Sunday morning’s not enough
We keep hearing that faith is a 24/7 process, not something you should switch on and off when you go in and out of a church building. The same should go for our mental wellbeing. Yet church practices don’t always demonstrate awareness of these truisms.
A typical image of ‘church’ is of parishioners dutifully clocking on for a service sometime on a Sunday morning, then clocking off an hour or so later having experienced some sort of spiritual enlightenment – it always helps to be optimistic – along with a cup of tea, a biscuit and some small talk at the fellowship afterwards, and a promise to do the same thing at the same time next week. They then take leave of each other, knowing that there’s little chance they’ll meet up again until those seven days have turned – even if they live in the same parish.
The really blessed ones might have the advantage of a midweek Bible study or prayer group, where the nuances of last weekend’s sermon and impending church business form integral parts of the discussion. More adventurous churchgoers, if they are interested and able-bodied enough, could join the bi-monthly country walking group. Otherwise, unless you can tick a box marked ‘youth’, ‘elderly’ or ‘PCC member’, there won’t be much available to help you cope with your 24/7 challenges.
The above scenario, or something like it, has for many years been the sum total of activities provided by the church family. So it’s little surprise that many members of that family have been made to feel more like distant cousins than close siblings. Some of these people might have come to church as a last resort, in need of support at a time of crisis – are they going to be interested in the minutes of the last PCC meeting?
Now that social isolation has finally been recognised as a blight on civilised society, it is important for community hubs – of which the church must surely count itself one – to address their role in fighting it. As well as addressing the personal issues of individual members of the congregation, this would have the added bonus of engaging with members of the wider community who are not regular churchgoers, and promote a less remote and more inclusive public image.
Some have already done so with encouraging results. Hosting a Credit Union or an internet café, providing financial or housing advice, or even just being open to enable an informal chat over a coffee are all ways in which churches can develop their role in pastoral care. The list is not meant to be exhaustive.
More radically perhaps, there is scope for liaison with other community groups to provide companionship and support at home, or more specialised counselling services. What matters most is that there is someone around who will listen to individuals’ concerns – something you won’t always get at the Sunday service or even at the home group.
Inter-agency work need not be formal or strictly timetabled. A small church group having a meeting or joining in the quiz at the pub – another genuine community hub, in the right hands – will also show the larger community that the church is actively involved in it, as well as combatting the isolation problem by getting people who might be lonely out of the house and involved in a collaborative venture.
It’s unreasonable to expect the vicar to be available in the middle of the night to field an insomniac phone call from a parishioner who’s having problems. But it’s equally unrealistic to expect a couple of hours a week spent dealing with religious themes to be enough to handle these problems. One size doesn’t fit all.