Each year, following our Annual Parish Meetings, those elected to be wardens, deputy wardens, sides-people and PCC members are encouraged to attend the Archdeacon’s visitation service. In the past the main thrust of an archdeacon’s sermon at these events was to do with the fabric of the church - “gutters and downspouts” is a term that was often used to describe these talks.
However, in recent times I have found these occasions to be much more encouraging and worthwhile. Those of us who attended this year heard Archdeacon Cherry’s sermon, based on her reflections following her sabbatical earlier this year. I found what she had to say inspiring, and someone else said that he wished more of us had heard what she had to say. This has encouraged me to pass on some of what Archdeacon Cherry had to say in this magazine letter.
The focus of her sabbatical was to look at the themes of diversity, difference and inclusion – and specifically in relation to the church, what it means to be the body of Christ.
She began by reporting on her experience of visiting three churches where she was not known. None of these were particularly positive as she was either ignored completely by the people at the door as well as the rest of the assembled congregation or just briefly acknowledged without any real interest being shown as people got on with their chat with those they knew.
As Archdeacon Cherry said, she could have been someone in distress, someone who had just moved into the area looking for a church, or someone seeking God, faith and answers to questions. These were all churches outside of our diocese but it might not have been much different in many other churches.
I think the people in the churches of our parish are friendly and welcoming, but sometimes we need to take a fresh look at ourselves. If we are to grow then we have to be the good news that we proclaim, and part of that is to ensure that everyone who comes to our churches - be they regulars or newcomers - everyone feels welcome; that it is good to be here and good to be with us.
Archdeacon Cherry’s conversations with a large number of people suggest that the church, like most organisations, struggles to genuinely welcome people who are new, especially if they are different. It’s as though we don’t want people who will bring new insights, ideas and perspectives that will challenge our comfortable and settled ways of going on.
She spent a significant amount of time with people who had some disability, talking about why they didn’t feel welcome. It some cases the problem was the way they were patronised. Church members were very keen to look after those with disabilities, but didn’t seem to be able to get beyond the disability to see a mature and competent human being who just happened to have lost their sight, or the use of their legs or the ability to speak.
I think most of us struggle particularly with relating to those who have learning difficulties. There are many of these people in our communities but how many do we see in our churches?
Another growing issue for all of is that of dementia. As our population gets older we see an increasing number of people who have memory problems. We need to find ways of helping them to remain in church, and not lose that much needed link with others and their faith. Dementia can make people lose so much, and to lose hold of what may have been a life-long faith and tradition of church-going is a terrible blow.
As I said earlier, I do believe our congregations are open and friendly, but the archdeacon’s talk made me think, and it does us good to look at ourselves afresh!