Bishop of Lichfield: Occasional church-goers are not hypocrites

The Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill

The Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill

The Bishop of Lichfield has insisted occasional church-goers are not hypocrites.

The comments from the Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill came in a pastoral letter published in various parish magazines.

In his letter he also accused “the metropolitan pundits in the broad sheets who constantly sneer at organised religion” as being “out of touch with the deep spiritual desires of most people in our nation”.  And he said the demise of services such as Matins in favour of services of Holy Communion risked turning some churches into an “exclusive sect”.

He continued:

“Thirty eight million people go each year to a Church of England funeral service, according to the statisticians.  Millions more come to weddings and baptisms.  Research by the Church of England ‘Marriage Project’, which is coming to our diocese as soon as possible, shows that the majority of English people want God to bless them and their families.

“When people come to us with their spiritual needs and desires we often don’t know what to do with them and sometimes send them away with a flea in their ear.  We are quite good at making them feel hypocritical if they want a church wedding or a christening; almost always they want to be serious in making their promises but we don’t quite hear them. They don’t know how to put their spiritual experiences into our Christian language and so we dismiss their awkward or embarrassed attempts to say what they want.  And then weddings are inconvenient because they disrupt our cricket and Saturday sermon preparation!”

The Bishop of Lichfield also explained that some church-goers suffered commitment issues when it came to religion.

He explained:

“All the evidence shows that most people are far from hostile to the church; they are just not in a position to respond to an ‘all or nothing’ commitment straight away.  Adults who become Christians almost always do it in stages.  They need to know Christians they can trust who will accompany them on a journey of faith, marked by several steps of commitment on the way.  The man who said, ‘I’m a regular churchgoer, vicar, I come each Christmas,’ was not just being flip.  Underneath the joke was a serious desire to have God in his life.” 

The Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill also said most parishes work hard at building up a fringe of people who are “not yet Christians” and cited parents and toddlers clubs, after-school clubs, hospitality events and open days as ways in which the churches can provide space for those on the margins of church life; but he warned that thousands of children who want to join uniformed organisations attached to churches are being turned away because of a shortage of leaders.

 He added:

“A vicar from another diocese said to me recently that mission for him was getting the Sunday morning Eucharist right.  I know what he means.  Wesley said from his own experience that the Holy Communion was a converting ordinance.  But in practice, whatever our style or tradition of Sunday service, we have turned in ourselves, concentrated on the detail, and made our ‘fringe’ much smaller because our main services are less accessible.

“When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount he made sure that the crowds were in earshot as well as the committed disciples.  The demise of matins has left a gap where the civic guests or the seeker after truth or the six times a year person used to feel welcome.  If we are going to go on calling ourselves ‘parish churches’ we have a duty to wrestle creatively with this gap we have created and find a way of filling it. 

 “The parish communion movement was not meant to make us into an exclusive sect but in some places that is the unintended consequence.  It need not be so. Thousands of anecdotes tell us that undemanding friendship can help people see that the spiritual longings which they don’t know how to verbalize can be met in Jesus Christ.”

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