Thursday, 16 September 2010

Why do people expect churches to be run to suit themselves?

We had Church Council the other night. One very persistent member, yet again, came up with her bright idea of having an earlier service; she'd like it to be at ten rather than eleven. She likes getting up in the morning. The only person supporting it is her friend; two elderly white ladies in a mostly black church, with a long record of deafness towards everyone but themselves. Unfortunately, church people don't like saying 'no'; it's not considered acceptable to be awkward or get into conflicts, and most people are extremely passive. They accept whatever the leadership says, vote the way they're told, and leave if they don't like it. In some churches, it's considered morally wrong to oppose the leadership. So the ball's landed in my court; we agreed to have a discussion on Sunday. The only other assertive member we have is in Jamaica, where she's preparing to retire.

Looking round, the overwhelming majority of churches in the West Midlands have an 11 o'clock service. They do so because it's been found to be the most acceptable compromise. There are three churches in our circuit which have an earlier service; all three have been haemorrhaging members for the twenty-odd years I've been in Birmingham. One is on the point of collapse, one is in serious trouble, and the other is just about managing on the back of the fact that it started out with a large membership. We're the great exception; we've got twice the membership we had twenty years ago. We have to be getting something right, yet we're being asked to jeopardise it, when we already have people who struggle to get there for eleven.

Everything I've seen, in Cornwall as well as Birmingham, tells me that this is a common pattern. Persistent individuals find it easy to get into office, since churches, like all voluntary groups, are always short of people to do jobs. Then they use that to get their own way. People may not like what they're doing, but they don't like to be awkward. They start to drift away; other people who might have become members go somewhere else. The church is on the slippery slope, and it's the devil's own job to get off it again.

Yet the church isn't here for the benefit of its leaders; it isn't even here for that of its members. It's a community which is called into being to carry out a mission; to spread the Good News, however we're going to interpret that. As Archbishop Temple said, it's the only organisation which exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members. I'd put it differently; we're here for the benefit of those who will never be our members, but may yet come to find God in other ways, if they haven't done so already. One of the community groups which uses the premises on a regular basis includes a large proportion of Muslims, but we don't have an issue with that.

So why is it that, so often, the church loses sight of its mission, allows a minority to arrange things for their own benefit, and fades away rather than face up to the fact that it's become dysfunctional?

We had a comparable situation some years ago; a minister with nothing in common with us, and a bad case of glue ear, tried to get us to sell some land we lease to the National Childrens’ Homes. It’s on a 99-year lease, with a stupid clause written into the contract to say the rent can only be re-assessed every 33 years. Unfortunately, that’s where the Methodist Church was in the 1960’s; I’ve heard even worse stories. They’d had it on a peppercorn rent for many years, and the rent was due to be reassessed in 2001. We were on the receiving end of an attempt to pressurise us into selling the lease for a ‘generous’ fourteen thousand, while being denied professional advice. The leadership we had then had a long-standing policy of never saying no to a minister; this is the traditional way of getting power in Methodism. You get in the minister’s clique, and they nominate you to office. Our beloved minister brought this up in every Church council for two years, bringing everything else to a grinding halt, while everyone sat there in embarrassed silence. In the end, nobody could take any more. We got proper advice ourselves, and were told not to touch it with a bargepole. Our minister then tried to get Circuit Meeting to send it back to us again. I stopped it by jumping up and protesting, and gave everyone such a shock (nobody had done such a thing before) that we never heard another word. We’re now getting seven thousand a year for the lease, and until inflation starts up again, we’re one of the very few financially secure Methodist churches around.

We’ve discussed this idea of changing the time of the service twice in Church Council, and both times, everyone except me has sat there in silence. It’s got the same feel to it; it’s obvious nobody wants it, but those to whom the Spirit is speaking have no ears. We’ll have another discussion after the service on Sunday, and hopefully that’ll be the end of it. I suspect they won’t give up; they never do. But we can’t make the mistake of so many churches, start doing things to suit one or two people, and end up fading away like a Cheshire cat.

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