Church mislays its welcome mat

02 November 2006

David Self discovers what churchgoing feels like to a stranger

Away from home for the weekend, I attended a church I'd never visitebefore. At the end of the parish communion, I handed in my hymn and servicbooks and hovered near the coffee table. A lady approached me. "I'm afraicoffee's only for regulars, dear," she said.
Circumstances havmeant that, during the course of the summer, I've been to services in a numbeof different parishes. One thing has struck me repeatedly: a considerablproportion of them do not expect newcomers. Even the list of services at thgate, so frequently in a misted-up glass case, discourages the unchurched"8am, HC BCP; 10.30 SE CW Order One." The celebrant may guide the newcomethrough the service with helpful directions ("We shall be using EucharistiPrayer E on page 196"), but the notices are too often a members-only zon
Jean wants names for this, Joan wants helpers for that. It is assumed wall know Jean and Joan. Then there are a couple of in-jokes. Even an individuaor a family on a third or fourth visit is left feeling that this is as much private club as a branch of a worldwide Churc
Of course, there are many parishes where outreach is a primary purposeeither churches eager for new, permanent members, or those that advertisregularly in this paper's "Where to Worship" feature because they welcomoccasional visitors. But across suburban and rural Britain, in many parishes new face is regarded as a surprise at best and, at worst, a threat. "Why is h(or she) here?" is the unspoken thought. Such parishes seem to have becomintroverted, withdrawn from life's mainstrea
It is tempting to draw an analogy with Marks & Spencer. Everyone oncfelt the need to slip into either M&S or the C of E for life's essentialssocks, baptism, knickers, marriage. At Christmas, both were essentiastopping-off points. But gradually, it seemed possible to rely on otheoutlets. M&S's profits peaked in 1997 and then plummeted. The share pricof the Church of England has fallen rather more steadily and over a longeperiod. A couple of years back, it was possible to wander into a branch oeither institution and find it more or less empt
The management of Marks & Spencer has, however, reversed its declinealbeit painfully. Thanks to a range of women's clothing called Per Una, it noseems able to attract both footballers' wives and traditionalists who expect rack of dresses to be available in every size from eight to 22. Its priceready meals appeal to both the gourmet and the laz
Individual branches of the Church of England thrive because they offer aexotic high mass or a tub-thumping sermon. But if the brand at large is tattract a wider clientele, its national management must ensure that albranches not only learn the art of window-dressing but also make casuacustomers (even ones without a Clubcard) feel that this is their sort of plac

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