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People- and coffee-skills

14 June 2013

Proper coffee-pot? The Chemex system in action.

Proper coffee-pot? The Chemex system in action.

I THOUGHT it would be a largely American piece this week, partly because I am in Fes, Morocco, where the world looks different. Through the eyes of Google, nothing happened in the Church of England this week. Some people will suppose that this is further proof of Google's resemblance to God.

There were a few stories about English bishops. Among them the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Egan, who thinks that his clergy must "improve their people skills". My fastiduous mind quivers at this, since I had imagined that people rather than "people skills" were the things on which a Christian needed to concentrate. But what do I know?

I hadn't even realised that, as the Bishop went on to say, "state-enforced relativism" was "victimising the weak, the elderly, family life, moral values, Catholics, the unborn and the dying". As evangelistic slogans go, there might be something catchier than "Join us: we're being victimised."

PERHAPS you could look to Austin, Texas, whence the New York Times carried a charming story about a formerly Chinese Evangelical church that had joined a primarily Swedish Lutheran group because both sides wanted to expand their horizons. The result was a group of about 200 people meeting in a former restaurant, which had had to close down owing to the prevalence of gunfire in the neighbourhood. The volunteers cleaned it up and turned it into a community centre.

The pastor fits right in: "Mr Tsang sports arm tattoos and the modish, buzzed-on-the-sides, long-on-top haircut that many young men who request it call 'the Hitler Youth'.

"Space 12 is one large room, with comfortable chairs scattered about. Mr Tsang preaches from a stool, like a slam poet intimate with his audience. The books for the prisoner project line one wall. There are no crosses, although 'Resurrection' is spelled in red thread strung between nails."

There is the obligatory story about how it was theology that attracted new worshippers: "When Leena Pacak, now 33, was growing up, her parents were non-observant Hindus. She said that before becoming a Christian, she had to overcome negative impressions about Evangelicals, who always seemed to be intertwined with the religious right."

But the real hook was right up high in the lead of the story. "The volunteer baristas showed up an hour before worship services to make locally sourced coffee in the vaunted Chemex system, beloved of connoisseurs. To enhance the Java-snob appeal, no milk or sugar was provided. 'It's a purist thing,' one barista said."

That is the kind of doctrinal exclusivity that stands a chance of making converts.

The other notable thing about that story is that it shows up just how very racially segregated American Protestantism remains, when a church of 200 people becomes newsworthy because it is wholly mixed.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the Roman Catholic diocese is moving towards the kind of reconstruction that will become increasingly common across mainstream Churches in the next decades, unless something can be done to enthuse worshippers. A long story in Commonweal Magazine traces the problem back to the sex-abuse scandals of the early '90s, which hit Boston particularly hard.

"Boston Catholics had built a parallel set of institutions - schools, hospitals, retirement homes, social-welfare agencies - to meet the spiritual, physical, and social needs of their people, and of the poor among them.

"Today only one in six Boston Catholics attends mass regularly. The network of Catholic hospitals across eastern Massachusetts is gone - sold in 2010 to private equity giant Cerberus Capital Management (recently in the news for owning the company that makes the rifle used in the Newtown massacre)."

The reason for all this is terribly simple. The diocese, even in its days of pomp, relied on a special collection for the central administration. After the child-abuse scandal broke, the faithful just stopped paying. "Angry priests signing letters and unhappy laity issuing statements and holding demonstrations are one thing. But the precipitous financial decline of the fourth largest diocese in the United States is quite another. Bankruptcy appeared imminent. By the end of the year, Cardinal Law was gone."

There is in this, perhaps, a relevance to England. I don't mean that there are any comparable scandals here: simply that the Church is, ultimately, a voluntary organisation, sustained by the conviction that its members do more than get victimised. It's very common to say that small vibrant churches are better than big moribund ones. That's as may be. The difference that matters is that small vibrant ones may survive.

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