the way we live now

Should churches concentrate on weekday services rather than Sunday worship? Statistically and theologically the answer is no,
says Geoffrey Kirk

 

It was never easy to take the ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign too seriously. It was, in the first place, so clearly run by out-moded Sabbatarians with their feet in the nineteenth century. The attempted broad coalition of those who wanted to pursue amateur sports, take children to see grandparents, wash the car, garden and read the papers in bed was always pretty transparent. But it is one thing to run a ham-fisted and misdirected campaign in its favour and quite another to advocate that Christians abandon Sunday altogether. Who would have thought that the tradition-bound CofE would contemplate so radical a step?

Step forward the Revd Lynda Barley, Church House’s Head of Research and Statistics.

Barley is a pot-pourri of liberal clichés. Churches are urged to ‘listen to the local,’ and ‘think outside the box.’ We have to be ‘flexible and responsive in our approach to church buildings.’ Churches are advised to listen ‘to the message your Sunday-service attendance levels are conveying’ and to reach out ‘beyond the church walls.’

This is not, on Revd Lynda’s part, merely patronizing condescension towards those who are doing a job (as incumbents of parishes) of which she herself has had no actual experience. It is more than that: she has a theory. She thinks that, since weekday attendances have usefully augmented USAs and kept the figures reasonably buoyant, it would pay to put more energy into weekdays and soft peddle Sunday attendance. Midweek services, she suggests, can meet the needs of a variety of people with Sunday commitments.

That this is mere nonsense can be demonstrated in various ways.

Take one parish as an example. In this fictional, but not untypical, parish there are Sunday attendances at two services around 150+. There is an average of seven weekday services at which the aggregated attendance is 45+, half of which is at two weekday services. On paper, there does seem to be good reason to suppose that hard work increasing the weekday attendances would boost the total figures and lift the church into a new category. But not so. For an analysis of those weekday figures shows that only four out of the 45+ attenders are not usually present on Sundays.

The parish, moreover, in CofE terms, is already doing reasonably well. The diocese to which it belongs is made up of 300 parishes, of which 145 have electoral rolls of less than one hundred, 100 have electoral rolls of over one hundred (with the vast majority closer to 100 than 200), and 55 parishes with electoral rolls of more than 200. Taking Sunday attendance figures as generally two-thirds the electoral roll or less, our imaginary parish is well above a diocesan average of 125.

None of these statistics goes to support the notion that attendance figures in such a parish could be significantly improved by concentrating more effort on weekday than on Sunday worship. The reverse would seem to be the case.

Our imaginary parish is, as you will have guessed, in the Catholic tradition. Forty years ago such a parish would have had a 7.00am Sung Mass on all major feasts. Thirty years ago there would have been an evening Sung Mass on those days. Attendance at such masses has now significantly declined. Numbers on Holy Days of Obligation are sustained by having three (or sometimes more) masses timed to accord with local employment and commuting patterns. This can and does result (for example, on Ash Wednesday) in attendance figures not unlike those of a normal Sunday. All the evidence, then, suggests that weekday attendance is more difficult and more challenging even for committed Christians than is attendance on Sundays.

But of course, Sunday worship is not merely a matter of statistics. Christians do not attend church on Sundays because it is the most convenient day to do so, but because it is the Lord’s Day. Their commitment to Sunday is not pragmatic but dogmatic; a practical expression of fundamental doctrine. The week, for Christians, is not an arbitrary division of time (like the decadis of Fabre d’Eglantine and Maximilien Robespierre), it is an integral part of the history of salvation.

Gospels, it has been said, are passion narratives with an extended introduction. And from the earliest times, even before the composition of Mark’s Gospel, that passion narrative was structured as a week, from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. The allusion is unmistakably to the seven days of creation in the Genesis account: the eighth day, the Day of Resurrection being a new start, a new beginning, a new creation.

The appeal of the Parish and People Movement to the inalienable principle of ‘the Lord’s own service on the Lord’s own day’ was no mere slogan, but a call to Anglicans to go back in their worship to roots and origins; to submit to a radical obedience to the Lord and to the tradition. Dix, in The Shape of the Liturgy, makes much of the sacrificial commitment of the earliest Roman Christians to Sunday worship (‘an ordinary working day in ancient Rome’). And through every generation Sunday worship has been not merely a ‘little Easter’ in every week, but an essential part of that ‘sanctification of time’ which gives rhythm to the life of the Spirit.

Christianity without the Sunday Mass ought to be to Christians what Islam without Friday Prayers would be to a Muslim: unthinkable and profoundly undesirable.

But we all know the mind-set of the likes of Revd Lynda. With management-speak and plausible adjustment they are bent on removing all the landmarks and characteristics of Christian believing. They do so, we have to believe, out of a genuine but misguided commitment to evangelization. Like the retired Congregationalist minister who has announced the advent of Christianity without religion in a disused chapel in Cheadle, they hope that by removing its prime characteristics they can make Church palatable to the indifferent. They start off with all the laudable intentions of an old-fashioned nanny: ‘a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.’ But having themselves lost faith in the efficacy of the medicine, they settle in the end for purveying a diet of pure molasses. ‘A bit of what you fancy does you good.’

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