Last weekend I preached at the church where a good friend is curate, on the occasion of this person’s presiding at Communion for the first time. I am going to label this church as ‘liberal catholic’, since that is how the vicar described it when I asked him, though he did say that not all members of the congregation like that terminology. In my experience, all congregations are variegated, and the tradition or official theological position of the church rarely describes all its members.
The ‘catholic’ (by which we really mean ‘sacramental’) tradition of the church was evident in a number of aspects of the service: we had a robed choir; there was a procession at the start of the service, which the book of the Gospels held aloft ahead of us; the gospel was read from the body of the church building accompanied by candles; the person presiding at Communion wore a chasuble; the first half of the Eucharistic Prayer was chanted; there was some importance given to hand gestures. But it wasn’t a kind of ‘fussy’ sacramentalism where everything was very strict or formal.
In many ways, being there felt like stepping back 30 years or so, in the sense that the service overall seemed much like services would have been all over the Church of England in days gone by. There was a general sense of orderliness; everyone appeared to know (or was expected to know) what was happening without too much announcement; hymns were sung; the service was on a sheet and the hymns were in the hymn book. The building does in fact have a screen fitted on a swinging arm, but that was not in use for this service.
There was also a strong sense of hospitality to me and my own tradition. I preached the kind of sermon that I would preach anywhere, strongly focussed on the biblical text and exploring the invitation and challenge of discipleship (you can read it in this post), and there was a very positive response. The epistle was from the ending of Galatians 6, and I commented to the reader that he had clearly read with understanding. It turned out that he has been so intrigued by what he had read in preparation that he had done some online research about the letter and its message, and was particularly interested in the question of writing in the ancient world, and why Paul talked of writing in his own hand.
The social context was well-to-do, and not ethnically diverse. This was a reasonably wealthy part of London, but far enough out that it was a place that people ended up in, rather than one they passed through (as is the case with suburbs further in) so it was socially stable. I stayed overnight with a lovely couple, of which the man was an MBE, and a Lord and Lady were regular members of the congregation, though not in attendance that week. A retired bishop also attends regularly.
During my time there, I was struck by two things. First, the church was flourishing. There was a strong sense of community and commitment, and attendance at the services was growing. Secondly, I noticed that the gender balance (i.e. the male/female mix) was about 50/50, in contrast to many churches and (I think) most Anglican churches, where it is much more like 60/40 or even 70/30. If you work in a different social context, it would be easy to think that these two factors were down to the social location—but I am not sure it was as simple as that. I noticed four things which I think make a difference and which other traditions and contexts could learn from.
Doing things well
There was, it seemed to me, a general emphasis on doing things well—not in a fussy or obsessive way, but simply as a part of how we ought to live our common life together. The vicar was concerned that everyone knew what they were doing, were in the right place at the right time, and that things would run smoothly—which they did.
This is a value which has been articulated in other traditions; Bill Hybels of Willow Creek is well known for his saying that ‘Excellence honours God.’ It is also a value which can get out of control, so that there is an obsessional concern for perfection or performance which can be quite damaging. But here it felt like a healthy concern, and one that was shared.
Because of the worshipping tradition and ethos, there were lots of (relatively straightforward) jobs that needed to be done. The choir needed members; candles needed carrying; those arriving needed to be welcome; people needed directing up to the top end of the building to receive communion; the collection needed counting; and so on. In some ways, these kinds of jobs are needed in any church community. But in a different tradition, the jobs are much more demanding: coffee preparation needs people locked away in kitchens; operating a sound desk and a video console needs high level skills; being part of a prayer ministry team asks for a high threshold of commitment and confidence. What I noticed here was a wide range of accessible jobs, which made involvement very easy.
Predictable and structured
Because of the tradition and the ethos, there was quite a strong sense of knowing what was going to happen next. Yes, the sermon (from a guest preacher) would have been somewhat unpredictable (!), but by and large people knew what was coming and knew what they were getting. This is the kind of stability that many evangelicals and charismatics railed against some decades ago—after all, how can we come into the presence of the living God and expect things to be predictable?! And yet in a world of turmoil, where nothing around us can be taken for granted, this kind of stability can offer an oasis of peace and security.
Relational but managed
There was a strong sense of relational community in the congregation; people clearly knew each other fairly well, and the vicar himself set a warm and relaxed tone. But there was also a sense in which these was reasonably bounded, so visitors wouldn’t have a sense of intrusive interest in their lives.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that men felt more comfortable here than they might have done in other churches. Most of the men in this area are in professional careers; they are used to an emphasis on doing things well, and anything different could easily jar. Men are notoriously bad at being passive consumers, and prefer being involved—though not in a way which is too personally demanding. They value structure, and don’t always appreciate being asked to ’emote’. The structure of services on a Sunday also helped this. There was an 8 am said Communion, a 9 am All Age Service (every week!) and a 10 am Communion with children’s groups. The reason for this, the vicar explained, is that families, and particularly fathers, want to be with their children, and not separated from them—if they had demanding jobs and were commuting long hours, then weekends and Sundays were the only times they had together. And all the research shows that attracting men is a sure way to help your church grow. If you attract women, they don’t often bring husbands along with them; but if you attract men, they almost always bring wives and family along.
This church also had some major challenges. The teaching for the children’s groups was some way from what I would expect within an evangelical tradition, focussing on church tradition and practice rather than (say) on something from scripture relating to discipleship. And the one group noticeably absent from the church was teenagers; parading with a banner down the aisle doesn’t really do it for them!
But I came away with two key lessons. First, you have to fit your practice to your context, and find what works best for the people you wish to reach. And, second, it is amazing what you can learn by stepping outside your tradition and seeing how other people do things.
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