Revd Helen Kempster writes
I nearly always go to church when I am on holiday and it is always interesting to see how things are done in different places. Sometimes I come back with some really good ideas. On other occasions I learn how not to do things. After the service I always stay for coffee and this can be a really interesting experience. It takes me back to my first visits to my local church when I was 32.
I came to the Church of England entirely by accident because I was trying to avoid someone unpleasant. As it was Sunday morning, nothing was open so I went to church. Other than attending the odd wedding I hadn’t been inside a church since I was a child and, as I had been brought up in the Presbyterian Church, I didn’t know anything about the Church of England at all. However something seemed to attract me and I went back the next week, and the next, and so on. Several visits later I decided to venture into the church hall for coffee after the service. After six weeks of standing in the hall with my cup of coffee, someone spoke to me.
A lot has happened to me in the last thirty years. After that slow beginning it didn’t take me long to get involved in the life of the church and eventually I entered the ordained ministry. But I shall always remember that I stood there in that church hall for six weeks before anyone spoke to me. Of course, nowadays even if I am in a strange place, if I am wearing my clerical collar, people always speak to me. So it is only on holiday, visiting a strange church without my collar, that I can begin to know again what it feels like to be the stranger who nobody speaks to. The most surprising lack of welcome
was thirty years ago in Scotland. The congregation bustled into the attractive, modern
hall for coffee. The chairs were nicely laid out round tables – cafe style. But by the time
I had got my coffee and turned around everyone else had gone straight to their special
chair. Every chair was taken and there were none for visitors. For a while I stared at the
backs of people who were all talking hard to their friends. No one noticed me and
eventually I gave up and left.
Nowadays, most churches are considerably more welcoming and friendly. My warmest welcome, so far, was in a tiny country church in Herefordshire where a member of the congregation not only came to welcome us but actually remembered us from our last visit the previous year.
Are we welcoming in Headley? It does feel as if we are and everyone was wonderfully kind and hospitable to me when I arrived, indeed everyone still is. However, in our own parish I can never experience what it is like to be a nervous stranger, completely unused to church. But I truly believe we do offer a warmth and friendliness to the steady number of new people who have joined us in the last few years.
And that brings me to ‘Back to Church Sunday’ when everyone is strongly encouraged to invite a friend or a neighbour or a relative to come to church with them. It can be daunting for someone to take the step of actually coming to church when they have hardly ever been before. The church service can feel worryingly unfamiliar and it can be slightly less scary if you are with someone who knows what to do.
‘Back to Church Sunday’ began in the Church of England and now takes place in churches across denominations in countries around the world. As a result, over 80,000 extra people attended church on ‘Back to Church Sunday’ in the UK alone in 2019, after receiving a personal invitation.
This year ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is on 19th September. I do hope that members of our church family, and indeed all other churches, will invite someone to come with them that Sunday and I do hope that we will always continue to offer a warm welcome to all who may be new or unsure of things, not only on that day but every Sunday.
With love and prayers