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.