Is apathy putting the Sunday service at risk

Is there a collective view growing in both the Protestant and Catholic churches here and in Great Britain that there should be fewer services and masses, especially on a Sunday?

I’m particularly interested in the subject because, in recent times, I had been thinking of turning out for a Sunday service at least once a month.

I admit, from the outset, I haven’t been a devotee of religion in any shape or form since my children were small. Yes, I sent them to Sunday School but, years ago, faced one Sunday with an eight-year-old and his five-year-old brother declaring they weren’t going back because it was all too boring, I had to give in. Their father’s love of sailing was far more interesting.

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My Sundays thereafter, particularly in summer, were spent out on the water. Peace reigned at home. Anything for a quiet life.

Sandra Says by Sandra ChapmanComment
Sandra Says by Sandra Chapman
Comment Sandra Says by Sandra Chapman

It’s ironic therefore, just as I’m thinking of going back to church, the church itself is re-thinking the whole Sunday worship tradition.

The first I knew about it was in the newspapers where Bishop Donal McKeown of the Derry Diocese, which takes in County Londonderry and County Donegal declared: “In many ways there are far too many masses with the size of the buildings that we have and the numbers of people that are there”. Priest numbers in Ireland have been falling for years and Bishop McKeown believes fewer masses ‘may not be a negative development’.

In England, the General Synod recently voted to end the 17th century law which stated that weekly Sunday services must take place in every Church of England church. It’s a recognition of the fact that with fewer people going to church now and vicars having to be responsible for more than one church, it was clear that one vicar couldn’t be in every one of his churches each Sunday.

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The changes were first suggested three years ago by the Bishop of Willesden the Rt Rev Pete Broadbent. He declared at the time: “It clears the way for people to be honest”. He also said it would “cut out bureaucracy’”. He went further suggesting “the canon of the centuries-old tradition does not work, it is out of date and we are operating differently in the countryside now”.

He’s right of course. There was a time when it was advisable to avoid the ‘church traffic’ on a Sunday. Now that only applies should there be a wedding or a funeral.

But will this apply to Northern Ireland? I know that some ministers are struggling and that some churches will have a service on every other Sunday only. But, as Bishop McKeown declares: “The places in the world where the Church is thriving and growing are those places in Africa and Asia that didn’t have a glut of clergy two generations ago”.

He describes the old model as having arisen ‘in a pre-literate age where no one in the parish could read except the master, doctor or the priest”. This is an extremely perceptive view and one my agnostic other half has been declaring for years.

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Is this facing up to the reality that people who have to work all week don’t feel they can devote their most precious free day of the week going to church? Surely though they hang on to some christian beliefs, after all don’t they turn to church to get married, bury their loved ones and for the christmas festivities?

I have been to church weddings and funerals in recent times when the Ministers and Rectors have conducted the proceedings wearing just a part uniform – the bib and dog collar with a grey suit. That in itself tells me that a much more informal approach to even the most sacred of church ceremonies is underway. When I was married, half a century ago this May, the Rev David J McGaughey wore full regalia and I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Maybe growing informality has forced these changes on the hierarchy of both the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Could those in future who want to become Ministers find work only in countries like Africa and Asia? Is this a cause for worry?