Friday, 22 June 2007

Opinion: Chelmsford needs a lead on Back to Church Sunday

I apologise. I’ve tried to say nothing on this topic but, like Jeremiah, “I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

As readers of this blog will have gathered, I think Back to Church Sunday is a great idea. It isn’t perfect — what is? For a start, it is pragmatically focussed rather than theologically driven — it is about bums on seats, but this doesn’t necessarily mean souls in the Kingdom.

Nevertheless, it is the best thing to come along for some time — possibly since the abortive post-war report Towards the Conversion of England. At last it is being suggested that we all do something to bring people to church.

So why is so little coming from the centre of our diocese to encourage, or even, it would seem, to recognise the value of, Back to Church Sunday?

Admittedly, the first I heard about it being taken up here was in an ad clerum (a pastoral letter to all the clergy) from the diocesan bishop. There it was noted that a presentation had been made about Back to Church Sunday at the Diocesan Synod in March and that the Synod had agreed to endorse it. We were told that more information would soon be available and that materials could be ordered from the Diocesan offices.

Since then we’ve also had a letter from Stephen Webb, the Diocesan Chief Executive Officer. In our local, Colchester, Area newsletter, there was an article by Canon Penny Horseman encouraging parishes to get involved. In general, the diocesan staff have been prompt and willing to answer queries.

But the diocese is not led by the staff of the Diocesan Offices. It is led by the bishops. So where is the episcopal leadership?

I have a regular Google ‘news alert’ running for Back to Church Sunday (amongst other things), so that if anything appears anywhere on the internet on this topic — for example in an online version of a local newspaper, on a website, or even on my own blog — I get an instant e-mail telling me about it. But ‘Chelmsford Bishops’ and Back to Church Sunday seem to go together like snowball and hell.

Apparently this is because ‘the diocese’ has decided not to make a big, coordinated effort this year. Rather, it is going to leave it to interested parishes. Next year, those parishes will be invited to ‘share their stories’, and then we will really have a go.

But this is daft! First, the great value of Back to Church Sunday is the potential for area impact. It is not just a case of one, slightly weird or very keen, church doing it, but everyone having a go. Where this has happened, for example in the Diocese of Oxford, it has clearly worked. By leaving it to the parishes to work in an uncoordinated fashion, diocesan central has so far reduced the potential impact of the whole event.

Secondly, you can’t do Back to Church Sunday every year! It cannot become like Christmas — the one Sunday when we expect those who haven’t been since last year’s Back to Church Sunday to turn up. Doing Back to Church Sunday at half-cock one year in the belief that we can ‘really’ do it next year is like trying to see if a match works by lighting it so you can save it for later. A year half-done is a year half-wasted.

Frankly, I’m tired of blogging away on this website about Back to Church Sunday in Chelmsford as if all were well with the approach our diocese is taking, when it is not. It is not too late to ‘rally the troops’, but it is getting close.

Revd John P Richardson
22 June 2007

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