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Now that I am a sampling stranger . . .

by
25 September 2015

Congregations could do more to reach out to those who are new to their area, Ted Harrison suggests

istock

Newcomers: it can be hard to establish a balanced, friendly welcome

Newcomers: it can be hard to establish a balanced, friendly welcome

MOVING house involves so much more than simply changing address. It often means saying goodbye to friends and familiar places. It can involve practical arrangements — new doctors, dentists, schools, and jobs.

For churchgoers, there is the challenge of finding a congregation to join. It used to be that one went to the nearest, the local, parish church. Today, in the age of the car and group ministries, you have more choice.

My wife and I recently moved from Kent to live near to her family home on the Welsh coast. We have sized up the medical practices and been accepted by our first choice. We have worked out where to shop and joined the library. But, as yet, we have not found a new church to call home.

It has been fun being unattached, and I have much enjoyed road-testing what is on offer. I have joined small congregations of ageing worshippers who have appeared amazed to see a new face. “Are you on holiday?” I have been asked several times.

I have prayed in English and Welsh. I have sung to the accompaniment of organ, and guitar, and drums — although not, I should add, at the same time. My experience has ranged from traditional Anglican to what I can only describe as HTB-on-Sea.

 

ANALYSIS of the statistics of Anglican church attendance suggests that one of the significant causes of overall decline is population movement. People leave one church where they have been faithful members of the congregation for several years, but fail to join one near their new home. My current situation is helping me understand some of the reasons behind this.

First, in the upheaval and stress of moving, finding a new church can slip down the list of “important things to do”. After several months of not going to church, I can understand how some people can get out of the habit. Rather than lose faith, they discover that their faith can survive without their being a member of a group of like-minded others.

I imagine, also, that former office-holders, who, for years, have raised money, gone to meetings, and fixed leaking church gutters might wish to avoid responsibilities.

Second, the social setting has to feel welcoming, warm, and comfortable. Some people find it difficult to enter a new setting: to walk through a church door for the first time on a Sunday morning, and to deal with the well-meaning smiles and questions.

There has to be a balanced, friendly approach from the congregation. Parishes could, I believe, refer churchgoers from one congregation to another, so that the shy newcomer will be welcomed appropriately.

Third, the personality of the celebrant or worship-leader can make or break a newcomer. So much depends on first impressions. Parish priests come in all styles — the garrulous, the taciturn, the aloof, the over-friendly. The public face may be very different from the private man or woman, but that initial encounter sets the tone.

Fourth, every church has its particular style and nuances. No matter how familiar the liturgy, hymns, and gospel message are, in a different surrounding and tradition, it must all appear strange to anyone new to that particular church, and a new world to anyone from outside the faith.

In the past few months, I have discovered things that I had not noticed before. I have found new depths and insights into the words I have so often heard, recited, or sung, Sunday by Sunday. I have been led to reflect on nuances I had mostly forgotten or overlooked. Yet, everywhere I have been, I have come across a Christian “in-speak” that must seem like gobbledegook to outsiders.

 

I HAVE noticed, too, that within the embrace of Anglicanism there is an astonishing variety, not only of worship style, but also of theological emphasis. At one service, in which I heard a great deal of “me-centred” theology about Jesus’s being my personal saviour, we did not once pray for anyone outside the walls of the church. At another church, a rather plain, dare I say dull, service was lifted by the most moving and outward-looking intercessions, led by a member of the congregation.

I am using my time as an Anglican free agent to stand back and look at faith afresh. I might sample the Methodists, the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholics, the URC. . . Who knows?

Sooner or later, I am sure I shall slip back into old regular habits. I will find an Anglican congregation that shares my outlook and preferences and suits my temperament. I will form new friendships, build new loyalties, discover a new comfort zone — although, for the time being, I will not be volunteering to join any committees.

 

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.

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