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Most Anglicans won’t darken our doors

26 July 2013

How do we lighten theirs? John Binns builds a church for absentees

National church statistics provide a snapshot of how the Church of England is doing. They tell us that there are about a million people who attend church.

But there is another statistic that is often overlooked. One recent survey, carried out by YouGov and reported in the Church Times, (Comment, 26 April) found that, although one third of the population described themselves as Anglican, only 17 per cent of these were regular worshippers. This tells us that 83 per cent of Anglicans don't come to church.

Our church, Great St Mary's, is at the centre of Cambridge, and we have many visitors. The 83 per cent who don't come to services are just as much part of the church as the 17 per cent who do. We have tried many ideas for ministering to them; some have failed, but others have worked. Gradually, we have built up a picture of what a church for the 83 per cent looks like.

IT IS an all-week church. We do not expect to see our 83 per cent on Sundays, but they do come in during the week for a variety of reasons. We have two churches near to each other, Great St Mary's and Michaelhouse, and both stay open all day.

They are both clearly churches, but within them there are different parts for different purposes. So we can offer a worship area for formal services, and another for experimental services; a chapel set aside for private prayer; a shop and reception desk; a video studio for educational presentations; and at Michaelhouse there is a café, an art gallery, and meeting rooms. We seek to embrace many activities.

IT IS a community. It is sometimes said that people no longer want to be part of a church community: they go to cathedrals rather than parish churches, where they can enjoy beautiful worship without the hassle of community life.

We don't agree. We think that people want the comfort and support of a network of relationships. It is just that they want to decide for themselves how and when this happens, and not be told to fit in to congregational life.

Hospitality encourages people to meet each other and find communities that they can shape in order to meet their needs. We have people in church as much as we can, and these get to know the regulars, make tea for those who are homeless, talk to those who are lonely, and answer endless questions.

IT IS a partnership. We don't do ministry for others, but with others, and we don't try to stay in control. Our part is to discern opportunities, find colleagues, and work in partnership.

We have thought long and hard about how to set up a truly collaborative management structure. We now have four distinct semi-autonomous "ministries". There is Great St Mary's, with its worshipping congregation, run by the PCC. The Michaelhouse mission centre, with its mix of activities, is directed by a community trust.

Our multifaith chaplaincy service for the university staff and researchers, which operates out of a chaplaincy centre, has the character of a university department. And, this year, a new heritage education centre is opening - a collaboration between us, schools, and the tourist office.

The key group is not the PCC but a "foundation group", which includes clergy, churchwardens, and representatives of each of the four ministries, to provide mutual support and a shared mission.

Money is always a challenge. At present, our income comes, in more or less equal parts, from the giving of the congregation, business activities, and payments from outside groups who work with us or benefit from what we do. Each of our four ministries is expected to raise its own funds.

WE ARE still a worshipping church. But we look for new approaches to worship which can engage that 83 per cent who don't attend formal services. For them, worship needs to make sense of, and fit in with, other parts of life.

Like many churches, we have a great choir. Eighteen months ago, the organist left, and the director of music decided not to replace him. Instead, he asked his young organ pupils, who were drawn from the choir, to take on much of the playing at services. He used the money saved to set up a teaching programme.

Singing for services remains the core activity, but there is also high-quality teaching, and there are regular concerts, recitals, and social events. Bringing these together has transformed our music ministry and enriched our worship. There are now 100 children in the choir, and a waiting list to join.

We realise that we have special opportunities, thanks to our history and location. But then each church has its own unique way of relating to the community around. Each has a core group who worship on Sundays - but also many more who are connected to the church but just don't feel the need to come to services.

If we can rethink what we mean by church life, and start to recognise churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike as full and equal parts of Christ's body in this place, then I am convinced that we can set up new forms of church life and vitality.

Canon John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge.

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