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Angela Tilby: Casual visitors to church are important

21 April 2023

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“THE Lord’s service, for the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s Day.” This phrase was a mantra in the 1960s and ’70s among those pressing for the centrality of the Sunday parish communion. Some felt so strongly that there should be one main service that they were prepared to suppress other forms of Sunday worship, including the “early service” that so many of the elderly perversely seemed to prefer.

What mattered was that the parish family were all together for worship, notices, coffee, chat, and the possible recruitment of newcomers to the flower rota. It was, of course, all about control: the minister in charge of an undivided congregation.

Post-pandemic, the drive to reduce and rationalise acts of worship remains in place, in spite of recent evidence that a reduction in the provision of services may be linked to reduced numbers returning to church (News, 3 April).

If this is true, it means thinking less about numbers and more about individuals. A church that opens only for its main Sunday service can feel club-like — even exclusive. In my recent experience, it has been all sorts of random events which have drawn individuals into church: being present at a well-done funeral; going to hear a children’s choir; wandering in and noticing that books or leaflets need tidying and feeling relaxed enough to offer to help.

Where churches can stay open during daylight hours, people will find them, go in, explore, and sometimes offer a prayer or light a candle. Welcome is important, but some are not ready to be noticed, and some, for perfectly legitimate reasons, are not ready to meet people, though they may be more than ready to encounter God. It is an important act of faith to make church interiors quiet and inviting, not warehouses for church clutter or self-advertisement.

The great advantage of online services during the pandemic was that they enabled people with no church connection to be “inside” a church without commitment, so that if and when they ever found the courage to walk through the door, the space, at least, was familiar, and perhaps some of the faces. For those with the resources to maintain it, online worship is worth the hassle and the investment.

The point is that offering low-key opportunities to individuals to find spiritual peace could pay off in the long term more than we might imagine.

For too long, the Church of England has dismissed the importance of casual churchgoing. In the Established Church, the right to worship — or just to be present in a church building with or without commitment — should be a given. It is not for the Church to make barriers. Confidence in the Easter gospel suggests that, when we let the angels roll away the stone, all kinds of unexpected things may happen.

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