In 1958 as a young priest, but Vicar of Holy Trinity, Taunton, I found myself part of a Mission team; the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt. Revd. Cuthbert Bardsley had decided to launch a district-wide Mission for outreach in the whole Croydon area.
No small undertaking for it was heavily populated with a mainly commuter clientele.
Our team comprised me, John (my training vicar as leader) and Alfred, vicar of a newly formed parish, and we were assigned to the parish of St. George’s, Shirley, with a fairly modern, “middle of the road” scheme of worship.
Each of us had a particular role; John was the Mission Preacher, Alfred to apply himself to the younger folk (mainly Scouts and Guides), and I was to deal with the music.
Lasting a week, a Mission service every evening, plus parish visiting by the team which was soul-destroying because being a commuter area, most were away in the City during the day.
The Evening Service was well attended, John preached and all seemed to go well, and we came away, feeling that we had made some impact.
One young ‘teen-ager, David was enthusiastic and accompanied me on the visiting, and spoke about the dullness of the worship there, hoping that it might give the parish a new start.
A few weeks came a sad letter from David where he said: “You may not be surprised to know that after you had departed, some newcomers joined us, but after a couple of Sundays they were seen no more. Everything (he said) has gone back to where it was before, nothing has changed and strangely no one seems particularly disturbed at that”.
For a Mission of that type (and since then, I have been involved in four such ventures) and the underlying problem at Shirley, was that they had not prepared sufficiently, ensuring that what they were inviting people to, would be positive, possibly exciting and challenging and offering a spiritual dimension. In other words, the seed fell on unprepared soil and so nothing took root.
It was clear in discussions with the congregation that a fair number were anxious for change, but we as missioners felt that the parish priest wasn’t wildly enthusiastic for change, nor were the older members. Yet, the truth is as a wise parish priest at All Saints, Ryde said to me years ago, “If you get the worship right, you’ll get the rest right” and in my experience that is true.
Worship has to enable us to meet God as reality; what one theologian called the “numinous”, confronting the majesty and mystery of the Divine.
Our worship ought to express that “awe-fullness” of God, which means that not only does it convey His “approachability” “Where we cry, “Abba, Father”, but not forgetting His Majesty.
The rise of the Ultra-Evangelical churches with their large congregations fill us with envy, but there is another side to this.
A diet of long sermons, repetitive choruses, and no structured worship cannot satisfy everyone. There is little scope for congregational participation and if we study Christian and Jewish worship, from the beginning there was a desire to demonstrate the majesty of the Father by the music, the robes of the leaders and the whole reverential approach.
If it is not a positive experience, newcomers won’t come again.
We need to evaluate our own worship. Do you find it satisfying, uplifting, giving you a sense of peace and purpose; Joyful to start a new week?
If it doesn’t, what would improve its impact on you?
“Life is grim”, or so you would think if you looked around you at people you see, in the street, in shops, etc., for you don’t see many happy faces. Christmas shoppers rarely look as if they are enjoying themselves.
These are anxious times when no one seems to know what the future holds, excepting gloom and doom.
Brexit, Global Warming, Rising Prices, Housing Shortages, and so there is little sense of the years ahead being a wonderful opportunity for us to become a nation of happy and contented citizens.
The number of people suffering from depression rises, even among the very young, yet most have no want of physical possessions; but we see the symptoms that all is not well, by the number of youngsters who become suicide victims, or at least self-harming.
It may be that as Alison said in a sermon fairly recently, the more we become possessors of so much “stuff”, the less contented we are.
It was thought to be a great act of liberalism, when the Sunday Trading Act came into being. It demolished the barriers that separated one day out of the seven, giving people time to take a deep breath prior to the beginning of another week.
Sunday was considered so precious that when I was down the pit, I received £1.50 a Sunday shift instead of the normal £1 (1947 wages of course). Yet “double; even “time-and-an-half” have disappeared.
On modern calendars, Sunday has been demoted to be the last of the days, rather than the “First day of the week”, the glorious day that disciples went to an empty tomb and new life was promised to those who believed.
Without question, the seven day working week has deprived people of that oasis of calm that Sabbath Observance allowed people to enjoy, but it has also struck a blow at any form of religious observance.
No choirboys? No, they went off to the recreation ground to play football and now they are being followed by the girls.
The Pope saw the dangers and reminded us as some Church attenders knew, that for The Church, following ancient Jewish practices, Sunday actually begins according to our Church calendars, on Saturday evening. Hence, the Saturday evening Vigil Mass.
The first Christians met, for worshjp, not on Sunday morning, but on Saturday evening, for the Sabbath (Saturday) ended at dusk , and we follow that still, so last evening when I said Evensong (just me and the angels) I prayed the Collect for today.
Holidaying in Germany, my wife Hazel and I, being sat outside a café on a Saturday evening, were astonished to see a steady stream of Germans, including whole families, entering the RC church opposite for the evening Mass and I suspect there were as many doing so as would the next Sunday morning.
Recently I have mentioned the growing incorporation of whole families into a programme that teaches them the Faith and particularly taking part in the Communion and this might bring a new vision of The Church and different opportunities.
In my 3 year sojourn at St. Michael’s, Swanmore, we had considered this to be the way forward, with a Saturday evening Service, comprising a simple meal and a teaching Eucharist, but the arrival of a new priest in charge quashed that, which was a disappointment.
It works elsewhere, so, might it be worth thinking and praying about it? We cannot fight this modern battle with out-dated weapons; our diminishing congregations are evidence that at the moment, the devil is winning. What do you think?
“The times they are a’changing” is certainly true regarding “Family” participation in our worship and it is clear that traditional ways of incorporating families are failing.
One factor is that when I was first ordained in 1952, we were dealing with a population who, having been taught in our Sunday Schools had some smattering of the Christian Faith; that generation has died out and as evangelists (something we should all be), we are starting with a clean sheet.
The tendency has been to regurgitate what was done in the past, forgetting that today many have no idea who Jesus was, or indeed any contact with worship, except in the most limited form.
We have an “All-age” Communion, to which rarely do extra come, apart from the normal congregation. The problem, is, that if they come, they are presented with a service where they will be excluded from the essential heart of it as they are not confirmed.
“Messy Church” has its advocates, but if they are not intended to lead to full participation, then you have the danger of creating an “alternative” congregation who will go their own merry way.
I was surprised to read in the Diocesan magazine from one such leader that their activities were designed to form another congregation, apart from the main worship. Yet in the Bible Reading Fellowship bulletin (which is the main source of Messy Church), it is stated quite clearly that its goal is to feed participants into mainstream worship. As long ago as the 1950s.when I was part of the Children and Family Worship Section of the Education Committee, we had realised the dangers of avoiding this need to incorporate newcomers, of whatever age, into mainstream worship.
We decided to launch a new approach, where we encouraged our children to come (with their parents if possible) to the Parish Communion. Any lone child would be accompanied by a member of the congregation, and they did so.
Instruction in the Faith was done on a weekday evening, and followed the then Methodist practice of dividing them into groups according to the level they had achieved.
Annually, certificates for progress were presented by the Bishop at the Cathedral, when the nave was full of excited and happy children.
A new Diocesan Director of Education decided to abandon this, and unhappily as a result our numbers of children in church were reduced.
However this has recently been revived in a new way and is spreading where much the same set-up is established, but this time, including the parents as well, so that families learn and worship together.
Imitating Alpha groups, often there is a simple meal (befoere or after) so that the Social and Spiritual combine.
Two years ago, I watched the (recorded) Easter Communion from St. Alban’s Abbey, where among other parishes they have adopted this new approach. I was astonished to see large numbers of parents and their children join the Service at the Offertory having had teaching elsewhere. Obviously the Bishop approved. with children of about 8yrs.old and over, receiving Communion with reverence.
We were told at a meeting about “Mission” that half of the parishes in our Diocese have NO children worshipping with them.
How Jesus must weep. Our ministry to families should be a priority, so talk about it, pray about it, think about it and then see whether this might be the way forward.
Working for four years side-by-side with hardened Durham miners was one of the great “turning” moments of my life; not that I had led a sheltered life, for together with living in a working man’s pub, “The Brewers Arms” since I was 13, had realised how completely the average man (and woman) was divorced from any experience of worship and The Church.
Thinking (as I often do) about my life experiences, it confirmed what a wise priest had told me some years previously that “The Church of England hasn’t lost the working class, but since the Reformation, it never had them”.
He was referring to the fact that with the desire to abolish anything that was tainted by Roman Catholic teaching and practise, the “old ways”, had to be condemned and eliminated.
A study of Eamonn Duffy’s book “The Stripping of the Altars” shows how the life of the community was centred around the parish church and involved the congregation in the performing of its worship.
The various crafts often had a side chapel or an altar (for which they were responsible), dedicated to the patron saint of their craft and there were processions within the worship, in which the whole congregation took part; not just the robed clergy and choir as became the norm when these were revived in the Oxford Movement 1800s, which itself led to the reawakening of the Church of England.
Processions taught that the whole Christian community was a “moving” Community, such as at Candlemass, when the whole congregation proceeded around the church, carrying their lighted candles to the four corners of the building, signifying their missionary role in taking the Good News to the four corners of the world in response to Jesus’ command (Matthew 28,vv16-end).
Sunday Schools were very much a Victorian innovation; the Prayer Book states that the children are to be taught within a normal service, that is at Prayer Book Evensong, presumably attending with their parents.
The modern “after-church” coffee had a forerunner in the “Churchyard Ales” that were provided by the Churchwardens after Mass to which medieval parish accounts bear witness.
Homemade wine that I brewed in the “Six Pilgrims” (in the absence of any available water or facilities for coffee making) was instrumental in binding the six communities together, so that they regularly worshipped together something about which the Archdeacon had said “They’ll never worship and work together”, but they did and still do.
The key to that benefice’s revival was the eating and drinking together after worship which ties up with the practise of the Early Church that met socially prior to the Lord’s Supper.
There was no separate “Children’s Church” or other gathering for different age groups, but families joined in the one Christ-ordered commemoration, learning together. Not only by what they were formally taught in the sermon, but in the participation.
During the two-plus years I struggled at Swanmore, the introduction of a Carol Service at Christmas, of which a part involved a procession to the Crib, attracted four times the usual Sunday numbers (i.e. 50 instead of 15). The following Christmas brought even more, that included many Dads.
“History repeats itself” we are told and perhaps if we looked back to pre-Reformation times, or even to the 1st century, we may find inspiration to revive a flagging Church?
You will hardly believe this, but when I first announced that we, at Holy Trinity, Taunton in 1957 were going to hold a “Family Service” on a Sunday afternoon, it provoked criticisms and queries from officialdom.
“What’s the problem?” Simply I was diverging from the fact that anything that wasn’t in the Prayer Book was technically “illegal” and so we were breaking the law. Had I not promised to “use this Book and none other, except that permitted by “Lawful authority” (i.e., The Bishop)?
None of the official services were immediately understood by a newcomer, hence the enquiry from the Palace (at Wells) as to “What was George Rayner up to?”
A “Family Service” hitherto, was only provided in a tiny number of parishes, one factor being the difficulty in producing something imaginative, but helpful regularly, particularly if they have no goal to which they lead.
The Palace replied that the Bishop would so allow, provided that they were limited in number and required that at the end they were designed to enable newcomers to understand the Communion Service, enabling them to graduate to the Parish Communion.
In my training parish, the morning Sunday School, taking place at 11 a.m. attended the Sung Mass monthly, during which one of the 3 clergy stood in the central aisle and talked them through the service.
With the rules prevailing at that time, only the elderly and infirm, together with the priest, received Communion. This wasn’t very successful, for to receive Communion, one had to be confirmed and come at the 8 a.m. Said Mass
Asked by Archdeacon Caroline in 2011 to see if we (hopefully with the Holy Spirit’s help) could breathe life into the failing parish of Swanmore, St. Michael’s, we tried the same technique, but although widely advertised, it was an abject failure.
Sunday morning football, or shopping at Tesco (or wherever) were now the claimant for attention on a Sunday, and God was forgotten (that is, if they ever knew Him) and this is because The Church has since the War failed to communicate the Faith to its parishioners.
Enter a Dorset priest who launched a “Family Concept”, designed to reach out, not to individual children, but to whole families and planned around the Communion Service.
Following a light meal (something familiar to “Alpha” groups) the meeting works around the Communion itself, and is proving efficient in teaching the faith through the only worship ordered by Our Lord.
Of course, initially they won’t understand it (but, do you?), taught carefully and in simple language even very young children can take the basic ideas on board. I have witnessed such a gathering in a Care Home for Down’s Syndrome children and the rapt attention that they gave, showed that we are able to “apprehend” the meaning if not “comprehending”.
The Early Church’s worship was centred round two meals; first the Supper which enabled all to meet as a community (something that is being done monthly at St. Mary’s) and then after a pause (during which extra lights were brought in to signify that something vital was to take place) continued to the Eucharist.
The Roman Catholics can worship on Saturday evening (which might be a good time to institute a gathering on those lines) for in The Church Calendar, Sunday begins at evening on Saturday.
I’m chucking out ideas, for the truth remains, that unless we consider drastic changes, and this Jotting is designed to invite you to think about the future, for the world is changing fast, and The Church and its worship must do so too.