Yesterday afternoon, having no church committments of my own I..........went to church!
Sad, isn't it?
But the church I went to is served by 2 of my favourite neighbours, and its bell tower is the one where LongSufferingClockmaker is often to be found on the end of a rope (not quite as lethal as it sounds) and this was a very special service...in celebration of 750 years of Rectors*. The service was an impressive celebration, featuring a combined choir singing Parry, FabBishop as preacher, and both gratitude for the past and dreaming and committment for the future. Neighbouring parish was served, 3 Rectors back, by a man who had also been vicar in my training parish - and the feel of the two churches is remarkably similar, as is their constituency - largely prosperous professionals, a high proportion retired, all well groomed and well educated. Being there felt very familiar!
Afterwards there was a splendid tea on the lawns of the school, - and just by dint of standing there wearing a collar and NOT being one of the parish clergy, I found myself engaged in conversations that I suspect the home team don't hear, any more than I do when I'm up the hill or down in the valley.
Topics included -
the role of ritual in worship (this church uses incense at Mass every week): why it works, how it distracts, whether simplicity or multi sensory beauty would be more likely to work as a mission tool...
Why "the young" won't come to their parish church, how impossible it is for lifelong Christians to really grasp the barriers that exist to discourage newcomers and whether it was realistic to expect a thriving traditional church might recognise the need to let go of precious possessions, and go looking for God in the community.
Crematorium versus church funerals.
Church weddings for couples without a regular faith committment - and what the vows made "within the love of God" meant if one half of a couple had no sense of what that love might mean.
Really engaging conversations, with deep feelings revealed and some hard things faced. Of course there were all the usual "Weren't the flowers lovely?" type remarks as well - but people seemed eager to move on from banalities to talk about What Really Matters.
I was only there for a little over half an hour - long enough to make me wonder if there's a role for all of us, as clergy, to practice a ministry of loitering with intent in the corner of other people's congregations...
I'm pretty certain that the degree of openness and vulnerability I was a party to was enabled precisely because I'm not part of their parish team. I don't mean by this that their clergy are unapproachable in any way whatsoever - they are a star team, whom I'd turn to for support without any hesitation - but I think I was reaping the benefits of the "stranger on a train" syndrome..
My conversation partners felt free to share their thoughts knowing that they wouldn't have to encounter me again.
In contrast, conversation over coffee at valley church this morning was almost 100% practical, concerning keys, rotas, and who might be willing to help out with the washing! It's all necessary stuff, - like any other family, the church needs people who take care of the details, - but it's really sad when it seems that this is all we're about, that practicalities become a substitute for engaging with deep realities.
So - is stealth ministry the way forward? I'd love to know what you think...
*There are just 50 names on the list: the record holder served 51 years, while during the Plague there were 3 Rectors in just 12 months: I love that replacements were appointed even in a time of such disruption, so that the community at Minchinhampton was not deprived of the sacraments when they must have longed for them most.