As I expected, Tim from Canada is very uneasy about my suggestion in my post CHURCH OF ENGLAND POT LUCK that churchgoers and potential churchgoers should be encouraged, by the honest advertising of individual churches, to seek out congregations in which they will feel comfortable and in which they will get the sort of worship experience most suited to their requirements.

Tim's uneasiness is understandable. He is a parish priest who works hard to keep a congregation, in which the various members have widely differing views, worshipping together. But Tim is also a priest who does not hide his own views or what he is thinking as he tries to work out what he believes about different subjects. His blog is public, confessional and far from anonymous.

In the Anglican Communion priests and other ministers, lay and clerical, have the great privilege of being allowed to say what they they think to a large extent and to preach sermons with a high degree of personal interpretation of scripture and doctrine. We are not Roman Catholics so we do not have an official party line on absolutely every aspect of our faith, and the party lines we do have are deliberately ambiguous so that we can include as many people as possible within our church (a policy that goes back, at least, as far as the reign of Elizabeth I in England). There are preachers who avoid all controversy by preaching the same platitudes of our religion week in, week out (often priests who have lost their faith) but it would be unlikely for their congregations to come away from their services feeling that they had learned something from the sermon. Good preachers (preachers who teach and encourage their listeners to think) tend to put a lot of themselves into their sermons and also enough of a controversial nature to keep their congregations awake.

A Roman Catholic can attend any Roman Catholic church anywhere and hear pretty much the same sermon on any particular Sunday that they would hear in any other Roman Catholic church that day. The only reasons to favour one Roman Catholic preacher over another would be concerned only with delivery and rhetorical finesse. The content of the sermon will always be as expected. This is not so with Anglicanism (thank God, in my opinion). We expect that we will not always agree with everything our preachers say. We expect to hear new ideas, new ways of looking at a text, new ways of living the Christian life. Our preachers are all individuals, most definitely not all batting on the same wicket.

The individuality of the parish priest is not only observed in his or her preaching style but in most aspects of their ministry, including the administration  of their parish. In most churches the parish priest is at the centre and is the most influential member of the congregation. Contrary to what we may claim and contrary to what we might want "in an ideal world," the parish priest defines, to a large extent, the style and ethos of the church community he or she "serves." In fact, let's be honest about this, those churches where the parish priest does not have this role are usually unpleasant places to be for any length of time as the laity and other ministers, individually and in groups, will be constantly fighting each other to get what they want.

So my question (a follow up to the questions I raised in my post CHURCH OF ENGLAND POT LUCKis this: should we ignore this reality or should we celebrate and advertise it so that those looking for a place to worship, to listen and to join in, can easily find a parish priest with whom they can relate to and not feel threatened by - a parish preist that they will like?

Jesus Christ was a personality cult. Would we have a stronger, better attended church if our parish priests had strong personalities which drew like-minded people into their churches? Or should we continue with that style of priesthood common in so many of our churches, which is a "lowest common denominator" style avoiding confrontation and offence, where sermons always start with "some people think" and are always qualified with an "on the other hand." The latter allows congregations containing a broad range of beliefs and attitudes to worship together, but does it make better Christians? Even more important, would somebody entering such a church for the first time want to stay?



  1. His blog is public, confessional and far from anonymous..

    Indeed. And my sermons are posted each week on our parish website, so people can get a good idea of what they’re likely to get before they show up.

    We have, however, resisted streaming services so that people can pick ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’. Our worship is low church but our music is a blend of old and new, and we want people to learn to make allowances for each other’s preferences as they come week. I think that growing in Christ involves realising that it’s not all about me.

  2. So why should those people who like a low service get what they want and those people who like bells and smells always make allowances for the others’ preferences, all for the sake of an unnatural homogeneity based on what the parish priest and core of the church prefer?

    You do not offer exposition of the holy sacrament, Tim, and expect your low church members to attend. It would be unfair on you if you had to preside at such a service. It is impossible for one congregation to be all things to all people, but it is not impossible for a diocese to be.

  3. Perhaps, to a small extent, geography (or is it travel culture?) matters. When I lived in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas (much smaller than the state of Texas), parishes offered very distinctly different services, with different music styles, quite different preaching, and so forth. Many people traveled long distances to the parish church of their choice, often passing by several other Anglican possibilities. But most everyone there has a car and its relatively easy to get around on Sunday morning–much easier than the same traffic on a weekday.

    Now I live in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, the 4 counties on that island. While plenty of people travel out of the diocese to Manhattan, I find that many more people prefer to walk to church or to travel only a short distance. And the parishes tend to be more “some of this and some of that”.

  4. The same is true of “rural Christianity” in England, Dale.

    I must emphasise that I’m not advocating that churches change or that all churches have to have a distinct churchmanship. I am only suggesting that whatever their style is, it is advertised honestly on a central (probably Diocesan) website so that people know what they are letting themselves in for before they attend a church and that those who will travel to find their “ideal” church can do so with confidence.

    • Interesting you would choose to advertise on a diocesan website. Here the trend is clearly church by church.That reflects our rather “congregational” tendencies.

    • I suggest the diocesan site as a possibility. It could equally well be an independent local site or even a national site. The important thing is to have a one stop resource to save people having to find the websites of numerous churches. People don’t always know that churches exist, let alone know their names. I would expect there to be links from the central site to the individual churches’ own sites. In England a large percentage of Anglican churches do not have a website yet.

  5. The diocese where I live is geographically pretty small but has over 100 parishes and missions–some large, many pretty small. Some larger towns have 2 and more Episcopal churches, and you can bet that each one has its own style. The priest or vicar doesn’t necessarily set the tone. For better, for worse vestries have a way of calling a leader who suits the congregation’s personality–and it can be a disfunctional relationship again and again. But people do church shop but not just for the better sermon or the style of liturgy. They are looking at the Sunday school or outreach programs or how the congregation dresses–blue jeans or suits? Some are just attracted to neo-Gothic architecture and a paid choir. People will leave if the priest comes across like a cold fish, can’t remember their name, or the congregation is unwelcoming. And if you are not happy with the Episcopal church in town, it’s easy enough to seek out the Lutherans or Methodists. Even the Reformed are offering Holy Communion a couple times a month around here.

    • It’s just a “thing” especially in a place where there is so much choice. I know families where some members go to the Presbyterian church where the kids sing in the choir but the others go to the “new” (50 year old) Episcopal church because it’s where they were raised. Some folks I know have “devolved” from RC to Episcopal to Lutheran over several decades. I know people who alternate Sundays in different parishes. At least they are in church

  6. I believe – at least in the US – the idea of a parish with geographic bounds is dead except in VERY rural areas. By car, by foot, and by public transportation, most Episcopalians – indeed most Americans – have fairly ready access to several Episcopal churches and lots of other churches.

    Special styles and emphases such as: hi/low/renewal/preaching/educating/kid-friendly/GLBT friendly/ Jamaican/ Barbadian/ geriatric/ major music/ snooty/ handicapped accessible/ air-conditioned/ adequate parking, etc.) have in fact created the phenomenon of niche churches that people will travel to quite happily.

    I do think when we enter a church as a pastor we should not willy nilly start changing things to fit our whims or our personalities, but we can and should find ways of making the particular congregation worth bothering with. The Church of We’ve Always Done It That Way – and there is No Rhyme or Reason To What We Do – will not likely grow or survive in this demographic and spiritual environment.

    I also think we need to avoid the cult of the priest’s personality. The dangers of idealization AND demonization of clergy are amplified. We need to remember that the pairsh was there before we got there and will – or will not – survive after we are gone.

  7. I also think we need to avoid the cult of the priest’s personality. The dangers of idealization AND demonization of clergy are amplified. We need to remember that the parish was there before we got there and will – or will not – survive after we are gone.

    Very astute words and sentiment.

    I suspect that what Fr. MadPriest is looking for is a kind of Which!Parish magazine, where you can go and look up churches in your area and see whether you’d like to attend. (Note for USans and others: Which! is the UK version of Consumer Reports in the US and provides my daily bread as HWMBO works for them.)

    We already have Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper reports. These are uncommonly good if fresh. Perhaps taking the Mystery Worshipper idea national would be a good way to proceed.

    • You never had a bad day, Chris? The trouble with Mystery Worshipper is it is an unannounced, one off visit. If they arrive on the one day in the year that everything is going wrong, they have a guest president because the parish priest is on holiday, as is the organist so old Mrs Smith is accompanying the hymns, one fingered on an out of tune piano brought in from the church hall etc. your church can end up being judged only on a one off disaster. I really think that with encouragement, churches would be honest about describing themselves as it would be for their advantage. The last thing I am advocating is an OFSTED for churches.

  8. Training for the ministry at Salisbury & Wells, every Friday night Eucharist was the responsibility of a different Tutor Group, and we had some wild and wacky interpretations. One of ours arose following our placement with Angus at the Elephant & Castle when we did a “Eucharist for the City”. We built scaffolding seating in the chapel, had neon signs that rolled the names of world cities, and covered over the large Last Supper mural with paper on which we wrote the sort of graffiti that was een around the London streets. Some of our fellow students walked in, took one look and walked out. Those who stayed had a service based on the vision of the Heavenly City alongside readings from T S Eliot’s “4 Quartets”. It worked on different levels.
    Now here in rural Suffolk I have offered one of the middle-of-the-road churches a Michaelmas Eucharist with full bells and smells ceremonial, and the PCC, who I thought would reject the idea, have enthusiastically said “Go for it!” I shall be importing friends from higher church circles to provide servers, thruifer, boat-boy, vestments and equipment.
    It’s not only the congregation who can be surprised!

  9. The fools trust you, SR. Well done, sir!

    But as I keep saying, there are churches around like Saintly Rambling’s where pinning their churchmanship down would be impossible. That’s fine. Their entry on the database would say just that and there are people who would love to attend such a church, I’m sure.

    • Oh, I just know, you would have been such a gorgeous boat-boy had you been born into the right church, KJ. And I could see you now as a thurifer with your own boat boy to push along.

    • Thanks to the lack of elucidation in response to my inquiry, I was forced to Google the term which eventually did result in learning what it meant, but not until after having to endure viewing images of half-clothed young men on boats!

    • Thank goodness they were half clothed young men! I don’t think you would have survived a second horny Anglican type exposure twice in one week, KJ.

  10. Now KJ, I’m an old evangelical and even I know what a boat boy is!

    Jonathan, I suspect that one of the differences between the C of E and the Anglican Church of Canada is that we don’t tend to have such extremes of churchmanship (church-person-ship). Also, most of the people who have joined St. Margaret’s lately haven’t been Anglican connoisseurs looking for a particular Anglican flavor; they’ve been Christians looking for a local church with decent preaching, a good sense of welcome and community, and a good program for their kids.

    • they’ve been Christians looking for a local church with decent preaching…

      Now, this is exactly what I’m on about, Tim. Why should people end up being so disappointed 🙂

      But, in all fairness, I have not once referred to the situation outside the Church of England as I don’t know what it is. Also, I don’t want to travel as far as Edmonton, Canada every Sunday morning no matter how good your provision for children is.

  11. Maybe not in England, but here in the US there are different Catholic religious orders and groups and everyone know which church has the Jesuit living with his “partner” who claims that Jesus was vegan; which church has the old Latin mass led by the priest who preaches about abortion and birth control and how easy annulment is in the USA; which church has the Franciscans with giant puppet heads in processions with liturgical dance and icons of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Bobby Kennedy. And the middle of the road church with mostly Latin Americans which tries to marry people in groups so that they can afford a wedding; here the one 68 year-old priest serves about 1300 people, which I understand is larger than some US Episcopal dioceses. It’s unlikely that with the language barrier and the huge numbers of people he has to see, he’s able to preach much politics.
    The idea that Catholics have no ideological variety, or that they can’t express it without getting into serious trouble, is plain inaccurate. And, kudos to them, they’re far more likely to have non-White and non-middle class people in the pews than the Episcopalians or other Mainline Protestants, who 95 times out of a 100 have all the vibrant diversity and cultural variety of mayonnaise on dry white bread.

    • and everyone know which church

      Not everyone. The people I am concerned about in these posts are those who are not part of the cognoscenti. People looking for a church for the first time and people moving into an area. At least Anglicans could advertise their differences if they so wished. Vegan Jesuits living with their partners are best advised to only use the grapevine to advertise their different views, and even then no Roman Catholic preacher can err from the doctrine of the church of Rome anywhere near as much as Anglican preachers can.

  12. What about the Orthodox? Are they just stuck in whatever tribal/linguistic ghetto they were born into or do their churches have variety?

    • When somebody in orthodoxy wants to do something novel, like speak in English, I think they tend to start their own branch of orthodoxy.

  13. Sir, not only am I not a cognoscente, I don’t even know any cognoscente. People new to an area are at a disadvantage. Those who have lived around here for more than a few months have seen these people on TV and read about them in the only local newspaper.

  14. In many ways, the Church you describe already exists. People choose their church. I joined my parish as a new Anglican, where I worked. And having now retired, remain loyal to and in the Benefice. We have 5 churches, all with different shades of tradition and the liturgy and preaching is given to the particular congregation for each, in context.

    I travel over 100 miles return, several times a week, more some weeks, as I am now, part of the Ministry Team.

    It’s where I joined, It’s where I belong and It’s where I will stay.

    • It’s where I joined, It’s where I belong and It’s where I will stay.

      Yes. And my point is that people should be warned about this!

      Only joking, UKV 🙂

    • That congregation of yours who agreed to this service are going to be so surprised when the thurifer walks in at the beginning next to a strapping, half clad sailor, SR 🙂

  15. 1. Please do not be so disparaging about the laity,they are no more prone to in-fighting than the clergy are.
    2. Is a church really no more than what goes on in worship?

  16. Please do not be so disparaging about the laity,they are no more prone to in-fighting than the clergy are.

    Yes. But there’s a lot more of them than there are of us and you can’t fire the buggers!

    Is a church really no more than what goes on in worship?

    Of course not, silly. But worship is often the first point of contact for a newcomer and that, as I keep saying, is what I most concerned about in these posts.

  17. Is it often the first point of contact? It may be for those with faith looking for a home. As an individual just about convinced of the pointlessness of worship it would be the last thing I would be looking at.

    • I don’t think I’ve said anywhere that the description of the church should be limited to just the worship. Quite the opposite in fact. However, it is an important part of what goes on in church that should be advertised correctly. You wouldn’t want to walk into a MacDonalds to find out they only sold KFC.

  18. ‘Tis an interesting debate and do forgive me for riffing off the top of my head but…No you haven’t said it anywhere but the general tenor of post and comments is that the provisions of worship are the central category upon which you would base the ‘advertising’.

    The capacity for choice would exist only insofar as you could create a credible list of criteria upon which people could make reasonable comparison. Commodification of product(for such it is) has to strike a balance between being understandable and providing sufficient temptation to be inviting. The essential choice between KFC and Macdonalds is simply a preference for beef or chicken with crap chips all round. Diversification of product range means that there is very little difference between the two now, other than the logo/brand.You would only end up raging against the diocesan management consultant that came up with the approved terminology and subsequent league tables.

    Furthermore, I’m now thinking that it may not be a terribly gospel oriented approach. I don’t see the Jesus fella spending too much time seeking out the like minded. What need do the sick have of a physician, and all that, just part of my essential concern about worship, what need does God have for it?

    • Yes, well perhaps if Jesus had spent more time with the likeminded he wouldn’t have got himself crucified. I don’t see why I have to be miserable attending a service that bores me for an ideal that never works in practice. I mean, Jesus was a God. I’m not.

      I’ve explained why the likeminded coming together is a good thing. Nobody who disagrees with this has come up with anything better than it doesn’t seem Christian. Heck, there’s a hell of a lot we all do everyday that is a lot less Christian. Explain yourselves – why exactly is it more of a good thing for people who don’t have anything in common attending something they don’t enjoy every week than like minded people getting together and having a ball?

    • Perhaps the problem is that we have made worship both the front door by which people enter the Church and also its main (and, for many people, only) communal activity, whereas for Jesus and his disciples the front door was evangelism (“Follow me”), the main activity was mission, and common worship (if they had i,t rather than just going to the local synagogue) grew from their community/mission life.

      And it’s hard for me to describe a group of Christians as people who have nothing in common. We’re all followers of Jesus, we all believe in God, and we all share in the Holy Spirit. Yes, we disagree on some of the details, but isn’t that rather a lot of common ground? If I found myself marooned in a town where you lot were the only church, I’d certainly worship with you, and when you pissed me off I’d do my best to bear with you, remembering how much crap God puts up with from me – not to mention the grief I give to my fellow Christians!)

    • Yes. But why should some people have to put up with always being an outsider worshipping with people whose concept of God is radically different to theirs. For a mature Christian like yourself, Tim, that may be possible, but for a new Christian (or seeker) or a person like myself who is just trying to get home, it does not help in the slightest.

      But I agree with your first point about the nature of the first communities of believers. I think it is there in part in some emergent congregations, house churches and base communities. I just can’t see how it could work in the parish system (or equivalent) of institutional Anglicanism. These posts are about working with the reality of the situation, making the best of it.