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.