“LIFE events” — the occasional offices such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals — are the bread and butter of parish ministry, “an opportunity for loving service to those with little or no connection to the church at all”, the Bishop of Monmouth, the Rt Revd Cherry Vann, told the Church in Wales’s Governing Body on Monday.
She was introducing a presentation by the C of E’s head of life events, Canon Sandra Millar, on the new Building Bridges resources that will be circulated to the Church in Wales’s clergy this autumn. The project includes a roadshow that will travel round all the dioceses in November.
This reflected the outward focus of the Church in Wales, Canon Millar said, “an opportunity to talk about things that really matter . . . an opportunity to meet God’s people. Life events are the bedrock of ministry. They are rooted in the idea that God is a generous, prodigal God. They contribute to the common good, to family life across all the generations.”
Statistics showed that, over a five-year period, more than half the population in England had attended a life-events service, including those who had organised it. It made them feel “warm and connected with the Church”. Sixty-five per cent of people expected that “the Church would be there for them at life’s big moments, especially the loss of someone they loved. ‘They will be there. That’s what they do.’”
She acknowledged that, in a dynamic culture, there had been an increase of choice for people with regard to weddings and funerals, and that would continue to escalate. There was a perception to be overcome that “the Church tells you what you can have”: a “one-size-fits-all” approach. There was also an issue of self- exclusion, in that people felt that they were “not good enough to ask the Church to be there for them”.
“People want to contribute to the shaping of the service we offer,” she said, commending the good relationships that some churches had had with wedding couples during the pandemic, enabling some ceremonies to be organised at three days’ notice.
Research about the day itself had shown that people still wanted something that felt “significant and special”, that made them feel cherished and loved. One comment in the funerals research was: “Priest and lovely people, but they’ve got to lighten up a bit.”
“The good news is that expectations of church are so low that anything warm we do raises the bar,” Canon Millar said. “We often worry most about the words we use on the day, but, for those who come, the words are not the thing they go away with. It is the warmth and engagement, the way we do things.”
What happened after the service in the days to come was most important, she said: keeping in touch with a child who had been baptised, for instance, by giving a card when the child was going to secondary school which said: “We’re praying for you today.”
In the light of widening choices, the Church was taking fewer funerals, but that did not mean that there were fewer people grieving. “The pandemic has shown how important our spaces are for reflection — outdoors, with prayer trees, a cairn in the churchyard, a bench, a thinking seat . . . and indoors, too — how many people light candles.” Most prayer requests left in churches were about loss and grief, and the death of a public figure “stirs up our own personal grief”.
Research showed that 56,000 people had sought out a church in a single year, and 86,000 had had contact in a wider context, said the Revd Chris Burr, tutor in ministerial studies at St Padarn’s Institute, and the Church in Wales’s lead on life events.
The new range of resources — in both English and Welsh — was designed to help ministers and practitioners with life events. There was everything from invitations to the reading of a wedding couple’s banns to prayer cards in the pews. Video resources and online help (some 120 pages) were also “a window for the unchurched on who we are and what we stand for”.
Mr Burr hoped that churches in Wales would welcome the resources, and that they would help to inspire new and innovative ways to build on the work that was already taking place. Life events had to be “at the very heart of ministry and mission”.