Following up on an email invitation from a really decent geezer called John, I visited another church on Sunday for holy communion. It was a beautiful, ancient church in Durham City which possesses a small but loyal, personable and intelligent congregation. Unfortunately the service was led by a visiting priest as the vicar had to be at his other church that morning. He was dire. He committed every sin of crassness that it is possible to commit in an Anglican service, primary of which was longwindedly introducing absolutely everything and completely destroying the natural sense of flow in the liturgy of the Eucharist. He insisted on imposing his evangelical preferences onto the congregation which meant they had no idea what to say and when to say it (he talked right over the three chimes of the church bell at what should have been the elevation) and his sermon stumbled around all over the place like a drunk looking for where he has left his beer glass.
I shall return on another week when I know that the vicar will be in attendance and experience this church as it normally is. But, if I was a stranger to the Church of England's staffing problems and looking for a place where I could worship God and learn more about God in a pleasant and appropriate environment, I would never darken the doors of that church again.
My church shopping experience the week before couldn't have been more different. Although it was just a bog-standard service in a village church of middling churchmanship, the vicar grabbed hold of it by the scruff of the neck and insisted that it would be done with as much liturgical professionalism that you would expect from a choral advent service in a cathedral. The congregation responded by fully engaging with and joining in with the liturgy avoiding the pitfall of turning the whole thing into the vicar performing a solo concert. I would go back to that church and look forward to doing so.
There was a time when I would join my fellow priests in snootily condemning those who look around for a church to suit their own tastes and make pronouncements about how people should always attend their parish church even if it meant being miserable every Sunday morning. My experience of being an "internet priest" over the last five years has led to me changing my mind completely about this. In order to keep my ministry viable and worthwhile I have to post content to my blog that my readers want to engage with. If I don't then I will quickly end up talking to myself. I cannot afford to be lazy and I cannot rely on other people to do my job for me. If I upset someone I reap the full consequences (this doesn't mean I don't upset people, often deliberately, but it does mean that I need to own my belligerent actions). At the end of the day the service I provide has a direct impact on the donations I receive and whether or not I can pay my bills. I believe that this accountability to those I minister to (or just entertain) has made me a more valuable asset to the pastoral and missionary endeavour of the Church and I also think my internet experience (and the experience of other blogging ministers) is something that the local church needs to pay attention to.
In Sam Norton's post from yesterday, which I recommend below, he proposes a controversial remedy for falling church attendance:
Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process. What I'm advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.
In response to Sam's clarion call I submitted the following comment:
I'd love to be given the opportunity of taking on a run down church with little income and living only on the money it generated. The incentive to do the job well would be massive and I think the feelings of ownership and responsibility it would generate in the congregation would be healthy and would, God willing, lead to a bigger, more active, more happy membership.
I shall continue shopping for a place to worship now that I've bucked up the courage to do so and I will not feel guilty about it. Church congregations are both consumers and producers. They will never be an active part of production if their needs as consumers are not met first and that is the job of the church ministers (lay and clerical). It is primarily the task of the minister in charge and if he or she cannot be bothered, or is not competent enough to, produce something of worth for the congregation on a weekly basis then they mostly have themselves to blame if they end up on their own every Sunday and complaining about the more interesting, vibrant and fun church down the road "stealing" their congregation.