Yesterday I stood in for my colleague at the weekday parish eucharist and a home communion at one of the local retirement blocks. I was joined for both by the ordinand who has been on placement with us for the past few weeks. In the midst of all the discussions we’re having about the future and my expressions of anxiety if we revert to being too churchy in our current activity, it’s ironic that I found it enormously comforting to do some straightforward ‘vicaring’. Both services were simple, intimate and undemanding. I was able to step aside from all that’s going on in my head and be properly present to these two little groups of people and offer some straightforward sacramental ministry. I found a safe retreat in familiar, churchy stuff and perhaps more importantly with relaxed and, frankly, uncomplicated interaction with some appreciative people.
I had a similar experience conducting a funeral Monday lunchtime. It takes care and attention to lead a funeral well. But a lot of the time, it’s not difficult. I know what I’m doing. It feels like a privilege not a chore. And again, the family and friends of the lady we buried were appreciative.
In both these sorts of ministry encounter you get an immediate sense that you’re making a difference. And an immediate sense of satisfaction of a job well done. It’s not a challenge to work out what you need to do. You just need to do it well and with real presence and attention.
Part of me is not pioneering at all. Part of me, yearns for the comfort of the familiar, straightforward and instantly rewarding. I’m not sorry. It’s human. It’s normal. I just need to remember and make sure I’m not too quick to condemn others for feeling the same. We all enjoy the comforts of ‘home’.
I actually don’t know if I’m a natural pioneer or entrepreneur at all. But what has driven me to this sort of role is that I believe ‘home’ as we’ve known it is disappearing. The generation of people who would wish to have a home communion in their retirement flats complex is passing away. Passing away, of course, is what will ensure there are always funerals to conduct. But the number of people for whom a Church of England, even a Christian funeral will be relevant is also declining. And those are just symptoms of the bigger change – church just ain’t working for the majority of people. It isn’t even on their radar.
There is an argument that says that evangelical and charismatic churches are growing, so it’s all about church having a contemporary style and a clear message. But I don’t buy the argument. The evidence is much more mixed I think. Churches of all traditions are experiencing decline (and growth). And at the end of the day, whether it’s happy clappy or smells and bells, a significant and growing proportion of the population just ain’t interested.
It’s easy to get depressed about all that. But I think this is a providential moment for the Church to experience growth in depth. To rediscover its roots and find that home isn’t all about the familiar building and the familiar religious trappings – be they fuddy-duddy or ersatz contemporary, it’s about being alongside others as they and we encounter the mystery we call God in our lives. It will ask us to give up our settled existence and become a pilgrim people again, finding that wherever we are ‘away’, we’re home because we’re there with the One who calls us out of the immediate comforts of Ur to find new life in new places.
In that situation, we will, I’m sure find that some of our trappings are invested with new depth, meaning and vitality and that some are left aside. As a community, the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s, of which I am a part, is right in the middle of that process of re/discovery. We’ve pushed ourselves out beyond our comfort zone and found that there are some things we can’t do without just at the moment. But it is a moment and I’m beginning again to dare to hope that in the midst of all this, we will forge some genuinely new and most importantly authentic-for-our-locality ways of being and journeying with God.