Flame Bait or a Fair Point?

Last Saturday there was an opinion piece in the Guardian that has got a number of people talking.

The general gist of the argument is to lay the charge that falling numbers in the Church are to do with the move from a primarily Matins based service pattern to the weekly Eucharist model that the majority of Church of England churches now follow.

You only need look at the comments to see some of the reaction, and a quick look down my blog-roll finds reaction too – The Bishop of Buckingham is quite clear that it is flame bait, and quotes one of the comments saying as much. David Hodgson presents a pretty detailed rebuttal of the points made in the article, although the core point is summed up in his second paragraph:

Self raises some interesting issues, but I can’t help feeling here is another example of special pleading from a lover of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible. The argument is familiar to all parish priests because they hear it so often from nostalgic older worshippers: the church used to be full on a Sunday, and a respected influence in the community – we used to have Matins and Evensong every Sunday, ergo, the abandonment of these servces is the cause of the decline in numbers and influence.

As you can see from the comments, I pretty broadly agree, and certainly you need look no further than our own Church in Finchampstead for evidence that David Self is wrong, since unlike most churches, St James retained the established monthly Eucharist/Matins pattern right up until the late 1990’s. At the point the service pattern started to change the numbers were low – and following the change the numbers did grow, but it wasn’t for the Matins services. Until Common Worship was brought in the pattern included a family Eucharist, a straight Rite A Eucharist (contemporary language), a traditional language Rite B Eucharist and Matins once or twice a month as a main service, and on the weeks with contemporary services sometimes placed before. The attendance figures are pretty clear – Matins was the most poorly attended.

Our current pattern still retains Matins in the pattern, but with a contemporary language Eucharist as the main service. It is worth mentioning that in terms of numbers, we do have a good attendance for Matins – we quite often have about sixty – it’s just that the Eucharist is pulling in up to 150 people for the monthly Family Eucharist, and more than 100 for the regular Eucharist when the Children are at Sunday School.

With those figures, it is quite easy to argue that Self is wrong – however if you look further into our attendance figures, maybe he is not totally wrong. Reading one particular paragraph, and then considering the changes that we at St James have made to our service pattern, maybe he does have a point.

Near the beginning, Self said this:

The neglected virtue of matins was that, although it required a half-decent choir, it demanded little emotional or theological commitment and minimal participation. Those attending merely had to sit or stand as required and mouth the words of the hymns. It was the ideal service for those who felt they should be seen “to do their duty� on Sunday mornings; a part of “being British�. But to take part in holy communion requires you to make a public profession of your faith by walking up to the altar rail to receive the sacrament.

One of the things we noticed about our numbers was that there was a quite significant difference between our attendance figures, and the numbers who went up for communion, sometimes as much as ten percent of the congregation wouldn’t be going up to the rail. This is exactly the point that Self is making, that people feel uncomfortable about the public profession of walking up to the altar rail – equally they also feel uncomfortable about being seen to be sat in the congregation.

Having said that, with a regular dose of Matins in our service pattern, these people weren’t going to those services – they may be uncomfortable with going up to the altar rail, but matins didn’t attract them either.

As a result we added another Family Service, but very much one that wasn’t a Eucharist. It was specifically targeted at those outside the Church, so the general idea was to be welcoming and inclusive. It generally targets the children so the hymns are much more in the chorus vein, and the messages and stories are often simple and easy to understand.

The new Family Service is now one of our main growth areas – to the point that we are now going to do it twice a month in an effort to try and reduce the numbers as we are regularly filling the Church.

So Self may be wrong about matins – but could he be absolutely right that we need to provide a simpler service to provide for those who are uncomfortable attending a Eucharist?

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