Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Personal Journey 17: Reaching Out

Having made these changes to the structure of the services, I felt that I had to concentrate on making the services the best they could be without making any more changes. I know some clergy favour an incremental approach, making one change after another, but I felt stability was important and that people had a right to know where they were. Nevertheless, the Mattins service remained a problem and the number in our congregation fell on the Sunday we had it. The new people we were attracting especially found it very alien indeed. But it was only one Sunday a month and compromise needs to be on every side! On the positive side, the modern evening Eucharist, once a month, attracted a regular group of people and became a time I really looked forward to. We would stay behind chatting over wine afterwards, which was a definite bonus!

In my preaching, I stressed two things, in particular: firstly, that we must welcome people and secondly, that we must accept people. For me, this meant being willing to accept people we disagreed with, not by hiding our disagreements, but by being willing to discuss and debate with each other without falling out with one another. I dislike theme churches: churches where people all share the same outlook. of course there needs to be certain fundamentals in common, but insisting that everyone is charismatic, catholic, evangelical, or whatever, surely is to limit the church to one human perception of the truth.

I encouraged the congregation to invite anyone and everyone to church, and we all made a big effort to be as friendly as we could in welcoming people when they did come. It is with a real admiration for the congregation that I look back on how hard people worked to build an inclusive community. Our efforts were rewarded as new people came to church and kept coming back.

I was absolutely convinced that we needed to make a special effort to reach out to families given the demography of our situation. I should say that I don’t mean simply children and young people, but the whole family. Our Sunday School especially saw significant growth, and we put a lot of resources into supporting it. Some of the teachers made a very serious commitment, a commitment which was rewarded by the enthusiasm of the children and their parents. Indeed, we ran out of space to accommodate them and had to rent the nearby Town Hall. Church actually became quite fun. Not something that can always be said about church!

Most traditionalists within the congregation realized, I think, that I wasn’t going to change everything they held dear and discovered that it was actually quite nice to be part of a growing church with many young families. While for me it was an absolute priority to reach out to new people, I also wanted to reach out to people within the congregation who were wary of what was happening. Two opportunities presented themselves to do this. The first occurred towards the beginning of my time there, the second after I had been there a while.

As I have suggested, the choir was a very significant group within the church. Not only did they have a big influence on the conduct of the services, they were quite a tightly knit community and effectively formed a pressure group within the church. They were mostly very sincere and committed people, and while at times I found myself in disagreement with them and, indeed, being opposed by them, nevertheless on a personal and individual level, I had a great deal of respect for them. Whatever else, they cared about the music.

The Church had a pipe organ that had been built at the beginning of the 20th century. It was in need of repair and renovation. I took this on as one of my first major projects and one that the choir and I could unite on, no matter what our other differences.

This was not just a gesture. I have watched with horror as some clergy have conducted what I regard as ecclesiastic vandalism, ripping out pews from historic churches, for example, and getting rid of organs as old-fashioned and unsuitable for modern worship. Much of this was, and is, simply the equivalent in the Church of what went on in the 60s and 70s in many towns and cities, where old buildings were destroyed to make way for trendy modern ones, and which most people now regard as just blots on the landscape. It is frightening how what we consider at the time to be progressive and spiritual is just a manifestation of the spirit of the age, sadly with clergy serving as its false prophets. A healthy respect for tradition and the past guards against being led astray by new heresies in present posing as exciting new insights.

Now I am not arguing that the use of different instruments in church is wrong just that abandoning the organ as many have done has greatly impoverished the musical life of many churches. When you have sung the same 4 line chorus 14 times to some second rate accompaniment on a guitar then you long for the return of Bach, Wesley, and a pipe organ.

Anyway, I was determined we were going to keep ours. There was already a reasonable amount of money in the organ fund, and we raised the rest of what was needed without too much difficulty. Quotes were obtained and from firms of organ builders, and one was chosen to do the restoration. This required the complete dismantling of the existing organ and meant that the craftsmen concerned had to stay in the town for some weeks. As it happened, the two lads who came to do the work were, like me, from Liverpool and over the time they were with us, I worked closely with them. Although they didn’t realize it, they provided friendship at a time when I was feeling greatly in need of some. They did a great job.

If you have an organ in your church, especially a pipe organ, supplement it by all means with other types of instruments, but please, whatever you do, don’t get rid of it. And encourage more people to learn how to play it. We are very short of real organists. I don’t mean pianists who know how to play the keyboard, but musicians who understand the instrument and can get the best from it. There are some really good courses available for people wanting to learn how to play the organ in worship. Churches need to invest in music for worship and send their organists and potential organists to them!

Changing the pattern of the services and restoring the organ had made me think far more than I had previously about liturgy and worship. My work at Bedford had not been liturgically based and the number one concern had been apologetics. My own personal worship preferences had been shaped by my experience in the house church movement and evangelicalism. From my study at LBC, I had become convinced of the importance of the Eucharist and, instinctively, I did not favour making radical changes, but this was not the same as having a properly worked out theology of liturgy. The more I thought and studied, the more catholic I found myself becoming in my approach to worship. This leads on to the next opportunity I found to reach out to traditionalists in the church.

I decided to hold a series of Latin Masses.

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