Churches that reflect God’s openness

Following on from my post earlier this week on a generation of adults, the majority of whom have no experience of church, I was sent this piece from Rebecca Margrete Hodel-Jones. I felt it was too substantial to add to the article’s comments, so I’ve decided to give it its own slot. Rebecca is a Licensed Lay Minister in Ripon and Leeds Diocese. Describing herself she says: “I am currently ‘living on my means’ after thirty three years as a teacher. I keep a pair of Love Birds who greet me when I go into the kitchen. I’m passionate about my home, garden, step grandson and hosting Quiet Days- all blessings from God.”

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Last week I finally got round to doing a job that had been there to accomplish for several months; making my sister’s birthday present. This was quite a task as I was creating a one off. As I worked I thought about our family dispersed throughout three continents, the grandchildren of Elsie and Charles Foreman. I thought about Sandra and I and the thread of remote contact that binds us, only developed over the last two or three years. I hope that the bag, that I grappled with making, will be another thread of love. It has a zipped pocket, Velcro fastening, two shoulder straps and lining. I marvelled at the beneficence of God who gives us all we need, in this case a piece of light brown material in just the right shade to use as a lining and a red zip and piece of red Velcro all just perfect for the task. The material itself I’d bought in January, in plenty of time to make up for Sandra’s sixty-seventh birthday, though it was not to be. The material is based on the union Jack though in faded colours with brown running through the design as though it’s worn by years of hard wear. Somehow this seems appropriate and I hope that it arrives and Sandra finds it useful.

As I worked through lunch time I noticed the sound of a helicopter overhead or several helicopters and heard the sirens of an ambulance, police or fire engine and I wondered what was going off. I live half a mile from the M62 and the police helicopter and air ambulance are familiar visitors to the local sky. It wasn’t so unusual, though it did seem pretty persistent.

Around two o’clock I turned on the radio in time for the Archers and caught the national news. I heard unfolding news of an accident on the M62 near Pontefract involving a lorry and a mini bus, of six helicopters being called out to the scene. I looked out of my garret window and saw three or four helicopters milling around the sky over the area of the Junction 32 slip road.

As the day progressed we heard more details, of thirty women from South Elmsall on their way to a Hen Party in Liverpool. I watched the six o’clock news and heard of early morning visits to the beauty salon, alcohol, texts and tweets, of the woman who decided to drive herself and of the serious injuries and death of one of the party. The news told of some of the injured being flown to Middlesborough and others being air lifted to the new emergency unit at Leeds General Infirmary.

That evening was one of little cloud that passed only a thin veil over the just-past-full moon, I looked out over the village from my garret window and noticed an unusual stillness below the silvered moon light. It seemed to me that the whole community was aware of what had befallen so close at hand and were unknowingly united in quiet solidarity.

I wondered about the place of the church at such a time. I imagined a hasty notice, ‘ Church open for prayer,’ and a steady stream of people entering to commune with God. I stayed at home and prayed alone, reaching out on behalf of those who had lost or suffered and those who felt for them at this time. I had no desire to see the likely reality of a locked church without an apparent awareness of what had happened on its patch.

I thought again and again about our Church of England. I am still thinking about locked doors.

On the Saturday afternoon following Friday’s tragedy I drove past the crash scene and glanced to see whether flowers had been left. I saw nothing though it is a motor way, There were flowers shown on the news, placed outside a church local to the victims.

I’m thinking about how people tie tributes to lamp posts and road side fences.

I grapple with possibility. I explored the ideas with my friend as we waited at the hospital A&E in Wakefield where I’d taken her because of an emergency. She asked for a lift as I was preparing my Sunday sermon. I spoke with her about my ideas of shelters in church grounds, places where, like smoking shelters outside pubs and workplaces, people might go. I wonder about church porches. Against my friend’s advice I shared my thoughts about locked churches at the start of my sermon. The congregation thanked me for raising the issue.

I spoke with a Bible Study friend about these thoughts. She spoke of the things that had been left, things that someone had had to clean up, before they’d ‘had to’ put gates on the church porch.

I think about those young people. I think about villages in need of a public toilet. I think about young people who seek a place to play out their passions that the used condoms may be taken as evidence of. I wonder whether a church porch might be a good place to love.

I think about our age when, as a church, we pay lip service to wanting more people to come to church and how in reality, at all times except when we and insurance premiums decree otherwise, our churches are locked. We pay lip service at meeting, synods and mission planning to being a welcoming church though what we ensure is that day by day, night by night, evening by evening and morning by morning people up and down the land can do nothing except walk past a locked door.

I have entered a church, sometimes in great need and said a prayer unseen by any but God.

I was at a funeral training day when the retired priest leading it told of his time of ministry in the Sheffield Diocese. It was the time of the Hillsborough disaster. He told us that all the churches in the area were locked. Thankfully the Cathedral was open, he said.

We have developed a lived out theology of limited access to God. Limited to times when we are there to supervise, to channel the faith of those who enter in into the sort of service we have decided should be on offer. This relationship which we allow between the people and their God is to be at our say so, of our shaping and on our terms.

I wonder about Jesus. I understand His role as one that points to God, one that mends the broken relationship between humanity and God. I am told that Jesus did not come to form a religion or a church. I understand the significance of the veil of the temple been torn in two as one that shows we can communicate directly with God, through Jesus. The old ways are gone.
I wonder about our way of being church. I wonder about all of those little prayer cards and notelets that will be taken away and prayed about. Have we re-invented the temple priesthood where the priest must do it on behalf of the people? My understanding is that Jesus came that we might communicate directly with God.

It seems to me that the purpose of The Church, those of us who attend and call ourselves Christians is to do the job that Jesus commanded us to do, to make disciples of all nations. It seems to me that we, as Jesus would, should be about helping others to take a step towards God.

Some churches may be open in any case. Some churches may have rotas so the church can be open at specified times. Some churches may think that a shelter, sort of vandal oblivious, may be a good way forward. There could be posters that could be replaced when they were covered in graffiti or ripped off, perhaps even stolen, posters that gave a message about God’s love. I spoke with the rector of Castleford, Michael Wood. He told me of drug users injecting on the church cellar steps. I suggested that this would be a good place to put posters of a spiritually uplifting nature, so that God might speak to these people in their state of heightened awareness. Some churches may wish to devote their porch to being such a place, and move the iron gates closer to the main door. Some churches may have other ideas. The key thing is to create the apron of accessibility and outreach. A notice on each locked door would be a good way forward, one that says, ’This locked door lies. God is open to you 24/7. We apologise for this locked door. The insurance policy requires it to be so. The church is open …….(give list of times.)’

I suggest one way forward on a national scale would be possible to achieve with little outlay of expertise. Every church notice board could boldly set out a national website address , something that isn’t already in use, along the lines of WWW.reachouttoGod – smartphones are the ever to hand preferred medium for younger people. Anyone approaching the church, walking by on a bus or as a car passenger could access the website. The website might have the opportunity to post a prayer or light a virtual candle. This is an end in itself, maintenance free, between God and the person who posts the prayer or lights the candle. This is the step towards God that God will honour. This is the church encouraging people to turn to God. There may be further links on the national website. The Gideons already set out Bible references to use in times of grief, loss etc Similar words of God could be accessible through a simple link. There might be any number of other useful links, some may link into what is happening in the local church, though that may require some technical expertise at a local level. What is important is the enabling of that step, that reaching out to God, that God will honour.

It seems to me that what is needed is a paradigm shift to being a church that is open or shows a desire to be open, that reflects God’s openness. This is the campaign for the rest of my life. Perhaps you know of others praying along the same lines. Please let me know.



Categories: Church, Faith in society, Uncategorized

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15 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Rebecca’s poignant thought reflects what I spotted yesterday. On our day out around Emsworth-Chichester area I spotted a billboard leaning on a wall by steps up to a church. It read, ‘We are NOW open for prayer and reflection’. Whilst focussing upon traffic I briefly thought, “Why ‘now’?” – it implies a welcome change and encouraging invitation for passers-by to drop in. And there was a similar one a few miles back!

  2. Totally get this. Well said, Rebecca, and thanks for posting it, Gillan.

    But how to make it happen: that’s the challenge. How do we — can we — reach a point where all churches will agree to promote and share a common website? I can’t see evangelicals wanting to be party to a website that I’d be happy with, one that says open to all, straight or gay, theologically orthodox or off the wall; and I can’t see leftwing loons like me being happy with the kind of stuff rightwing fundies would want to say.

    In our diocese, for instance, we have an evangelical church that refuses to pay its common fund because we have a gay Dean at the Cathedral. How do we bridge that gap? How can a church that has so many of its own inner doors locked and barred to its own people reach out to a broken world with a message of openness?

    I’m not saying it can’t be done; just asking the questions as I try to figure it out…

  3. Excellent and compelling. For once 🙂 I am in total agreement with such sentiments. Amen.

  4. Phil, thanks for your response and for sharing the experience in your area. I see a website that is quite simple, one that enables a step towards God to be made. We as church are in a position to help that to happen. From the initial page there can be a lot of links to existing sites. I appreciate your point that some wings of the church may find certain links preferable to others. I pray that the desire to help people move into relationship with God will over ride those reservations. All the best, Rebecca

  5. Yes, I too have that desire for all possible access to God. I like the idea of the shelters, which are ‘green’ in being, and offer a place where some words may be posted.. We live in a village where the church is open all day, unmanned, locked only at night. Nearby villages are the same – one has a travelling man who stays overnight in the porch, and is welcome. I realise it is very different in towns, with church porches used for every kind of activity. But I think of what the combined Edinburgh churches achieved in forming a rota to drive a double-decker bus each evening around the city stopping to offer hot soup, and (in the winter) blankets, to the homeless. And I wonder how hard it would actually be to form a rota to keep open a ‘night-church’ (even just one) which was known about. We do indeed act like the re-invented Temple… Deciding what should be offered, and by whom, and more concerned at the failure to be ‘on time’ than at the joy of being in God’s presence. Let’s find a way to open the way to God for all people, and especially those who come seeking shelter… Bene

  6. Thank you Rebecca for a very interesting blog, There are many great ideas in the Church on how to reach out more effectively to our communitie,Is there the will Are there enough worker bees to bring these to fruition?, The pastoral areas that we could be working in are many and varied. When we act in love for people the questions about Jesus often come later A great example of this is the porch project in Hadleigh Suffolk which grew from around 15 young people hanging around in the church porch of an evening

  7. This article interested me for two reasons. The first is this idea that our churches should be more open. For me, the Bible is about how WE must be more open, not our churches. E.G. Rebecca talked of being in need and visiting an empty church. Why did she – or we – need to go to a church to talk to God? Secondly, Rebecca talked about marvelling at a God who gives us just what we need. Would she believe that if she met many of the folk I meet at my local credit union or who appeared in my recent Christian Aid newsletter? It seems to me that it is entirely arbitrary whether each of us receives just what we need. Or is God selectively deaf?

    • I agree that we must be open to God and the first part of my article is about how, in a meditative sense as I grappled with making the bag for my sister, I was open. Through that openness I realised I had those items that I mention; the velcro, the zip, the lining material, and I marvel at God’s provision. Through my openness I was able to think further and come to the sense of church modeling God’s openness. To the SMART generation a website reachouttoGod could enable a step towards God that God will honour. At least such a website on all notice boards would show the church is aware of contemporary means of communication and a desire to connect.
      There have been times in my life when I have felt in need and I have found that going into a church has helped me to lay out my problem before God.
      You mention the people at the Credit Union and in The Christian Aid magazine.These are the sort of examples that people grapple with when discussing ‘The Problem of Evil’. To some extent your concern as a Christian Aid supporter and Credit Union worker is an expression of God listening and working through His people. May those people about whom you are concerned take that step towards God and find His love and answer to their prayers.

      • Thanks for replying, Rebecca. My trouble, though, is that i seem to see things differently from most folk. I see the debate about ‘The Problem of Evil’ as being all to do with the fact that it is impossible to make sense of the notion that we have been made with logical brains by a God who is Love but who does not act in any comprehensibly loving manner. However, instead of questioning our ideas about God we have, through the centuries, come up with any number of theories to explain why Jesus died ‘for our sins’ but the world continues the same, why God talks to some folk about seemingly trivial matters but ignores others, why God gives his people conflicting messages about what He wants ( gay marriage or not / women in charge or not etc ), why some Atheists are more loving of their neighbours than Christians. I have come to a different understanding of God– as explained in this article here: http://www.pcnbritain.org.uk/blog/post/what_does_it_mean_that_christ_died_for_our_sins But I guess, like most folk, you will think i’m quite mad!

  8. Perhaps the existing website http://www.prayoneforme.org would meet the need, rather than inventing a new one?

    • Thanks for this. As the posted prayers are seen I assume the site would need monitoring to prevent inappropriate submissions. The way forward as I see it is a site that encourages the process of prayer, of reaching out to God. After all my prayers, your prayers are not broadcast, unless we’re writing intercessions for public use or engaged in forming liturgy. The sort of prayer on ‘prayoneforme.org’ is a bit like the prayers on post-it notes or some sort of papers that are left behind in church to be prayed by ‘others’. In a way this perpetuates the sense that we have to go through another person. Jesus came that we might have a direct relationship with God. My idea about the website reachouttoGod is to encourage a step into that relationship.

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