The salt and the sweetness

14 August 2015

Margaret Duggan looks back on her time reporting on life in the parishes. And there is life, she concludes

rupert martin

For the record: communion being administered to Anna Young and Margaret Walker by Mavis Rowley, Judith Parkin, and Julian Gill, at a joint service of congregations from St Helen’s, Sandal, and St Paul’s, Walton, in 2012. The photograph is part of a 20-year project by the Revd Rupert Martin, recording parish life

For the record: communion being administered to Anna Young and Margaret Walker by Mavis Rowley, Judith Parkin, and Julian Gill, at a joint service of ...

I MAY have been responsible for the great rash of teddy bears abseiling down church towers a few years ago. I had a press release from a parish that had tried it, and I included the idea on the Real Life page in this paper. For months afterwards, I was sent news of dozens more teddies jumping, parachuting, and whizzing down zip wires, all in the cause of fund-raising.

Not that they raised all that much money, but, at two pounds a time, including a health check and certificate, it was a ploy that drew lots of small children and their mums and dads to church fun days and delighted them. I can’t remember which parish first had the idea, but if I helped spread it around, then I am delighted.

For more than 14 years, my inbox has been filled with news about Anglican life in the parishes of England and Wales and, to a lesser extent, Ireland, Scotland, and the diocese in Europe. Those who sent it hoped it would find space in my weekly “look round the dioceses”.

Much of it has been about the familiar activities of a lively parish: special services, concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and bishops’ visits. I had room for only half a dozen or so stories each week, so had to select those that were unusual enough to find space in a newspaper with national coverage. I am sorry so many had to go unused, but I would hope they found generous space in their local media.

Journalists are always looking for what is new(s). My criteria included the unusual, the innovative, the inspiring, and the downright quirky. And most weeks — though in mild ways — I was not disappointed.

 

IN PARTICULAR, I have looked for imaginative ideas for fundraising and for drawing in the wider community which other parishes could emulate. What immediately struck me was the imagination and sheer energy of the clergy themselves.

There were the vicar and curate in the Blackburn diocese who climbed on their church roof and refused to come down until the parish coughed up the £3000 needed for modest repairs to the same roof. They went up on a Thursday evening with sleeping bags (and a dispensation to come down for calls of nature), and came down on Saturday morning having raised nearly £7000. In the mean time, they were extremely well fed by parishioners, who passed food up to them.

Then there was the priest from Chelmsford diocese prepared to preach a five-minute sermon for £5 on any subject at an instant’s notice. And the woman priest from St Edmundsbury & Ipswich who read the entire Bible through in church in five days, from 7 a.m. until midnight, with ten minutes off each hour. She raised several thousand pounds and collected a mouth full of ulcers.

Since then, I have learned of countless clergy on sponsored walks, cycle rides and swims, climbing mountains, abseiling down their towers, skydiving, and having wet sponges thrown at them. They are a remarkable lot.

 

ALL this might sound frivolous, and not a great deal to do with the serious mission of the Church. But all of it serves to convince the people “out there” that the clergy are dynamic, take their job seriously, and are — above all — human, not weirdo nonentities in white nighties. For there are still barriers to be broken down, though they are different from those in previous generations.

Once, people were awkwardly conscious of an “otherness” in the clergy, someone in front of whom you could not be your ordinary earthy self. That has gone.

The problem now is that of irrelevance, ignorance of the Church, and militant secularism. The automatic “C of E” on the Census form, and the parish church as the assumed venue for weddings and funerals no longer apply; the vicar with a large parish goes largely unrecognised in it. But an energetic man or woman in a clerical collar who good-naturedly goes in for fun and demanding activities in a good cause earns respect.

And people of the parishes have not been outdone. Enormous numbers of activities to involve children and young people have passed through my inbox. Holiday clubs, drop-in centres, exhibitions of local memorabilia or the work of local artists, flower festivals, dramas, concerts, competitions, and pilgrimages are all signs of a lively parish. To imaginative ideas for sponsorship to raise money for needy causes there is no end.

A growing number of volunteers have set up shops and post offices in their parish church when the village shop has closed. The feeding of the five thousand was emulated by 30 people buttering and filling a thousand bread rolls to distribute round a housing estate, together with free entry tickets to a prize draw of Christmas hampers. A dozen teenagers spent 24 exhausting hours on a bouncy castle in church to raise money for charity.

Even an eight-year-old on her own initiative wrote to all the children in her school to say she felt lonely in church, and Sunday school was fun. She brought 18 new children into church for Mothering Sunday.

 

RECOGNISING all this scope for community involvement has led more and more churches to realise that they must have the facilities to welcome people on to their premises. I have had scores of press releases about congregations working hard to install adequate kitchens, lavatories, and extra meeting rooms to address these needs.

Even the Editor began to suggest we had enough “new loo” stories with pictures of people sitting on loos, or children with loo seats round their necks. I have been regularly amazed at the huge amounts of money (including grants) which congregations have raised, not only to keep their buildings in good repair, but to enlarge and improve them for community good.

 

MOST of the cathedrals, and the bishops themselves, are equally imaginative in reaching out to people and showing their human face.

All-night raves for teenagers, sponsored sleep-outs to raise money for the homeless, troops of schoolchildren dressing up as monks and nuns to learn about the religious life, taking part in craft workshops, or measuring everything in sight to improve their maths. Bishops blessing tractors, wearing hard hats on building sites, leading pilgrimages to meet the maximum number of people in their diocese. . . All these are good news stories that show a church alive and vigorous, and are modern interpretations of the gospel stories.

This does not mean that every child, teenager, and adult involved in these activities quickly becomes a believing Christian and the member of a congregation; nor should we expect it. Jesus preached to thousands, but it was still just a few who committed themselves to following where he led.

But one can believe that many more were touched by what he said to be slightly better people. It is the Church being the salt in society or — perhaps more appropriately to the present day — the sweetness; for behind these activities is genuine altruistic caring for all manner of men, women, and children, whether earthquake victims in Nepal, refugees in Syria, the elderly and lonely, or children in the local primary school.

It all demonstrates a way of life other than that of self-obsession and greed.

 

THE constant mantra in the national media about “dwindling congregations” (so dear to secular editors’ hearts) is not helped by the Church’s own statistics. These record the widespread abandonment of the Church of England by people who were only nominal members in the first place.

And, yes, there are a lot of grey heads in the average congregation: people who grew up when church-going was more of a social norm, and before the huge changes in social attitudes in the ’60s and ’70s, when so many babies were chucked out with the bathwater.

But that is not the only reason. Later life can bring a new seriousness about the deeper purposes of our existence. Many people, as they grow older, come back to church looking for meaning as well as for companionship.

Nor are the statistics good at taking account of all the activities that go on in churches during the week. Too often the only people who get counted are those who arrive regularly for conventional services.

Not included are the “mums-and-toddlers” morning gatherings, the weekly lunch clubs for elderly and lonely people, and the school services and activities that enable children to feel at home in a church building and begin to understand what it is for.

It is easy to deplore the way in which teenagers, students, and young people at the beginning of their independent lives seem lost to the Church. But, when they are given a grounding, I have found it noticeable how many will come again when they have children of their own.

And that brings me to the problems of Sunday mornings, which, for many families, have many other pressures. Almost every child who plays any sort of out-of-school sport tends to have fixtures on Sunday mornings.

Saturdays being given up to shopping, weekly chores, and extra-curricular classes, Sunday is often the only day of the week when families can have a day out together, whether visiting grandparents or enjoying a fine day in the country.

So, absence from the Sunday morning congregation does not mean abandonment — simply that the Church has to make concessions to the modern way of living.

 

ONE other remarkable trend I have noticed and recorded on the Real Life pages is the increasing demand for chaplains, especially to give pastoral care to people doing demanding and sometimes traumatic jobs. Police forces and fire services in particular have been asking for their own chaplains — to get to know their people and to be on hand when they have had to face particularly gruelling situations.

But sports teams and airports also ask for them, and shopping centres welcome them. It may not be overtly spiritual help or teaching that they want, but there is a recognition that the Church has kindness, compassion, and a deeper understanding of the human condition, and that its clergy are willing to talk on a level not often found among contemporaries. And that is very much the business of the gospel.

 

ALL this miscellaneous activity leaves me optimistic about the future of the Church of England. For all its practical good work of foodbanks, care for the homeless, homework clubs, computer classes for unemployed people, and endless fund-raising to help the needy of the world, we know there is the more hidden side of prayer and deep faith which gives the strength, impetus, and sensitivity to carry on.

It used to be fashionable to liken the Church to a fried egg: the yolk of the committed faithful and the sprawling white of the more loosely involved.

But the white of an egg is part of the whole, nevertheless, and contains half of its goodness. The wider Church, I am convinced, is just as much the Church of England and the committed faithful.

The picture the media give of modern society is of individualism, consumerism, and the overriding importance of “me”. Its aspirations are for a rich and glossy lifestyle devoted to self-improvement: a perfect body (“Are you ready for the beach?”), perfect children, and this season’s fashion in clothes — while the style pages offer as “must haves” the latest in bathroom and kitchen fittings.

The constant pressure is for more and better for oneself and one’s family. Few of us are unaffected.

The Church runs counter to this. It, alone among all associations, brings together as equals people of all ages and backgrounds — to work and play and pray together for the common good.

I have never regarded myself as a very spiritual person. Awareness of God and the vein of agnosticism are always in tension. But I believe profoundly in what Jesus came to teach us about living with each other.

Among all the self-absorption and materialism, the Church stands for empathy, compassion, and seeking the other’s good — if necessary at the expense of oneself. It always requires a degree of self-discipline and devotion, and often self-sacrifice.

It is a life of salt and sweetness, just as the Church is called to be both the salt and the sweetness, the kindness and gentleness, in society.

 

Margaret Duggan has contributed to the Church Times for more than 50 years. Although the Real Life page has ended, she will continue as an occasional contributor.

 

Introducing . . . Focus

 

THE latter years of the Real Life page have been marked by a great improvement in the quality of the photos sent in by readers. The frustration is that we have not had the space to display these properly.

Focus is the successor to Real Life. We invite readers to submit photographs of parish activities for publication on our regular Focus page.

A few pointers:

  • Images can be emailed to focus@churchtimes.co.uk, but please send the pictures as attachments or in Dropbox (or similar), i.e. not embedded in the text of emails.
  • They must be reasonably high-res: 1-3MB is ideal (though we can cope with smaller, say 400KB).
  • You must obtain permission from the parents of any children shown in a photo.
  • If you think it’s a newsy photo, we need it quickly. (We might then hold on to it for a while, but who said life was fair?)
  • If there’s a story involved, give us the facts and anything colourful about it — though remember: this will be for a caption, not a long story.
  • We will favour photos that tell a story, but we’re always susceptible to something with a visual impact.
  • We like to credit every photo; so we need the photographer’s name. Also the names of the people who appear in the photo (within reason — not if it’s the whole congregation).
  • We also need contact details, ideally a mobile-phone number, in order to check things.
  • Line-ups: however interesting the people, lining them up doesn’t make the most interesting photo.
  • Time in the CT office is always short; so links to online galleries of scores of photos might not get the attention they deserve. Better for you to select three or four of the best shots.

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