I have been thinking in retirement about the future of the Church: “So tell me something I don’t know’ I hear you say! But the other day, I thought of something new, sort of.
Here is the context. When I was an active parish priest, I had read the literature on what makes people come to Church and what makes them stay, and what might equip people to be Christians that are able, as St. Peter asks us to be ‘able to give an account of the faith that is in us.’
Two of these elements had to do with the quality of our welcome, and the significance of baptism. The evidence says that if people feel welcome when they come to Church, then they are more likely to come back.
This is a different picture from the Church in ‘Christendom’ days. When everyone came to Church, or there were enough people to sustain a parish, then the people standing at the door were called ‘sidesmen’. There job was to hand out books, and to make sure people did not steal books, to stop people sitting in the pews that were rented by other people, and to make sure that the offering was taken up, and that there was an orderly process of ‘going up to communion.’
But now, welcomers have to be responsible for people being welcomed. They are not just ‘book-hander-outers’.
To address this, we used to make it easy to follow the service, and the welcomers were responsible for making sure that everyone wore their name tags, that new people had some one to sit next to, and that the welcomer was responsible for a new person at the coffee after Eucharist. They would be identified as that person during the announcements.
About baptism, the following idea was the one I worked on. In order for most people to share their faith, they need training, and enough experience to make their faith ‘their own’ so that they have something to share. The process of Christian initiation ,with the training that goes with it, and the significant amount of ritual that goes with a baptism meant that we offered all applicants for baptism such training, and we turned our old pulpit into an immersion font, to help people really ‘get’ that becoming a Christian was a matter of ‘dying = drowning’ and rising with Christ, and that in being baptized, a person was ‘plunged’ into Christ.
So, the thing is this: when I left that congregation, the first things that were dismantled were the immersion font, and the welcomers functions. Now the font is a small basin, into which no one can be plunged, and the welcome is about handing out books.
I think that the level of functioning has slipped. I think that this contributes to a congregation that has lost its mission focus to a degree.
So here is the dilemma. A congregation that can afford full time, paid clergy and workers can afford not to be as functional as to sustain this kind of practice, to keep itself growing. But the burden on congregations to find a stipend is huge.
The alternative would be to say ‘Well what if we did not have paid clergy? Why not have a locally ordained person, who is not paid. Then the tension between the levels of functioning that I wanted to see in a congregation, and those that the congregation could sustain, like having welcomers as book-hander-outers, and having a low focus on initiation could continue. Then the fate of any given place would depend not on the numbers of people who come and their capacity to give, but on the lay people, who would be genuinely responsible for the future of their own congregation. Then there would not be this tension between what I saw as necessary for our congregation to grow, and what was possible at the time.
More than that, the Church would be freed from the continual introspection that comes from the questions ‘Are we popular? Are we meeting people’s needs, Are we growing? “ The Church would be free to be faithful to the gospel as they saw it, with many people or few people. It would not matter. What a relief?
I am thinking about the monastic movement in what we call ‘The Dark Ages’. Learning went down, and the level of Christian functioning was pretty low. But the monks kept the books. They kept on praying and learning the psalms. They were faithful, whether or not they were many or few because they were self sustaining. In the meantime they kept the treasures of the Church till such a time as they were needed. Could not that be a model for congregational life that would be better than the constant worry over how to find a stipend for the priest?
But the other side of the coin is the question: ‘Is such a congregation a Church?’ There used to be a catchphrase in the 1970s that went ‘The Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.’ Well if a congregation is not able to be engaged in mission, is it ‘existing’ as Church?
Roland Allen, a missionary from China in the 1930s said “Each congregation ought to be able to celebrate the Eucharist, Care for its Members, Make New Christians, Educate them in the Faith and stand against injustice, and for the poor.’ Any place that cannot do this is not a Church, but a mission field.”
I am fearful that if left to their own devices, many congregations are or would become mission fields.
My guess is that no one person’s or one congregation’s decision will make any of these changes. People will struggle on till circumstances dictate what happens. The broad sweep of history which is made up of many thousands of small, individual decisions both on the part of Christians, and those who are not, or those who are leaving will make up our minds for us, because we cannot grasp this particular nettle. We are in God’s hands, and in the mean time, ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’