Monday, 11 February 2013


We ought to be thinking, talking and exploring much more around the issue of forgiveness. This is my first provisional – possibly premature – conclusion from a listening exercise which we have just begun.

We see in church fleetingly quite a number of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who do not otherwise participate in church life. They bring children to be baptised in large numbers, bring young people to our youth group and to our alternative and family worship in much smaller numbers, and ask us to take their weddings.

We are talking about perhaps eighty such people coming through a church door in February alone.

The possible reason they and their families do not then become regular church attenders in a way they might have done a generation ago are well speculated upon, but we thought we might test some of these out.

We’ve put together a sheet with just seven quick response questions from ‘As far as you can remember, exactly where were you at 11.00 a.m. last Sunday?’ to a request to put ticks or crosses against statements ranging from ‘I pray from time to time’ to ‘I’ve visited a reiki practitioner in the last six months’.

A final question explores whether they think the church is likely to have something helpful or irrelevant to say about issues from euthanasia to sex outside marriage; both the role of women and gay marriage are included in the list because we wanted to see whether recent publicity about them affects people’s attitude to the church.

For the first forty respondents to this final question all but one of the topics score no more than 38%: perhaps one third of the people think the church may have something valuable to say about them, but twice as many are either unsure or are certain that what we would have to say is irrelevant.

But it is unexpectedly clear and striking that this is not the case for one topic which we had included in the list without much thought. This was forgiveness. Here just over two thirds of the respondents put a tick. The perception is that here at least the church might have something worth listening to.

It occurred to me when I noticed this that the only extra question I’d been asked at recent Baptism preparations was from a father who wanted to know whether the Lord’s Prayer ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ would leave us vulnerable to ‘being walked all over’.

So at the moment I am beginning to think how we might respond to this discovery. Perhaps this simply prompts what I'll say at Baptisms and Weddings this year, and how we handle the confession at alternative and family worship.  Perhaps I need to work with a group on what has been challenging, helpful and naïve in our teaching and our lives, and then find ways to share what we explore.

Meanwhile, a hundred years ago today the then Bishop of Lincoln laid the foundation stone for the major new building of St Michael’s, and yesterday we had the present Bishop of Lincoln with us to celebrate the centenary.

In the picture a more competent cake-cutter is laughing at the Bishop and I as we suddenly face the reality of the anniversary task we had been given.


Rod Collins said...

I wonder about the 'Social Aspect' of going to church.
When somebody has a baby everybody asks about the christening - how many today would bother if they didn't think it was the 'done thing'
That may explain why many people go for the 'occasions' but not on Sunday.

The other social aspect I wonder about is how many people used to go to church on a Sunday because it was a social event - in their eyes?
Especially in smaller towns and villages it would have been the only opportunity to socialize for many.
So, with the greatest of respect, I wonder whether years ago many people went to church without necessarily believing in God, per se ?

To that end, nowadays people have more social opportunities in terms of communication etc, we're doing one of those now, perhaps that explains why some people are not there on Sunday.
The average man on the street doesn't want to forgive, he wants vengeance, not justice, certainly not forgiveness.
It's too easy to over-estimate what the man on the Clapham omnibus cares about, only intellectuals and those in the Westminster Bubble care about much that we see in the media.

I rarely hear people talk about forgiveness, usually hanging or severe punishment, nor do I hear about Christianity (only Islam) all I hear about is the cost of petrol and domestic bills, plus a load of TV or celebrity drivel - times have changed massively, so have many people, the church has changed little so I believe that leads to a big discrepancy when it comes to alignment between the church and those who don't attend.

Thanks for a great blog post, very thought provoking
Rod Collins

Peter Mullins said...

Thanks Rod.
I'm sure that the reasons for going to church or not either regularly or for special events are very complex. At the moment I over use the image 'you can't unbake a cake' - there is butter, flour and sugar in there but you can't point any of them out in isolation once the cake is made. So, yes, ingredients include social custom, belief in God, expectation of your peers, changing patterns of Sunday football and shopping, habit, the experience of prayer, where people find community, a vague spiritual sense and many more things; these are all baked together when someone thinks things like ‘I’ll go along today’ or ‘I’ll have my child baptised’. One example: Mass attendance in Poland halved after Communism ended – commitment to the Catholic faith probably didn’t change much at all but the need to express national non-Communist identity obviously did.
All I was then reporting about those who touch church activity fleetingly was the unexpected discovery that (although for two-thirds of them the discrepancy you identify is so wide that they don’t have any expectation that the church will be the source of insight for them about everything from euthanasia to gay marriage) two-thirds of them think we might have something helpful to say about forgiveness. Yes, this is unlike the call for vengeance which you hear a lot and which I read in comments on media stories all the time, but there it is. From Archbishop Tutu’s pioneering work with ‘truth and reconciliation’ in South Africa to the low grade reminders in wedding preparation sessions about the healing nature of mutual forgiveness within marriage, many of them seem to suspect we are onto something.