Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin: Sunday 27 September 2009 (Trinity 16), 10 a.m., Morning Prayer and Holy Communion.
Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22; Psalm 124; James 5: 13-20; Mark 9: 38-50.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
There’s a big campaign in England today to get people to come back to Church.
The Church of England and the other mainstream churches are calling this “Back-to-Church Sunday.” Today, half a million people are inviting someone special back to church with them this morning.
There has been a week-long drive to get this “open invitation” across to a wider public, with some bishops speaking about the need for the Church to shed what is seen as a “middle class” image.
In the past week, Bishop Stephen Cottrell of Reading has spoken of the need for the Church to be truly welcoming.
He says he meets “people who think you have to be highly educated or suited and booted to be a person who goes to church. That’s so frustrating.”
And he asked: “How did it come to this, that we have become known as just the Marks and Spencer option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Asda or Aldi?”
He pointed out how Jesus got us started with church simply. “Like this: sitting us down in groups on the grass and telling simple stories. Not simplistic. But certainly not complicated. All his first disciples were down-to-earth people who wanted to know what life was all about.”
But he also pointed out that churches in his area are “places of warmth and honesty. Sanctuaries of deep conversation, of tears and laughter. Not a hobby but a way of life.”
Does that fit your description of your home church?
According to Bishop Stephen, church is “definitely not about how you look, what you do, how you sound, how well you sing. Just come as you are. Come with a friend. All are welcome. Churches are still where best friends are made. And where people can be just as they are.”
Someone has even written a rap-style poem for Back-to-Church Sunday:
You might have left for so many reasons,
but am I wrong to sense that now’s the season
Don’t look to make no airs and graces.
Faked up smiles and masked up faces.
No need to make no innovation.
Please accept this as your invitation.
Bishop Steven Croft of Sheffield has made his own YouTube invitation, inviting people to “come as they are” to church today.
He says: “We have to get past the idea that Church is only for a certain kind of person: that you can only come to church in certain clothes or talk in a particular way. The Christian faith has good things for everyone and there are people of every background in our churches.”
He adds: “The Church … is learning to become again the church for the whole nation – poor and rich. We have to learn to speak the language of ordinary people. So everyone is welcome back to church this coming Sunday and any Sunday.”
In another diocese, as they prepared for Back-to-Church Sunday, they tried to find out what people think about the Church and the Christian faith, and to find out too what the Church could do to get more people to return.
Bishop Tim Stevens of Leicester visited a supermarket near Loughborough to encourage shoppers to come back to church and in a local café he spoke to a group of people who have recently decided to come back to church.
Bishop Tim said, “Many people seemed to be receptive to Jesus, but more hesitant about the Church. Over the years many have felt something pushed or pulled them away from Church, or that it wasn’t always connecting with their lives.”
But all the energies and efforts behind Back-to-Church Sunday should not stop today. Archbishop Rowan Williams says “the Church’s responsibility to welcome all comers isn’t … restricted to one Sunday in the year! But this Sunday in particular prompts us to do a better job of saying to people that we are truly glad to see newcomers and they always have a right to be part of the family.”
He hopes that Back-to-Church Sunday will assure everyone “that they are loved and valued by God – and by those who worship God.”
The idea of Back-to-Church Sunday began in Manchester five years ago. Last year, it is estimated, 37,000 people took up the invitation to come back.
Recent research by the Diocese of Lichfield suggests that six months after the event between 12 and 15 per cent of those who accept the invitation to come back to church have become regular church members. A further significant proportion keep in touch with their inviting churches, even if they attend less frequently.
Why is that so many people don’t go to church to the point that the Church needs to organise a Back-to-Church Sunday? Last year, a survey of people in the US who don’t go to Church, found 72% believe that “God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists.” But just as many (72%) also said the Church is “full of hypocrites.” Indeed, 44% agree with the statement: “Christians get on my nerves.”
Most of the unchurched (86%) said they believe they can have a “good relationship with God without belonging to a church.” And 79% say “Christianity today is more about organised religion than loving God and loving people.”
One of the key researchers involved in producing this report said: “These outsiders are making a clear comment that churches are not getting through on the two greatest commandments” – to love God and to love your neighbour. Scott McConnell says: “When they look at churches … they don’t see people living out the faith.”
Perhaps church-going is a habit you associate with your parents or with home life. For the rest of your life it may also have memories of what has become a habit and what has become part of your regular life here in Saint Columba’s College.
Chapel life here is one of the great riches in the heritage of this foundation. But perhaps it’s something you take for granted, or something even a small number of you resent.
Already, in your teens, you may be questioning the reasons people come to church. Perhaps there was even a glimmer of identification with those who don’t go to church.
You may be thinking things like Church is boring, churchgoers make themselves too exclusive and too unwelcoming, and for a variety of reasons you may even decide in adult life to slip out of the habit of regular church-going.
When you do make the decision to come back to Church, I hope you get a true and a warm welcome. And I hope you remember that inside the Church there are many of us who regret that some people – clergy as well as laity – can be too smug and can too easily rush to guard and protect their church against outsiders, can be very unwelcoming when it comes to new churchgoers.
But, you know, in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus reprimands the disciples for being smug and jealous and unwelcoming.
To put the story in its context or setting, Jesus and the disciples are in Capernaum. But on the way there the disciples have been arguing with one another about who is the greatest.
Jesus sits them down and tells them that to be great means to be like a child, and that if we don’t welcome the child-like among us, then we don’t welcome him.
Does the church learn from this? Did the disciples learn from this? It appears not.
One of the 12, John, complains that someone who is not part of their inner circle has been casting out demons in Christ’s name. Did they welcome him? Did they praise him for bringing comfort to distressed people and for restoring them to a good quality of life?
Instead of being smug among themselves, arguing about who among them was the greatest, the disciples should have been like this man, bringing comfort to those who were in trouble, looking after those who were thirsty both physically and spiritually.
I once worked as a journalist in The Irish Times. A former colleague there, who was ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland a few years before me, was visiting our house one evening. I asked him what was the difference between the two – being a journalist and being a priest.
And with a grin he told me: “Not much. I continue to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Perhaps not in so many words, but in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells the disciples that they should be afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
If we don’t do this in the Church, people are in danger of seeing us as hypocrites.
But if we had been faithful in the past in doing what Christ commands us to do, then there might be no need for Back-to-Church Sundays.
I hope when you leave here, when it comes to make adult choices, that you will make a commitment to Sunday churchgoing, and not just because it was a habit during your schooldays here.
I hope you find the Church open, welcoming, relevant and refusing to be smug or elitist. That you will play your part in keeping it so. And that you will invite your friends to come back to Church too.
And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was delivered at the Service of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion in Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Sunday 27 September 2009.