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.


SHOPPING FOR GOD — 24 Comments

  1. I am very happy to hear this and I will continue praying that you will eventually find a place somewhere to begin the process of getting back into full participation as an ordained priest. Your talents and skills deserve to put into full use.

  2. No one appreciates the wandering experience while in the midst of it, but I do know that upon hindsight, one of my most powerful Lenten experiences included giving up church for a season.

    I assume that most of your international readers know that on this side of the pond, Norton’s proposal would not be very controversial since it describes current state. I’m curious to know in what parts of the Anglican Communion is centralization modus operandi.

  3. Since the Diocese sending you anything (even the hypothetical scrag-end you mention here) isn’t happening, and given that starting up an independent congregation doesn’t seem likely to appeal to you (?), how would you feel about getting involved in a church plant? (Assuming that there’s anything happening along those lines within striking distance.)

    Yes it would be sub-SSM, and not exercising what you might call a full ministry. But in terms of kenotic servanthood (and hence sky-pie brownie points), and keeping your RL hand in … you’d be laughing 😐

  4. Yes, that would be exciting, Jonathan. But I need the opportunity to make a small amount of money (not even clergy rates) from any task that takes me away from my online ministry which does generate a small amount of income. We are talking about £500 per month here so I don’t feel guilty of avarice.

  5. Part of what I said at Sam’s blog:

    In the Episcopal Church in the US, we pay for our priests, too, [like Canada] and people choose to attend whatever church they like. Of course, I live in a small town with only one Episcopal Church, so if I were dissatisfied, I’d have to choose another denomination or drive about 20 miles away to the nearest Episcopal Church in the next town over, which, at my age, I would not anticipate with pleasure.

    Plus, the Episcopal Church in the nearby town is quite conservative.

    MadPriest, you’re fortunate to have a number of churches nearby to shop.

  6. Well, if you lot had been sensible like us and made the Episcopal Church the church established after your little rebellion, you would also have lots of proper churches to choose from. So, don’t whinge at me. It’s not my fault I was born in a civilised country.

  7. I would not care to exchange churches with you. No thank you!

    In my area, we have what amounts to an established church, and I left it for the greener pastures of the Episcopal Church, small, disestablished, and on the fringe as it is.

  8. Is there not a contradiction between a belief in an established Church and then shopping around for which one is best? Do visit other denominations, for example, because once choice comes into it then choice is as wide as it gets.

  9. Is there not a contradiction between a belief in an established Church and then shopping around for which one is best?

    I don’t see why. I have a choice of at least half a dozen refuse tips in my council area. I don’t have to go to the nearest.

    Quite honestly, Adrian, much as I respect my fellow believers in the dissenting chapels, I have to say they have absolutely no idea about how to put on a good show. And the unbelieving denominations are even worse 🙂

  10. Adrian, you underestimate the importance of the sacrament to the sacramentalists amongst us – the magic, as you would probably call it. Nevertheless it’s there, and it’s missing in the denominations which don’t emphasize the sacraments. That’s not to say that we’re better Christians or superior in any way, but we feel the loss.

  11. whinge? is that Brit spell? Or is that some combo verb – wing and whine, to throw something at somebody to get his attention while making pathetic noises…

  12. “Whinge” is used the way we use “whine”. Pron. winj.

    I think it makes sense to shop. BP did that while we were looking. We don’t attend the nearest neighborhood TEC church to us, although we’ve been there several times and they are really nice.

    But once BP experienced the Cathedral, she got hooked on the energy of the high church experience, with smoke every Sunday, a stellar traditional music program, and no stinting on a strong social justice component. Also because it’s the Cathedral, it emjoys a central position that helps sustain a multi-faceted intellectual life with many prominent visitors. And is supported by a large, progressive, adult congregation.(ALthough more and more young families are coming to the Cathedral).

    If we had young kids, we’d have stayed closer to home, with the local, family-oriented parish, and been very happy there. We still drop by occasionally.

    We’re really lucky to be in an urban center and have choices between churches we like.

    But up in the SF Bay Area, where we were last weekend, it’s incredibly dense.. like there’s a TEC church every 6 miles. What’s up with that?

  13. No. We have whine as well. Whine is a noise whilst whinge is an action. The reason why you use the word whine for both is because Americans are naturally lazy in their use of language. I think your aim is to eventually abbreviate the English language right back to “Ug.”

  14. Well, u r a lucky duck to have such choices! After a long church vacation, I decided to look up the local TEC church. It is a tiny rectangular grey stucco affair that sits on an outcropping piece of land on a corner. Thus u have to climb about 8 steep stairs to get to the (red) front door. There is a steepish driveway on the side of the building with room for 2 small cars. There is NO parking lot at all. There is no clergy name outside and no phone #. I found a phone # in the phone book and called and got an answering machine advising me to call “Marge”, the Sr. Warden. So I called the # for ‘Marge’ and it was a wrong #.

    A couple of years ago at a lovely garden party I was asking where would be a good place in town to start meeting people. A spunky little lady came over, looked me up and down and said she was a member at the local (above described)TEC.
    After such a penetrating look- over, she said to me “Well I think YOU should start with the library book club! I must have ‘Liberal City Dude’ painted somewhere on my person! Lord be with me, tomorrow I am going to try to climb up to their book/lunch thingy…….
    Oh Yeah!!

  15. Church holidays cf. church shopping.

    To get a balanced diet we’ve found it helpful to either be in a church which provides a broad range of worship forms under one roof (in my experience it’s rare to get a real range, but it can happen) or else we need to deliberately seek out sources distinct from our local weekly fare when we feel stale.

    For example when we feel the need for more contemporary worship we’ll hit the local Elim, and we usually drop in to Evensnog at York Minister when we’re in town on a shopping or museum trip.

    Neither would suit us for a regular environment though.

    Oh, and there’s a regional Alt Worship service we’ve used too.