Why me –making a difference on God’s name - Janet Gough, Sunday 4 March 2018, St John the Baptist, Holland Road

Why me –making a difference on God’s name - Janet Gough, Sunday 4 March 2018, St John the Baptist, Holland Road

On paper my journey of faith is an easy one. Brought up in a conventional Anglican church-going family, with a thorough evangelical Sunday school education followed by two schools firmly rooted in the Church of England and most recently I worked at Church House in      Westminster.

But it’s not that straightforward. My teenage children and their friends remind me of my own deep scepticism about organised religion in my late teens that carried on well through my university years, 20s and beyond.

The Church has not always covered itself in glory. The Crusades were my special subject for history A Level and I am now a trustee at the Priory of the Order of St John or Hospitallers, today better known as St John Ambulance.  But we all abhor religious extremism and I found it difficult to reconcile many of the motivations and actions in the Crusades with God’s universal love.

I was a little involved in preparations to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, but was disheartened to learn how much the Church did to encourage men to enlist and how little later to support them once out fighting.  There were notable exceptions like Woodbine Willie the Worcestershire vicar who tended to men in the trenches often offering soldiers a cigarette, and the opening of the vaults of St Martin-in-the-fields as a place of respite near Charring Cross for returning troops.

Today it’s hard not to open a newspaper without reading further horrors of the Church and other institutions towards vulnerable young people (although I do think we overlook the much greater good the Church has done for so many young And vulnerable people).  And the Reformation whose 500th anniversary we have begun to celebrate produced as a by-product horrific torturing, burnings and other injustices inflicted by influential churchmen and women on other poor pious souls for many years afterwards.

My own personal bugbear concerns women in the church. I was a young woman during the long struggle to enable women to become priests. It then took a further 20 years and almost greater campaigning to enable women to be promoted from priest to bishop, so I am delighted about the appointment of Bishop Sarah Mullally as bishop-elect of London.  And I know this remains a difficult and sensitive subject but I hope we can all accept with God-given if often difficult grace others’ differing viewpoints.


I think too you can see that in everything I’ve mentioned, there have been good and misguided examples from people of faith.  And here is the crux for me, it is the faith and good works of individuals, often in the most difficult and humble circumstances that has ultimately won me over to deep-seated belief in the fundamental good that can be wrought by accepting God’s love into our lives and sharing that love with others.

I was hugely privileged to work as director of Cathedrals and Church Buildings for the Church of England for eight years. Anyone who sets foot inside one of the 42 cathedrals or the 16,000 parish churches three quarters of which are listed of historic interest and value, cannot but be impressed by the love, skill and craftsmanship that has gone into creating some of the most sublime and awe-inspiring architecture fashioned by man for the glory of God.

Last Sunday in a private evening visit to St Mark’s Basilica, Venice I had the most incredible experience.  We were sat in total darkness in the nave when slowly the lights were turned up.  The interior of the 11th century basilica, a Greek cross with many domes made of the perfect or holy circle is totally covered in golden mosaics and the Cosmati pavement beneath recreates the Book of Revelation’s sea of frozen water.  In an utterly medieval way, heaven was revealed to us on earth.  And I was deeply aware of God’s enveloping presence across the centuries.

I’m often moved by the sublime achievements in stone, in the vaulted ceilings, carved bosses, stained-glass and much more all for the glory of God in our great churches and cathedrals.  But sometimes these are created at significant cost. In Gloucester Cathedral there is a poignant sculpted monument to a medieval mason staring down with arms and legs outstretched - it is thought he is falling to his death while working at a great height. These medieval masons created magnificent and holy spaces where prayer has been valid for many centuries. Unlike secular historic buildings our cathedrals are open 365 days a year to all comers offering a wide range of divine and other services to the community. I have been lucky to enjoy magnificent services in Westminster Abbey to welcome the Pope and celebrate 400 years of the King James Bible as well as to participate in a quiet evening prayer in the Edward Maufe extension in more humble Bradford Cathedral.

And the same goes for parish churches. I’ve watched on the side-lines the evolution of many parish church renewal projects, which done properly with full involvement of the community are often incredibly affirming processes.  Starting from working out the vision, to the plans and permissions, to creative fundraising and finally the project involving so much more of the local and sometimes the national community.  In my churches book I cover one of these recent inspiring renewal stories from St Martin of Tours in Bilbrough.  At St Martin’s against all the odds a tiny but dedicated group of parishioners from a challenged suburb on the edges of Nottingham stripped back an ill-conceived 70’s extension that had cut off the old church.  They re-accessed and conserved the medieval church and uncovered and restored stunning and significant 20th-century wall paintings. In the process they have not only won prizes but have generated a much stronger worshipping community. 

And you don’t need a new roof or loo to welcome the lonely into your church.  Last month and again tomorrow I shall be filling the lecture spot at St Stephen Rochester Row as part of a full-on day of activities for the over 50s held every Monday thanks to a philanthropist and an energetic curate. It starts with a computer class, then Zumba in the nave, free lunch provided by left over sandwiches from Pret a manger, a singing class, the arts lecture, tea at 3 and finishing up with Eucharist.  On my visit the Zumba include a man recovering from a stroke with his wife. And to my surprise and delight in my lecture an elderly Afro-Caribbean man called out the names of every single cathedral I put up on the screen, even of the obscure shots.  The first time that’s ever been achieved!

Most of all it’s the example of other people that has deepened my faith in God.  From my mother who later in life became a lay Franciscan, to my brother who has lived life of faith and as important demonstrated the godly life always finding time for others and to help where help is needed.  As a younger person I had problems with different churchmanship and my brother and I can still fundamentally I disagree about the uses of church buildings, but over time I’ve looked  beyond all that and learnt to appreciate better the many different and surprising , practical and spiritual ways God’s love can be manifested.

And I’m inspired by strangers too.

Recently I’ve been profoundly impressed by the ongoing selfless effort of the four vicars featured in the BBC 2’s series, A Vicar’s Life.  It’s just finished, but I’m sure you can get on catch-up TV.  It’s set in the predominately rural and not wealthy diocese of Hereford (though set in glorious countryside and with many gorgeous church buildings!). Every week it’s been inspiring to watch, working in God’s name for instance the curate who helped the homeless lady camping on a roundabout in Hereford find a proper home and then kept looking out for her. And the female vicar who connected a recently widowed parishioner with a young man trying to succeed in an apprenticeship by mentoring him and helping him develop his maths and reading skills alongside the woodwork he loves so much.

This Lent I’m following the Church’s Shrinking the Footprint campaign to reduce our dependence on plastics. Every day in Lent the Bishop of Dudley tweets a new idea on how we can cut out plastic. As the Times newspaper observed, this is not just lip service, this is a tangible national campaign to make a difference – led by the church. It is just one of many campaigns for good that has converted me back to my belief in the practical, powerful love of God expressed through the Church and his followers.

There’s a lovely campaign being gently conducted on Twitter and elsewhere to promote and celebrate the joys of choral evensong.  Cleverly those behind it are looking to attract those who simply love music, emphasising the fantastic free music performances found in many cathedrals and churches that we call Choral Evensong.  Where else can you find such high quality of choral music on a regular basis free of charge? And it’s just possible it might even transport its listeners to a Godly spirituality released from the daily cares of life.

I’m used to hearing Evensong beautifully sung by professional choirs in extraordinary cathedral settings. So I was bowled over to come to the Advent service at St John the Baptist on 10 December last year. The choir of 20 to 30-somethings was substantial and supremely professional, the music produced as good as any I’ve heard in a cathedral, the darkened church was brought to light and not surprisingly it was packed.

Over a glass of wine after the service French lady carrying her shopping told me she had just come in from the street she saw the lights and heard the music.  And for me the experience was nothing if not hugely faith-enhancing.

Thanks be to God

Janet Gough OBE
05 March 2018

Holland Park Benefice