It seems to me that my experience of Easter Day 2009 is a good example of how worship is changing within Methodism. As in past years I took four services, however, there has been quite a shift in those services. My guess is that as in many other ways Northamptonshire is some way behind much of the country so it is interesting to see that changes are taking effect here.
My guess is that a few years ago Easter Day as a minister would have meant multiple quite similar services in different locations. Maybe if you had a large Church it would have meant up to three services there (Sunrise/Early Morning, Morning and Evening) but in more rural setting you would have had a number of very similar communion services in different Churches.
The changes here initially looked quite simple. Dropping a sunrise service that was very poorly attended (and to be honest what a relief, in 3 years that I had taken the service I don't think we had seen the sun once) and replacing it with a tea time service at 4pm.
However, it became clear that the services were all going to be very different. In the end I had the following:
- 8:30am traditional Methodist Easter Communion at Thrapston by that I mean it included things like pews, traditional hymns from Hymns and Psalms, organ and people coming forward to the communion rail to receive the elements. Followed by a breakfast (croissants rather than eggs).
- 10:30am modern Methodist Communion service at Raunds. So people sat in a circle (two rows deep in places due to numbers and to support those who don't like to sit in the front row) we had a band (piano, bass guitar, electric guitar, two acoustic guitars, mandolin, electric violin, clarinet & singers), all the songs were from songs of fellowship and did not include much in the way of traditional hymns (but all very suitable for Easter day). Still a "proper" sermon but with young children running around from their colouring/craft table to show parents and grandparents what they were doing. We shared communion around the circle with the wine in a chalice rather than small cups. The service lasted about 90 minutes which is typical for a communion service at Raunds.
- 4pm cafe worship at Ringstead Shared Church. An entirely new venture which attracted 19 people (including several who don't normally come to the Church). We had quizzes, some songs (piano supporting), sarnies, cake and tea/coffee, a scripture passage and a couple of guided discussion times around the tables based on that. It was a comfortable and friendly time of worship, sharing and challenge that everyone seemed to enjoy. They had a communion service in the morning which was well attended but this was more popular than their normal fairly informal evening services.
- 6pm pastoral care worship at Old Weston. Essentially the chapel at Old Weston now exists for pastoral care of it's tiny and elderly membership. Over time I have come to realise that the best form of care for the very small membership is to provide them with the traditional worship that they have faithfully supported for so many years. The services there always include as part of the worship a time of preparation as we discuss how things are, how many doctors visits there have been this week etc. We use traditional hymns from my ipod and communion is received in the pew as standing and walking is difficult. Everything logical says this chapel should have been closed many years ago. Now that has been left too long and I see that part of my task as minister is to provide pastoral care through worship in the little chapel they have served for so many years. I doubt if it will be for much longer but I do believe that this is a valid if often derided form of pastoral care.
Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to say these are in any way unusual or special, in fact quite the opposite.
I think there are a number of issues that will be worth exploring (none are particularly new, but this Easter day seemed to highlight them for me):
- Am I right that we are seeing a widening variety of ways of worship and celebration across the connexion? Much wider than the old debates about which book to use for songs or which liturgy to use.
- How visible are the changes? Most members don't worship in lots of Churches, maybe local preachers don't adapt to local situations enough to be aware of the differences. Maybe circuits create some level of homogeneity soi in many cases the difference are only visible across circuit boundaries.
- What are the implications for worship leaders and preachers? Are we training local preachers and ministers to lead a wide variety of worship styles? Should we be or should we have specialists? How much variety is there in the services that are reported on when in training? I have seen circuits specifically choose "proper traditional" services to evaluate new preachers when most of the services they lead will not be of that style.
- What are the implications for the ministers time? It takes much more preparation when services are so different. For example I have taken 11 services in 8 days and have not been able to repeat a selection of hymns once. On Easter day one hymn was sung twice and all the others were only used in one place.
- What are the implications for our understanding of Church? If our congregations are becoming so much less homogeneous then do we need to re-think our understanding of the "local" Church or even of Circuit?
Lots of questions, any answers out there?