When Mrs MP and myself first started walking out together, we would go to the flicks a couple of times every week. I really love film. But nowadays, because of the cost, we rarely go. On those rare occasions when we have the spare cash I research the films being shown very carefully first. It is, of course, easy to do this now we have the internet. I check out The Internet Movie Database for the people's verdict, Empire for the critics' verdict and the Guardian for the arty farty verdict. Only if I am pretty much convinced that we are both going to enjoy the film will we commit to going to see it. Otherwise we wait for the film to be shown on TV.
My question today is this, "Why can't the Church of England make available full information about what each of its churches is "showing" each Sunday in the same way cinemas and film reviewers do for films?
There must be a couple of hundred churches open in Durham Diocese, each of them will be offering something slightly or, even radically, different to each other. But finding out the true personality of each church is impossible unless you are prepared to visit each one in person. It is rare for a congregation to even admit to the major category of churchmanship it adheres to. Those parish churches that can be arsed to put up a website on the net (not all churches by any means) are reticent about being honest about where they are coming from. All you get is bland comments about being a "welcoming congregation" and such like. If you are a Church of England veteran you can sometimes work out roughly what sort of worship and indoctrination a particular church follows by looking at the list of services each week. But this can be ambiguous. "Family service" normally means evangelical with little reference to the fixed liturgies of the Church, but broad churches and even some liberal catholic churches may also employ the term in order to encourage "young families" to walk through their doors. Anyway, such secret language is of no help whatsoever to a person seeking to go to church for the first time.
I would love to find a church in the diocese to attend quietly for my own spiritual needs. But, although I've lived here for nearly a year now, I have so far been unsuccessful in finding one where I would feel welcome and which I would feel at home in. There is nothing on the Diocesan website that gives information about the church styles of its individual churches. Furthermore, none of the priests in the diocese, that I have spoken to, from the bishop down, seem to have any idea what other priests get up to in their churches. The best responses I have got so far have been along the lines of a vague, "Well, Father Suchandsuch should be kosher." I have the particular problem of wanting to find a high church with bells and smells and, as the General Synod has allowed the flourishing of a misogynist subsection of the Church, I can't just walk into the nearest church that advertises solemn high mass or has the stations of the cross on permanent display. I could end up finding myself in a Forward in Faith church being lynched by a a mob of Romanists who have read my blog. But typing "liberal, anglo-catholic Durham" into Google does not offer up any suggestions whatsoever. As far as I can tell, none of the Affirming Catholics in Durham Diocese are actually presiding in anglo-catholic churches. In stead, they put up with the coffee morning Christianity of the broad church whilst dreaming about the good old days when they were studying at Mirfield.
But I'm not that important in the big scheme of things. What is important is making sure that when a person enters a church to attend a Sunday service for the first time they have decided by the end of the service that they will be going back the following week. If a gay man into classical music, who doesn't like too much bodily contact with strangers, accidentally walks into a "Biblically based" charismatic service in full swing where "same sex marriage" is condemned from the pulpit half way through, it is unlikely that he will go to ANY church the following week or ever. Why, when it is so desperate to increase its membership is the Church of England not maximising the possibility of turning enquiries into sales, so to speak?
All that is needed is for each diocese to give a full and honest account of each of its congregations on their websites that can be searched with simple terms like "catholic," evangelical," charismatic," and "liberal." These searches should then give you a list of possible churches that might be up your street. Then, you should be able to link through to the parish websites (which should be compulsory) where you will be given 100% accurate, honest and unambiguous information on the churchmanship of each church and what exactly goes on in their services.
I just know that I am going to get comments along the lines of "people should go to their local church and all get along together no matter what their personal likes and dislikes happen to be." These comments will mostly come from priests. Priests who grew up going to churches they felt at home in, who studied at ordination colleges strongly attached to the churchmanship they are comfortable with, who have deliberately sought out livings which are in tune with their way of doing church and who have imposed their style of worship on every congregation they have ever served.
Look! There is nothing wrong with wanting to get the most out of your worship at church. And this is not going to happen if you are hating every moment of the service. So let's get real and be honest about ourselves so that people looking for a church can be armed with the level of information they need to give them the confidence to walk through those open doors on a Sunday morning.