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.