Christopher Idle is one of them

In their eagerness to turn over to 30 Days, the Letters Page and George Austin, some ND readers may have become blase about the New Directions masthead which reads (you may check back here) ‘Serving Evangelicals and Catholics…’, etc. We all know what Catholics are; but who are these first-named creatures? Where shall we find them, and how are they recognised?

Inclusive church

This question has puzzled evangelicals themselves for two generations. They – we – regularly issue papers and booklets with the same 4-word heading as I have used here. Some lean towards a more exclusive or negative definition: ‘You cannot possibly be one if you commit abc or fail to observe xyz’. Others are more inclusive and positive: ‘If you believe some of this, say some of that and do some of the other, you’re probably OK’.

This half-page does not pretend to rival or revise such searching definitions; it simply offers a snapshot of what today’s evangelical looks like. Or rather, a brief slice of fuzzy film where we have been caught on CCTV for a few minutes one Sunday.

Here he comes, then (we’ll call him he), shuffling into church a little late, in carefully-selected clothes which may include gardening trousers and a rugby shirt or something with a snappy slogan like JCUK (signifying ‘John Charles [Ryle] – UnKnown’). At the door he gratefully accepts the bundle of leaflets which represents the menu for the next 90 minutes or so. Yes, ninety; on a good morning, say 110.

Ritual notes

The first main course of the show that follows, after a chatty introduction of jokes for the in-crowd, will then be announced by a youngish person up front in these or similar words: ‘Now I want you all to stand up for 15-20 minutes while the music group strings together a series of unconnected and rather silly songs. They all go to some repetitive and banal tunes which you don’t know; but not to worry because each one is much the same as the one before, and our musicians will make them sound really cool, or at least loud’. The words are much the same, too; their main point is that we’re winning. Or rather, ‘I’m winning’.

So that is what happens. Every church building (or ‘plant’) has its icons, images and focal points, and here the eye-catching horizon is dominated by a large white screen, effectively blocking our view of any previously visible window or ecclesiastical furniture. Slightly lower in our vision are the drum kit, music stands, instrument cases, microphones, trailing wires and amplifiers of the band. This is a visual age and there is always something to watch.

Textual criticism

Those in the front few rows will engage in some entertaining body-language; not waving but clowning. If you’re near the back you don’t need to clap so hard or raise your hands so high, because there’s no-one to see you. The rule then is, hands in pockets, please – follow the preacher.

And you do have to follow the preacher. Your evangelical will listen with exemplary patience to a number of gossipy mini-sermons slotted in to explain the confession, intercession and creed (if any), before the maxi-sermon for which he will need his Bible. Sometimes this is all the Bible he will get; for Psalms, Canticles, Lord’s Prayer and responses are usually omitted. The Ten Commandments may get an occasional mention (see also ‘Prayer Book’, ’39 Articles’) but are never read. He may not hear much about Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Ascension Day, Trinity Sunday or All Saints. So you need not expect any Collect of the Day. Who needs a book when you can do it all yourself and make it up as you go along?

If you’re a newcomer, you will be delightedly greeted during The Peace but may be ignored afterwards unless the congregation is small. You may never find out who the people are up front, or which if any of them is the Vicar. But don’t worry; most of what you need to say, sing or know will also appear as if by magic on the giant screen.

Volunteers will be urgently needed for something due to happen in the summer, or (more likely) next Tuesday. Take care. On finally leaving the coffee-area you, or he, will receive a further bundle of glossy literature featuring Alpha, Omega, conferences, weekends, films, outreach, mission, meals, parties, skiing holidays and so forth. He will need to slot these into his plastic bag (provided) next to his packet of Fair Trade tea, his two jars of Fair Trade marmalade, and his four bars of beautifullythinand deliciously dark chocolate.

We need to follow our friend home. But we now know what to call him.