First find an altar

John Burrows

 

We were staying in a town in the Midlands where I had never been before. As it was Easter week, I especially wanted to go to Holy Communion – but where? This was before the days of Forward-in-Faith-type directories. Crockford’s Clerical Directory showed that there were thirty or so Anglican churches in the town. The vicar’s theological college provided some clue.

On my first afternoon, thus armed, I set out on a voyage of discovery. This seemed preferable to telephoning round. First I had to locate the churches on my short-list. Names like ‘St Peter’s New Park’ give a vague area. The map also indicates churches, but does not tell you which one is ‘St Peter’s,’ or indeed if they are Anglican at all. The vicarage address usually helped, but not always.

The first notice-board gave Sunday services, adding, ‘For weekday services see inside notice-board.’ The trouble was that the inside notice-board was behind a door that was bolted and barred – as was the vicarage. Presumably the parish priest was enjoying a post-Easter break.

Joy overcame me at the next church. Not only were the Sunday services on the main notice-board, but the weekday ones as well. I was copying these down when a friendly parishioner approached. ‘It’s ten o’clock on Tuesday, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘we’re in interregnum, with only Sunday services.’ I was thankful that she saved me a wasted journey – and wondered if anyone else had turned up for a non-existent Mass.

Church Number 3 was clearly my mistake. Its notice-board was highly informative, proclaiming its admirable Evangelical churchmanship. I could attend a Bible study, an Alpha session, or mid-week praise service, but not a Tuesday Eucharist. Another church appeared to have been turned into a factory.

My next call was slightly better. Here was a glass-fronted case on the railings, with the familiar Anglican boxes indicating each day the times of Mattins, Eucharist and Evensong. Sadly it was for the week before. The vicar subsequently explained that, with all the preparations for Easter, he had just not got round to it. I knew how he felt.

It was this church, on a subsequent occasion, that I experienced (for the only time) being excluded altogether. Arriving one morning for the ten o’clock Mass – admittedly cutting it rather fine – every door was locked. It turned out that a retired priest had been taking the service. He admitted the waiting worshippers through the vestry door, and locked it behind them.

The family atmosphere of our churches is one of our strengths. There are Roman Catholics who come preferring it to the anonymity of their own churches. But the downside is that so often we cater only for the in-crowd.

Getting to church, I reflected, is not easy at the best of times. It is even harder when you cannot find out when the services are.

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