A view from the back pew: a retired priest’s new perspective

Rev. Canon Christopher Pratt

Rev. Canon Christopher Pratt

by Rev. Canon Christopher Pratt

The list of those who had died was too long. The individuals whose names appeared on the list were too young.

The list appeared in the parish bulletin on a weekly basis with new names. Each list named individuals who had been the victims of gun violence during a single week in the community.

* * *

The colour-coded mugs were carefully set out at the coffee hour. “If you are a newcomer or a visitor, please use the blue mugs,” the sign read.

With high hopes, holding onto an appropriately coloured mug, the visitor was left standing in isolation in the middle of a room filled with groups of people who chatted with an easy familiarity with each other.

* * *

“Welcome! Is this your first time visiting here? We have a time of fellowship after the service, will you be able to join us? Have you met the rector?”

The sincerity of the welcome was clearly evident and had obviously been extended to others over time. Words of welcome were followed up with a ministry of hospitality after the liturgy.

* * *

These are some of the experiences my wife Carolyn and I have had since I moved away from parish ministry into retirement in the fall of 2015.

We have been sitting in the back pew of some of the churches we have visited. ( I have always wondered what the attraction of the back pew has been for people. It does have a really good view!)

As the calendar year concluded we took a look back and noted that in a relatively brief time period we had worshipped in six dioceses, two countries, two denominations and 18 congregations.

Anyone who would be bold enough to suggest that an Anglican brand exists has not experienced the variety of worship that we have during our visits. From a cathedral men and boys choral eucharist to a frenzy-paced liturgy that left us feeling more anxious when we left than when we arrived, the diversity of Anglican worship available for people to claim as their own is breathtaking.

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Each community of faith had a unique identity. The Sunday liturgy was shaped to reflect their spiritual needs and resources.

Music varied from hymns offered with hymn books to praise songs appearing on a screen or screens set up in strategic locations in the sanctuary and nave.

There are those who include the experience of silent reflection as a meaningful part of the liturgy.

Others slice off appointed readings from Scripture for the day, apparently to accommodate a need to confine the service to a self-imposed 59-­­minute, 45-second timeframe.

No matter what the liturgical experience, for those who “church shop” in this day and age, I would suggest that beyond any denominational ties, individuals are drawn to a community of faith where the deciding factor in making a commitment to a congregation is based on how welcoming a community of faith is to new people. One Sunday morning, we were even welcomed as we stepped out of the car in the parking lot.

Carolyn and I used a scale taken from an old copy of The Anglican Digest (yes, I am going through my collection of papers from 37 years of ministry) to keep track of our experiences:

  • 10 points for a smile from a worshipper;
  • 10 points for a greeting from someone sitting nearby;
  • 100 points for an exchange of names;
  • 200 points for an invitation to coffee hour;
  • 500 points for an invitation to return;
  • 1,000 points for an introduction to another worshipper;
  • 2,000 points for an invitation to be introduced to the rector.

Half of the places we visited got full marks. One scored as low as 120.

The diversity of worship clearly reflects the depth of desire to express a love of God in a pattern that is meaningful within a particular congregation.

From full liturgical vestments to a stole alone, the outward appearances of those who presided over Sunday worship varied as much as the content of the homilies.

From extended reflections on the social ills of the day to scripturally based sermons with a number of biblical references, each preacher appeared to engage the community they served in a way that reflected their context of ministry.

That experience of the diversity of worship offered under the umbrella of the Anglican identity helped me to understand why individuals choose to drive past three other Anglican congregations to get to one that meets their spiritual needs.

The draw to a Book of Common Prayer service or to sing a traditional eucharistic choral setting is as real as the desire to experience a praise band or a more contemporary liturgy.

Each person who walks through the door on Sunday is a God-given gift.

For Carolyn and for me, at the conclusion of my parish ministry, each new community of faith offers the gift of a new experience.

Worship that nurtures the soul and a ministry of sincere hospitality offered by all of God’s people form the cutting edge of parish ministry that will draw people into any community of faith.