Last weekend we held one of our two Fetes for the year. The weather was beautiful. The lunch was duly organised, while we dutifully made jams and chutneys, baked, put out the bottles for our bottle tombola and put out the books and jewellery and brocante. Then hardly anyone came, and we made about half of what we normally do.
The first thing that happened was looking for the cause. Some said “Well you didn’t put our posters in the windows as we used to do”. Some said “Well it was the good weather. People do other things when the weather is fine” (This was also the case for the Léman International Fair who also had low numbers). Some said “Well, there are just so many car boot sales these days. There is too much competition. We stopped doing fairs a while ago.” Others said “Well I think doing the fetes is too much work for us now, given the returns. We have to look for other fund raising activities.”
So there’s the range of responses. The truth of the matter is that no one knows. But there are some other factors associated with mounting the fete that the result makes worth reflecting on.
The first is this. For a few times during my time as Chaplain at St. John’s, there was an ‘organising committee’. After a while, the members gradually go older, and said that they could not do it any more. The Chaplain became the chief organiser of the fetes. This way of doing things represents some of the difficulty that happens during a period of generational change, or perhaps decline in congregations. As the regular members become older, and unable to carry on with as much energy as usual, and there is as yet no one to take over, we will experience a gap in finding those who can be the next generation of Church members who will take responsibility for the life of the congregation, including fetes.
I am reminded of Charles Handy’s book ‘The Empty Raincoat’. There he talks about the natural life of companies as being like an ‘S shaped’ curve. At the beginning of a new enterprise (or generational change) there is a dip in performance that ha to be sustained, while the enterprise gets going. But then, if it is any good, the idea takes off. But after a while the idea matures, peaks, and starts to lose traction. It goes down hill instead of up hill. Handy asks the question “If we want to keep going up hill, where is the best time to think about the renewal of our ideas and enterprise?
“ His answer is “Just before the top of the hill, at the most successful time in an enterprise’s life.”. The problem is that those invested in the success of the present way of doing things say “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Their emotions and egos are invested in the status quo. So Handy asks “What should one do then?” His answer is that there should be succession planning for the next phase of the enterprise, but put in place by a new group of people who are invested in the future, more than the present.
I think that where we are is in the ‘decline phase’ and that we are not yet at a place where the congregation is being renewed enough to create new energy and new life. The question that lies before us now is “Given a period of slow decline, what do we do now to renew our life?” The circumstances surrounding our fete are signs of the difficulties we face as a community in need of renewal.
This is where the catch cry of the Reformation becomes important. They said “The nature of the Church itself is to be continually reformed” (Ecclesia semper reformanda est). Where this is not thought about or happening, then there is a failure of the Church itself. This is because as times change the Gospel needs to be presented anew to each generation. But more, it is the continuing encounter with Christ which gives life in the Spirit. So my response to the smaller return on the fete this year is to ask “How are we renewing Church life, by continuing to renew our life in Christ?”
But I am also interested in another phenomenon associated with the lower return on our fete this year. This is the response of ‘looking for causes’. Now having a ‘review’ is one thing, but the phenomenon I am talking about is this. At one congregation where I was vicar, when ever anything happened (someone was late for Church, someone was not there to serve, congregation numbers were down), this person was the first to come up with a ‘reason’. They would say “Oh, there’re probably sick’, or ‘They’ve probably have family visiting’. It did not matter what the reason was in reality, what mattered that a ‘gap’ in the narrative had been ‘plugged’, and plugged quickly!
It is not healthy I think, to run too quickly from noticing something to attributing a ‘cause’. My sense of things is that the response is like Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Yes Minister”. Out of his anxiety he says “Something must be done! This is something! We must do it!” Whether or not the ‘something’ is the right thing for the time, or related to the cause is not ad important at ‘plugging up the hole’ whose very existence causes the anxiety.
So when the fete does not make a loss, the first thing that represents the reality of our anxiety is not to ‘plug it up’ by saying “The vicar did not advertise enough” but to say “Well, I’m feeling disappointed that despite our best efforts we did not do as well this time. “ Or, what is also true “I am anxious that if we do not raise more money, the whole of our life here will be under threat” This I think is closer to my own, true response to the fete’s results. Then we can sit down and have a serious think about what were the genuine causes of our disappointing result, and what we might do about them.
There is a process of theological reflection* that I find helpful which does just this. It asks us to name our situation, but then asks is to ‘say what we feel about it, and think about it”. It is only later that looking for causes and insight comes. As a Christian process, I think this good because it allows us to get some distance from an issue before jumping to conclusions. It also asks us to attend to our feelings abut an issue, and to own them, before blaming others. Last, as we live in unfinished times, we are asked too to live with imperfect knowledge, not trying to close down our anxiety too soon. So in this case my considered response is “Well it was disappointing about the fete result. Why don’t we all get together to have a big think about it once the dust has settled.
* Thomas Groome’s ‘Shared Christian Praxis”