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Opinion >

O come, all ye (occasionally) faithful

Research suggests that those who attend only carol services have distinctive needs, says David Walker

ARNAUD STEPHENSON/ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL

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More inclusive of all sorts: members of the con­gregation at a carol service in St Paul’s Cathedral in December 2013

Credit: ARNAUD STEPHENSON/ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL

More inclusive of all sorts: members of the con­gregation at a carol service in St Paul’s Cathedral in December 2013

IT IS that time of year when church doors are flung wide to welcome both familiar faces, and those who are, shall we say, less frequent in crossing our thresholds. Special acts of worship, from carol services to Christingles, pack our pews.

But who are these people joining us in Advent, whom we don’t see through the rest of year? They might be “cultural Christians”, devoid of faith, drawn by a mixture of nostalgia and aesthetics; but there might be something deeper stirring within them. This could be an opportunity for mission.

There has always been a type of mission that ignores context, and simply struts its stuff. It is best illustrated by those who stand in city-centre streets, clutching microphones and tracts, and harangue shoppers and commuters with their favourite Bible verses.

The nearest I have seen to any attempt at engaging with the concerns of the intended audience was probably the man who for years stood outside Old Trafford cricket ground on match days, his placard sporting the message “Don’t let the devil catch you out.”

Yet, although such examples are easy to decry, I am not convinced that we are improving on them much if we present our message to our Christmas visitors without a serious attempt to understand them and why they have come.

 

UNDERSTANDING what people believe, how their beliefs influence their lives, and the ways in which they seek to practise their religion is an increasingly important field of theology. It goes well beyond its sociological roots in order to build on the theological premise that individual human differences are part of God’s design of his creation. The rich diversity that we encompass is an asset, not a problem.

So, in research that I undertook recently, I set out to see what I could discover in that context about people who join us at Christmas. Are they just like us regular churchgoers, but rather less committed in their faith; or is there something distinct about them that should help to frame and form what we offer when they visit? With the help of the Chapters, staff, and volunteers of Worcester and Lichfield Cathedrals, it proved possible to capture the responses of more than 1150 churchgoers.

A good number of them are people with a regular churchgoing commitment, but 40 per cent of those questioned confessed that they came along to any church service, anywhere, on only a handful of times a year, at most; another 15 per cent said that they attended less than monthly.

The occasional churchgoers split roughly equally between those who had never had significant church involvement, and those who had moved away from more regular churchgoing.

Only one third claimed to belong to the cathedral congregation. Compared with a typical Sunday congregation, the carol services attracted a range of ages much more in line with the general population, and, although there were a few more women than men, the difference was not as pronounced.

The music was clearly an attraction, besides the chance to be reminded of the Christmas story, but it was striking that three-quarters, including a large proportion of the occasional visitors, put worshipping God as one of their motivations. Almost as many expected to feel close to God in the service.

Coming to carols is not a solitary experience, and only a quarter were unaware of the people around them. Nor is it passive: three-quarters like services that get the congregation involved. For 62 per cent, it is also about finding the true meaning of Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the congregations were looking for tradition to outweigh innovation.

Typically, two-thirds positively believed in specific details of the Christmas story: the shepherds, stable, and Wise Men. All but a tiny proportion of the rest were unsure. Only 13 per cent, however, felt that the facts were more important than the mystery. Half felt closer to God at Christmas, and yet more thought Easter to be, for them, the more important festival.

They were noticeably pluralist: they were far more likely to agree that all world faiths lead to God than that Christianity is the only true religion. That Jesus turned water into wine was much more popular than the literal truth of the Genesis creation account, and only nine per cent considered the Bible to be free of error.

On moral issues they were progressive: only 28 per cent disagreed with ordaining gay men as bishops (the survey predated the 2014 Synod vote opening episcopal posts to women). Meanwhile, they strongly supported church schools, the public engagement of the Church, and thought that Christianity should have a “special status” in Britain.

 

EVEN among Church Times readers, there will be a few Christians who see this description of occasional churchgoers and take the view that their “light-touch” hold on doctrine and practice serves, if anything, as a perversion of, or vaccination against, true belief. But would it be better if they had no faith at all?

Against that, I think the carol-service survey has found both people who might be open to more regular churchgoing, if it met their spiritual needs, and people who will never become ones who attend church reguarly, but whose faith and practice need to be encouraged. This might suggest what a carol service, or any other event that brings in occasional churchgoers, should look like.

The natural human inclination is to assume that what I like, if it is done really well, is what other people would like, too. My research tells me that this would be a disaster. Occasional churchgoers are different, and they need something different to bolster their faith.

Here are some ideas:

 

• Don’t update the words of well-known carols to fit your theology. Stick with versions that people will remember from way back, and that resonate with a faith that may once have been firmer.

• Be imaginative. Use poetry, prose, and art. Decorate the church distinctively, and allow people to hold and light candles. Appeal to the range of worshippers’ senses.

• Remember that the aim is not to mimic the form of a normal Sunday service, but to produce something distinctive and obviously unique.

• If there is to be a sermon (and at carol services, it really is not a good idea), let its words be directed to unfold the mystery, drawing worshippers into it, and thus closer to God. Do not attempt to expound doctrine, or teach your parish’s views on some theological controversy.

• Welcome people, but respect their personal space. They have come to be with God, and with those accompanying them, not to be made to shake hands with strangers. Exchanging the Peace is for another occasion.

• Mention other special events coming up in the calendar. Give out a leaflet with details of them. But go softly on plugging the regular services too strongly; you do not want to convey a sense of expectation that they “ought” to come to these.

 

This Christmas, as at every Christmas, we will be opening our doors to the slightly familiar faces of those who occasionally come to church. My plea is that we try to understand them better, and thus be a little more informed and hospitable to their needs. Who knows? They may come back again.

 

The Rt Revd David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester.

He has written a chapter, “Cathedral carol services: who attends them and why”, in Anglican Cathedrals in Modern Life, edited by Leslie Francis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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