Comments: Opinion - 17 June 2017

First responses to the Grenfell Tower tragedy include:

The Bishop of Willesden (and acting bishop of London):
https://www.london.anglican.org/articles/grenfell-tower-fire-ad-clerum/

The Bishop of Ely:
http://www.elydiocese.org//article?id=2225

Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster:
http://rcdow.org.uk/cardinal/news/cardinal-vincent-offers-prayers-for-victims-of-grenfell-tower-fire/

Pope Francis:
http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/News/Pope-Grenfell-Fire

This a terrible human tragedy, and also a profound and challenging reflection on the kind of society we live in.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Saturday, 17 June 2017 at 12:38pm BST

Anne Richards' piece is interesting for all kinds of reasons: not least that the C of E's National Adviser in Theology and Mission assumes that, primarily, everyone wants to belong to a 'friendly' and 'welcoming' church. I am one of many who do not. When I go to church I want to worship; and, primarily, have a transforming encounter with the living God. That is the foundation for all 'mission' and 'theology' and those churches that invest seriously in this aspect of their life are the ones that seem to be growing. I won't bang-on about cathedrals, because I find it simply provokes a lot of defensive and (often) ill-informed sour grapes from certain quarters.

Nonetheless, in my experience, it is those churches which make a big fuss about being 'friendly' and 'welcoming' that are often the most insensitive to the needs of new worshippers, whom (they assume) are 'like us' and want to become part of 'our club.' For those who do not fit the pre-existing mould (e.g. if you're gay, divorced, have mental health issues, lack the kind of middle class social skills that are often a prerequisite) it feels very exclusive - and isolating. If more effort was channelled in to providing a quality act of worship, and more time invested in a consistently better standard of preaching, that would put the emphasis back where it matters - and the coffee break would no longer be the artificial litmus test of how well a parish church is serving the whole parish, as opposed to the 'inner circle' who create the self-serving culture which can be so difficult for some people to penetrate. I do realise, of course, that the current orthodoxy is all about galvanising this 'inner circle' because this is how the bills are paid and institutional survival is ensured. But is this an authentic expression of the Church of England's unique identity and calling?

Posted by Simon R at Saturday, 17 June 2017 at 12:51pm BST

As a retired priest with PTO, it is my joy and privilege to occasionally lead worship at a nearby Church where I always receive a warm welcome. People are particularly pleasant when I shake their hands on their way out after mass. On the weeks when I am not officiating, the same people hardly speak to me! It is useful as an ordinary worshipper to experience how non-clergy are sometimes treated, and to feel unwanted and ignored.

Posted by Fr DavidH at Saturday, 17 June 2017 at 6:28pm BST

Thank you, Simon R. I thought I was alone in thinking like this. I absolutely hate going to churches and having faux hospitality imposed on me - usually by the clergy - only to be left at the mercy of the 'regulars' who are not in the least bit interested in anyone but themselves. If only churches would get back to what they are there for, and make 'doing business with God' their priority. Come to think of it, I am almost tempted to start a campaign to stop coffee after services. It would be interesting to see where (in terms of economic profile and geographical context) where it would catch on the most. It would be even more interesting to see how it contributes to growth (cf the RC and Orthodox churches).

Posted by Michael Mulhern at Saturday, 17 June 2017 at 6:35pm BST

I confess to being rather unpopular when I suggested that Compulsory Instant Coffee and Digestive Biscuits after the united Holy Week Services here rather detracted from what we were supposed to be doing. Mandatory Fellowship doesn't do it for lots of people, and for all sorts of good reasons.

Posted by David Rowett at Saturday, 17 June 2017 at 9:46pm BST

At present I am on Sabbatical leave and so I have a rare opportunity to visit and worship at other churches. My experience, to date, indicates that I receive an enthusiastic reception at The Peace but once the service is over - NOTHING!

Posted by Father David at Sunday, 18 June 2017 at 5:27am BST

A Ship of Fools mystery worshipper happened to write about a service I had been present at. It was one of the more notorious put-downs, and sparked a lengthy debate on their forums, from people who knew the minister in question better than I do.

The service was, indeed, something a car-crash, with an attempt to do something a little different foundering on the conservatism of the aged congregation and if we are honest, the basic idea being a bit rubbish and an experiment not to be repeated.

However, I suspect that the writer's sympathies were more formal that the minister or indeed the church on any Sunday, and that no matter how well the service had gone, its failure to stick to a well-known format would have been criticised.

But the main thing I felt about the article was that it implied (a) that the minister was a pathetic fool, which is strong stuff and (b) that the minister was not actually a Christian, of any stripe, which is without extremely good evidence something you don't reach for after thirty minutes in a pew (well, on a bench) in a mainstream church. Since then, on occasions when the column has been waspish, I have assumed that it is the settling of doctrinal and personal scores by anonymous writers who don't like the work of named ministers stood at the front, but don't have the nerve or ability to do anything about it other than attempt to humiliate. The column often consists of people proclaiming their superior morality in a way which in fact proves the precise opposite.

Posted by Interested Observer at Sunday, 18 June 2017 at 7:28am BST

Interesting to see people's perspective on being "welcomed" and "staying for coffee". The Church is surely (amongst some other things) a social gathering, using the word "social" in a rather technical sense. It's about hospitality and relationships and forgiving each other; it's about breaking bread together and recognising the presence of Christ -- and together becoming the body of Christ, built up and strengthened by the Spirit and by each other as a generous community of people trying to live in God's kingdom where not only is there reconciliation and social justice but also food for everyone, physical and spiritual. Not for nothing is one of Jesus's frequently-used images of the kingdom a banquet at which all gather and all are fed. Not for nothing is table-fellowship -- frequent socializing -- a major feature of Jesus's ministry.

The question, then, is whether coffee and biscuits after the service helps towards these aims or not -- and if not, why not?

So get rid of the cheap (or even the expensive) instant coffee and digestives and rich tea biscuits. At least serve freshly-brewed decent real coffee, and decent biscuits. And don't just talk to your friends, make sure that you talk to visitors who have shown enough interest to stay behind. People do come back if they aren't ignored, though equally they can be scared off if they feel they are being overpowered or invited to sign up to umpteen things on a first visit.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Sunday, 18 June 2017 at 2:17pm BST

Our TEC congregation, after the main Sunday service, serves real coffee (plus decaf and hot water for tea), cold drinks in the summer, and usually much more than biscuits to go with the beverages. Different committees and ministries take turns supplying and serving the food, which may include cheese and crackers, sandwiches, fresh fruits, savory treats such as chips and salsa, spanakopita or samosas, as well as cookies, cakes, pastries and other sweet things. One family regularly (about once a month) prepares and serves a complete hot lunch as their gift to the community. Nobody is pressured to attend, but all are welcome. Feeding and being fed by each other is very sustaining and supportive of our overall ministry. The hospitality hour provides a natural way to welcome new people as well as to check in with our longtime friends and be alerted if someone needs practical help.

I believe that this style of church hospitality comes more naturally in the U.S. because of our history and our generally more extraverted social attitudes. Historically we have been a people on the move, and churches have always been a great help in enabling people to settle in a new community. For people in rural farming communities church was a vital social institution as well as a place to worship and find inspiration -- hence the institution of pot-luck suppers. England has had a very different history. When I lived there I didn't mind about the quality of the coffee and biscuits, but it was disappointing not to find much sociability after church services, as I really wanted to make friends. I didn't feel unwelcome, I just sensed that people were shy.

I think each congregation has to set its own priorities and then to work toward those with what it has -- which might be mostly shy people!

Posted by Mary Clara at Sunday, 18 June 2017 at 9:09pm BST

"It's about hospitality and relationships" @ Simon Kershaw. Really?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, famously insisted that, when the community comes to worship, before anyone else, it is the risen Christ who is to be greeted. Surely, the purpose of worship is to be brought into the presence of the living God, and to be nourished by word and sacrament (not coffee and biscuits). Too much emphasis on 'me and my friends' is what makes worship a travesty. And it is no surprise that the consequent so-called 'hospitality' after worship is so dysfunctional in many churches.

I am one of (I expect) many people who are glad that the paradigm of the 'Family' (always an insensitive and widely misused image) gathered around the table is being challenged. You cannot simply take the accounts of table fellowship in the Gospels,observe them through post-Vatican II spectacles, whilst ignoring both their Jewish cultural setting AND the developing Eucharistic practice of the first generation of Christians in those places where Christianity first flourished beyond Judea, and conclude that it is the same as 'Family Communion' in Middle England. This is, very often, what makes worship exclusive. It is also compounding the Church of England's growing descent into congregationalism.

If our National Advisor in Mission and Theology is holding up the reports in Ship of Fools as an indicator of the health of the Church of England's worship, things can only get worse.

Posted by David Hunter at Monday, 19 June 2017 at 7:42am BST

The problem isn't tea and coffee afterwards but that the Eucharistic rite focuses on the celebrant and not upon real communion. The essence of communion is absent.

Posted by Kate at Monday, 19 June 2017 at 9:55am BST

David Hunter: Thanks, I wrote "breaking bread together and recognising the presence of Christ" and you wrote "the risen Christ who is to be greeted" and that we are "to be nourished by word and sacrament".

Sounds like quite a lot in common, and I certainly don't suggest that "coffee and biscuits" replaces this, or indeed that this socialising and making friends in a cosy club is the be-all and end-all of the Church's mission (or anything close). The gospel is much more radical than that, challenging us to work for reconciliation and social justice for all people -- the kingdom of God.

So, yes, I do think it's about "hospitality and relationships", on every scale. Coffee and biscuits are part of that because the kingdom works on the small scale as well as the large. And it's about our relationships with all those we meet and share our lives with, the medium scale. And it's about our relationships with all people across the world, and the rest of the created world and generations to come -- the large scale.

"Love the Lord your God" -- yes. But that love is shown by "loving your neighbour as yourself". May God our Father's will be done on earth, as it is in heaven -- that is the kingdom.

That's deeply radical, and highly challenging. And on a day, a week, a month like this we see that it is so necessary.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Monday, 19 June 2017 at 10:23am BST

As others have noted, perhaps it's a question of differences in US and UK style, but I have never felt that having a period of fellowship and greeting after the service (and in our parish, we also do it BEFORE service once a month) in any way detracts from the service itself.

If the only time you greet your fellow worshippers is during the peace, then I don't think much of the "community" you are in. Yes, there are those who prefer to be more private in their worship...and no one's forcing them to stick around (or come early) to be part of the group.

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Monday, 19 June 2017 at 11:41am BST

"The C of E's descent into congregationalism". This is due to many factors. It would be worth teasing them out.

Posted by Perry Butler at Monday, 19 June 2017 at 1:53pm BST

Further to my post upthread: Most of us throughout the week are working or studying in settings where there is no recognition of the principle that we are all made in the image of God and that we should seek and serve Christ in all we meet. During the Eucharistic service we are not only instructed about that theological principle but immersed in the experience of it. Proceeding directly to the parish hall after the service to share coffee and food, the experience is still fresh, we haven't had time yet to put up defenses against the reality of our common bond in Christ. So for me, this is an important opportunity to put the Eucharistic faith into practice, just by keeping my eyes and heart open as I meet and greet fellow parishioners, visitors and newcomers. That time of sharing seems to help "set" the Eucharistic message in me as I go into the new week.

The need for churches to be "social" institutions and the style of doing so will vary greatly according to local circumstances. However, a church should not be an inward-looking, exclusive club but one that connects people's spiritual interiority with their common humanity and participation in society. The church is a "secret society" which is open to everybody -- the secret being that we are all made in the image of the God who loves us all, and that the Kingdom is not only coming but already here. I think the criterion for assessing the value of coffee hour and other social events at church should be whether they reinforce that awareness rather than covering it over.

Posted by Mary Clara at Monday, 19 June 2017 at 7:32pm BST

I tend to agree with Simon R, that my primary reason for attending church (as opposed to presiding or being present out of obligation) is for an "encounter with the living God", for which the liturgy, music and preaching are essential components. However, I find a wonderful liturgy can be undone by the attitudes and conduct of the people -- snooty ushers, regulars who glare when you sit in "their" pew or look down their noses at your appearance, or an overly saccharine and insincere welcome. The people too are part of the encounter with the living God.

Posted by Jim Pratt at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 2:55am BST

Hospitality is a major theme of both the OT and the NT. Most of the theologians that I've read come to the conclusion that we work out our salvation in community. I love the biscuits and generally take the tea over the instant coffee.

Perhaps this is not part of everyone's belief system, but we are the Body of Christ and we are his hands and feet in the world. We encounter the Risen Christ in one another, in sharing, in works, and yes, in the poor. I suppose this can play out in many ways, but I find that it generally involves biscuits and coffee.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 5:10am BST

A quick sidenote:

Why the constant references to instant coffee? Can't anyone brew real coffee in the UK?

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 11:32am BST

Re coffee: my experience growing up in the UK in the 1960s and 70s is that real coffee was extremely rare in this nation of tea-drinkers. "Cona" filter coffee could be found in cafes and some other places. Churches and the like would invariably serve instant coffee, Nescafe if you were lucky (until they were boycotted over formula milk), cheaper brands if you were unlucky. Or stewed / over-brewed tea. I've brewed my own coffee since acquiring a Cona machine in 1980, but decent real coffee did not become more widely available until the last 20 years, co-inciding with the growth of Starbucks and Costa. This has led to a massive expansion of the market and appetite for real coffee, and an expectation, certainly among younger generations (say, anyone under 50) that coffee should be real coffee. Churches continue to large very significantly behind in realizing this, perhaps because the people who generally buy and serve the coffee are older than that and missed the culture-change. I tried for 20 years to get the church where I worship to serve real coffee, but only with the third vicar, who is the same age as me, has the change been made.

In a domestic setting I suspect that instant coffee is still pretty prevalent, though not in my house!

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 12:07pm BST

Serious question, in response to this hospitality discussion. Is the kingdom of God about personal spirituality, or is it about changing the world?

(Possible answers: one, the other, both, neither. Hopefully not "neither".)

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 12:12pm BST

Many years ago I was given a fridge magnet that reads 'Life is too short for bad wine' - a sentiment I also apply to coffee. Thankfully the two churches I look after who regularly provide coffee after the service, or during Café Church, provide real coffee. The beer and cider aren't bad either!
I can't say much about the other magnet given at the same time: 'If you can't be a good example, you better be a bad warning'.

Posted by Mary Hancock at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 5:53pm BST

Serious response:

If the kingdom of God is only about "personal spirituality," then what's the point to evangelism at all?

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Tuesday, 20 June 2017 at 6:05pm BST
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