Welcome to the Phone Box

This blog exists to highlight the potentials and the pitfalls of doing Church.
It will not always please those who pass by but it will always be honest!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Statistics for Mission: 2014

The Church of England has published the 2014* ‘Statistics for Mission‘  - as ever it's another challenging read as the numbers and trends make it onto paper and screen to encourage or dismay in equal measure.

The key numbers, if you're a bishop of other 'senior' clergy member has to be the report that the weekly attendance (figures collected for each October) has dipped below the million mark for the first time - the actual stated figure being: 980,000.

There is a hint that this dip is due to a the removal of school services from the annual stat's (which began in 2013) but let's not kid ourselves, the trend (after a static 2011 - 2012) is downwards and there is a decrease for the 2013 numbers.

Now this isn't perhaps a gloomy as it look (said he cheerfully) because my own minuscule experience is that the past five years have seen a number of the older communicant members of the churches around me depart this life; many other are no longer able to come - perhaps we should include home communion in the statistics as I this week alone I have communicated eighteen people?).

Bottom line is that as the old depart the new aren't filling the pews behind them!

What does this say for those to us engaged in mission and about the impact of the many, many, mission and growth departments and the effect that the numerous experts who encourage us from their diocesan ivory towers regarding growth? Now there's a gauntlet laid down!

Another interesting trend to look at is the numbers coming to church with regard to Easter and Christmas and looks at the Average and Usual Sunday attendance trends too:

The good news for 2014 was that Christmas held quite steadily over the previous year whilst Easter rose slightly and overcome the losses of the previous year. There is a message to be taken on board here with those who think we should restrict or limit the services offered at the two principal feasts of the year: DON't, this is a time when we are able to engage with people in numbers and be effective in the preaching of the Gospel and the ministering of God's Grace as seen in Jesus, the Christ.

Dare I suggest (of course I dare) that the continuing decline in Sunday attendance has more to do with erratic and variable attendance than it does with people not being around? One of the interesting things I have noticed of late is the usually consistent members becoming less os as Garden Centre sale, family commitments and other 'distractions' make themselves know. Those who came every week now seem to be coming two (or three is keen) out of four rather than all four, and once the habit of attending begins to be lost so the habit (and ease) of being elsewhere is taken up - and this means lower average Sunday attendance stats.

The average weekly stat's, which are diminished but not in line with the ASA, is surely part of the effect that Fresh Expressions is having and also, if where I am is something that is happening elsewhere, the introduction of midweek services. Interestingly, around me I find people who baulk at having house groups and midweek services (did I mention that we had to keep putting chairs our for those who came to the January 1st 'Naming and Circumcision' service - why have so many stopped doing the red letter days?)

I'm not going to go through the whole of the stat's but suffice to say you'll find the challenge of a 12% decline in attendance over the past ten years and a continuing decline in the CofE being the 'go to' people when it comes to occasional offices:

Despite the Marriage and Funeral projects and the various oadshows and evangelists that have come out of it, the bottom line is that too many undertakers now look to Humanists (is there a side of issue of improved income for those who use 'in house' officiants and there are some I know who keep a small fee for recommending and engaging those who might not be 'clergy' in the sense we understand it (Humanist Minister is surely an oxymoron! But we have to ask ourselves is this is a response to the deceased 'not being religious' or is there something else here?

Weddings are interesting because many I meet who are getting married do so in the many hotels, castles and other 'pretty' places and so the demand for our buildings decreases on financial (some churches are rooking the customers - sorry, but needs to be said) grounds and on the fact that there is no relationship with the clergy or the members of their churches. One of my acquaintances is being married in a posh hotel because 'everyone is so affirming and polite' - of course they are, they're paying £3,500 for the day  - many of my colleagues see the wedding as a one-off encounter and a 'day off' lost!

Baptisms were regarded as the new marriage as we blessed the product of a relationship we would not agree with under constraints of the marriage, formication and adultery approach to sex! But even here have people offering baptisms (or naming services) as secularists. One snake oil salesman I know does Anglican, Christian, Wiccan and whatever you fancy in terms of initiation and naming - another outcome to be expected as we lose the relationships with the people around us.

So, grab yourself a copy of the report (you'll find one HERE ) and have a read, a reflect and do some praying and then take it to your church councils, leadership and others and see what effect it has on others. Hopefully it won't be the shrug I was greeted with as a response.

Come on people - read the report, smell the coffee and get on your knees first and then get out of your blinking buildings and take Church where it is meant to be.

I'll leave you with a couple of controversial comments. The first came from a church council I was attending (not my own) :

"If only the people at the top would spend as much time, money and energy talking about same-sex stuff and making managers of the 'senior' clergy  on helping small rural churches like us to expand the growth and community influence we have here. But no, they close our buildings and take away our clergy to fund the stuff that touches no one and blesses even were of us'!

The second comes from an ex-Anglican evangelical believer:
"Of course the Church of England is in decline. What do you expect when you set aside the commandments and ignore the demands that the Bible places upon our lives and the way that we live them? Decline is a response to the liberalism and weak-willed secularists who pose as ministers ing your church. When church look like those around them then surely it is no loner able to consider itself to be Church? I know atheists with more integrity and faith than the church I left behind - may God have mercy on you all!"

Not comfortable to hear either of those viewpoints voiced - right or wrong - not a joyful experience.

* Yes, it takes a couple of years to compile what in the real world would be present at the AGM at the start of a new business year. Still, let's not moan, we can live in the past now and feel better than we might were today's figures available!!

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

All together or ecumenical?

I have always been one of those people who believes that the only way to do Church is together. This has been one of the hallmarks of the stuff I do and my passion has never waned, nor my belief that 'together is better' faltered. But ...

Yes, there is now a 'but' to be added to my claims and thinking and the reason for it surprises me and yet hopefully makes some sense to those who read these scribbles. Let me explain:

My first exposure to 'Churches Together' was a totally dismal and disappointing affair. We gathered in a building and sang songs that would offend none of those present rather than worshipped the God we serve. We had a bland talk and cagey prayers and then we came to the common ion bit of the proceedings which meant that the Roman Catholics led their flock into one room so that the 'true church' (a term the ancient priest used during the tea and biscuits afterwards!) could keep it's hands and company clean. The Anglicans stayed in the main room and others left to do their own thing in other rooms to do it the way they liked to have it done.

I was appalled because I thought we were in the place to show how Church was one and yet when the crunch came we were in fact five different groups and made sure we kept it like that! Meanwhile, me being a pentecostal at the time, I popped out and bought a Mars bar and Coke and sat in the sun reflecting upon it all.

Many years later, when I had been collared and in a land far away from the safety of London, my home, I found myself in a group where the stated aims were 'together in all things outside of that which can't be done together'. We work in partnership where we can and we break bread tougher as much as is possible and share services and witness to the love of Jesus, the Christ, and though differences remain, this is felt of as generally being good.

When is comes to differences there is always the baptismal divide to contemplate: paedobaptist vs believer's baptism and the challenges that come from the conflict that is 'one baptism' vs 'anabaptism'.

We get more of the same when we bring things sacramental into the equation; those things which neatly split the group into two and yet with the sacramental types find further opportunity for schism as we have Catholic vs Anglican and the Methodists (who are really just Anglicans without the wine but often added whine it seems) sitting neatly somewhere I can't quite define!

Recently I was privileged to take a look at a place where church was billed as truly ecumenical. There were shared buildings and everyone one there was filled with pride at the fact that many of the people within the group of churches were 'ecumenical'. Some, when talked to were keen to tell me how they were still 'distinctly' Anglican or Methodist sort whatever; but many were keen to tell me how they'd lost their denominational label and were now , "A bit of everything with no fixed beliefs anymore!' *
(that's a direct quote by the way, I'm not making this stuff up).

Now I was intrigued because, looking at the 'ecumenical' label and hearing people speak about their experiences and, in some cases, beliefs I though, "Wow, sounds great. So I dug deeper and asked how they dealt with the anabaptism differences from the position they'd previously occupied: The answer to which was that they'd just decided that both positions were right and so there was no conflict. This answer troubled me in that whilst I want unity and one Church, I saw a unity that is mere accommodation rather than coherent and consistent faith.

Moving on I asked about vocations and how it was possible to train someone as an Anglican when they weren't 'distinctly Anglican' or to train someone to be a Baptist when they held the view that paedobaptism was perfectly right and acceptable. The response was, quite simply, "Oh, we don't get vocations!' The thought that ran through my head was a saying people use in the community around me along the lines of, "No surprise there Sherlock!' The reality was that despite the 'all together - all of one mind' billing, this is as awful a reality as that I encountered in my first 'ecumenical' outing!

What I had hoped for as something that was united and serving the kingdom felt, rather uneasily, as something that served the people engaged in it and the fact that wherever I went the people spoke of decline was distressing and caused my heart to sink. It sank even further when I suggested to one of the leaders that what they were doing was spawning artificially bred Christians who would, if released into the wild, be unable to spawn (i.e. make new converts) or even reside comfortably in the real world outside their own created idyll. A colleague who knew of the group compared it to the children of the damned - which was a bit harsh I think (he's a Wyndham fan, so only to be expected)   but I know what he meant.

Ecumenism is being one together whilst accepting that we are all different. Christian unity is not (I hope) some bland, grey amalgam, where we all believe exactly the same and, using that ghastly and ridiculous 'agreeing to differ' mantra, put off the things that make us whatever type of Christian we are.

For an Anglican to become a Baptist (and vv) is a massive step because there is theology to be resolved here. It is more than just deciding to attend a different type of service, it is to take up and affirm a whole new type of theological thinking. The journey to, and from, Methodism for an Anglican is (in many of the churches) much simpler for there is concord between the two denominations. Someone I know left the CofE for a pentecostal church and did so with no qualms or questions regarding the great theological divide between the two - the journey having been so easily made said much about the doubt raised regarding them by the selectors when they sought ordination!

So here I am, a firm believer in ecumenism and yet now, thanks to my experiences in an ecumenical paradise, an equally firm believer in celebrating and encouraging the differences between the different strands. I still am appalled at the way that Roman Catholics refuse to communicate others and am always going to be sad when someone eschews the bread and wine offered by others because of the 'true church' label. I will never feel comfortable with one church mocking another because of 'their vain repetitive, mumblings' or finding someone who having come to faith and been baptised in one church is rebaptised because they don't recognise the former rite! This is nothing to do with being Biblical but speaks more about an arrogance and misunderstanding of what the Bible is about in my book.

I struggle with things in the Church of England and am often in step with those who also struggle with it from outside - but at the end of the day, like the Curate's Egg - not all of it is bad!

I have signed up to the Anglican church because I feel the theology, liturgy and practice are pretty much spot on! This still means that some things are endured rather than supported and should the time come when there is more to disagree with than agree then I guess I will find a new home rather than be a focus for division and dissent - but, of course, I will always be a Christian and there will always be somewhere that feels right because of that.

So why do we create an impotent Church by our crying out of 'Peace, peace' when what we mean is something more self-serving than kingdom-building?

The truth is that we are weakening the Church by not accepting and embracing the differences between us? We don't need to go starting wars but we do need to understand our differences and the ways that these have emerged - dialogue is essential, unity is command, bland and self-indulgent compromise is debilitating. Embrace what we belief and dialogue with those who differ: Not sniping and deploying the rancour-filled ad hominem as is often the case now.

So here I am, struggling to see the next step - which thankfully means even more reading and study, so that's already a win isn't it?

Church - how are you doing yours with those around you?

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Obstacles to Growth: That's my seat

Recently I was privileged to take a service at a church, a lovely church, full of kind and caring individuals. The people were (and remain) lovely and the welcome was ...

Well actually the welcome was a bit pants if I'm going to be honest! They thought a warm welcome was a 'hello' a handshake and the proffering of the hymn book and service sheet. 

But this was nirvana when compared to another church I  visited when staying with family. This church never even managed to hand out the service sheet or hymn book - I helped myself to both and sat in a seat and then replaced it at the end of the service without anyone engaging me in any way at all - leaving, as I had come, as an unknown person! 

The 'welcomer' was too engaged in conversation with a regular when I entered and vanished immediately after the service had finished: I later learned there was tea and coffee in the hall - no one told me and there was nothing on the sheet and no announcement! But I would hazard a bet that they thought they were a welcoming church!

But back to the church in question. Getting near to the start time I took a look out of the vestry and see a visitor arrive - I knew they were a visitor because I knew everyone else there - and receive their book, sheet and handshake (what I regard as the 'prize day' model of welcoming). They then went down the aisle and sat in a pew.

The welcomer followed them and said something to them which resulted in the visitor moving to the other side of the church. Others entered the building (I knew them as regulars) and took their place in front of the visitor. One of them turned to talk to the visitor and a minute or so later the visitor got up and moved to a seat nearer the rear of the church and were engaged in conversation by a churchwarden (I had now left the vestry and was walking towards the 'Vicar's stall'). As I announced the first hymn I noticed the visitor making for the door. And I never saw them again that day (or since)!

It transpired that the visitor had first sat in the place where one of the dear old ladies (if you don't cross her!) sat and so the welcomer, pointing it out to the visitor, had encouraged them to move. The visitor moved, the dear old lady never made an appearance!

Then, having moved, the people who engaged them pointed out that the  nnnn family usually sat where they were sitting. Taking the hint, the visitor moved into a different seat only to be told they were the seats reserved for the welcomers. Apparently the visitor asked if there was a toilet, and being told where it was, left to visit it, and was never seen again!

The sadness is that I have encountered this sort of thing on more than one occasion in a number of church buildings and sometimes the visitor stays (but do they return I wonder) and other times they don't even make it through the service.

I am often appalled at the way some church members greet visitors, there's little welcome and the empty seats are all reserved  for people who used to come; the result is an empty church full of possessive people.

Seats and welcomes: how do you do yours?

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Myopic church (and deck chairs)

I had this nightmare recently where a declining church met to discuss their situation. Few turned out and those that did were confident that although the numbers had indeed fallen whilst the average age of those attending had grown - there was an assured future - all was not as bad as some might paint it!

One of their perceived strengths was that they had a central place in the community - well the building did, the congregation were pretty anonymous - and had been there since Simon de Fruitspoon (of the Norman conquests) had established the church in 1127. This was THE church in the area and so nothing could come between them and their future in the place for they were assured that there was enough money in the bank accounts, investments and property to keep the place going until they died (and after that it wouldn't be a problem anyway, would it?).

This remnant attended, no actually the word 'haunted' fits better here, the services and were faithful in the fact that they came, hell or high water, to their chosen service pretty much every week. They'd do their bit and then, clocking off, leave the building to the next shift who would do the same until the final service of the day was ticked off as done. Each would look back to the time when there were queues and seats were at a premium and remember when children 'behaved properly' in their suits, shirts and ties and brylcreemed hair (not like today's children - thank goodness we don't see them that much in here!).

Proclaiming their friendliness and the welcoming church that they were they bemoaned the fact that no one came to their services - after all, everyone knew where the church building was, it was one of the historic sites - and sighed as the echoes of the good old days washed over them.

The sadness was that the people were lovely and the church building was splendid and there was so much to commend and bless in them and the magnificent structures they occupied - but instead of looking out and reaching out and reinventing themselves to find a new relevance, they were content to leave it to the person at the top of the tree (although not to the person at the top of the cross) and shuffle in towards the final service; safe in the knowledge that as long as parish share could be paid they we safe.

As we drew to a close the conversation turned to rearranging the tea area to 'make it more appealing' - but the question was, 'To whom?' After all, there was only them. Then we talked about the old members (either dead or in care homes or moved in with their children) and how to make Sunday school more popular (simple answer: get some children into the place) and how well others were doing (with the implicit 'at our expense') before we finally ran out of steam and finished with the deck chairs all neatly set out as they should be.

Now this place could be any one of a number of churches I know of - there's nothing remarkable about them - and that's the sadness. Those who come to faith through them, finding any move to change gear and attitude rejected, tend to move into the 'popular churches' (something which causes the remnant to huddle together against the rising tide) and stuck increase the speed of decline and hopelessness.

The saddest thing of all was that the nightmare took place in real life - mercifully I don't have dreams like that which I relate here!!!

It seems that Church works best when not constrained by its buildings!

Friday, 28 November 2014

Obstacles to growth - singing a different tune (1)

Upon visiting a strange church recently, I found myself feeling quite isolated and out of step; a feeling which it transpired I shared with others.

I visit different churches whenever the opportunity presents because I get to hear others preach and, finding myself on the receiving end of communion, also get the chance to observe good practice (hopefully).

So there I was sitting in the pew when the hymn is announced and we stand to sing. The choir processes in and we're off! Opening prayer, confession and absolution and onto the collect - no dramas, everything looks like home so far.

We move onto the readings and the sermon - a good exposition of the main point of the Gospel - and onto the creed which the choir sing to us as the majority of those present, having struggled to join in, have given up! Moving on to the Eucharist we find ourselves challenged with a series of sung responses which were reminiscent of a sight reading exercise I once did as an audition piece!

Following the service, during a post-service brew, I got into conversation with a couple of regulars who told me how they were experiencing lean times and that some of the regulars had  falling away. As the conversation continued we were joined by a chap who rattled on about how great the settings were and what a great service it had been and so, leaving him to witter on, I finished my tea and (smiling) left.

What a nightmare when someone like me, who is fairly familiar with most forms of church service, are left feeling totally out of it all because of the setting used for the service. I'm especially used to services where sung responses are employed but most places I visit limit themselves to good old Rutter! But even then the use of them is still a means of alienating people who are new or unfamiliar to such things (which is the reason our organist suggests we forego responses for services of an evangelistic nature are concerned - Thank you Ken).

What is certain is that we do need to make sure that our services are 'seeker friendly' and accessible - even if that means someone coming out five minutes before the start and running the congregation through what they will be faced with.

Just a thought

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Obstacles to Church - Social Gospel

I visited an alien church - it was supposed to be alien because it was in a different place but it turned out to be alien because of much of what went on (and especially, was said) had little to do with Church and Christ! We heard of righting wrongs, prejudice and oppression to the total exclusion of the Gospel. We had the views and opinions of the speaker who totally ignored the words of Jesus!

Suddenly the complaints I'd heard of regarding other places, and the clergy there, were made flesh and to be brutally honest it wasn't a comfortable experience!

At first everything appeared to be 'business as usual' and I was set to experience much the same as Sunday service in my home church, which to be frank was a positive that brought a feeling of comfort that opened the door for the Bible readings and the sermon without distraction.  But then it all started going downhill For although Jesus appeared in the Gospel acclamation he wasn't seen again until the liturgy mentioned Him in the Communion.

Coming in at just just under thirty minutes the sermon masterfully managed to avoid any reference to the readings or Jesus throughout! The two great Bible readings (Isaiah 61-2 and Luke 14) which were masterfully ignored to the extend that had I not kept the pew sheet I would have forgotten what they were. "So what did they preach?" I hear you ask.

The sermon spoke about bias, prejudice, rights and the preacher's opinion on them - but that was it! At no time was there any reference to the Gospel. There was not even the slightest mention of reconciliation, forgiveness or the love of God as seen by the selfless act of Jesus, the Christ, on the cross. The 'sermon' spoke of redressing wrong social and societal attitudes by making a stand against those who thought differently to that which the preacher presented as right.

If it hadn't been for the (rather abridged) Communion and the creed Jesus wouldn't have appeared anywhere in the service at all!

To place a cherry on this encounter, after the communion where I would have expected something post-communion like before being dismissed with a blessing. But sadly this was not to be - for communion done, we were blessed with reports of fund raising and a final kick at the corpse of the social ills addressed in the 'sermon' (and we were reminded of the special afternoon service again)! Then with the 'important' bits done (at last) the post communion element appeared and then blessed we were sent out.

Leaving, I noticed the Paschal Candle was still burning (Actually it was the only candle left lit). For some reason I now question I asked why it was lit (perhaps there was a baptism to follow). The response, "We always light all the candles at every service." Aaaargh!

Is it any wonder that the Church of England appears to struggle so much when there are clergy who put aside the Gospel and provide in its place things secular such as I experienced?

If we lose sight of Jesus the Christ, the Eucharist and the reconciliation to God that these speak of, then what do we have?

The answer (sadly): A diminishing body of people!