I can remember a scene in the vestry one Sunday morning early on in my ‘parish priesting’ career. There was enough space in the church to shoot a cannon full of grapeshot down the aisle without hitting anyone and instead of there being five of us in the vestry (crucifer, 2 servers, communion minister and I) there were two of us. I expressed my displeasure. The communion minister said ‘Well, we’ve got the whole company of heaven with us.’ I was not convinced. No one had rung to say that they would not be there. How could we do our best for God when we did not have the personnel to mount a Eucharist?
I felt that the remarks of the communion minister were a form of rationalisation for people’s uncaring attitudes to their ministries in the Church.
But the other day, when we had few people in Church, and had to scrabble around to find readers, I found myself in good spirits. We moved everyone up into the choir stalls, had a lovely, intimate Eucharist that was light and free, and I heard myself saying, and believing it, ‘Well, we are not just a few. We are in the company of the angels, archangels, the whole company of heaven and the saints.’
I ask myself ‘What is happening here to make this change?’
You remember, I wrote a little while ago about the phrase that echoes around some congregations when things go wrong ‘Well does it matter!!!??’ I still think it does matter. When our welcome falls down, for example, we fail in our ministry. Here is just one example.
Part of our welcome is to hand out ‘visitor return slips’ with information about the person’s name and address and their intention. Some of the time the welcomers hand these out and give them to me, which is the way it has been planned. But at this particular time, that part of the welcome did not happen. I took on the responsibility to have this slip filled in. So what did I find out? The person said on the form ‘I would like a visit’. So I went. There I found a mum who was alone with a couple of young children, who gets very bored during the day. We made a plan to connect her up with a member of the congregation and to plan some outings for them. Does it matter? Yes it does. When readers prepare well, it shows in the conviction of their reading. When intercessors prepare well, and members of the congregation use the intercessions book for their concerns, worship comes alive. When welcoming is done well, people feel it, receive an e.mail from me (though it should be from the welcomer), and they tend to stay. When our welcoming is not done well, people do not come back, and we lose opportunities for ministry like the one I have just mentioned.
If you listen to the communion ministers speak, you can hear them talk about the difference it makes to them when they are responsible for leading parts of the worship. The same is true for intercessors, welcomers, readers, and members of the congregation in their singing and liveliness of response in their parts of the Eucharist.
The thing that I am observing is that about some of these things that I cannot control on a Sunday morning, I have ‘let go’ of what I cannot control. This is the result of 30 years of being a priest. Slow learner?
I used to say ‘Well, we will go with what we have got, even though I am disappointed’.
Now I say ‘We have the whole company of heaven with us. We are just dipping our toes into the waters of heavenly worship.’ I must admit that in letting go, the intensity of the experience of coming into the presence of God has sometimes diminished for me, and at other times intensified for me. At least I am not beginning Church in a dark mood any more.
In an article on ‘Mentally Strong People’, which I read as a result of being part of ‘linked in’, I noticed the following: ‘Mentally strong people don’t waste energy on things they can’t control. They don’t complain much about bad traffic, lost luggage, or especially about other people, as they recognise that all of these factors are generally beyond their control. In a bad situation, they recognise that the one thing they can always control is their own response and attitude, and hey use these attributes well.’
Well I’m sure that if a manager who was responsible for a production line had workers who were turning out defective cars that had to be recalled, he or she wouldn’t say ‘I can’t control other people’. Their boss would say ‘Your job is to control other people to ensure the quality of our output!’ Some of this advice is a bit twee. But I get the force of the argument. Just before Church is not the time to be going on about who is there and who is not. And how well the ministries are being done.
I’ve learned this in other situations too. This happened to me clearly about infant baptism sometimes. I wanted to explain to people how the Church was changing, and how this made a difference to our baptismal practice. But when a person is there, saying ‘I want my baby done!’ is no time to open up that broader question.
This leads me to think that if I think that what happens in Church does matter, and if I think that just before Church is not the time to be having that discussion, then there has to be another time to offer information and training to members of the congregation who are involved in public ministry in worship.
That is why I plan to hold some training sessions during Lent for people who are welcomers, and communion ministers in particular. I remember one priest who managed to get all the ministers for each Sunday to evening prayer on the previous Saturday night. They would talk about the readings, talk about the coming Eucharist and pray for those who would come. I am too afraid to ask for that. But I do think that it is reasonable to ask that on one Saturday afternoon in Lent, those people who have public ministry come to talk about their ministries and to bone up on their skills.
So that is where I am up to. Sunday morning goes more smoothly for me,emotionally, for having ‘let go’ of being annoyed at that time about the absence of congregation or ministers. The value of Eucharist for me personally, has not been diminished, and sometimes it has been enhanced. This does not change my responsibility to equip the saints for their ministries, or your responsibility to perform your roles well in the assembly of God’s people on a Sunday morning. I hope we get a good turn up to the training in Lent. Watch this space.