Reading the Sign Language; a three-part tale of winners and losers.

One:

She was my mature staff colleague, with no ambitions towards priesthood. She, I thought, was over- sensitive to suggestions for improvement. I, she thought, was over-critical and unappreciative. Good for her to stick it. But here's an example.

The inside doors of the church were confusing. Which way were we supposed to enter? My fellow-worker offered to do a sign; I gladly agreed. If I'd thought about it, I might have imagined a large arrow indicating THIS WAY or WELCOME, with floral or other decoration.

Reading the Sign Language
Chris Idle on A three-part tale of winners and losers

She had it ready for Sunday morning. A giant piece of orange fluorescent card, easily the brightest and best notice in the porch. What did it say? NO ENTRY!

So this was the message confronting everyone who ventured inside our historic church; not quite what I had hoped. What now? Do I ask her to try again, making her feel more unwanted, or do I let our congregation and visitors feel that way instead? I forget how we resolved it. We had a better notice up before long. What do the signs convey in your church?

Two:

They need not be words. Years later we move to the country. One of our seven churches is out on its own, a mile from its village centre. I'm a new boy in these rural fastnesses. Christmas comes, and with it an offer from the teenage son of a local farmer. His great passion is electronics. Would we like him to fix up strings of seasonal coloured lights around the main door?

Would we? I didn't know. Another PCC had unanimously vetoed an offer from one of the travelling fraternity to tarmac part of its churchyard, at the other end of the benefice. Burials there could be very muddy and mourners had been known to slither. It may have been the suspect source of the offer, or the hidden strings attached, which put the churchwardens off. The official reason, which somehow I had to convey to our neighbour, was that we didn't want our village to look like Croydon. Whatever next – street lighting?

But twinkly Christmas lamps might be different. It could make it easier to find our way through the winter snow, or convey our presence, and God's, to the occasional passing motorist. Christ is born, Emmanuel!

Not being sure, I consulted. Unlike tarmac, electric wire and light bulbs would not be a permanent fixture. We could try them once and gauge the effect. Part of my sympathy lay with the lad; good to get him involved, to respond to a generous thought. He had no known axe to grind.

Unhesitatingly this PCC pronounced, and pounced. No, again. Why not? ‘We don't want the church looking like a pub!' I didn't argue. Nothing wrong with the village pub. At least this village, unlike five of the others, has one. Its customers include the PCC. But it isn't the parish church.

I lost no sleep over that; less hassle, and no-one travels without a torch anyway. Afterwards I wondered. We don't want to be like the pub, do we? Not warm, welcoming, refreshing, nourishing, a place for friends to meet and chat, and… well, never mind. The young man will not be short of places that value his skills, plugs and sockets.

Three:

Not quite a pub, but a service station and comfort stop on our journey home in two minibuses. We knew its handy situation, and after our break had just twenty more miles to go. This time, we (the church on its outing) were the ones who missed the sign; perhaps it simply didn't register. The lady at the counter asked, ‘Didn't you see the notice? NO COACHES!'

Coaches – us? A couple of minibuses! Two large cars, really, full of well-behaved churchpeople keen for refreshment and even keener for the loo. To cap it all (we thought): ‘Look – there's hardly anyone here! It's practically empty!'

The powers that be were adamant. Within the meaning of the Act we were coachloads; no grey areas. Bribes or threats seemed inappropriate; no doubt madam knew her rule-book. She melted sufficiently to allow the more desperate ones to use the toilets. But never a sip or a bite did we get.

Off home we drove, wiser and more comfortable, if still hungry and thirsty. As we clambered aboard it was left to some joker to have the last word. ‘This place', he said, ‘is just like the Church of England!' How come? ‘It's so good at keeping the rules, erecting barriers, explaining why you can't do things. And it's almost empty!'

All this was many years ago. Now we are emptier still. I'm not so convinced of that bit about keeping the rules.

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