There have been other occasions when I have acknowledged the value of the building which is St Mary’s in advancing our wider mission. The Church is, of course, not primarily a building but a community which stretches across the planet and reaches back through the ages, transcending space and time – the Communion of Saints is the Church on earth (the Church Militant) in communion with the Church in heaven (the Church Triumphant). That Community, however, meets in a visible and very identifiable building which should communicate something about the Gospel rooted in the world. In that sense, our buildings are important and one only needs to look at the Visitors Book to find evidence of the value in which St Mary’s is held by those who enter its doors. Part of our mission is appropriately the care, maintenance and development of the building in which we meet and into which we invite the wider local community.
Our particular focus is currently the replacement of the roof but this was always going to be the first phase of a larger programme of restoration and development. I am calling that programme “the masterplan” – not to make any overstated claims about it but just as a way of making it distinct from the Mission Action Plan for St Mary’s which we are beginning to review and re-write in the coming year. That said, the “masterplan” will be part of that wider Mission Action Plan which will identify our priorities in mission and service over the next five years or so.
An important component of our many schools visits is to show the children the wonderfully decorated hammer beam roof which dates from c1450. The lighting is such that this is not straightforward and we have to rely on powerful torches! What is revealed is a host of angels and a company of musicians of which most of us are unaware. Re-lighting the building will reveal this wonder of late medieval craftsmanship to many more people as well as picking out some of the other salient features of the church. Furthermore, sensitive lighting can enhance the overall atmosphere and modern technology can enable a number of pre-set levels of light appropriate to different occasions and times of day. It should also enable us to more clearly identify and use different prayer spaces within the church – the Chancel, the Anselm Chapel, the Parvise and the Peace Chapel.
People visit St Mary’s for a whole range of reasons but broadly there will be interest in its history and heritage and in its spiritual purpose. There is both an historical and spiritual story to tell. We need to develop resources to do this is in an attractive, possibly interactive manner. Our many memorials and windows tell the story of a community for which the Hill has been a focus for almost a millennium; the traditional features of an ecclesiastical building – font, pulpit, altar, nave and chancel – proclaim the Gospel story which has given meaning and purpose to the lives lived out in that community.
Although almost every pew is occupied twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays when Harrow School worship in St Mary’s and similarly when John Lyon School come for their annual services of commemoration, some degree of re-ordering will ideally give a greater sense of space and give greater flexibility. Removing the back pews in front of the tower will provide space for exhibitions and smaller receptions, as well as giving greater accessibility to the font for baptisms.
One of the mysteries of past renovations and additions is the reredos behind the altar which partly obscures the Ninian Comper East Window. It is proposed that the screen is reduced in height in order to reveal the window fully while maintaining the important reminder that at the altar we carry out our Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me”.
We are proud to proclaim that St Mary’s is a place of prayer for all people. The original intention of the Peace Chapel was that it may become an inclusive space welcoming those of other faiths. We need to give some further thought and prayer to how we develop this aim in a way that gives real expression to our identity as the Borough Church.
People value St Mary’s for many reasons but its setting and the beauty of the surrounding churchyard are high on any possible list. The value of the work of the gardening team, especially at this time of year, is plain for all to see – by their fruits you will know them! There is little that needs doing to enhance this space apart from restoring the Peachy Stone which is included in the overall plan alongside putting in lighting along the path.
The lower churchyard is altogether different and it is in desperate need of restoration. A management plan has already been commissioned and the Conservation Group at Harrow School have indicated that they are willing to make a start on this work with the intention of making this more inviting and accessible community space.
Much of the money to achieve these changes will have to be raised from grant making trusts and possibly from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is encouraging to report, however, that we have secured over £300,000 for the roof works already.
Each generation leaves its mark on the building and in so doing reflects its own understanding of the Gospel in its own age hopefully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I began by acknowledging the value in which St Mary’s is held by its many visitors. I would like to think that the words of T S Eliot in his poem Little Gidding might be true of St Mary’s for all who visit,
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid……
We are called to make sure that remains so.
With every blessing