Participatory church

Here is my response to the conversations on Facebook & Twitter yesterday. I’m writing it in short spare moments and hence I apologise for the stream-of-consciousness style & not a neat argument. It’s probably wooly, and most probably drivel, ill informed, over-opinionated and ranty. Definitely ranty.

I love the Church of England. I love its variety of flavours and its divisions. I love its old buildings, seeped in prayer over centuries and I love its new buildings, the ones with working loos and heating. I love its priests for their absolute commitment to the idea that the C of E is the church for everyone – whether you want it or not, there’s someone in your neck of the woods charged with your spiritual welfare, and of showing, being Christ and his church to you. I love that there are priests who will baptise rampantly and I love that there are priests who are as extrovert as Kate B, as academic as Rowan Wiliams and I even think I love that there
are the vicarbots out there too. And we who are pew fillers find our own, different ways of encountering Him Upstairs with our Sunday morning experiences. We are so, so lucky to have so much choice in how we do church so we can find what works for us.

I do church. I go every Sunday, sometimes other days, and I wander into a building not where I expect God to show up, but where I expect to be able to find my space to listen to him. I also recognise that my opinion is coloured by my experience and by background and the fact I am an incurably curious person who asks questions. I’m not a casual wedding guest or a grieving relative at a funeral – perhaps two of the times where people have their first encounter of church. They might have met Street Pastors or be aware of the Food Bank or any of the projects Christians run, but they’ll be new to the inside of the church building. Are those service boring? Are they dull? Do we need childlike interactivity at every point of life? Should we be catering for a consumer culture, or should we be counter-cultural, looking for silence, depth, meaning away from soundbites and easy songs? Don’t even get me started on the Christians who effortlessly buy into consumerism without even a second glance at the effects their purchases have; another rant altogether.

I have been struggling quite hard to work out why Vicky Beeching’s article for the Independent yesterday made me quite so cross. Clearly this has pushed some buttons I didn’t even know I had. I think I think it’s because…

Church is there for everyone. It won’t make sense for everyone. We’re all different. A non-Christian arriving for a hatch, match or dispatch needs at best a genuine, warm welcome and a sense of acceptance. It doesn’t matter what form the service takes: whether it’s a full choir or a worship band, whether it’s one person or a team preaching, it’s probably not going to make sense. No amount of interactivity or gimmick or fun will change that and we have to deal with that. I have no game plan there, by the way.

Let’s talk about those with a faith. Church is already participative if we go prepared to participate. If you sit expecting to be passive, then that will be your experience regardless of the liveliness of the worship. I’ve been bored senseless by singing repetitive and drivel-filled worship songs – been ‘led’ by people who are more interested in their own performance than facilitating congregational singing. And I’ve been moved to tears singing (I use that word generously) words from the 1700s.
I was challenged last Lent to kneel in church to pray. Gosh. Something I thought would make me feel awkward has changed my way of relating to the service I am part of. Perhaps this is just an ancient expression of Interactivity – an outward sign of inner engagement with prayer with my God.

C of E services are interactive and they are participative. I suspect we are rubbish at teaching people why their responses are important…what those familiar words mean, exactly. It’s not just “reading words from a sheet or screen and saying hello at a set time of socialising” – it’s prayer, it’s confession, it’s worship and it’s reconciliation and it’s encountering the mystery. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by deciding something is dull and should be ditched, because we don’t think about what it is we are doing on a Sunday morning. And let’s not assume that there is a lack of creativity, or joint leadership, or imagination, or vibrancy going into those Sunday mornings, just because we’re using a familiar structure.


  1. This is an excellent response – it’s hard to critique some of the naive enthusiasm around Kate’s wedding flash mob without appearing critical of the event itse of. Perhaps people don’t realise that it came about within the C of E, from a vicar who has been trained, authorised and employed to offer ministry to everyone in her Paris h who requires it. Ask around a few clergy and it won’t be long before you hear similar examples of liturgy being shaped and adapted to serve the needs of those who are present – because this is, by and large, what we want to do.

  2. Thanks for this. Wise and thoughtful. Interested me particularly because this morning I found myself giving thanks for the C of E in all its variety, especially the priests. The radical, the comfortable, the challenging, the pastoral, activists, introverts, catholic, liberal – you get the idea. No one expression could begin to reflect or communicate all the riches of God

  3. Beautiful. Love this in particular: Should we be catering for a consumer culture, or should we be counter-cultural, looking for silence, depth, meaning away from soundbites and easy songs?

  4. Last time I heard Vicky Beeching at Greenbelt, I wasn’t impressed; and I am similarly annoyed by her article. The promise of academia and the kudos of Spring Harvest all seems a little empty, I am afraid. Thank you, Sarah for a good reflection. When people say “Oh, if there were more like her, I’d come” they probably haven’t found out how approachable, nice or welcoming the current parish priest is, and how geared to outreach the liturgy is…

  5. I just get the (perhaps entirely erroneous) feeling Vicky Beeching hasn’t given much thought to the nature of liturgy in an Anglican Church service.
    Thank you for your encouragement. I used to criticise church services frequently. Then I got ordained.

  6. I also agree with your discomfort about Vicky’s article. To be honest I think there are many and varied reasons why people still come to church; I think Vicky’s assessment that it’s “interactivity” that is the problem is simply wrong!

  7. I think I agree with all of the above, sort of. We are still a bit stuck though – in general – with the idea that attending “church” is “church”, Vicky’s article talked about attendees and congregants . . . and there is still a prevailing thought in lots of churches that if the clergy have not done something (led, preached, visited you at home when you are sick) then those things have not actually happened . . .

    Someone does something a bit different, and – it was pretty amusing (having watched the video) but, this in the ministry of others in the church (for example childrens, youth and families workers) its pretty normal!

    What is the fascination with the collar? I’ve blogged myself on this . . .

  8. I also have been “bored senseless by singing repetitive and drivel-filled worship songs”

    Then again there have been a few times (very few) when on the severalteenth repetition something glorious happens, and the worship experience is enhanced beyond anything that a non repetitive song can do.

    The odd thing was – it was the same song.

    When I find a service boring sometimes it is because the service is boring, but just sometimes it could be me.

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