IT IS an abiding characteristic of the Church of England — perhaps of any “established” Church — to lag behind the Zeitgeist. Perhaps this is inevitable. The Church has to take its time in discerning the signs. When the pace of cultural change is as rapid as it seems to be in our world, it is well-nigh impossible to keep up.
There is a temptation here to panic, to look around for new things, and to want to be fresh and new all the time. In so doing, we can all too easily miss the things that were there all the time. I think that it was Dean Jeffrey John who remarked some years ago that we did not need “new ways of being church” (the cliché preceding “Fresh Expressions”): we needed, rather, to do the old ways better.
One of the more tiresome false opposites that some of us have had to endure from some episcopal lips is the exhortation to adopt a more “mission-shaped” than “pastoral” model of the Church. This has always seemed rather bizarre to those of us who have assumed that to be pastoral was to be mission-shaped. We do not talk about the Word of God: we incarnate it by who we are and what we do, most visibly through the sacraments and rituals of the Church.
It is good, therefore, that Sandra Millar has produced this book. Life Events looks anew at what is affectionately known as “hatching, matching, and dispatching”. Millar is Head of Life Events for the Archbishops’ Council (don’t let any of that job title put you off), and she has co-ordinated a great deal of research nationwide into the practices of, and the attitudes towards, the Church of England when it baptises, marries, and buries people. There is a section devoted to each of these.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the lack of reference to marriage between persons of the same sex. An introductory chapter discusses mission in these contexts, and some concluding remarks and suggestions for further reading include a helpful selection of material available online.
This book is much more than a dry outline of survey results. There is a wealth of material for ministers to reflect upon, and many suggestions that put flesh on the bones of liturgies. Not all of it will appeal to everyone, but it is to be hoped that readers will be inspired to think for themselves.
What do we have here? First, the establishment of relationship is crucial: ritual comes alive when the minister knows the people involved, and vice versa.
Second, by the same token, the minister needs to know texts and structures that the Church provides, if only on occasion to depart from these. Grief and love need structure for coherence, and the minister is there to provide this.
Third, one must always be aware of prevailing stereotypes about the Church and its representatives (my first incumbent always told me that the Church should always be perceived to be saying “yes”, as all too often people expected us to say “no”).
Fourth, people approach the Church for a variety of reasons, not all of which are the “correct” ones. Get over it, and use the fact that they are there at all as an opportunity to inject a bit of God into the proceedings. (Don’t tie yourself up in knots over whether we should baptise babies when you have a church full of adults there to see little Johnny “done”, for example.) Use the opportunities.
Fifth, don’t give up. You may or may not see the fruits of your pastoral labours; that is of no consequence in God’s economy. You never know.
This is a timely book. A bit of me was sad that it was found necessary to write it in the first place: much of what it has to say used to be universally identified as “Anglican”. Most of me is glad that it was written, if only for those who no longer know, or do not care, what “Anglican” means.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest Vicar at Westminster Abbey.
Life Events: Mission and ministry at baptisms, weddings, and funerals
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