Julian Mann, Vicar of Oughtibridge, on old people and the young and the relationship of the spiritual and the rational

It was in between vicars that Bob decided to step down as treasurer of Booty Bridge parish church after seventeen years. He had taken it on whilst working as an accountant for Dawson & Fosdyke brick manufacturers and found little difficulty with the accounting side of the role. When he retired, the role was an enjoyable hobby. The PCC was treated to ornate flow charts and wonderfully presented accounts with a rhetorical flourish enjoyed by all.

But as he moved into his seventies, it was the weekly grind of counting and banking and all sorts of new procedures introduced by Diocesan Church House that made him feel that he was going to need to hang up his spreadsheets. What finally tipped him over the edge was the prospect of having to adjust to a new vicar – he had got on so well with the Rev Reg. It was he who had charmed him into taking it on in the first place. Regs successor, Rev Tim, who only stayed five years, was OK, but not as nice as Rev Reg.

The atmosphere at the first PCC of the interregnum was palpable as Bobs old friends absorbed the news. ‘But who else is there?’ said Renee. ‘He’s the only trained accountant we’ve got.’

That nice young couple

‘What about that young lady who was wanting her baby baptized? I’ve noticed her sitting on the back pew a couple of times,’ said Ron. ‘She did tell me her name…’ T think she’s a part-time vet,’ replied Renee. The sense of perplexity deepened amongst the dozen or so elderly ladies and a couple of gentlemen who comprised the Booty Bridge PCC.

Then Queenie intervened: ‘None of us is getting any younger. I’ve been on the flower rota for forty years. It’s about time we handed on to the next generation.’ (‘Have you, Queenie? I must have been doing it for at least twenty-five.’ ‘Me too.’) Queenie continued, ‘Well, we’re all getting on. Surely we need to get some of the young people in. How about that gang that hangs about in the park on Friday nights making an awful racket? I saw one of them zig-zagging all over the zebra crossing the other day. I didn’t see any bottles about – I wondered whether she’d got concussed or something.’

‘They’d have to pipe down a bit,’ said Dorothy. ‘We don’t want any windows broken.’ Then Bill, a veteran of the D-Day landings who knew that machine-gun posts are not stormed by evading reality, dropped his bombshell. ‘The fact is, if we don’t recruit some of these younger folk, this church is going to close down.’

What is the thinking underlying these unrealistic expectations which an elderly, small church is laying on its conscience? Is it what Francis Schaeffer called the Tine of despair’ – the idea that the realm of the supernatural and spiritual is entirely divorced from the realm of the rational and logical? This ‘split-level’ approach leads churches to believe that they have got to do something strange or mystical in order to get themselves out of the hole that they are in. Like pensioners trying to get teenagers to come to church.

Starting small and modest

Surely it makes more sense to start with the friends, neighbours and family of existing church members. Get real. Start where we are with our own social networks. In God’s providence, these will usually include the children and grandchildren of existing church members, thus providing a ready-made pool of families to fish in.

The God of the Bible is the God who, whilst he can suspend normal processes in miracles or use extraordinary means to achieve his ends, usually works through the reality of our everyday experience and relationships and social contexts.

Does not recovery begin when the church rediscovers the glorious God of the Bible, the God who is there in reality, not in wishful thinking, as Schaeffer argued? Surely when we rediscover the true God, who transcends the line of despair, we will stop setting ourselves church growth goals that are off with the fairies.