Change the atmosphere: Making space for the young at St. John’s, Hensingham

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Sunday June 17, 2018

Arriving at St. John’s Church of England in Hensingham in time for the evening service, stepping through the door I was ushered not into “the church,” the worship space, but into the adjacent hall, where perhaps about 250 people were already jam-packed into the large room, seated around tables set with flowers and laden with snacks. As it turned out, the evening service was not happening tonight as local parishes were being visited by a mission team from Evansville, Indiana, USA, and so instead of evening worship this church was having an “American evening” that would involve some worship in the larger context of a meal, with testimonies along the way, and right at the start just after I arrived, a quiz about US trivia. 

The people gathered were of all ages, with notable numbers of families with children, babies in arms, young toddlers meandering about. I noticed that the several dozens of teenagers had mainly situated themselves around the tables on the edges, in some cases near the doors, but also where they had vantage point not only of where people would speak from the front but of the rest of the room, so able to see how others participated, gauge reactions, perhaps take cues from elders. I was part of youth groups at this church when a teenager myself, and was delighted to see that while the church has changed in some ways (it is theologically more conservative now), it still very evidently prioritises ministry among young people.

After the quiz (could people identify Rosa Parks? Did they know which states Yellowstone Park sprawls across? Or the date of the Boston Tea Party? etc) some of the young people from the US stepped up to lead some songs. Through the evening, one of the songs was apparently from a movie, while the others were contemporary praise pieces, all unknown to me, but one of which employed the arresting request “change the atmosphere” in its prayer to God, while another was perhaps inspired by the Jerusalem Bible’s rendering of Ephesians 2.10 (“we are God’s work of art”) to suggest that God “makes beautiful things… out of dust… out of us.” 

Looking like a certain kind of US-ian stereotype, in baseball cap and lumberjack shirt, the young singers then explained that over the next few days the missioners would (alongside local people from this church? I wondered) be visiting local schools and community groups. One then read a portion of the gospels and gave testimony to his own experience of faith in Jesus Christ. The American evening seemed to be a kind of launch of the US-ian visitors’ witnessing activities through the next days, though it seemed also that church members had been encouraged to invite others to the evening itself, hence, to pique interest, the testimony (sometimes called in other contexts “faith story,” “journey statement,” “living epistle”—by whatever name, a personal account of Christian faith’s relevance and impact on life). The young man in the lumberjack shirt, a first year college student, spoke of being raised in a home with Christian parents, but then of his own decision to make faith his own when in high school—the stage of life of many of his listeners. Among the things he said, he suggested that “you can love the things around God, but miss God himself” and he wanted to choose the latter. After his talk a simple meal (mountains of raw vegetables along with plentiful hot dogs and trays of cakes) was shared, before more songs and another testimony, this time by a woman in the mission team—a wrenching story of finding herself a widow with two very young children when only in her mid-thirties, having lost her husband to cancer, his pre-conversion “rock and roll lifestyle” of drugs and heavy drinking having caught up with him. While struggling to speak, she nevertheless praised God’s faithfulness to her in her trouble, and gave a remarkable account of the care she had and continues to receive from her church back home, ending with some pointed advice for young people, including: the importance of surrounding oneself with good influences, and being aware that present choices can have lasting effects, not only for oneself but for those one loves or may come to love.

I was aware that the presence of this mission team in town was by no means an isolated event. In a rapidly changing religious landscape in Britain, the Church of England has mobilised an array of new initiatives to engage people with the idea of Christian faith. The archbishop of York, John Sentamu, had recently led an ecumenical team of over fifty missioners through the surrounding county, and the bishop of Sheffield, Pete Wilcox, had recently spoken at some other evangelistic event in town. So the US-ians were part of a bigger picture, a larger movement, of taking energy from outside for local evangelism. Nevertheless, there were some things of note about what could be glimpsed at the American evening itself:

1.    If anyone was presiding at this event, it was the young people leading song and speaking in their own words (albeit words shaped by a certain kind of Christian discourse). They occupied the floor, they held the microphones. I found that very refreshing. And I appreciate that in this host community, young people’s leadership would be normal, at least sometimes: it is a community that has long prioritised the inclusion of the young—including in leading liturgical roles. While this may seem strange to some (on the one hand, what are their qualifications? On the other, how else will they learn?), it needs, in my view, to be a norm.


2.    One of the testimonies was difficult, gritty, raw. It put me in mind of a student in Durham years ago—herself a gerontology nurse—who asked me quite seriously why when churches commonly offer baptism preparation and marriage preparation, they seemed to shy away from what she called “death preparation.” It was a good question, and in the American visitor’s difficult speech, St. John’s had maybe made a start in the direction of taking up her challenge. And it struck me that the testimony itself was like a psalm, full of what Don Saliers has called “humanity at full stretch” [1], with stories and emotions that are often—to great loss—ignored, denied, suppressed, or otherwise “managed out” of worship to limit focus or aspiration to joy, flourishing, “success,” or simply to keep any emotion of any kind at bay. Though sometimes uncomfortable perhaps, the testimony seemed open and the events it related real.


3.    Further, I learned that the testimonies were in keeping with other events earlier in the day. I was told (by one of the candidates himself) that in the morning service six teenagers had been baptised, each one giving testimony of their own before being submerged in water. The opportunity for candidates “able to speak for themselves” to indeed speak for themselves is now a standard feature of the Church of England’s baptism rite in Common Worship [2]. The fact that it was teens, not infants, being baptised was also itself an indication of shifts in British religiosity, in which once-commonplace turning to the church for “rites of passage” has declined, and Christendom is giving way to an age in which the church must engage in fresh ways of invitation to Christ and welcome to Christian worship. So it is more and more those unbaptised in infancy who—if able to encounter the gospel through the outreach of a creative community—may now be candidates for baptism. On my way out of the building at the end of the evening I called in to “the church” and found the makeshift baptismal pool still in place in the chancel—and I wondered how the local young people’s testimonies that morning might have compared with the testimony of the Indianan woman at night—and what they might have thought and felt about the latter.

On one level, this American evening had just slim pickings for exploring liturgy; it wasn’t a service as conventionally understood, but a different event in which worship nevertheless had a place. I can imagine that to some visitors, turning up off the cuff, expecting Anglican evening prayer (but, really, how many such people are left?) it could be quite rattling to find instead an informal evening gathered around tables for a meal while hearing some full-on accounts of persons’ sense of the difference that Christ has made. And to some kinds of Christians, no doubt some of what took place through the evening would have seemed infra dig—but then this church was full while others are empty, and this church had many children in the midst while others have descended into what Melbourne Anglican Gary Bouma dubs “geriatric assemblies” [3]. I took heart from its reminder that without evangelisation, there can be no ongoing, let alone growing, community of worship; that without handing over to the young—traditioning—there can be no continuing, sifting, shifting the tradition into the future.

[1] See E. Bryon Anderson and Bruce T. Morrill, Liturgy and the Moral Life: Humanity at Full Stretch before God: Essays in Honour of Don E. Saliers (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998)
[2] See Common Worship: Initiation Services (London: CHP, 2005) and nite the sections on “Prsentation of the Candidates”—also at https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/christian-initiation/baptism-and-confirmation#mm023
[3] Gary Bouma, Being Faithful in Diversity (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2011), p. 11.

 

  Images of the “American Evening” and the now covered makeshift baptismal pool temporarily placed in the chancel of the church building. Photos: Stephen Burns.

Images of the “American Evening” and the now covered makeshift baptismal pool temporarily placed in the chancel of the church building. Photos: Stephen Burns.

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