Carma Wetherall describes how a fresh expression of church has started in the parish of Wichenford, Worcestershire.
Wichenford has over 250 households and a number of working farms spread across a distance of more than three miles. Its shop, post office, bakery and school closed some time ago and the only pub is two miles away from the main housing area.
St Laurence's, Wichenford, is one of 14 churches in the Worcestershire West Rural Team, an outstandingly beautiful part of the English countryside with the River Teme flowing through the middle and the Malvern Hills to the south.
It is part of the Martley benefice, which consists of three parishes and five churches. The vicar of the group is David Sherwin, and he is assisted by non-stipendiary minister Jennifer Whittaker and curate Rich Tweedy.
The 12th century St Laurence's Church stands alongside a country lane, surrounded by fields, with the village's Memorial Hall opposite. The nave is fully pewed and can seat 120 at a squeeze – which is often needed for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Villagers love the building and will turn out for big family occasions and special services, especially at Christmas, but there is a definite disconnect otherwise; many just don't 'do' church.
Ten years ago, regular worshippers numbered 20 or so; today on a normal Sunday we are fortunate to see 10. Rich, as our new curate, suggested that a monthly, 90-minute, café church would offer the opportunity to demonstrate God's love by serving our community and, in particular, offer a relaxed and accessible place where we could share faith and the word.
Two generous cash donations enabled us to hire the Village (Memorial) Hall and buy provisions for two Sundays. We were given an industrial coffee machine, borrowed some café tablecloths, gave out invitations by hand and began in February this year.
Café church now takes place every 3rd Sunday of the month in the hall. We open at 10am to provide good quality coffee and tea with bacon butties and then give people an opportunity to sit around the tables to read the Sunday newspapers or just socialise.
After about 10.30am there is an opportunity to ask the vicar to give a Christian perspective on a couple of news items, sing a couple of worship songs, hear a bit of a talk and share in some prayers.
On the first morning, a small team assembled to set everything up – only to discover that we had no frying pans for cooking the bacon. Following a quick run home, that problem was solved and by 10am – with food and drink available – the hall gradually filled. The stalwarts of our regular congregation came, mainly to see what it was all about, but we welcomed some new faces too and all stayed – except one who left as soon as he had eaten his bacon buttie! Overall, it was an encouraging beginning though a regular worshipper said, 'How will this get them to come to church?'
A month later, word had spread and many more new faces appeared – with fewer of the stalwarts. A number of children came too. In April, we greeted more new people and it was obvious that some of the previous newcomers had returned. In June we welcomed 42 adults and 10 children, including some teenage volunteers to help with the worship.
Six months on and there is a real buzz in the community about café church. The numbers attending are holding up, volunteers have come forward to help with the catering and the overall community response is encouraging. Indeed, someone I met tending a grave in the churchyard recently said, 'We just love café church'. I can only say, 'Alleluia, Amen!'