Are people coming to faith through Messy Church? Do they really become members of the wider Church as a result? Revd Dr Jo White, Rector of All Saints’ Church, Wingerworth, tells how they responded to those questions through Messy Confirmations.
At the end of January we held a Messy Church with a difference. Five children took Communion for the first time, two people affirmed their faith, two were baptised and then joined eight more to be confirmed while a further person was received into the CofE!
We had been talking with people about this service and encouraging adults to take responsibility for their faith in a variety of ways for a while but how did it all start?
Someone said they'd like to be baptized, and that set us thinking. We know that for adults the Church of England likes baptism to be linked with confirmation, but how would that work in this context? We'd held a Messy Baptism for a new baby to one of our existing families last year – so how about a Messy Confirmation?
The idea took off big time – as did the questions, 'Will I have to come to church on Sundays in future 'cos I work that day as my husband's at home to look after the children and so I can't do it.' 'Me too – I feel a fraud as I only come here and not to 'proper' church – it's just it reminds me of when I was a child and that was a terrible time for me.'
The comments just kept on coming… 'I want to get confirmed here, even though I live two hours away – I was brought up here and my family still live here, but above all these are the people who make me feel I belong.' 'I heard my brother's getting confirmed, so I'd love to do it with him.' 'This is the time for me and God. I do really want to come, I really feel 2011 needs to be a year when I reconnect with the church and my faith, too much has come between us of late.' 'I was confirmed as a kid, but I don't remember it, I wish I could do it with you.' 'Well I'm Catholic, but this is really my church now.'
So we spoke about Communion. What should we do about the bread and wine? We've never 'done' Communion before. When would you like to take it, at the confirmation service itself or shall we get together a few days later? Let's go for it! What about the kids? (In this church you have to be baptised and over seven years old) Hence we started preparing them too!
Needless to say, everyone who came to this service did know it would be different and longer! The key pressures came from balancing the need of the Bishop to follow the 'law' of the Church of England and our wish to make the service accessible and understandable for the majority of the Messy Church congregation who are either children or have none or little experience of 'formal' church. How do you make such a huge formal service needing loads of preparation and 'serious' thinking accessible to all of us at our different stages in our faith journeys?
At the rehearsal we realised that only one person knew what 'the peace' was. Things that church regulars take for granted, prayers that they know by heart, are unknown territory for most Messy Churchers and could easily divide the congregation in a service – which is exactly what we do NOT want in Messy Church.
We pared the service requirements to the bone, chose the shortest Communion Prayer and then added opening and closing prayers that were in everyday but in very meaningful language; trying hard to keep the theology of the occasion without dumbing down or making it so simple it was meaningless. We wanted this to be a memorable time for all those involved – in a good sense!
The service sheet, more of a book really, included absolutely every word and instruction. But it did mean that everyone could take a full part on an even footing. We made sure that there was a regular churchgoer you could follow if you got lost at the front of church and said so in the 'Welcome'.
We moved everything we could out of the 'service' section – like the prayers – and into the 'activity' section that comes first; trying to shorten the service without losing any of its meaning or worship elements. The children brought forward, as they often do, a collage of all our prayers written on paper cut-outs of our hands and glued as feathers on a dove. Come, Holy Spirit!
We chose songs that we often have at Messy Church and included some simple new ones either with a tune already known or that we’d introduced at other services in recent weeks.
A few weeks before Messy Church, Rt Revd Humphrey Southern – the Bishop of Repton – asked everyone being confirmed or otherwise involved to write a few lines about themselves and he wrote a few for them. On the day he arrived in good time to join in with all of Messy Church, including the activities in the first element of our Messy service, and chatted with everyone including the candidates all together. This set good practical examples of relationships which passed on to the service itself.
We began the service in the same way as usual, casually, with no 'procession' – and me, as minister, in my 'home' clothes. To save time, the Bishop was robed from the start, and I popped mine on during the first song. There were two Welcomes, first one from myself and then one after the first song, from the Bishop. I gave the practical details whilst the Bishop reinforced the views that all are welcome, there's not one way to 'do' church, and we all worship a living God in our own ways at our own levels. In other words – we may have a bishop, we may be dressed differently, the service may be longer BUT it's still the Messy Church we all know and love.
Bishop Humphrey's address talked about faith being in different layers and each one has value in itself – you don't have to wait 'til you get to the middle to get the gift. He'd brought 'Posh Pass the Parcels' which had a gift under each layer, just like our faith, so wherever we are faith has value and each layer brings surprise.
The taking of Communion was done kneeling or standing at the altar rail. We decided not to use sidespeople to indicate when to come up but to leave it open. In the event I (as the Rector) acted as maître d' in the sanctuary while the Bishop gave bread to everyone and two lay assistants gave the wine. In this way I was able to 'introduce' the Bishop to young children by name and tell him a little about those who were not taking Communion but had come up for a blessing, and just about everyone did come to the rail. His prayers of blessing were then made by name and were very specific for that person. The sight of him walking on his knees to give blessings at that rail to the many children squeezed alongside each other will stay with me for a long while.
So 75 minutes later (it's usually a 20-minute church service element) we went to eat our buffet tea together that our wonderful cooks had prepared. Something for everyone and a large celebratory cake with coloured icing that the Bishop cut – a final sharing. We're still smiling at the experience and wondering when we can do it all over again.
A key component in bringing all of this about was that 18 months ago, with the help of a diocesan mission grant, we created a new post here – Connecting with Families Co-ordinator (CFC): and that person has since been accredited by the Diocese as a Lay Minister in Fresh Expressions after completing the mission shaped ministry course.
Early discipling, encouragement and support takes dedication, time and vision!
Now we need to create something for those now recently confirmed or otherwise involved who are thirsty for more but still don't want or can't make Sunday services or more 'formal' church. At the moment we're thinking of late evening weeknight services, including Communion sometimes. Suggestions for inclusion welcome.