“When it came to pastoral ministry, I couldn’t find a decent resource that I could use to prepare families for Baptism. The available texts were either unengaging or a poor cultural fit for the community we serve. When I couldn’t find what we needed on the shelves of Christian bookshops, I decided that we could produce our own book – and share it with others.”
The Rev’d Mark Vincent, Honorary Assistant Priest, St Paul’s, East Brisbane
St Paul’s is a small, lively parish on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD. We have a beautiful church, albeit built for a much larger congregation than the one we now have, and a great record of service and witness in East Brisbane. At first sight, however, we have all the problems that parishes located on the city fringe confront. We have few families with small children. Many of our people are older, with most retired. While the members of our congregation are generous souls, we can’t afford to pay a full-time stipend. We rely on the generosity of four very different non-stipendiary clergy who bring their unique talents to a team ministry.
Like all churches in this situation, we have spent many hours discussing the way forward. The single most important step in this was reframing the way we look at ourselves and the world. In a sense, it’s just a matter of taking the Gospel seriously and counting our blessings. Our parish situation doesn’t amount to a list of deficits – we aren’t defined by what we once had and don’t have any longer. In fact, St Paul’s runs on the same wonderful principle that the German educator, Dr Kurt Hahn, gave to the world in Outward Bound, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme and the Round Square schools: plus est en vous. “There’s more in you than you think!” You start with what you have – the remarkable thing is that there’s always more there than you can imagine.
So, no suitable Baptism resource? The Rev’d Mark Vincent is our senior priest and it was his idea for us to write and produce our own resource. Mark turned to me, an aging priest with “permission to officiate” (PTO), to manage the project. I’m a former teacher and school principal and also a writer of children’s stories, which I publish online. Could I produce the text for a book that a priest could use in multiple ways for baptism preparation – with families of small children and with adults as well? Could the book also double as a gift from the parish at Baptism? And, could the book be a sacramentally faithful resource that we could share with other parishes? I soon found that meeting these multiple demands was going to be the biggest challenge of the commission.
One of the greatest blessings in the project was the contribution by Tracy Beadnell, our illustrator. Tracy was a member of the wider community when the project began. She lived near the church and called in at times to use our hall. The relationship developed from there. Tracy turned out to be a person of deep spirituality, and she is also a highly-gifted, creative professional artist. Mark asked Tracy if she could take on the Baptism book as a professional project. This would be a formal commission, paying Tracy for her work. With wide experience in Australia, the UK and China, Tracy brought beyond her artistic talent to the project. She also brought a terrific intuitive gift for turning text and ideas into illustrations. This was to be the first book she illustrated, and from the start Tracy seemed to know what was wanted.
The first step, of course, was writing the text that ticked all the boxes that Mark wanted addressed. We settled on the idea of “parallel texts”, with each page opening featuring text boxes on both sides. The text on the right-hand side (the side to which they eye naturally goes when reading a picture book) featured information written for a child. On the left-hand side of the book, the same information was presented in adult language. And, the illustration wrapping around the text through the two A4 pages would present that information or idea in visual form.
Tracy really shone at this stage of the book’s development. She seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the best way to move from a theological truth or an abstract idea into a visual or concrete presentation. Tracy and I often met to discuss what the text needed. Her watercolour illustrations are stunning, insightful and intense.
Perhaps the best thing about Tracy’s work was the strong sense of locality, with a sense of “this is our parish; this is our church; these are our people”. Those in the know can identify individual members of the congregation, which is wonderfully affirming. After about eight weeks, we had the completed text and accompanying illustrations. Welcome to a New Family was ready for publication.
So far, we had used solely own local people, but the next step was beyond us. It was time to involve someone with skills in graphic design. I called in the kindness of friends at St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School to help take us forward. The Chaplain, The Rev’d Gillian Moses, is a much better theologian than I am and kindly read the text for me. Then it was over to Ms Annie Fanning, a very talented (diplomatic) designer. She helped us in a number of ways to ensure that the final presentation of the book did justice to Tracy’s wonderful artwork.
The response to our Baptism book resource project has been wonderfully encouraging. Bishops and Archbishops have been keen to endorse the book and school chaplains and Religious Education teachers have also been enthusiastic. Book sales are picking up nicely. The Parish Council was very keen to see the book distributed, so we could cover our costs or even generate revenue to seed other projects. We’re on a roll!
However, above all, the book is a celebration of our own community – a little congregation that punches above its weight. It’s our Kingdom building, COVID-19 collaboration project for 2021.
There have been some criticisms, of course. Someone didn’t like the fashion worn by some women congregation members depicted in the book. A few people have prickled at the effort we have made to be inclusive and respectful of difference. Someone else has criticised the book as not being inclusive enough.
I courageously sent a copy to the Archbishop of Canterbury on the premise that lots of unhappy things must cross his desk and our book might remind him that despite the challenges we face as a Church, the Holy Spirit is working to build the Kingdom in local settings in ways that bless us most unexpectedly.
You can purchase Welcome to a New Family at the Cathedral Shop instore or online or by ordering a copy from the Parish Administrator at St Paul’s, East Brisbane by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The book costs $10, excluding postage and packaging.
Five top tips for producing your own book resource:
- Take time to clarify the purpose and audience of the book.
- Reach out to skilled people in your own faith community and beyond to source the writing, editing, illustration, design and print skills needed.
- Draft the text first and work out how the text will be structured on the pages before illustration tasks commence, ensuring that the illustrations represent the appropriate diversity.
- Allow decent lead times as creative church projects such as this require much discussion and collaboration.
- Find ways to distribute your book so other parishes can use it as a resource, including Anglican Church channels and wider denominational channels.