Occasional Worshippers

An article by Ally Barrett, Tutor for the Westcott Foundation, who will be leading a seminar on Occasional Worshippers at the Westcott Foundation on 18th November 2015 – there are still places available, please click here for a booking form.

euch-church-doorwayThe mission literature is as full of terms such as ‘unchurched’ and ‘dechurched’ as it is full of critiques exploring why such terms are problematic. Just as problematic is the term ‘churchgoer’.

The truth is that many people simply don’t fit into the category of ‘churchgoer’ or ‘non-churchgoer’ – statistical research has demonstrated that a significant factor in the decline in bums-on-seats church attendance figures is due not to their beingpews fewer people who ever come, but due to a large proportion of people coming less often than previously.
‘Regular churchgoing’ means something different now from in generations past. This is particularly noticeable in churches where there is, for instance, a monthly all age service which may have its own congregation – regular attendance at that service means twelve times in a year, which is rather different from 52 times… An interesting test case for the changing definition of ‘regular’ is found in the way that ‘regular attendance’ gives a qualifying connection for marriage.  Most of the clergy I asked reckoned that for these purposes monthly is regular.

This does have some implications, and not just for statistics, but for the place of worship in the life of those who attend it. The Sunday lectionary, though it works on a standalone basis, works best when there is some continuity week by week – working through the gospels and epistles allows themes that preoccupied their writers to be heard again and again in different ways, and this repetition can help create a coherent landscape (the breadth of scripture) in which the foreground (any particular reading) may be enjoyed and explored. The changing of the seasons, the arc of salvation history that weaves through the church year, and the way that that grand liturgical pattern is reflected in microcosm during each act of worship from gathering/advent to dismissal/Pentecost into the ordinary time of life after the church service – these may be slower to take root in the heart and mind when there is only a monthly service in which to plant and nurture the seeds.

It is also worth noting that the guidelines for the Church oall-age-groupf England’s relatively new Additional Eucharistic Prayers for when significant numbers of children are present are clear that this provision is not intended for weekly use – in other words, the intention is that these prayers should not be all that a congregation experiences. Which is all well and good if everyone comes every week and the AEPs are used only monthly – but for those whose only experience of church is the all age service, those prayers will indeed be their diet. This is only one manifestation of a larger liturgical dilemma: common worship, with its vast range of resources, assumes that churches will use a variety of material, so that during the course of attending church regularly the congregation will experience a balanced liturgical theology.  But because we know that many people do not come to church all that often, there is an impetus to make each act of worship doctrinally or theologically complete – each Eucharistic Prayer therefore would need to contain a brief, but comprehensive summary of salvation history as the content of and motivation for our thankfulness. This tension is not going away.

couple-pointingAnd what of those who are regular churchgoers in that they attend church regularly once a year at the village carol service or on Remembrance Sunday? Or those who go to church for baptisms, weddings and funerals? Can such ‘occasional’ services (in the sense that they happen occasionally, and on particular special occasions) provide a balanced liturgical diet in themselves, and, if not, can they still be a place of transformation, or at least a place where the seeds of transformation might be sown?

Perhaps the church is betwixt and between: on the one hand we are partly working a model that assumes regular, even weekly attendance, and on the other hand we are responding to the reality that for many people a church service is a one-off event. We may subscribe (based on our own experience) to the theory that worship is formative of our faith and our life of discipleship when it functions as a drip-feed, week by week and year by year, and yet we may strive each week to lead an act of worship that is, by itself, transformative.

In the above paragraphs there is a striking omission: God. There are, in fact, many works of liturgical theology that treat liturgy and worship as something that can be described on a purely human level, with valuable insights from psychology, semiotics (and other meaning-theories), ritual studies (how rituals work in human communities) and more.  But whether an act of worship is formative or transformative can be understood not only in terms of psychology or cognition, but in terms of how such an event may (or may not) facilitate a (deeper) encounter with God.  prayingAn exploration of the nature of worship from a faith perspective, rather than as a merely human phenomenon, must assume not only a theistic worldview but specifically a theistic anthropology.  And if we work on the basis of a theistic worldview and anthropology, then we will quickly find that the regular or occasional public worship of the church is by no means the only location of laptoptransformative encounter.  Some would go as far as to argue that the primary place of transformation is not so much the gathered church as it is the world (generally) and in the specific life experience of human beings: work,
relationships, parenthood, death, traveling, boredom, sport, and so on.

Should worship then respond to the ways in which God may already have been encountered outside the church walls? I think it should. People should not have to leave their experience of God in the world at the church door in order to subscribe to a liturgical expression of what that encounter ‘should’ be like. But the converse also holdscouple-on-a-sofa true. What takes place in worship can provide a tried and tested language through which human life experience can be articulated in the context of God. The psalms are perhaps the supreme expression of that conversation that draws life and faith together, but they are not the only expression of it. (My own research hopes to uncover more areas of resonance as well as dissonance, particularly for those who are less familiar with the church’s modes of expression and established symbols, and particularly in regard to how attendance at a worship event may reinforce or undermine any sense of belonging or membership – but that’s another story).

The best of our liturgy continues in the tradition of the psalms, with metaphors and symbols that resonate on the horizontal plane (with what happens to us and what we do in the rest of the week) vertically (in the way that we perceive and engage with the action of God) and through time (drawing on the tradition of the faith that has been passed down the generations and received by the contemporary church, and in turn handing that tradition on either more or less as we found it). Worship can be seen, then, as a multi-dimensional event that may be an agent of transformation along any of its axes, and into which transformative impetus may come via any of its axes.  No wonder so much is asked of the church’s liturgy, and no wonder it so often, and in hard-to-define ways, it seems not to have quite lived up to its potential or its purpose, and no wonder that when it’s good, it’s really good.

What, then, can we reasonably expect of the liturgy, especially when it comes to those who do not normally attend church, and who therefore may taste only a small slice of the liturgical-theological pie, or to whom many of the scriptural or traditional metaphors and symbols are unfamiliar?  And do the answers to that question depend on what the church hopes for in their brush with the liturgy, or upon the intentions they themselves may bring with them? People who do not regularly come to church, but who may come on occasion are highly diverse in theilight-a-candler motivations – they may come through an invitation (to a baptism or wedding, perhaps) or through a personal / emotional connection (a funeral or all souls service), or out of a sense of tradition (a carol service) – these are only a grossly simplified handful of possibilities. And their reasons for not coming more often are probably even more varied than their reasons for coming ‘that one time’.

Equally their experience of God outside church is diverse, and they may well not be able to articulate it to themselves (because matters of the heart and soul are hard to express) let alone in any kind of descriptive language that the church might recognise. The Church House research on Christenings found that words such as ‘meaningful’ and ‘special’ were indicators of the way that life experience and liturgical experience at a Christening converged in a positive way. Doing Christenings in such a way that that point of convergence is maximised is one current mark of the work that the church is undertaking in this whole area of liturgy and life and mission. A carol service, on the other hand, has a very different set of parameters and intentions, and will generate very different hopes and meanings; Remembrance Sunday is different again.  As planners and leaders of worship, how do we learn to be attentive to tradition and culture, intentions and hopes, points of connection and faultlines, in order to lead worship both regularly and occasionally that brings people closer to God, whatever their starting point?

These are some of the issues that we will be looking at during the Occasional Worshippers seminar on 18th November at the Westcott Foundation. There are no easy answers, but through an exploration of the big questions and reflection together on our practice (particularly where our intentions and reality either wonderfully converge or are frustratingly dissonant) I hope we may be able to draw out some real theological and practical wisdom on the many and varied opportunities and challenges presented by those who come to church occasionally.

Please do come to the seminar if you can – you are also welcome to leave comments, questions and reflections on your own experience here.

Sermon from Community Night Eucharist, 1 October 2015

Gospel reading: Mark 10:2-16
Preacher: Will Lamb

Earlier this year, the broadcaster Adrian Chiles set himself the task of going to Mass every day during the season of Lent. A Roman Catholic, he thought of this exercise initially as a penance, but as he entered more deeply into this discipline, it turned out to be anything but: ‘From day one’, he said, ‘I was captivated’. He described attending Mass in London, Swansea, Birmingham and Manchester – wherever he happened to me on any given day. 

The churches he visited were ‘a mixed bag’ – as were the priests. He said: ‘A third of them I found to be great, with a handful quite life-changingly brilliant. Another third were sort of OK. The rest were pretty hopeless, not least because I often couldn’t actually hear what they were saying. And a handful were grumpy to the point of malevolence.’

That line ‘grumpy to the point of malevolence’ reminded me of a friend of mine who went along with six other couples to their first marriage preparation class to be greeted by a priest who began the session by observing that he wasn’t really sure why he was bothering: ‘50% of you will be divorced in ten years’. 

My friend was not a regular churchgoer, but throughout the session the priest conveyed a level of cynicism, which shocked her to the core. Seven couples gathered full of hope and expectation, ready to make vows to each other that were breathtaking in their wholeheartedness, and this was not the response they were expecting. 

Perhaps the priest was having a bad day, perhaps there was something that had caused him to be bruised or bitter –  but it’s a story that should pull us up short, particularly when we read this passage from Mark’s gospel. 

In some respects, this passage follows a familiar pattern in Mark. It is a controversy story. Jesus is asked a question, and this provides the starting point for discussion and debate: Pharisees come to Jesus and say, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ This is actually a rather odd question. It’s odd because the most authoritative studies show that there is no evidence that any Jewish group in the first century actually forbade divorce. Matthew makes the question more intelligible – his Pharisees ask whether a man is permitted to divorce his wife for any reason. But Jesus does not answer them. He asks them a question, ‘What does the Law say?’ And they know the answer: ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ Now of course this betrays all sorts of assumptions about the relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives, and commentators have noted the way in which Jesus holds wives and husbands to the same ethical standards in this passage – and there is some speculation about the extent to which the symmetry between the rights of men and women may or may not have been innovative and unusual. 

But simply reading this passage as a source text for ethics perhaps misses an important dimension of this story. Indeed, Mark is not given to ethical injunctions. This is no manual of morals. That’s more Matthew’s style. The urgency of Mark’s gospel points again and again to the coming Kingdom. And Mark is much more interested in how we respond to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, which is inaugurated in his ministry. 

So the response of Jesus to his questioners is, I think, significant: ‘Because of your hardness of heart, Moses wrote this commandment for you’. ‘Because of your hardness of heart’. This is a story about hardness of heart.

Of course, when we read this story, we imagine that the ‘hardness of heart’ refers simply to those whose marriages have broken down, where for whatever reason, the light of love has grown dim and begun to fail. But that is not the only ‘hardness of heart’ that we encounter in this story. There is the hardness of heart of those who set out to test Jesus, to trip him up, those who know the rules and regulations, those like many who are religiously-inclined who like to lay down the law.

And this ‘hardness of heart’ provides the link with the passage which immediately follows this altercation. The disciples rebuke those bringing little children to meet Jesus.

‘Hardness of heart’ is something we encounter again and again in the scriptures. In Psalm 95, the people of Israel are urged not to follow the example of their ancestors as they wandered through the wilderness: ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the days of Massah in the desert’. It refers to that moment during the Exodus when the Israelites lost all faith in the wilderness, and the whole enterprise almost collapsed in chaos and recrimination, a consequence of their hardness of heart. And Mark, who draws again and again on the imagery of the Exodus, refers on more than one occasion to this same ‘hardness of heart’. In Chapter 3 and again in Chapter 4, ‘hardness of heart’ is identified at the root of all opposition to the Kingdom.

And that is why Jesus goes on to teach his disciples about the Kingdom: ‘When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’.

‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’. Note that in Mark’s Gospel, it is on the margins of Israel’s life that the proclamation of the imminence of God’s reign begins, simple fishermen who respond to his call, the ‘outsiders’ who glimpse Jesus’ true character. The crowds flock to him but the ‘religious authorities’ do not accept him. The Kingdom of God marks a break with conventions, with a readiness to include the excluded. Children, the ‘little ones’, are those to whom the Kingdom belongs.

Children represent all those who are unimportant and have no skill or status or possessions. But I wonder whether children also represent all those who have a capacity for wonder.

This childlike quality is something that we need to cultivate. This is an important spiritual discipline – because ‘wonder’ is the great antidote to ‘hardness of heart’. It is also a way of ensuring that when those of us who are called to public ministry and start talking about issues like divorce, marriage, sexual ethics and family life, we may resist getting caught in the rather sclerotic disputes that characterise our ecclesial life. If we begin everything we say with a sense of wonder at the extraordinary mystery of what it means to be human, with a sense that when we are speaking to people about their deepest hopes and desires, we are standing on holy ground. So often I fear that that when church leaders talk about sexual ethics, we just get the tone completely wrong.

But more than that, this capacity for wonder should characterise not only our discussions about moral theology, but all our theology. As the Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware, once said: ‘God is not so much the object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder’. 

Perhaps it is with that same sense of awe and wonder that we approach this extraordinary gift of the Eucharist. As we are captivated by this awesome mystery, let us pray that we may bring that same sense of wonder to everything we do and everyone we meet.

Welcome to the Westcott Foundation

Westcott House, Cambridge, has long been a place of foWestcott Iconrmation, study, prayer and inspiration for those training for ministry in the Church of England. More recently, we have been delighted also to welcome more independent students, and exchange students from across the globe. Over the past few years we have sought to continue to nourish, inspire, and encourage those already in ministry (whether or not they originally trained at Westcott) in a lifetime of learning and growing, and in response to the changing patterns and challenges of ministry in a variety of contexts.Salford

At the Westcott foundation we therefore seek to inspire the renewal of the church, though its leaders and ministers. We draw on in-house expertise (including our own research fellows) and the wisdom of our colleagues and friends from the University of Cambridge and beyond to provide a range of seminars that are relevant and insightful, spiritually nourishing and theologically grounded.  You can read some of the comments on our past events here.

C0190_001This year the programme includes events as varied as the acclaimed leadership seminars to the National Gallery event (Passion and Compassion – in Preparation for Holy Week), and from the Urban Ministry seminars (Nurturing Urban Virtues and Building Community) to clergy retreats.

It also features Re-imagining Forgiveness and Reconciliation, the first event in what we hope will become a major strand of the Foundation’s programme reflecting on peace and conflict at the international, communal, and personal levels.

This season’s brochure, and a booking form, can be downloaded here – if you are a church leader or minister, whatever the context of your ministry, there will be something for you. And if there are aspects of your ministry for which it feels as if nobody has prepared you, or for which training and development is hard to come by, please let us know.

We look forward to welcoming you (back) to Westcott House, and helping to inspire and resource your ministry this year and in the future.