’t have much experience and skills in doing this well. But we are making a start, by saying that above everything else, this is our priority for this year.
The Parish Council has set just one primary ministry goal for 2014, and that goal is to focus the ministry time and resources of this Church on connecting with the young families who live around us. This Church, this spiritual hospital, is opening a new department, a maternity department.