Monday, March 10, 2008


One of the many things I love about St Stephen's Church in the Central Parish of Exeter, where I have been a member for four years or so, is that every other week we have a lay-led liturgy and discussion - with space for group conversation and also for quiet reflection for those who need it. As a way of combining prayerfulness, socialising and an opportunity to be open, exploratory and thoughtful about faith and life, it sets a good example. Because we are quite small, it is also possible, and usually very fruitful, to sit in a circle rather than rows.

So far so good. The point of sitting 'in the round', picking up Letty Russell's image, is that it is inclusive, non-hierarchical and relational. And indeed that is the way that it proves, for those who are used to it and have some familiarity with 'the circle'. But if you are a visitor, it can be, ironically, worrying and excluding. This morning, not long after we had started, two people stuck their heads round the door. "Come on in", someone called out in a friendly way. Instead, looking slightly startled, they turned on their heels and fled. It would have seemed inappropriate to chase after them, but you can't help feeling a sense of regret. Had it been a "normal service", then it would have been possible for them to sneak in at the back. Something I have often done myself, in fact.

My point is not that St Stephen's should re-sculpt our Meeting Point events. Far from it. They work, for many people. Of course, we should (and do) make some effort to keep a space in the circle, a seat at the end, some spare chairs, and where possible, someone to say hello near the door. But it still won't be for everyone. No form or shape of church worship will, no matter how emergent or traditional (or something combining the two) it seeks to be. What's needed, it seems to me, is for churches with different aptitudes and styles to make the most of what they are good at, and to think of the 'entry point' in the context of what is on offer. Walking in on a circle cold will always be difficult for most people, but being introduced to it by someone you know, or through social contact is a different matter.

What's important is for us to realise that while inclusion and exclusion have their obvious patterns and dominant causes (especially when the church is deliberately being exclusive, as some are), both occur in far subtler ways, too. Blame or guilt about this, or some fantasy that there is a 'technical solution', isn't the issue. Adaptability, awareness and openness is.

Other pieces on the 'communities of conviction' theme: Communities of liberating conviction; congregating for a change; disturbing our power games; doing church differently.

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