A Church for Everyone

Statistics tell us that the Church and more specifically the Church of England is living through a period of decline, much to the delight of her many detractors both n the media and  society as a whole! We are told by the ‘high ups’ in the Church that we can expect 30 years of falling numbers in our congregations, then it will suddenly get better, which is not much help to me or St. Augustine’s Aldershot, your parish church! Though the Archbishop’s Council remain optimistic about the future, quite a few of us at the grass roots are seriously worried!  No wonder priests and parishes are being urged to make greater efforts to evangelise and reach out to people and so get more people into church. To lead us into growth, our Diocese, Guildford, has launched a new initiative, ’Transforming Church, Tranforming Lives’ , its ten goals aimed at drawing new people into our churches. It’s all made to sound very easy, but translating these goals into a realistic plan in a parish like St. Augustine’s, North Town, is not easy. After all what is the Church here for, and here there seems to be two schools of thought, those who see the Church of England as the Church to the Nation and those who see it as a ’members only’ church, showing little enthusiasm for maintaining the parochial system which, has for centuries, been the glory of the Church of England- with every community having its own parish church and its own parish priest or Vicar. As you would expect after nearly forty years  as a priest, I am  of the ’old school’ of thought, and very much see the  Church  as being here for everyone. For generations the Church has baptised, married and buried parishioners, the ‘occasional offices’ of the Church, available not just to those who regularly worship at church on a Sunday, but all parishioners. All  those christenings, weddings and funerals, an important means by which, in the past,  parish priests not only  got to know the people in their parish but also became involved in their daily lives—the model of the shepherd who knows the flock!  Sadly at a time when people are turning away from the church, those with a ’new’ vision for the church, seem to have forgotten the importance of this kind of ministry. A younger generation is growing up without the knowledge that the Church is  here for them! How many times now do I hear of people being offered a ’civil celebrant’ to conduct a funeral from the parish on the basis that ’Mum wasn’t very religious’; how many funerals have I conducted over the years where that has been the case, and together we have made sure that ‘Mum’ got the kind of ‘send off’ she deserved, along with all her favourite songs! All those families I have ministered to and who have become friends! There is something special too about the youngsters who I baptized twentyfive years ago, now turning up at the Vicarage asking me to baptize their new babies! Yes I know sometimes the Church doesn’t make it easy, clergy who don’t return calls, those who seem to make it as difficult as possible to get a baby baptized, those who won’t give people a second chance to marry in church—suffice it to say, here at St. Augustine’s  we try  to offer ministry to everyone, without unnecessary hurdles or hoops. A ministry that extends not only to local people but to local organizations and institutions such as Belle Vue School  and supports financially and materially, the work of places like ’The Vine’ and ‘Step by Step’ and the Women’s Refuge in our town.
Of course I know not everyone likes our Anglo– Catholic worship, and so use it as an excuse not to come to church on a Sunday; for me it’s the warmth of welcome and acceptance people receive that matters, not whether we happen to use incense! Certainly our tradition is no barrier to the 100’s of people who attend christenings or fill the church on Christmas Eve for the Children’s service. I firmly believe that many communities would be the ‘poorer’  if parish churches up and down the country were to go on experiencing further decline, and, in some places, where their ministry is most needed, just fade away all together!
As the celebration of  Holy Week and Easter approaches, I have in my mind a picture of that man, Jesus, who hangs on a cross with arms outstretched, symbol of the love God has for all humankind, and a constant reminder to me  that the Church, and particularly your Parish Church, is not just for ’the chosen few’ but for all of YOU out there!                                 

                        your friend and priest,  Father Keith