Taking a back seat

I guess lots of average churchgoers struggle, more or less, with the church they attend. Some may have shopped around for a church that was the least worst of options in their locality – or, if they were lucky, perhaps even the best match with what they hope for in a church. Others may not have the luxury of choice, and end up in the only church it’s at all feasible for them to attend. And they end up putting up with whatever’s on offer. I suspect that most lay people assume that, even if they have to compromise and make sacrifices, at least the clergy and other worship leaders have it just the way they want it to be.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Even though the clergy may have the greatest influence on what the worship is like, most of them would say there are so many variables, that it’s still never 100% how they would like it. The involvement and enthusiasm of the congregation are never in your control. They don’t sing with enough enthusiasm, they say the congregational bits too fast or too slow, they don’t arrive early enough to get into a suitable prayerful frame of mind. The layout and furnishings of the building may have been fit for purpose 500 years ago, but today!? The quality of the music depends on who is available to provide it, their skills and interest and personal preferences. So the clergy too have to make compromises, and put up with the way things are.

Nevertheless, I was more than happy with the worship at Marston and Elsfield. It wasn’t perfect, but it nourished me and many others during the 25 years and more that I was responsible for it. The music in particular was a joy, thanks to the dedication of the four organists I worked with, the choir(s) and music group. When we started a Junior Choir, it was a huge boost to the whole of our music, and numbers of those lovely young people who started in our choir have gone on to other things, singing in Oxford college choirs and even cathedral choirs. I was proud of the way the music developed during my time as Vicar, even though I had little to do with actually making it happen.

And then, of course, you have to move on, or in my case retire. And suddenly you’re not in the driving seat any more, you’re just another bum on a pew.

The one thing I’m sure I can say without contradiction, to any soon-to-be-retiring clergyperson, is: Wherever you end up in church, they won’t do things properly. I suppose it’s remotely possible you may find yourself in a place where something in the worship is so amazing that you say to yourself, I wonder why I never thought of doing it like that? But it doesn’t happen very often.1 So there’s a steep learning curve, about Letting Go and Letting Be, and learning either to put up with or love the way it is done in your new place of worship.

There are blessings along the way. We have learned some new things, and learning new things is good when you retire. We’ve found a loving and friendly welcome, from lots of people who are not only nice but good – their compassion and generosity put me to shame. We always preached the importance of being part of one’s local parish church, rather than looking around for something more congenial, and we have been blessed to be able to do that (in spite of some of the niggles). We have been touched by the way that the clergy value us simply being there; as if our mere presence is an encouragement, a support to them.

And so, we are here because this is the place we believe God has called us to be. Which is the best way, and the best place, to be.

  1. It happened quite a lot during my last two years in the parish, when I was blessed with a brilliant young colleague and was constantly thinking, I wonder why I’ve never done it like that?

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