On comparing St Mary’s to Johnny Loulou’s

I rather foolishly took a traipse into town the other day. Even given that the weather was as dreich as it can get in Glasgow in January, it was still a miserable expedition. I had not bargained on seeing as many shops closed on Sauchiehall Street as there were. I’ve been busy over the last few weeks (natch) and simply had not had time to wander the highways and byways and when I did wander I found that they were looking the worse for wear.

Several shops had gone completely. Several looked like they were on their last legs.

Some looked to be doing OK and one in particular seemed to be flourishing.

I noticed when I was reading one of the newspapers this week that indeed the shop that seemed to be flourishing was reporting that it had had an astonishingly good Christmas and that all was booming. It was John Lewis.

It struck me that there are some similarities between John Lewis and the kind of church that I’ve been encouraging the Cathedral to become.

First of all, there’s an ethos. With John Lewis this is a combination of two things – “Never Knowingly Undersold” which is their slogan and also the way that the company is structured which is different to the way in which most companies are structured and which tries to give everyone a stake in the enterprise. There is a potent combination of value, quality and doing right that appears to be paying off. They also, interestingly are doing well both online and in the High Street and are expanding in both. It is clearly a brand that has worked to build up a lot of trust.

St Mary’s has an ethos. It is partly articulated in our slogan – “open, inclusive, welcoming”. (Note that like John Lewis’s slogan it is precisely three words long and easy to remember). St Mary’s is a place where ideas matter and where the ethos has developed over the years into something which is tangible. We too aspire to quality, though it is quality without being stuck up or too formal. We too are doing well both online and in the physical building and I see the online stuff as being just another way of doing what we do. The physical St Mary’s experience is enhanced by the online one and vice versa. Some people tend towards one or the other but some people would find the virtual and the physical representations of St Mary’s seemless. The same ethos pervades both the website and the service sheet. Our online evening prayer feels extraordinarily similar to our physical morning prayer. Lots of people know what we stand for and lots of people like what we do. There’s a feeling of excitement about the place.

There’s branding involved in all of this. Marketing too. Lots of careful thinking about what font expresses our values and what happens next when you walk through the door or click on the home-page. But those are the technical things that just make it easier. What really matters is the raw guts of the place – the reason we do what we do. I don’t know whether I could say what John Lewis is selling in one word. I do know we are peddling joy.

Generally speaking, we are not doing incredibly well at communicating such messages as a corporate Scottish Episcopal Church. I don’t think we know what we are offering or to whom we are offering it. Could we offer a three word explanation of our ethos? I’d be surprised.

Some of the reasons we are struggling with this lie with our Bishops though obviously not all of them. It is hard to see how these ethos issues can be clarified without a high level strategy. These days, I fear that our Bishops think that you can do mission simply by working with church-goers and trying to make them bring more folk in. However hard you try to do that, and however important it is to do it, such an enterprise will always be difficult unless there is some national sense of value and purpose.

Those folk, the ones we might want in, need to be offered something. They need to know what we stand for and what it is we have to share.

I don’t think that many of the large denominations are doing well at this these days. Here at St Mary’s, we are probably big enough in the city to push out a message and establish an ethos. There is a narrative about who we are and we have a penumbra – those who look to us who don’t come every week.

(And if you are a penumbran who is reading this, you are dearer to our hearts than gold. Never forget we are praying for you and never feel shy of asking us questions).

What is really difficult these days is trying to do this from a smaller church base. My fear is that the High Street with its missing, empty shops is likely to have its own ecclesiastical parallel. Without a coherent narrative, we are not all doomed. I fear that unless we aquire one though, some of us are.