During the days prior to Christmass I had a number of phone calls from people who wanted to help with providing food for homeless and housebound people. From the conversations which followed, I get the impression that people now see the church as the stop-gap for a situation created by the collapse of society as we knew it, together with the financial straits caused by the mishandling of finance in the past few years. Unfortunately, the absence of people in the pews means that there are not the able-bodied people available to make up the provision formerly offered by social services. To give an example, the Baby & Toddler Group was originally operated from Hamil Road Methodist Church. An ageing congregation meant that they could no longer provide the service. Thanks to a visit from some of the mothers involved, the toys and people moved to Holy Trinity. Later, Surestart worked with the group until government funding allowed for daily provision within the PVFC complex. This nearly caused the closure of the Baby and Toddler Group because many of the users transferred to the free (and daily) facility. Now that the funding has been withdrawn our own group is the sole provider within the neighbourhood. We are also blessed with a number of very keen helpers, including the parents and guardians themselves.
Now what we provide is all well and good, but it is not the reason why the church exists in Hamil Road. No one rang to ask about times of worship. There is a danger that people will only see the church as of use if it is providing support within the community. There have been a number of surveys recently. The aim has been to ascertain how much free time is given by Christian volunteers to provide for the needs of people within communities. Luncheon clubs, baby and toddler groups, youth clubs etc. are seen as the prime reason for the existence of the church. I remember one priest making the observation that Sunday Schools were the free child-minding service provided by the church until the recent wholesale decline of that institution. How many parents in the past sent their children to the Sunday school of the church they attended themselves? Not many.
There is a great danger in the church itself seeing itself as a social provider, a champion of social issues and a leading campaigner against global warming and other environmental issues. If I were to suggest that we are actually in the business of rescuing souls bound for hell that they may, by God’s grace through baptism, confirmation, confession, holy communion, and anointing enter heaven – then I would be considered narrow-minded and too heaven-centred. Yet that is what the Church is about. We seek to save souls through the grace of God. I would put it even more extremely by saying that the social provision made by the churches actually detracts from that primary task. If contemplative religious communities (not running schools, hospitals etc.) serve a purpose, it is that of setting before us the uselessness of the Church as a provider of earthly comforts. We are here to worship God and to bring others to the same. We are here to bring people to worship as the Lord Himself has told us to worship. “Do this in memory of me.” is what He demanded. “Go out into the world and baptise…” is another command. Jesus healed the sick because He wanted to show signs of the Kingdom and God’s ultimate desire for His people – not to provide a quick-fix.
I realise that what I am saying would appear to be in danger of self-indulgence. Putting on inspiring worship, proving what could be seen as religious grand opera or drama, could be seen as self-centred. We need to realise that it is not put on for us but as an offering to God. If it has any effect on us then it must be to produce a desire to do more for God and in God’s way. This could be the providing of care for people in need – but it has to grow out of that devotion and prayer and not be a substitute for it. The problem is that people ask me what they can do to help others via the church when really they should, by joining in worship week by week and meeting with fellow Christians in fellowship, be inspired to do good works which flows out of that discipleship, not be a substitute for it.
I’m afraid that I told one person, “I am not Social Services. I am in the business of bringing people to the Lord and calling them to worship by entering into Christ’s offering of Himself.” Unfortunately, people seem to find time to do good works but have lost the faculty to offer worship. I don’t think that the Church and Christians help. We seem to regard worship very much as an optional extra. This seems to be especially the case when the major Christian festivals are celebrated. Crib services are no substitute for the mass for anyone who has been baptised and confirmed. Family commitments must come second to the worship of God. Did not Our Lord teach us to hate our families? If I have tried to do anything as vicar of this parish, it is to put before the People of God (and would-be People of God) the basics of the Christian Faith. To put it in a nutshell, I cannot understand why churches closed on the Sunday when it snowed. “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am in their midst.” It is our duty and joy to offer worship. There is no substitute.