I had lunch today with an English guy who was in Ireland to advise about evangelism.
I hope the advice he brings with him is from a church very different from my last experience of a Church of England parish, a couple of years ago.
I had got up at 7.15 in order to go to church. The rest of the house was fast asleep and I crept around the house. In an old English house it is hard to creep, every floorboard creaked as I went down the stairs. I was sure I must have made enough noise to waken everyone by the time I went out of the door at ten to eight to walk the hundred yards to the village church.
You had to have the sort of mind that would do well on TV quiz programmes like ‘Countdown’ in order to understand the noticeboard at the church gate. The service was at a different time every Sunday and the time of the service was determined by which Sunday of the month it might be, except on months when there were five Sundays, when the time and venue of the service would be advertised on a noticeboard inside the church.
A man who might have passed as a retired headmaster greeted me at the door. He handed me a book and said, ‘we’re up in the choir this morning’. Dressed in a short-sleeved summer shirt and cream cotton trousers and wearing shoes but no socks (I was on the way back from holidays in France), I didn’t look like a typical Church of England member, but I wasn’t offered any more advice.
I went up to the choir stalls and sat beside two older ladies who offered me no greeting but continued their conversation which seemed chiefly to centre on the price of hotel rooms in Folkestone and how both of them enjoyed the spaciousness of their double beds since the demise of their respective husbands. One lady was anxious lest her offer to the hotel to pay a single room supplement might mean she would be put into a room witha single bed. (I wondered if this is the sort of conversation that normally takes place in church pews).
The clergyman came out of the vestry at 8 o’clock precisely. The congregation for the only service in the village that day numbered nine.
There was one young couple, but the reason for their presence became clear when the clergyman began to read the banns for their marriage. He commented to the young lady that she came from a very nice part of the Isle of Wight and that he had been there himself once and had almost missed the ferry.
He then launched straight into the Communion service. There were no page numbers given and no attempt to announce what was happening next; it had been at least twenty years since I had attended a service from the Book of Common Prayer as used by the Church of England and I found myself fumbling through the pages.
By the end of the service I was almost relieved to go. Apart from the clergyman at the door, no-one spoke to me.
Had I been one of the 92% of the English population who don’t go to church, but who had just woken early and had decided to go to see what went on, what would I have made of it? Had I had serious spiritual problems and decided to go to the church in the hope of finding some help or support, how would I have felt?
Perhaps there was sincere faith amongst the people in that congregation, I would not presume to stand in judgment. The only feeling I personally had was that I was joining in something that was part of village tradition. Perhaps it was a failing on my part, but I did not get a sense that I was meeting with the living Jesus by being in that church.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is always exciting; always relevant to the problems and needs of people; always challenging to those who need change; always open to those who seek help; always a friend to the stranger; always a support to the tired and depressed; always an inspiration to anyone who tried to follow him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the most amazing, most charismatic, most life-changing man.
In Ireland or in England, why aren’t we meeting with this Jesus at our church services?