The ‘phone rang. It was the Bishop (of Bath & Wells) Secretary. It was only my first year in charge of Holy Trinity, Taunton.
One of those moments when, like a naughty schoolboy, you wonder what would follow, rather like waiting outside the Headmaster’s study at School. I was soon to find out.
“The Rural Dean has told the Bishop that you are holding services at Holy Trinity which are not according to the Prayer Book and he would like to know what you are up to?”
Some 10 months earlier he had inducted me into my post there as Vicar and I had been horrified at the poor provision for children and their families.
An elderly, dictatorial lady ran a Sunday School in the Day School which she defended jealously, not even allowing me to take part and I knew all she did was to tell them Bible stories.
There was no relationship between her and the rest of the parish and I knew that I would need to fight that particular dragon if we were to make any progress.
We needed to encourage “Family” worship to replace a “Children’s Mass” to which only a handful of children came, but in no way could you say it was “Children’s” but only a bowdlerised version of the Prayer Book and the only person who made his Communion at it was the officiating priest!
These were the days (1957) prior to the advent of the Family Car and it was still possible to hold afternoon services to which I hoped complete families would come and gradually, with instruction, help them to understand and take part in the Communion.
Having explained it to the Secretary, she said she would explain it to the Bishop and in consideration of what I had to contend with generally in the parish, felt he would be helpful. Which he was, but with the stricture that it was not to be a permanent part of the Sunday worship programme. (Sounds a bit like the Brexit “back stop”!)
Planned to last only for a year of monthly services we hoped to cover all the essentials of Christian membership and at the end we might have added some families to the flock.
It succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and the first Sunday at 3 p.m. the nave was packed with families and it continued so for the rest of the year.
Some fell away as we “put the pressure on”, even gently, but numbers also diminished because some were transferring as we had hoped and prayed, to the morning Parish Communion, also some of the parents enquiring about Confirmation.
But that was then, some 60 years ago and times have changed dramatically.
When I was asked to rescue Swanmore, with a tremendous amount of publicity, we tried the same formula but doubtfully, because I had a gut feeling that the problem was much greater, especially for a parish that had been woefully neglected.
We held a “Family Toy service” inviting people to come with toys to distribute to needy families. We had lots of lovely toys, but only attracted four extra people! The rest brought toys which were dropped hurriedly in the church porch and the donors disappeared as quickly as they could!
I have recounted all this, because it has been clear to me (and many other clergy) that so much that worked in the past, no longer attracts or is effective and we are often trying to vanquish the well-armed Devil with out-of-date weapons.
Our “Family Services” were among the first in Bath and Wells Diocese, but their attraction has waned over the years, needing to be replaced with more revolutionary approaches. There are exciting ideas abroad and we need to have an armoury fit for the 21st century in a very secular England.
Close to the busy Newcastle Central Station is a small green oasis that is the churchyard of St. John’s Church, where I first encountered the “Parish Communion Movement”.
Cranmer and his associates together with the reformers of the 1662 Prayer Book tried to implement their aim, to make CofE members “regular Communion” people, to erase the then idea of worshippers only attending Mass to see the Sacrament lifted high and adored, but rarely made their Communions.
Cranmer envisaged every Sunday to be a Sacrament Sunday but there was a snag, for “pre-Communion fasting” was the rigid rule, which was adopted and few could endure waiting until noon before they could have breakfast,
St. John’s solved this by holding their ‘Parish’ Communion at 9 a.m. (the people coming fasting), and afterwards the congregation met either in the vestry, or (in the summer) sitting in the sun-lit churchyard breakfasting on a simple diet of cereal, toast and appropriate drinks.
This was the forerunner of after-church coffee, which was yet (in the 1940s) to be in the future.
As a ‘teen-ager, I thought it was brilliant, for normally then Communion would be at 8 a.m. (fasting) to be followed at 11.0 a.m. by a fully Sung Eucharist at which only the elderly and infirm were expected to receive.
It seemed strange to me that we had to come to church twice on a Sunday morning, and when I (a brash 30yr. old) became in charge of Holy Trinity I relaxed the fasting rule which immediately had a beneficial effect on the size of the congregation, nor did we have the usual post-Confirmation disappearance of the young from their worship.
We are all accustomed to people receiving ‘non-fasting’, but when I made the change, I received criticism from all sides of the Church spectrum; “Father Rayner’s gone all low Church”, that is, until the Pope said it was OK for his flock!
The 1950s/60s saw the growth of the “Parish and People” movement, trying to build this concept, but mainly through lethargy, lack of leadership and fear of “change”, it quietly sank without achieving its aims.
The set-up at St. John’s, Newcastle was a real “Parish” Communion, for, following on from their breakfast the people would stay to discuss parish matters and generally converse, so “Parish” meant that it was a part of an idea to weld the people into a knowable family with a real sense of belonging.
They were in a way following the same path as the Early Christians, where the laity felt that they “owned” and were deeply involved in the life of the parish, with the kind of social relationship that the Christian faith should engender.
Bringing Holy Trinity into a strong ethos that “we are all in this together” was made easier when I introduced in 1958 for (I understand) the first time in Somerset, coffee (or tea) after the Parish Communion.
Of course, it drew criticism that now “Father Rayner is turning the parish church into a coffee shop”, but it was soon followed by other parishes “taking the plunge” and now it’s the norm.
The pre-fix “Commun” is part of the word “to share” and The Church is not somewhere we go on a Sunday, but is the moment when we truly share in a divine mystery, where we share the bread and wine of the Sacrament, by which we are spiritually joined to each other and to Jesus.
When we become Christians we do not “go to Church”, for we ARE The Church and we need to BE “The Church” wherever we are.
“We break this bread to SHARE in the Body of Christ” and our response is: “Though we are many, we are ONE Body”.
St. Paul has much to say about the “Body” concept of the Living Church. By Baptism and Communion we are joined to be “Jesus among us”. “Christ has no Body here on earth but yours” says St. Teresa. A true “Parish” Communion enables this to become a reality.
I have been reading the life story of the late William Temple, who for a short while (1942-1944) was Archbishop of Canterbury, dying suddenly from a heart attack.
This was a tragedy for he was a great Missioner and was determined that the Church of England should be a missionary Church. He realised that England was only nominally Christian; in fact, Church attendance had already started its decline. Indeed it was calculated that in the 1940s less than 10% attended worship in the CofE on a Sunday.
There was still good attendance of children at Sunday Schools, but very few of them stayed long enough to be confirmed and active Church members.
Chaplains in the armed forces reported that a huge percentage of the men (and women) in the forces were completely ignorant of the Christian Faith, had no Church allegiance, knew little of the Bible, despite (at that time), in England, 60% had been baptised! Only 35% actually attended Sunday Schools.
I have written previously about the way in which a Report into Mission, entitled “Towards the conversion of England” was published at Temple’s command in 1944 (the year that he died) with a view to revitalising the Church to prepare for post-war problems.
Costing only one shilling (5p.) it was a mine of information and statistics, but also a wealth of good ideas, regarding “Outreach”. As a ‘teen-ager, recently returned to The Church, I (with many others so inclined), found it a source of inspiration.
So much so, that when ordained, I (and a fair number of young men) saw in it a blueprint that could have a positive effect on the Christian influence in our country. When we were in a position to do so, we began to work on its guidance, which if universally adopted would have transformed religious life, in a Society which was only nominally Christian.
Temple knew from his experience that people returning from the war when many had experienced so many challenges and horrors, would be seeking for answers and explanations, particularly where religion could take its part.
This could have been a sea-change in the way The Church approached and presented the Gospel, of which the majority of people were ignorant.
It was not to be. With Temple’s untimely and unexpected death, his successor, Geoffrey Fisher (who had never been a parish priest, only a public school chaplain) turned the Church’s attention to the need to revise Canon Law (the Church’s rule book). He wanted to discipline those clergy, who altered the Prayer Book services and introducing such “frowned upon” practises, such as incense (which at that time was wrongly presumed to be illegal).
As a result, the highest authority, The Church Assembly, spent 10 years discussing Canon Law; any idea of Evangelism and the “Conversion” report vanished, like other such reports.
Some of the older clergy were delighted, because they had endured the war with all its personal problems and the last thing they wanted was major changes.
The parish where I served as a curate (1952-56) still maintained the same service and pastoral pattern that had been in the 1870s when the church was first built.
Present-day social problems, emphasised by the terribly bitter division over Brexit, mirror those of Temple’s day, and there are tremendous opportunities for Christians to restate the Gospel and speak out clearly of a way by which we may gain a sense of purpose and of moral direction.
What has our Archbishop and other Christian leaders got to say concerning the role of Christianity in our Society?
The Church is worryingly silent on so many social and moral problems and I for one fear for the future of our Society and its lack of Christian guidance. We need to preach the Gospel with all its challenges, for unless we do, the future looks frightening.
"Where true love and kindness are found, God Himself is there" ("Ubi caritas")
The first words of an ancient Christian hymn which (singing from the New Catholic Hymnal) was a favourite with the Wootton congregation (another translation is in our Brading hymn books No.742, but not so good and direct).
Reading the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that the main thrust that Jesus in the Gospels addressed was social problems and that echoed the commands that God gave to the Jews as described in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy and the prophets.
God commands Moses that His concern is for the poor, the widows, the under-privileged (to whom Jesus turned), the homeless and “strangers” which meant “immigrants”.
Considering the stress by “Brexiteers” on the evils of Immigration, God tells His Chosen people, to be welcoming to such people as they, the Jews themselves had been “strangers” in the lands where they had settled..
There was a conflict within the Early Church between “Faith” and “Works”; some said that all we needed to do was to have faith, that we could not earn God’s favour by good works, others emphasised the place of good works by Christians.
St. James (Jesus’ brother) who whilst never one of his brother’s disciples, appears as the head of the Infant Church in Jerusalem (Acts 21, v17), and qualifies teaching of the faith, dealing with the “works” that will issue from that faith.
He argues that we are to demonstrate our Faith by our behaviour towards others and he and his compatriots immediately after the Resurrection are found to be living a kind of Communistic life, sharing with less fortunate Christians.
Pagans, seeing the Church members’ actions were provoked to exclaim “See how these Christians love one another”; do outsiders say that about us?
If Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father” and that God is the Father of all mankind, it follows naturally from that we need to see all whom we meet as “Children of God”; therefore they are our spiritual brothers and sisters.
It is clear that we, who are called “Christians” because we believe in Jesus Christ, should demonstrate this by how we behave socially towards others.
However, it is not simply good actions and attitudes towards others, without that precious component, which is “Love”.
“Where true LOVE and kindness are found, God Himself is there”; we may do simple acts of kindness for others which have no element of “Love”.
People often help unload my shopping trolley on to the check-out, without my asking, but is that because they are concerned about me, or because it speeds up the process as they wait behind me?
I like to think that it’s the former and not the latter, for within this comes the Doctrine of “Intention”.
There was a popular song in my youth that sums this up (with a sight alteration of one letter), “It ‘ain’t what you do, but the WHY that you do it”.
What do we intend or signify by our attitude towards other people for this will decide the measure of our response.
It is noticeable that the churches that are flourishing are those where the congregation by their actions and attitudes within the community demonstrate that we indeed do this because Jesus requires us to have this “inclusive” approach to others.
“God so loved theworld”; that means all of it, the nice and the “nasty” and we need to try to be people, who have faith, and express it by our daily lives and attitudes, inspired by Love, and then we shall find God beside and within us.
There were nearly 2,000 years between these two births, Jesus Christ and Karl Marx, their only similarity is that they were both revolutionaries in their own right.
Both had similar aims, the welfare of people, fighting poverty, fearlessly condemning bad rulers, the great difference between these two boys, is that one died a vicious and horrific death, rejected by the people He had come to help, particularly by the religious leaders, the other was the focus of one of the crueller regimes of history.
It is interesting, how Christmas Carols have changed over the centuries; nowadays the newer compositions sing of angels and lovely babies in a pristine make-shift cot, jolly people making merry, ignoring the hard facts of the case. The Cross rarely mentioned in modern carols.
The reality is that the “stable” was a cave hewn in the rock, ripe with the smell of animals, and within a short time, the family would be refugees, fleeing Herod’s wrath as he contemplated a possible competitor for power.
What was it the old man Simeon said to Mary? “A sword will pierce your own soul also” (Like 2, vv34-35) and that Jesus “would be for the rising and falling of many in Israel”. One wonders how often those words came to haunt Mary as the years went on.
For thirty years He was His father Joseph’s assistant until the day that He went off with a band of young men ready to proclaim the foundation of a new Kingdom, to be based on love and not on force of arms.
Virtually what might be described as a group of homeless “hippies”, for Jesus said that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” when He was asked “Where do you live?
From the beginning, this young man set out on a Ministry of love, pronouncing a realm of freedom and joy, with the company of a handful of friends, most of whom faithfully followed Him and in so doing set themselves on a collision course with both the religious and political forces.
Jesus deliberately set out to befriend and mingle with the people on the edge of Society, far from the respectable, self-satisfied leaders of His day.
We hear cries that you cannot mix religion with politics, but Jesus did, for “politics” is the force by which people’s lives may be enhanced or ruined.
How I long for the day when our religious leaders will confront the politicians of our day, to deal with the homelessness, the edge-of-poverty living, where thousands of young people are sleeping rough, families struggle to survive when they ought to be sharing in the apparent wealth of the nation.
In His birth, in His life, and in His death, Jesus sought to heal humanity of their ills, physical, mental and above all, spiritual, leaving The Church to continue His work.
Karl Marx is remembered by his tomb in a London cemetery, for in the end his way was one of bloody revolution and oppression; the Saviour headed a revolution of which love was (and is) the motive force and who is remembered by a Cross, an empty tomb and a new relationship between God and humanity.
A happy, peaceful and joyous Christmas to you all.