I’ve been a curate (mini-vicar) for 9 months now, and in that time have had the opportunity to plan and lead lots of services at my local church. I’ve led the singing, led the prayers, preached the sermon, given out the notices, everything short of leading the Communion part (which I’ll be able to do from this July). All this has brought me to the shocking discovery that I actually prefer going to church and being church when I’ve got a focal role.
Before you discount me as an arrogant so-and-so (which I probably am) and the type of clergyperson who too much loves the sound of his own voice (again, arguably true), wait. I think I might be on to something, and thinking through this revelation has actually caused me to reflect more deeply about what church is and how I might better lead my church in the future.
True, for me, being centre stage and an active participant in worship has always given me a greater sense of belonging and a greater attention to God’s presence in the middle of any church gathering. Ever since I acted in the nativity play, or was asked to read the Bible as a Cub Scout at Church Parade, I’ve gained immense value from being involved. Encouraging others to ‘get involved’ has been a theme running through my adult life, at college drama society, work, theological college, etc. The more people are stuck in to something, the better it is, has been my experience. Yet, that’s often not the way things happen at church. A handful of people do the things up the front, and everyone else takes part from the pews, as passive or as enthusiastic as they might wish to be.
The high point of most services in my church, to which the rest of our worship builds, is the Holy Communion. Even the word communion implies that we’re all invited, all together, all invested, all breaking bread with one another. And yet, the way it’s done can often feel top-down, hierarchical, distant.
We leave our seats, head in a crocodile line to the furthest away part of the church building, kneel (how often do we kneel for anything?) to receive something vaguely reminiscent of bread, and drink wine from the kind of cup very few of us have at home. I get why we do that from a ‘making it special’ point of view, but I wonder if it sometimes makes the whole experience so unfamiliar that we lose the sense of being together enjoying a meal.
This Easter Sunday, my incumbent (proper vicar) decided to share the communion meal around a normal looking table, placed down the middle of the church aisle. It had a tablecloth and plastic cups and decorations and mini eggs. Though it felt a bit awkward and unusual for church at first, it did feel like an act of togetherness as we passed the loaf of bread around, taking off a chunk each and the cups went back and forth until everyone had drunk. It was far more of a leveller, and an occasion I think people will remember for a long time.
I had planned that service, so I was up the front a lot. And for me, the preparation and planning had caused me to engage with the Bible, think about the resurrection, pray to God a lot and choose worship songs that I knew would resonate with my heart. My discovery is, that if that’s how I find church helpful and enriching, but it’s only me that gets to go through that journey, then how can I help others to own the experience for themselves? Conversely, I feel challenged to get more voices to be heard up the front, get more people involved in the planning and preparing and leading, move the congregation from passivity to participation and share the limelight a darn sight more. Since the light of Christ has been placed in the church (and not solely in the clergy), the words of John the Baptist seem appropriate: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
ELIS MATTHEWS: When Elis was six, he told his teacher he wanted to be a waiter ‘so I can eat all the left over food’. Sadly, this ambition was never realised, and he is now a curate in the Church of England, where his weekly duties include running a school choir, writing sermons and praying while walking. He is in cahoots with a wife called Sheila, a son called Barnabas and a cat called Jasper. He doesn’t eat as many yoghurts as he would like. Elis can be found tweeting @elismatthews