Friday, 7 August 2015

I'm a mystery visitor: A welcoming Church?

As is my usual practice when on holiday I found myself visiting the local congregation looking forward to enjoy being in the pews rather than up the front. This time the venue was a rather charming little Norman church which had nine regulars and another twenty visiting for a baptism (the service: Believe and trust (New Patterns of Worship). I was looking forward to getting a feel for the way that the people in that place did church and to see how they engaged with visitors.

I entered the building and fought my way past the regulars who were far too busy talking amongst themselves to hand me a hymn book or service sheet; eventually getting one from someone who was getting one for a friend. I managed to sit in a pew without being engaged with or even acknowledged.

Then (five minutes late to make me feel at home I suspect) a disembodied voice from somewhere announced the hymn (from the Ancient and Modern)  - well the announced the number, not the book so I started with the newer book before returning to the older A&M - and I sang (pity the others didn't - felt like a soloist!!).

The hymn ends and the greeting follows ('The Lord be with you...') with the regulars standing and the visitors for the baptism siting uncomfotyably (no guidance given - but eventually they too stand because the others are doing so, just in time for the people at the front who were standing to sit!). The cleric enthuses over the ' very special morning for the church as there is a baptism taking place and to make the point rushes to the back and, grabbing the candidate, makes a point of showing the child to everyone.

The there are a couple of readings, neither of which are announced (but as there's no pew bibles it wouldn't have mattered as there were no bibles in evidence anywhere anyway) BUT we were told that the custom was that we stood for the Gospel . The people at the front stood (no acclamation) and then without any response (just me and the priest saying the final 'Praise to you O Christ') they sat whilst the sermon was read verbatim (including the joke - which might have been good when writing it but poor when reheated and reread perhaps) -  there was mention made of ' good lectionary readings' but I don't suppose anyone except the cleric, me and perhaps one or two of the faithful knew what was meant.

In case you're wondering, the readings were: Ephesians 4.8 -17  and   John 6 24-35

The Sermon  - the main thrust being that we were not canibals and having Jesus makes us happy, full and content - lasted just on five minutes (with added short closing prayer) before we sang hymn 113 (great is thy faithfulness - from the new book) after which the family we beckoned to the font (at least there was a Paschal Candle in place - unlit, but it was there).

Just like a proper Anglican baptism the responses throughout were barely audible and almost non-existent at the Decision. Interestingly, in the light of my epiclesis discussion the Chrism featured oil and the sign of the cross on the child's head. The Prayer over water was a sequence of almost soto voce words and the priest splashing the water about throughout the whole escapade - no fear of having an epiclesis (in fact nowhere other than in the chrismation did making the sign of the cross appear anywhere) - then the child is baptised and the peace is reached and yet, strangely, shared by none of those present (expected a hymn but prayers arrived instead - no real direction - they just happened and no one (other than me that is) responded with the obviously required 'hear our prayer; I did enjoy the Prayer for 'the awkward folk we know'

Then we sang a song (from a sheet in the booklet) whilst the plate was passed round (my only encounter with anyone from the place - although there was no eye contact) and the then despite feeling rather Puginesque with a multitude of candles on the altar and stations of the cross surrounding me I was surprised to find that none of what my training incumbent called 'mechanical actions' appeared throughout the consecration. But then, oddly, when communicating themselves and the server, the priest suddenly elevated the chalice and the bread before consuming any of it! The white stole and the green stuff on the altar set each other off nicely!

Not a single soul came forward from the baptism party and where I expected something like a post communion prayer to appear I found the organist strike up a hymn (turned out to be ancient & modern 367: a toe-tapper from 1857: Lord of glory, who hast bought us!). Perhaps unsurprisingly no one (including me) sings and I find myself surprised again as the blessing whizzes past and we sing another hymn from A7M and the deal is done.

Well almost - as if suddenly remembering the candle bit the Paschal candle is lit and a candle is given to the candidate (care of Dad) and everyone rushes off. 

No tea and biccies.

No conversation.

No people anywhere!

Just the organist playing various pieces in an attempt to get us to vacate the place.

Try as I might to get any of the regulars to chat they were all to busy (or gone) for me to find out about the place and so I left as I arrived, unengaged with and just a little sadder to boot. I did find someone outside who I collared but they had no answers as they weren't on the PCC. They suggested that I should ask one of the wardens (names in the porch apparently).

Outside the baptismal party were taking loads of photos and enjoying the big family occasion that the Church family had been unable to provide and I left singing the praises of the Reverend Snodgrass* who, in a parody of the Beatle's Eleanor Rigby 'wiping their hands as they walked from the font what did they want? '

Seriously, is it any wonder the ageing and declining church congregations with their erasatz folk religious rites of passage, their begging bowl mentality and their enclosed community reality are in a terminal state?

I went in casual, holiday, clothing to see what others visiting on spec might find and left feeling most unencouraged and unengaged with and as if I had no place, or even right, to be in that place. What makes this worse is that next week I'll be trying another church in another location: Lord have mercy upon me!


underground pewster said...

Secret shopper reports sometimes make me cry.

underground pewster said...

I am about to embark on some secret shopping myself, and I hope I have better experiences.

Anonymous said...

an absolutely cringingly wonderful account of a never to be repasted experience.

The balance of visitor, cleric and comedian collide to make me wish I'd been a fly on the wall

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Ha, ha, ha - next time I'll cut it and move on!

Sorry if the pasted copy gives you nightmares :-)

Thanks for the comments UP - the mystery visit thing is a real joy to behold for sure.


Steve Day said...

I confess that as I read this, the feeling of sadness struggled with a slightly unworthy "well, at least I do better than this" feeling. But the sadness, verging on despair, won in the end...

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

To be honest, the experience made Sunday morning an extremely flat and awful affair for me.

No matter where I looked I could only find isolation and a sense of deepening gloom surround me.

Then came the feeling of impotence and frustration - then I went to the pub and watched the football (which even though my team won left me still feeling out of salts).

Even had there been some engagement I wonder if it was not perhaps too late :-(

Ghastly overall.

Anonymous said...

Bloody hell.

I hope you have written to the cleric concerned and told them how you view the experience?

I'd be desperate to hear about such a thing if it were my church - was it urban or rural I wonder?

Rev J said...

Thank you for being so honest and also, I suspect, perhaps a little kind to the reader and the focus of the tale.

My question has to be aimed at the members of a Deanery and perhaps the area dean or archdeacon when I read an account such as yours for I am sure that they will already know of the poor standards and the failing churches in their patches and yet they tend to do nothing to get the clergy to raise their game and the congregations to become effective in presenting the gospel and welcoming others.

In my deanery we have a few dinosaurs who cling to their freeholds and fill their churches with people who are merely waiting for God. Let's hope he pops in soon and renews the place before He returns with the chap with the scythe.

Great post Vic, keep it up.


Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Hello anon.

Yes, I think I'd like to know too!

It was definitely rural or urban :-)

Thanks for comments and 'J' - I agree about those who know doing something but as a friend has suggested, what it what I found was one of the better places?

Aaaargh :-)

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

04:10 and having been woken by one of the dogs I find sleep evading me as I think of the opportunities for engagement with those around us in the form of Fresh Expressions and Mission Shaped (Introduction and Minsitry) Courses.

There's 'Claoung the Back Door' and 'Everybody Welcome' and a host of other 'raising awareness' and 'missionally minded' courses people like me are longing to deliver. makes me wish I could become an itinerant evangelst/Missioner type and get out there and win souls and relight churches (or do the humane thing before they become too rickety to continue and merge, partner and replant.

I can never see me leaving parish life but long to have some people with vision (and cash) to support people like me in a diocesan setting such that the chains of the role are set aside so the passion of the person can be fully deployed. We need to be making Jesus, the Christ, known and having done that, to help folk find their callings and get stuck into the stuff too.

Hoping the new place we are in will bring a happier and more positive outcome than last week. Tempted to try a different brand but fear that the grass may not be greener and the impression is merely caused by gloss paint!

Thank you for the many comments and observations - all very helpful indeed,


Pat said...

I'm going to court a little controversy here. Ok you had a bad experience. And probably so did the baptism family, but maybe not. But it is easy to condemn wholesale when you don't know anything of the back story, and what these people and the church in that place may be struggling with. Of course there were many things to cringe at in your account which could, fairly easily, have been addressed. But some of the things you didn't like reflect your own preferences. And the best Archdeacons, rural deans, mission enablers, growth officers, in the world will not help struggling churches to be honest about themselves and to change unless they feel that they and their struggles are first cared about.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Part - your comments are most welcome and can't see anything controversial in them personally - but can't see anything wholesale or condemning in my account, 'just the fact's ma'am!'

I did ask about the 'back story' regarding the place is happily going along and considers itself to be a warm, welcoming and happy church. There are new builds in the area and I would have thought the future was bright. When I asked about the community I was told that the community newsletter (featuring church items) was popular and that being in possession of pubs, shops and a Post Office all conspired to make a good place to live.

I don't have a preference - other than some instructions and engagement and things done in some sort of good order - but I was confused when reading the church building to find the difference in what they proclaimed and what they served: It was on a par with having a roast bean sign outside but only selling instant! As an open evangelical and a passionate Prayer Book person who has often covered services for high church colleagues (even using the missal in one on a regular basis) I would have been happy with just about anything (and, being bemused by some of it, was more bewildered than unhappy and disappointed than disgusted).

That said, some the things we don't like always find themselves reflected in our own preferences and yet I liked all the things, just not in the place or the way they were done. It wasn't the content but the context and the delivery that were out of bonk. What did concern me was the lack of anything other than a cursory delivery of the peace and the apparently total non-engagement with the visitors (me and the baptism party).

I think you hit it on the head regarding realism and honesty regarding a congregation and I have to confess a smile when you spoke of the best in certain offices as when I travel and advise I only ever get to hear of the less than best in many of the roles outside of the parish and this is perhaps a contributing factor to the lack of relationship which results in feeling cared about.

The truth is that many in parish life do not feel cared about by their pointy hats, archdeacons and others. In fact, one cleric recently said they had a visit from 'someone in the diocese' which made them worry about their poor parish share history as that was the perceived reason for the visit.

Yes, there are exceptionally good people out there supporting and then again there are also not (so now I'm perhaps controversial). Still, once all deans, archdeacons and senior clergy all have MBA we will be an efficient organisational entity even if the spiritual side is left wanting.

Great points and pretty much all that I had considered. Just need prayer for tomorrow's place of blessing now :-)

ps. It's odd but this is the first C I've experienced in a number of years so I am most expectant tomorrow (and I didn't go looking to write a report, I thought I was going to do a spot of corporate worship)


Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Should have been 'Pat' taker than 'Part' of course (fat fingers reign supreem)!

What did cheer me up was that the naff decision and other responses were as pathetic in the service where I was as they have been seen to be where I have been. Made me think that perhaps this is merely a general inability (or lack of desire) to respond to the questions put (and I always wonder why on earth they come and do it if it means nowt of course).

Just saying,


Anonymous said...

Under the safe cover of 'anon' I can say that most of my diocesan staff bring little in the way of support or advice and the thought of any of them offering any feeling of being cared for is an illusion played out for the punters.

Sorry Pat but I think you're barking up the wrong part of the Church structures - probably means you're one of the blokes in the hierarchy I would guess.

safely anon

Steve Day said...

I'm putting my money where my mouth is tomorrow: deeply rural church, usual congregation in single figures, BCP to the roots of their blue-rinsed hair ... and I've got two families bringing babies for baptism, and about a hundred guests between them. Anyone care to send a monitor? (Or perhaps a squad of peacekeepers...)

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Excellent - sounds good mate :-)

JonG said...

I've made comments along these lines before, but your sad tale encapsulates why I get very uncomfortable at anything to do with any sort of service book. Both of us have been around churches for a very long time, and yet, even at my (on the face of it, at least) far more welcoming and informal church, I can still feel a bit uncomfortable as I have not yet learnt all of the local lingo. How much more so for someone unchurched who might have great need and found their way to one of our services? What about another Christian who later meets that person, and is met with "Oh yes, I tried church once, what a waste of time." I have to disagree with Pat and say that it is not about personal preference, it is about being relevant witnesses to our Lord, about being salt and light.

Conversely, I have sat and listened to many who were word-perfect on the words and the standing up and sitting down, but appeared to move the words from memory to vocal cords without engaging consciousness along the way. And again, any enquirer who applies any critical thinking to what they observe will spot that and draw conclusions which really are appropriate according to the evidence presented to them.

Anonymous said...

"Rev" J. Spare us. Yes.