Church calls on lapsed worshippers

RICHARD PARR The 18-year-old lapsed church-goer was so embarrassed when she made her return to the pews that she wore dark glasses and a big hat. But this Sunday, when the nation's lapsed worshippers are invited back to the Church of England, there will be no need for disguise as a warm welcome awaits.

RICHARD PARR

The 18-year-old lapsed church-goer was so embarrassed when she made her return to the pews that she wore dark glasses and a big hat.

But this Sunday, when the nation's lapsed worshippers are invited back to the Church of England, there will be no need for disguise as a warm welcome awaits.

Helping to arrange that welcome will be none other than the woman who was once that girl in the disguise, the Rev Jan McFarlane, now the Bishop of Norwich's chaplain.

As part of a national initiative which will see bishops around the country take part in attention-grabbing skydives and podcasts, the churches of the Norwich diocese will seek to welcome back those who, for whatever reason, strayed and found themselves in the supermarket aisles rather the church aisles on a Sunday morning.

The English church census has shown that in 2005, 3.2m people attended church across the country, a decline of 40pc since 1998. This equates to just 6.3pc of the population regularly attending Sunday services.

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In Norfolk, 44,000 people attended, just 5.3pc of the county population. According to the census figures, church attendance in Norfolk has halved in the last quarter of a century from 85,000.

Ms McFarlane said that 130 churches in the diocese are taking part in the initiative which is based on people being sent a personal invitation with the message of Wish you Were Here.

“As an 18-year-old I returned to church after a lapse of some time and I wore dark glasses and a large hat. It was terrifying for me because it was all strange and new,” Ms McFarlane recalled.

One Norfolk rural group of parishes has already taken up the initiative and combined the Back to Church Sunday with a harvest festival and tea during the service.

The Rev Barry Furness, assistant priest for the High Oak Benefice centred on Hingham, said it proved very successful.

He and his Methodist minister colleague, Briant Smith, had personally gone around the village homes issuing personal invitations for people to return to church.

As a result of the service some people had said they would come back again, others inquired about becoming confirmed and others inquired about joining a bible study group.

“In the changing lifestyles people now experience there is still a God-centred space in their lives and we have to find way of filling it which fits in with their lifestyle and needs. We have to find the balance between those who still want the traditional church and for those for whom the traditional church has no meaning,” he said.

Mr Furness said that today's worship needed to be relevant to people's lives.

The initiative will have a party feel for worshippers at Chedgrave where they are having a barn dance and hog roast on Saturday evening and a barbecue following the special Sunday morning service.

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