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Summoned (still) by bells

28 July 2009

But why respond? A few answers here, says Peter McGeary

Going to Church: A user’s guide
John Pritchard

SPCK £8.99 (978-0-281-05810-5)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

I FINISHED reading this book just in time to nip over the road to preside at our regular Monday-evening eucharist. In days gone by, this had a guaranteed regular congregation, who built it into their Monday: church at 7, bingo in the hall at 7.45. There was something rather marvellous about this: God being woven into the texture of one’s routine. This was disrupted by the demise of the bingo club; so public devotion to the Almighty is much more precarious on Mondays now.

Nevertheless, people come. On the Monday in question, there was the retired priest who tries to get to the eucharist somewhere daily, the lady over the road who had heard the bell being rung, and the eight-year-old girl who came with her mother straight from Brownies next door, because neither of them had been on Sunday and they felt they should come on Monday instead. Each of these came out of a sense of duty, of obligation: they are Chris­tians, and that is one of the things you do if you take it all seriously.

I find it fascinating (and not a little humbling) that this sense of obligation survives. It cannot, however, be taken for granted today. John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, obviously appreciates this clearly. Many people wonder whether they should keep on going to church: why bother? Others wonder whether they should give it a go: what’s in it for me? Going to church is no longer a convention or a duty for most people; so what’s the point? These are some of the issues addressed here.

Pritchard divides his book into three sections, looking at the Church as it is, as it is meant to be, and as it might become. His tone is light-hearted, even frivolous in places. But it is never only that: there is always a serious point to be made. He loves the Church and its messiness, and the questions he asks of it (and us) are obviously the fruit of theological reflection and pas­toral experience.

An awful lot of literature about the Church and “mission” is very serious and very worthy. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course, but it can get to be a bit too much. The Bishop of Oxford is to be commended for giving us a book that suggests that going to Church might actually be fun, too. And worth taking seriously at the same time.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of West­minster Abbey.

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