What is “the church”?

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“Are you talking about the church as the building or the church as the people?”

I was starting to say something about “the church” when I was interrupted by the questioner, asking for clarification.

“People,” I replied, instinctively aware that if I answered: “the building” my comments would have been discounted.

But later I wondered. Why was I offered this either/or choice?  Why do there appear to be negative connotations to speaking about the church as the building, as if this is something that we need to leave behind? What do we mean by the church as people anyway?

Are we talking about the regular congregation who turn up most Sundays?   Do we include occasionals? The person who comes once a month but takes no part in the life of the church?   How do we decide who is “the church” and who isn’t?

Neither church as building nor church as people seemed to quite fit with what I was trying to say. I wondered if I was thinking of the institutional church – the complete organisation from Archbishops and synods to churchwardens and PCCs?  But that didn’t seem right either.

On reflection, it seemed to me that behind all these facets of church there is a more mystical church. Connected to both past and future, it is continuously struggling to align itself (people, buildings and institution) with the Kingdom of God.

In this scenario, it is not a case of choosing one aspect and identifying it as “the church”. It is all of these, and probably other facets that I haven’t thought of, held together in some kind of tension.

“Go and repair my church, which you see is falling into ruins,” the crucified Christ said to Francis in the ruined chapel of San Damiano.  Francis did not see a dichotomy between rebuilding the physical chapel and a rebuilding of people’s spiritual lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t either…

Dancing in Church

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We are in the cathedral for some kind of afternoon celebration – it might be Pentecost. It isn’t specifically an All Age service but there are several children present.  The congregation are singing “How great thou art…” and in the small space in front of us a tiny two year old is dancing quietly.  Then a lady leans forward, taps his mother on the shoulder, and indicates to her that she should be keeping her child in order. The mother picks him up and restrains him.  He doesn’t dance any more. Many of those around me are aware that we have lost something special – but what can we do?

There are about 60 children present for All Age Worship in this large evangelical church.  For the first twenty minutes, while the children are present, there are choruses and a children’s talk, interspersed with the opening hymn and prayers for the adults.  The introductory hymn is “Shine Jesus shine”.  A four year old girl and her little brother step forward into the small square space in the centre and begin to dance.  They weave around each other, creating intricate patterns. At times they catch hands and whirl each other around.  No one joins them; all the other children stand sedately with their families in the pews.  It is hard to gauge the response of this church to the dancing – tolerated but not encouraged perhaps?  There is almost a feeling of relief when all the children are brought forward to take part in a well-known action song, a kind of religious version of the Hokey Cokey. Perhaps it’s safer when everyone is doing the same thing at the same time?

There are fifteen at the village All Age Worship service, five children and ten adults.  The congregation are singing “God forgave my sin in Jesus name” and three of the younger children are dancing (two eight year old boys and a five year old girl).  Ribbon rings have been offered and they all have one or two in each hand. Their dancing is spontaneous and experimental and sometimes gets carried away.  There is little interference from the adults; everyone accepts that dance is part of our experience of worship.

As I watch I wonder if the adults long to join in… Do they dance like this in empty churches, as I do?

Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: Hilary: Standing up to bullying

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Warning: Spoilers.  This is a continuation of this post: Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: an exploration of bullying

On one level Hilary is a totally unbelievable character. By the age of 10 she has lost two sets of parents: her birth parents in a convenient hurricane when she was six, her adoptive father in a plane crash and her adoptive mother through a fall down the stairs.  Her response to the death of her adoptive mother is depicted by Noel Streatfeild as a “normal reaction” – floods of tears, followed two days later by dancing merrily round the garden waving tea towels. This is the last we hear of her reaction to their deaths; she certainly shows no sign of missing anyone.

On this evidence Hilary comes across as a sociopath, whose talent for attracting fatal accidents to those close to her would not be out of place in The Omen…

However, setting this aside purely as a plot device, Hilary becomes a much more interesting character; she is the only person in Dancing Shoes who is prepared to confront bullying.

It is Hilary who refuses to allow Dulcie to get away with laughing at Rachel when she looks comic in her audition dress.  Slapping her in the face may not be the best response, but Hilary is a child surrounded by ineffectual adults.  When confronted with the bullying Mrs Wintle, Hilary is prepared to stand her ground, explain her reasons and point out that Dulcie’s response was unkind. The consequence of this is a rare moment when Mrs Wintle asks Pursey for advice, and more or less follows it.

In contrast, the other characters response is to keep away and never engage (Uncle Tom), avoid confrontation until it is inevitable and then offer resignation (Pursey and Mrs Storm), and freeze in fear (Rachel).  Pursey is even deceitful on occasions – buying orange material for shorts to convince Mrs Wintle that she has cut up Rachel’s beloved dress and encouraging Hilary to take part in a talent show without Mrs Wintle’s knowledge.

What is it that enables Hilary to stand up to bullying?

Firstly she has a very clear sense of who she is and what she wants.

Hilary has spent years resisting pressure to turn her into something that she isn’t.  Her adoptive mother, her ballet teacher and her sister Rachel all want her to work hard and go to the Royal Ballet School.  Rachel is obsessive about this to the extent of bribing Hilary with pocket money to get her to work at ballet.   Although Hilary goes along with this, the reader is always aware that at some level she knows it isn’t going to happen. This may be what others want for her; it isn’t what she wants for herself.

She also has an ability to make friends easily and create a strong support group.    Noel Streatfeild shows Hilary (disapprovingly) as someone who is naturally lazy and lacking in ambition; she has the talent but not the drive.  But this is unfair to Hilary, who is an extrovert and prefers to work as part of a troupe rather than in a solitary role.  As the antithesis to Noel’s solitary heroines, she is far better balanced and untroubled by angst.

Hilary has an awareness of others, she “gets” people and situations.  She understands that no amount of training will turn Rachel into a successful Wonder, something that the adults refuse to recognise or do anything about.  It is Hilary who makes it clear to Mrs Wintle that Rachel is not jealous showing that she is not only self aware, but aware of who Rachel is.

Perhaps it is key that Hilary insists on working out her own morality.  Her mercenary attitude (shared by Noel Streatfeild herself as a child) grates. Rachel and most of the adults consider Hilary to be immature and irresponsible. (At the start of the book the “thoughtful, caring” doctor tells Rachel, but not Hilary, that her mother is going to die. This has always baffled me, but it is indicative of the way Hilary appears to others.)

But the upside of this is that Hilary’s morality is grounded in reality.  Mummie’s dying wish, that she carries on with her ballet, does not bind her as it binds Rachel; she simply dismisses it. Following it would mean compromising her own integrity and force her to be someone that she is not. It takes years for Rachel to understand what Hilary has known all along.

It never occurs to Hilary not to confront the bullies in defence of Rachel.  This, in her morality, is what sisters do.  She not only acts while others hang back, but is prepared to accept the consequences of her actions.  In some ways, she is the most mature character in the book.

Dancing shoes by Noel Streatfeild – an exploration of bullying

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Warning: Spoilers.  A link to a synopsis of this book is at the end

I first read this book (then entitled Wintle’s Wonders) as a child in the 60s. As the author intended, I identified with Rachel, the lonely, misunderstood protagonist, who eventually has her happy ending when her acting talents are recognised at the expense of her spoilt and conceited cousin Dulcie.

Re-reading it as an adult is a far more chilling experience.

Rachel’s Aunt Cora (Mrs Wintle) is a bully.  Her bullying of Rachel is overt – constant criticism of her looks, her personality (described as “spiteful and jealous”), her insistence that despite a lack of interest and talent Rachel has to be trained as a Little Wonder and dance in pantomimes and musical comedy.

As with many bullies, few people are prepared to stand up to her.   Her staff at the dancing school simply accept that she will be the person making the decisions, while her husband Tom avoids confrontation and keeps out the way.  When Pursey (the nanny figure) and Mrs Storm (the children’s teacher) do actually make a stand for Rachel, neither has any skills with which to engage her; both go straight to offering their resignation.  The only person to stand up to her verbally (and actually come off best) is 11 year old Hilary, Rachel’s adopted sister.

But far more damaging than her overt bullying of Rachel, is Mrs Wintle’s bullying of her daughter Dulcie.  Rachel spends little time with her aunt and is surrounded by supportive adults – Mrs Storm, Pursey and her Uncle Tom – who all appreciate Rachel for the person she is.

Dulcie however is with her mother: morning, noon and night.  Mrs Wintle treats her as an extension of herself – Dulcie, pretty and talented, will be the stage success that she never was herself.  She even talks to her in this manner addressing her as “Mum’s Little Leading Lady”.

Dulcie does not go to school and has no friends – in fact the other Wonders hate her and make fun of her even though she is unaware of this. She imitates her mother’s patronising manner towards the Wonders, and has no insight into how she comes across.

The adults in Dulcie’s life seem completely unaware of the damage that her mother is inflicting upon her.  Pursey and Mrs Storm tolerate her (preferring Rachel and Hilary), the dancing staff refer to her as “Mrs W’s Little Horror”.  Her father Tom has no connection with her at all.  Rachel, his niece, spends hours in his studio or out sketching with him; he suggests a way to do her hair and designs clothes for her.  But we see no interaction between him and his daughter, he has handed her over to her mother and washed his hands of her.

Noel Streatfeild seems to have little sympathy for Dulcie, in effect blaming her for her self-centredness and conceit.  We are meant to rejoice at her downfall – and because it is actually her mother’s downfall, we do. Although the end of the book hints that she will have a glowing future in musical comedy productions, it seems likely that she is too damaged by her mother’s bullying to be able to have any meaningful relationships or decide for herself who she wants to be.

Although extreme, this situation comes across as believable.  This is how narcissistic bullies treat people.  Dulcie, the victim, is isolated and unaware. She has no one to speak up for her…

Synopsis here: Wintle’s Wonders by Noel Streatfeild

In praise of schools

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Nicky’s family is managing – just.

Nicky* is ten.  He has an older brother and three younger siblings; between them they have three different fathers. Their latest “dad” has just moved out.  In theory, this should lead to a calmer home life; in reality Gina, his mum, is suffering from depression and doing very little.

Two different doctors have seen the family this week – Gina for her depression and the youngest child for a chest infection.  Neither has met Nicky, it’s a large practice and Nicky is relatively healthy.

The social worker has been round to visit.  She thinks things are improving; Gina has managed a trip to town and Nan is coming over on Saturdays to bring shopping and do the family washing.  There is pressure from above to close the file on the family but the social worker doesn’t want to do it quite yet.  She doesn’t see Nicky as she visits while he is at school.

The family worker has been round too.  The oldest brother has behaviour problems, and she is helping the family to cope. She too thinks things are improving – which is a relief as her boss is making it clear that she needs to start withdrawing her support – there are just too many families and too many problems. She has spoken to Nicky in the past, but this time he and his younger siblings are watching telly.

All of these people care, but because of the nature of their jobs they have to move on.  The doctors have moved on to different patients, the social worker has gone to see a family coping with debt and addiction, the family worker to support a school refuser on the autistic spectrum.

Nicky’s school do not have the option of moving on.  They are responsible for him and his siblings for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week during term time.

Nicky is not academic but he is keen. Every time his teacher asks for a volunteer, Nicky’s hand shoots up, usually accompanied by a cheerful grin. He likes and trusts his teacher and appreciates his jokes… However little things upset him.  He is almost in tears when he loses his trainers or spills custard on lunch duty.

Nicky’s family are well known to school.  The office staff are sympathetic when he and his siblings arrive late; sometimes when Nicky explains what’s happened they’re amazed they’ve managed to get there at all. On the mornings when it’s clear that no one has had much to eat since school lunch the day before the head takes them to the staff room and feeds them cornflakes.

Due to spending cuts there is no TA in Nicky’s class, but his teacher is doing his best to support him.  He asks Nicky how things are going and is relieved to find that things are starting to improve.  He suggests ways in which Nicky can get his homework done and arranges lifts so that he can play in the football match at another school.

Nicky’s school cares in a different way from the other agencies involved in the family’s life. They are involved with the children for years, every weekday during term time, picking up the pieces on a daily basis.  Schools care in depth, trying to create a safe space for children who may have no other safe spaces.

Ironically the government, which loves to compartmentalise, thinks that supporting Nicky and his siblings is the job of the over stretched care agencies.  As they see it, the role of the school is to teach Nicky the use of the subjunctive verb and how to add fractions with different denominators.

*While Nicky and his family are imaginary, there are families who are “just managing” in most schools.  Many children live in family situations that are more difficult and are not even “just managing”.

Welcome: The community church, getting it right…

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“Is it your first time here?”

When I reply that it is, the person on the door explains that the worship is upstairs and will be starting in 10 minutes.  He is not pushy, and seem genuinely pleased to see me.

In the foyer, someone else approaches me and asks if I have been told where the loos are and that coffee will be served afterwards.

I am accompanied up the stairs by Eric, an elderly man who has had a stroke. I find it almost impossible to make out what he is saying. But there is no mistaking his deep joy, his attention and the warmth of his smile.  Here is someone who knows that he is loved and valued by God and does not let himself be defined by his disabilities.  It is still important for him to welcome people and so he does.

At the end of the service I go down for coffee.  Several different people come up and chat and I am introduced to the pastor.

As I leave, I think that it would be good to go again, even though it isn’t really my style of worship.

This church seems to see welcoming as the responsibility of everyone, even though there were people with specific roles like greeting and dispensing coffee.

Instead of settling into the comfort of friendship groups at coffee time, there is an awareness of those who are on their own and might not know anyone.  I didn’t have to stand around looking lost and feeling excluded; probably six or seven people spoke to me at different times. Their initial questions were neutral – leaving me free to set the pace and share as much or as little as I wanted.

But perhaps the most important thing was that this church saw me as a real person and did not label me as a potential punter. I felt this most strongly talking to Eric going up the stairs.  He knew that here he is accepted as himself. I knew that I could be too.

The Frances factor: Everyone matters

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The owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

Frances and her baby brother are the only children at our under 5s service this morning; effectively I’m telling this story just for her and her mum.  (Her baby brother sleeps through it).

Or rather I start telling the story; there comes a point when Frances takes over…

I tell her about the king inviting his friends to the feast. Using our knitted figures to represent the characters, the servant visits each friend in turn in different parts of the church and they all accept happily.  We come back and I point out the rich tapestry (in reality the embroidered altar cloth!) that the king has put up to decorate his palace. We prepare the table, Frances insisting on including every piece of fruit and all the vegetables.  Then joyfully she leaps to her feet to collect the friends for the party…

But of course they cannot come; they have cows, fields and new brides. We go back to the king. “The king is sad and angry,” I say.

We go out to the churchyard and Frances searches for the people: the poor, the outcasts, those on the fringes: “Can you come?” she asks excitedly before gathering them up.  We come in and she props them around the table for the feast.

“The king is happy again,” she says.


We worry endlessly about numbers in our churches. As attendance declines we wonder if it is our fault; that perhaps there is a magic answer to this problem. If we put in more effort, publicise our events more widely and make sure that what we are offering is as good as we can make it, surely we will be rewarded with a greater number of people turning up?

When I have spent time preparing for an event and very few people turn up, I often feel disappointed. But since that morning with Frances, I am learning to let go.

For it did not matter to Frances, her mum or me, that she and her baby brother were the only children there that morning.  I was left feeling amazed that a three year old could enter so deeply into a story, able to see the pattern of the narrative as a whole and offer her insights into the feelings of those involved.   With more children, and a different dynamic, I would probably have missed this.

If everyone matters, all the time, then numbers are irrelevant.  They are not my problem; they are something I need to leave to God. My job is to offer what I can to whoever comes, and leave the rest to him.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t know (and never will) what difference her involvement in the story made to Frances.  It is enough to know that it mattered at the time…