Sunday, 17 February 2019

10. St Gregory, Offchurch. February 17, 2019

Many years ago, almost in a completely different life, I used to play cricket in Offchurch and the pub was a regular target for walks over the fields from Leamington. I always thought the village church looked quintessentially English and - about 35 years later - I finally get round to opening the door and going in. Hardly impulsive then.

It’s a beautiful spring morning despite it being February. There are daffodils and a carpet of crocuses in the graveyard and the low sun is giving a splendid warmth to the stonework. Perhaps as I get older I notice the passing seasons all the more but I think I can be excused for detecting a sense of renewal in the air. It’s a theme which stays with us all morning.

St Gregory’s is a wonderfully traditional church. There’s a very promising organ and some fine stained glass windows spectacularly backlit by the sun. There’s also the welcome (and increasingly rare) sight of a very visible team of bell-ringers calling the village from its Sunday slumbers. But I’m here on a far-from-traditional weekend. Today’s gathering is a family service and the emphasis is entirely on young people.

In addition to the vicar, a number of people report on what the church has been doing to provide something for teenagers, a gap which clearly needs filling. And we even hear from some young worshippers contributing thoughts and poems. A recent activities weekend gets the big screen treatment - plenty of the kind of rope-climbing, abseiling and obstacle-negotiating which used to be called Outward Bound but is now team development or personal challenge. Those who went also provide the commentary and it’s clear that their enjoyment is matched by the pride the congregation has in them. 

The service part of proceedings is kept very short. A handful of very brief songs, a few prayers and responses and very little else. But it obviously works. There’s a decent turnout this morning - running out of service books is always a good sign - and most choose to stay to chat afterwards. It’s a healthy community.

I’m welcomed by a few people and I have a nice chat with a woman who also acts as a lay chaplain at Warwick Hospital’s chaplaincy, and the vicar Hugh. 

The seasons advancing irrevocably as they do, we’re all aware of the need for churches to attract young people and - crucially - encourage them to stay. Perhaps services like this, and the thrills of going out on camps is the way. But I have slight concerns. I find myself wondering if these sought-after churchgoers of tomorrow really need something different, something tailored to them. 

As a music fan I have long been sceptical of classical concerts designed just for the young. Dress down, use a pally conductor, bung in the theme from Harry Potter - all well and good but are we trying to con them a little? Great music is great music no matter how much you sugar it up. It will either be for you or it won’t be. And perhaps the same is true of a supportive, vibrant church community. Perhaps the best advert for joining such a community is to see that community at its most effective. Seeing a full church is as good a statement of value and purpose as any.

But perhaps a little enticement helps. However the church goes about it, the confidant young worshippers who presented their experiences to this service should see the congregation in good stead for another generation. Particularly if they feel proud enough to bring a friend. I just wonder of any of them fancy becoming bell-ringers.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

9. Knight’s Meadow Church, Kenilworth. February 10, 2019

If last Sunday’s Greek church is a good example of people going where the church is, then this week’s visit represents something approaching the opposite. This is, in many ways, a case of the church going where the people are.

Knight’s Meadow has grown hugely even in the time I’ve lived in Kenilworth. And it’s set to get bigger still with more new homes planned. The current thinking on urban planning is to make developers factor in schools, shops, pubs, green spaces, maybe even a community centre - but not a church. So the thousands who live on this burgeoning side of town would find themselves a fair stroll from the nearest church if St John’s hadn’t come up with the idea of planting a church in the school.

It’s an idea which has now been filling a gap (and more) for 25 years. It feels every bit as established as the school which hosts it. At least one of those who made it happen all those years ago is still here and there is as great a sense of pride in this church and what it offers as in churches with a much more visible, solid presence.

Thankfully I know my way round this school quite well or I might find it hard to track down where we’re meeting. I’ve been to quite a few parents’ evenings here and decades ago I performed in a play on this stage. It’s an odd place to be especially on a Sunday morning when the rest of the site is locked up and empty. But the welcome is as warm as any I’ve received - nice to bump into people I know. 

This being the second Sunday of the month the church is holding its morning of activities (including making eve-of-Valentines gifts of sweets) and lunch. That means the usual school hall is filled with craft tables and preparation for lunch and so the short service is held down the corridor in one of the classrooms.

As small services go it’s hard to imagine anything smaller. Desks pushed back to allow a tight circle of plastic chairs. The only thing marking this gathering out from being a hastily-arranged school staff meeting is the simple wooden cross balanced on top of a stool around which we all sit. Fittingly the schoolwork displayed on the walls is from pupils’ explorations into different faiths. I wonder if 40 or more years from now any of them will be undertaking exactly that sort of exploration as I am now.

This morning’s ‘prayer and praise’ is given by a lay leader who alternates readings with prayers all on the subject of the many names of God. We have three short songs led by a member of the gathering but with no music to back it up. Not for the first time I’m struck by how the removal of all the familiar trappings of a service - the vestments, the decor, the music, the liturgy - shifts the emphasis back onto what’s actually said. It’s a very simple message about how being loved means you’re never left alone in this world. 

There’s no sermon as such, just an invitation to allow thoughts to dwell on the theme. There is a recording of a song to listen to, but working the Bluetooth speaker proves difficult and so we hear it on a phone held out for us. We’re probably not the first group of people to be found listening to music on a phone in this classroom but thankfully without the threat of confiscation.

Over a coffee in the school hall afterwards I get the chance to talk about this project and one comment made by Roger the former vicar of St John’s stays with me. He’s been round a few churches in his time and has taken great comfort at how much they have in common. That’s something I’m noticing too despite some outwardly different approaches.

In these politically-correct days of having to be transparently fair to all sides, it’s testament to the value of the work the church does that the school has never felt pressure to end the relationship. Proof that when there is a need or an opportunity and people can work together with vision and flexibility, good things can still happen.

As a postscript, while I’m back at home writing this entry, a gift of sweets plops through my door. I suspect Ken and Sue might be behind that and I’m very touched by such a kind gesture.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

8. Holy Transfiguration, Westwood Heath. February 3, 2019

The last time I was in a Greek church was, fairly inevitably, on holiday on one of the many Greek islands we visited in the 1990s. I remember two among the many: One when we felt obliged to go in and part with some drachma after the oldest woman on the island struggled up the steep hill with the keys to let us in, another where I spent about an hour immersed in the evening intoning during a seemingly endless marking of a saint’s day. Then, the relative gloom and stonework of the church was a temporary haven from the heat, today it’s minus 4 and everyone’s wishing the heating was more effective.

Westwood Heath is, on the face of it, an unlikely place to find a fully-fledged Greek church. But, as Spike Milligan once observed, everybody has to be somewhere - so why not here? Outwardly The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Transfiguration is a modern church surrounded by upmarket edge-of-the-city newbuilds. Inside it is a stunning display of icons, screens, candles, lamps and wood. Once the incense has been generously sprinkled from one end of the building to the other, it’s hard not to imagine yourself somewhere a lot warmer and more exotic.

Father Theodoros Polyviou - who must at some stage of his life have looked in the mirror and decided that if he looked that much like a Greek priest, he may as well become one - arrives in the car park at the same time I do. He’s very welcoming and invites me to sit in while he prepares for the service. This visit is really three services in one. Matins, the orthodox liturgy and communion and finally a more intimate family blessing of sorts.

And so the morning begins. Most of the service is intoned. Only a very few things are said - most notably when Fr Theodoros kindly switches to English. It’s hard to say when Matins actually starts, it just seems to drift in. But when it does start there’s only four of us in the building - priest, two deacons (I’m making a guess here) and me.

The service is sung mainly by the very friendly female deacon while the other two busy themselves out of sight with preparations. Another man arrives just in time to kiss the icons and take his place in the choir. Two more men then drift in to complete the trio. Walking across the stage to deliver bread or greet each other, chatting while someone else is singing, finding some hidden mints and offering them to your fellow intoners - it’s a very relaxed start here.

The same goes for those in the congregation. There are group discussions, children bickering and looking dangerous with candles, people coming in with food for the table - and while they’re not oblivious to the worship going on, there is a definite sense that it’s something to view rather than take part in. There’s very little by way of congregational prayers or responses. It’s a pleasingly relaxed attitude.

Three boys arrive and wander backstage to get ready just in time to come out carrying candles. I’m reminded of being in a taverna once where I swear they took our order ten minutes before the chef even turned up. It will all work out in the end. Fr Theodoros alluded in greeting me to things being conducted on ‘Greek time’. And how.

By the time we’ve segued seamlessly into the Communion service the place is filling up. Two dozen people have sauntered in, kissed the saints and taken their place. As the Gospel reading gives way to the breaking of bread, the number is approaching a hundred. I’m left with the feeling that this audience knows the play very well and has timed its entrance for the bit it likes best.

Once fully assembled though, it’s an impressive and clearly supportive community. Being so far from your homeland (and again I am aware I’m making a broad assumption) can create a very insular community more intent on clinging to its particular identity than in letting in the outside world.

But that’s not so here. As we put our coats on and prepare to head back out in the cold, Fr Theodoros reminds everyone of those in the city feeling the cold even worse than ourselves - addicts, the homeless, those with nothing. This church will be out on Coventry’s streets this week offering food, warm clothing and a supportive word. And he wants volunteers to shoulder the work. An ancient church perhaps, but one with a very current outlook.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

7. Leamington Life Community Church. January 27, 2019

The theory of crowd dynamics has always been an interesting one. Freud examined it, as have countless anthropologists and psychologists, and you can witness its effects in everything from muddy-field festivals to looting rioters. I first consciously experienced it on the North Bank at Arsenal when, in an outpouring I would never have dared to exhibit on my own, I found myself arms in the air proclaiming my love for Lee Dixon.

When like-minded people are doing it, and the mood of the moment encourages it, it seems even the most sedentary of souls can be roused to wondrous displays of rapture.

A snow-threatening grey morning in Leamington is just as unlikely a place as any to be caught up in the wave of euphoria, but the collective joy and emotion coming out of this Sunday service is astounding.

Leamington Life Community Church is small and full. Its single room is as plain as a church could be while still remaining a church; there’s no altar, no icons, no vestments, not even (from my seat at least) any cross. But there ARE people. All walks of life and all backgrounds. And they are all ready to give it up for the music, the moment, each other and the Lord.

There’s not just a welcome for me, there’s a welcome pack complete with water and tissues - energy and tears aplenty were in evidence although, perhaps fortunately, not mine.

The service starts with half an hour of pulsating rock-driven songs of praise from five very talented and very committed musicians. The words are on the wall and all around me the arms are going in the air. This is just like the anthemic portion of a full-scale stadium gig, and - not wishing to look like a junior Tory minister on a Commonwealth fact-finding mission - I join in. I’m not quite as overcome with abandonment as those around me - even the power of the Lord would struggle to wipe away fifty-seven years of English self-consciousness. My arms stay downish and I settle into the sort of rhythmic swaying beloved of backing singers at Pink Floyd shows. The music is hugely uplifting and the lyrics very simple, very affirming. All the best crowd songs are like this. Don’t bother teaching the crowd anything complex; keep the message brief, simple and repeat it over and over again. I can still hear them now as I write.

The service itself is positive in the extreme. The Life CC comes from the Pentecostal region of the religious spectrum. The emphasis is not so much on simply praising God (although that’s still a big element) as on experiencing God right here, right now. The lengthy preaching by a visiting Pastor from Somerset (surely God’s country if any existed) eventually works its way round to the central point that it’s God’s presence in this church on this morning that lifts the whole moment above it just being a cracking good gig and a chance to feel vaguely supportive. If God IS in the room today he’s got his work cut out to stay focussed such are the number of hugs, outbursts, prayers and the like aimed in his direction.

The Holy Spirit being metaphorically present in a bottle of oil, the whole congregation comes to the front to be anointed. After that there’s opportunity for anyone sick or troubled (or there on behalf of someone else who is) to come to the stage and feel the touch of God. Only a few of the older, more staid-looking onlookers decline and the scenes of openly emotional hugs and prayers are such that the welcome pack tissues suddenly make sense.

It would be easy to either become lost in this torrent or to be absolutely sidelined by it and resort to satire but one moment during the proceedings stands out for me, providing a perfectly earthy, practical reason for this church being so full. Pastor Dave urges those currently going through a tough time in their life to raise their hand. He then invites the rest of us to place a hand on the troubled soul nearest us while everybody prays or says what they wish by way of support. It’s not unlike the fairly limp handshake and ‘Peace be with you’ in standard communion, only this has real power both as a gesture and a feeling. Looking round the room it’s as if we’ve all formed into a human web with nobody left on their own. It’s impossible not to be moved by such a clear evocation of the wider family all churches profess to represent and it is equally clearly welcomed and valued by those receiving the support.

The sermon spoke of the need for the church to constantly rediscover its purpose. In making those at a low ebb believe there is something, someone manifestly there for them in this world AND from whatever heaven they believe will come, that purpose it about as evident as you could get.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

6. United Reformed Church, Warwick Road, Coventry. January 20, 2019

In common with local theatres, county cricket and Weston-super-Mare, almost all churches are faced by the constant problem of trying to attract more people while simultaneously battling to keep even the ones they have.
They all face their competing attractions whether that be television, an audience spending too much time at work or just the cost of getting around and the promise of better weather elsewhere. Providing a bit of unexpected variety is an obvious move; lowering ticket prices and offering a diet of crowd-pleasing fare might work. But it doesn’t always and there’s only so far you can stray into the realms of diversity before the core purpose is diluted or even lost.

This struggle to remain popular, in its truest sense, is something I recognised at the start of my wanderings and it’s a theme I’m sure will continue to crop up. It will be interesting to note where it is NOT a problem. I’m choosing where I visit partly through a bit of internet browsing. Most churches recognise the benefits of having an online presence and they all seem keen to emphasise the liveliness and vibrancy of the programme they offer. Smiling people of all ages and backgrounds are a constant feature of home page pictures. It’s akin to restaurants wanting to give the impression that you’ll be lucky to get in here, or event promoters hinting that tickets are selling fast.

Although I’d never been in, this is a church I’ve been familiar with for many years. During all the time spent in The Quadrant at the base of the Coventry Observer, the United Reformed Church was the view from my window. Perhaps that’s why I seem to be one of the few people who doesn’t make the mistake of calling it United Reform. It’s also a building I pass on my walk into the city centre every time I come to Coventry. At Easter and particularly in the cold, dark days before Christmas, members of the congregation could be seen huddled together in the porch singing carols to hunched, hurrying shoppers who largely ignored them. It was - quite literally - a thankless task and one, therefore, deserving of respect.

The welcome here is as warm as in any of my visits so far. I am coming round to the feeling that part of the reason for this welcoming is that I must stand out as someone they haven’t seen before. An element of novelty perhaps mixed in with the perfectly sincere church welcome. It also becomes apparent in snippets of overheard conversation, that some regulars took me to be some sort of inspector. I did make one note during the morning; I suppose that may have looked suspicious.

This morning it’s a family service, although it would be a struggle to recognise that from the 32 people making up today’s attendance, only two of whom are anywhere near the age you’d expect. Most of us are considerably older and, in common with many urban churches, not attending as part of a family, even as part of a couple I’d say. But there’s an air of joy in this congregation rather than a feeling of habit or resignation.

The fact that the service itself is broadly familiar makes the small differences all the more noteworthy. There’s little pomp, the tone is informal and straightforward throughout and communion is taken in your seat in a fashion which puts me in mind of airline meal service only with blissfully enhanced elbow room. The vicar, Rev Yvonne Stone, toting a fine Glastonbury accent, wears a ‘dog collar’ but that’s the only concession to vestments. The prayers, readings and sermon are all delivered free from any element of preaching.

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising difference from anything I’ve encountered before is the lack of hymn books. There are hymns, of course, led from the front by a three-woman choir. But for the words, we don’t bury our heads in a book, we just follow them on the big TV screen either side of the altar, pages kept rolling by Rev Yvonne via her MacBook. Between the hymns we get appropriate pictures and phrases to chart the progress of the service. A cross between bouncing ball singalong and the health messages I’m forced to absorb at the doctors. It’s oddly fun for all that.

Talking with Rev Yvonne after the service she agrees about the difficulties faced in trying to get people in. It’s part of her function to keep fighting that battle. The church has a vibrant church centre next door with plenty of popular activities. Getting people to make the ten-yard journey over to the church itself, however, is still a challenge. It’s hardly surprising though. This is after all the city where carol singers offering free warm mince pies and hot drinks to weary festive shoppers still have their work cut out to get any sort of grateful response.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

5. St Mary’s, Oldberrow. January 13, 2019

I have no idea why, but most days I drive one route to work and a completely different route on the way home. So it is that most mornings, while pondering the stresses of the day to come, I find myself in the procession of cars heading out of Henley toward Redditch, passing along the way a tiny, timber-towered church perched on a grassy corner of the A4189.

It doesn’t really advertise itself. Perhaps that’s because Oldberrow isn’t really a village of any significance. It took a brief stop by the wayside and glance at the lychgate noticeboard for me even to discover its name. But since then - and despite its internet presence being equally feint - I’ve had a hankering to go.

Once a month the church hosts a communion service. It’s tiny inside; one room little bigger than a cricket pitch but with a surprising warmth. Warm too is the welcome from the church wardens and Rev Kate. All told we are barely a dozen. The fact that the service booklets run out and are hastily shared, suggests that few regulars are expected let alone a visitor from so far away as Kenilworth.

Without any hymns (the church doesn’t boast anything so grand as an organ or piano) the service speeds through at quite a pace. The readings also being brief, and the communion queue only ten, we’re through in forty minutes.

One of the knock-on effects of the absence of music combined with the tiny dimensions of the church, is to throw the focus fully onto the words. The sermon comes across more like a bible study talk - there’s no figurative middle-distance into which the vicar can easily address her remarks. Rev Kate deliberately comes forward to be as close to the congregation as she can. This feels like it is being said for us, not as part of a general performance we are distantly witnessing. I remember the same being true at a Rachel Podger violin recital a few years ago. Then, it was as if we had been invited in to sit in on a private rehearsal, now it was as if we were there as the vicar was gathering her thoughts.

The same is true of the liturgy. I’m aware of all the individual voices - this is not a collective mumble but a coming-together of people who genuinely want to be here. It’s a very compact and tiny gathering but none the weaker for that.

Without an organ voluntary to see us on our way, the congregation’s reflections are brought to a halt by the noise of the kettle being switched on at the back. Tea and a recommendation to visit the equally-diminutive church at Morton Bagot when it appears on the rota, follows. I promise to go.

It’s inevitable that thoughts should stray to why churches like this are kept active. How do they survive on a dozen people coming through the doors once a month? I suppose the answer is that a lot of them don’t and end up being attractive conversions for those keen to cash in on the characterful buildings in attractive settings. But continue St Mary’s does and perhaps its most important message is to passing motorists: We’re here and we always will be.

Friday, 11 January 2019

4. Lady Chapel, Coventry Cathedral. January 11, 2019

I wasn’t intending a visit to the cathedral. I happened to be filling in time before viewing an art installation in the ruins of the old cathedral (more below) and noticed an Evening Prayer service scheduled to start in a few minutes.

The cathedral has closed for the day - so says the notice on the door. It’s almost completely in silent darkness but I go in anyway. There’s a small pool of light at the reception desk and I’m pointed toward the Lady Chapel, the only other pool of light right down the far end. It’s an eerie prospect.

The Lady Chapel, is literally at the feet of Christ. It’s pressed up against the wall dominated by the cathedral’s most famous artefact, Graham Sutherland’s iconic (and finally the word is correctly used) and overpowering tapestry. So dwarfed am I that the sneaky picture I took only just about reaches the top.

The chapel is deserted. There is nobody here but me and I begin to have doubts over whether I’ve got the right place or time. I know that I have. My previous record for scant attendances at a cathedral service came with a very early morning stop at Winchester on my way to Brighton at which we were still in single figures. This is different. I am entirely alone in this huge space. My watch ticks well past the appointed start time and I’m about to give up the ghost when, in many ways, the ghost finds me.

Quiet, slow footsteps bring a man of the same qualities. Obviously clergy, possibly a lay preacher, he looks at me but says nothing.

“Is it just me?” I ask rather unnecessarily.

He says nothing for about twenty seconds and then asks: “Would you like to read from the Bible?”

“Why ever not? Do you usually get more people?”

“It’s not known,” he says after a gap of a good ten seconds.

And so the service begins. John (I later find out his name as I feel the need to say something as we depart) sits at the side and quietly says a number of short prayers often repeating lines three or four time. I have no idea why, but he says ‘God made us, not we ourselves’ and ‘We are the sheep of his pasture’ over and over. There are gaps of at least a minute during which his breathing becomes so like that of sleep that I fear I may have to gently slope off and leave him in peace, presumably to be discovered by the early shift in the morning. Out of one lengthy silence he announces the first reading and I read John’s Second Letter to nobody but myself and a sleeping cleric. One or two prayers later and, at the end of the king of all silences, he gently closes his books and gets gingerly to his feet. It’s over.

I will have to ponder what purpose was served by this oddest of encounters. It is, I expect, an example of the cathedral just going about its daily offices. It may be that John doesn’t always have an audience for his quiet, patient reflections. Either way it is more a pleasure than an oddity.

“Have you been at the cathedral a long time?” I ask.
I wonder. But it was good to meet you John.

Outside in the old ruins I experience the pounding world music and art soundtrack of Sun Rise. It turns out to be seventeen minutes of smoke, lights and mysterious intonings. Not all that different from what’s usually on offer back over the road, even down to the bemused but respectful onlookers. Something about the rising sun as renewal perhaps - but the crimson light, pounding noise and drifting smoke remind me of a different dawn in this very space. Reconciliation brings the chance of renewal. Thank heavens for new days and new chances.

As I pass the cathedral on my way back to the car, preparations are continuing for the next gathering - a showing of the Marx Brothers’ comedy Duck Soup on a huge inflatable screen in the middle of the nave. I kid you not. Let’s hope someone turns up.