Holy Commotion – update Jul12

Father Christopher Epps reflects on five years of the Holy Commotion fresh expression of church in Cornwall and the evolution of Together in Worship.

These days it is not unusual for our numbers to be in excess of 90, adults and children, on a Wednesday evening when we meet for Holy Commotion at Archbishop Benson CEVA School in Truro.

Holy Commotion - school signOur journey has been one of great joy and constant surprises; all is not perfect but the joys far outweigh the few negatives. With a fresh expression of church I have been struck time and again – not just with the increasing numbers but by the fact that no-one attends because they feel they have to be there. Everybody attends because they want to be there. I certainly don't sense that we have got to the stage where parents are saying, 'Oh it's Wednesday, we'd better go to church.' Often it is the children who urge parents to keep on coming along simply because they enjoy it so much.

As a parish priest it is utterly refreshing to minister to people who come without church 'baggage' and there is none of the political manoeuvring that can sometimes afflict parish life. Holy Commotion has definitely formed a core of people who now regard the 'church in the school' as their own. We are a distinct Christian community – church in the literal sense. We are not tied to a specific building though there have been occasions when we have visited one of my other local churches to enable parents and children to explore a church building.

At other times, when the school hall is unavailable, we'll meet in the school Children's Centre building. This kind of movement doesn't 'phase' the people at all. They have truly become People of God not People of Place!

We have learnt many things along the way. We live constantly with compromise as Wednesdays are not ideal for everyone and 6.30pm is not a perfect time for all. But there is no such thing as an optimum day or time to do something like this. As it has evolved we have also discovered that we can only primarily cater for younger children, with ages ranging from the unborn to about seven or eight years old. We have a few older children with younger siblings who come with their parents and they are tasked with operating the Powerpoint presentation or iPod music system. We simply don't have the resources to cope with teenage youngsters, yet!

Holy Commotion - childrenGiven that any fresh expression of church will draw in and involve individuals who are new to, or simply exploring, the faith – perhaps for themselves and their children – it has been difficult in the early years to encourage people to lead activities, especially for children. We have rotas for refreshments and help with setting up but it is only recently that parents have been willing to come forward to prepare children's activities. The fact that this is now happening is an indication that some are 'growing' and becoming confident enough to step up and begin to engage in their own mission activity.

It is absolutely vital that Holy Commotion evenings are carefully and thoroughly prepared because the key to a successful session involves the children being fully occupied and absorbed in whatever is going on. Our sessions vary; sometimes we are all together and children and adults are engaged in the same themed activity. On other occasions the children have their own activity whilst I spend time with the adults. The children are never segregated though; whatever is going on we are always together. This is a central philosophy to Holy Commotion, that we are Together in Worship. This in itself presents its own challenges, especially if the children are generating considerable noise.

Our programme always includes social activities which are also an important part of sharing fellowship together. The Holy Commotion summer BBQ and beach party are unmissable events!

The theme of 'Together in Worship' has also enabled the Holy Commotion concept to evolve and spill over to my parish church of St George in Truro. I felt the previous style of Family Mass had run its course – the monthly service was attended by our usual regular congregation, apart from a few Brownies a couple of times a year. This meant the regulars were usually 'subjected' to a child-friendly liturgy with few or no children in attendance.

Holy Commotion - cross and candleMy understanding of the Eucharist is that all are 'family' occasions and so the concept of a specific service labelled as 'family' is a misnomer to my mind. How then, could we address this age old problem in the parish church?

Many at St George's had heard about Holy Commotion and wondered if the project could be tried on a Sunday and in church? Five years ago I had concluded that 'Sunday' and 'in church' simply wouldn't work for all the usual well-known reasons. However, with nothing to lose and the PCC deciding to abandon the monthly Family Mass (following consultation with our primary target group, the Guides and Brownies), Together in Worship was born. It takes place on the fourth Sunday of the month in church.

I was keen to ensure that that we didn't create just another congregation at St George's with no link between our communicant regulars and the new tranche of people coming for 'their' service. In order to avoid this, a 'crossover' point was created to enable both groups to mingle and share fellowship. We do this by serving breakfast after our 9am Parish Mass between 10am and 10.30am. Thirty minutes of non-Eucharistic family worship then follows in church, similar in style to Holy Commotion. There is always a fabulous 'buzz' in the hall when breakfast is being shared and this enthusiasm and joy spills over into the worship that follows.

Together in Worship was launched in early 2011 with very few new families in attendance but a good number of our regular congregation. Since then we have grown to a group of 60 to 80. Inevitably, there is a clear link with Holy Commotion but we also attracted a good number of families we have never seen before. We are an Anglo-Catholic parish and so the format and teaching follows the Lectionary and I teach about Church, which is vital to grow disciples!

Holy Commotion - balloonsI have found that communication is a vital aspect of any fresh expression of church. I communicate primarily by email, text and via the Holy Commotion website with posts linked to a Facebook page and Twitter. It is demanding and time consuming – as is the preparation for both Holy Commotion (fortnightly) and Together in Worship.

Some traditional churchgoers still struggle with the radical new approach and I regularly deal with comments like, 'When are these people going to come to proper church?' But the fact is that we are Church and the early Church model fits exceptionally well; worshipping, praying, studying the scriptures, singing, eating and drinking together. That is what we do.

Holy Commotion

The parish church of Truro, St Paul's, closed in November 2007 but the parish of St Paul continues to exist and worship is now based at Archbishop Benson CofE School. Parish priest, Father Christopher, describes how it is also home to… Holy Commotion!

On alternate Wednesdays during term time, we get together in the school hall – a licensed place of worship – for a short, informal act of worship with songs, a prayer, a reading and lots of fun. Everyone is welcome and we always tells people that if they don't fancy formal Sunday church but want to explore the Christian faith in a familiar and 'safe' environment, Holy Commotion! could be just the thing.

Emphasis is on informality and the involvement of children. As a result we have a regular kids club with activities designed specifically for them. For those wanting to explore their own spirituality or beliefs, or specific aspects of the Christian faith, we run an Emmaus course.

Holy Commotion - drummingSometimes we have theme evenings at Holy Commotion when we get involved in other activities as part of our act of worship. Truro Methodist Church's Speaking in Drums group has visited us a couple of times.

As well as our regular Wednesday evening gatherings we also have social events for adults and/or children. It has come a long way since it first got off the ground a few years ago. I arrived here in 2003 and noticed that Christingle services always brought in so many people who would never otherwise come to one of our services. In 2006 the church was absolutely heaving with people; it was so packed we were putting visitors in the choir stalls and there was still standing room only at the back.

Afterwards I thought, 'This is incredible, where do all these people come from and where do they all go? Why are they happy to come to Christmas services but not at any other time?'

The answer, of course, was because they knew nothing 'strange' was going to happen. Even allowing for the fact that St Paul's is fairly strong Anglo Catholic – and people may not be familiar with that tradition – there was obviously a very different 'feel' about those Christingle services. People felt comfortable in coming to them.

In digging a little deeper about the whys and wherefores of it all we came to some serious conclusions about things we tend to take for granted in church circles:

  • The day: Sundays are not good days to get to a service for many people;
  • The place: Church buildings can be quite intimidating;
  • The time: 10am is useless if you're taking your children to play football or some other sport; or arranging to transport them from one place to another if they're going to see a parent who no longer lives in the same home as they do;
  • The formality of it all: Radical reassessment was needed because this thing called 'church' does not attract people in the same way these days. I have found that people of all ages, and whatever family or age bracket they happen to be in, are not averse to religion and spirituality but they don't like the way it is contextualised in institutional church.

Holy Commotion - groupSo we decided to launch Holy Commotion! in the school hall. We now have a very committed bunch of people and the way we break it down generally is that I do the 'bits' that requires someone with a dog collar and they do the 'commotion'. It's very informal and, to my mind, combines the best of both worlds to establish some kind of early church model.

There was quite a milestone recently when we had our first ever baptism which means that people are now seeing that school hall as a holy, sacred place. They may not necessarily see themselves as Christians but they are interested in finding out about that thing called religion.

We worship, we pray, we sing, I talk to the children but the 'shape' of it is never quite the same! We also have a Eucharist from time to time. Holy Commotion! is all delivered on PowerPoint so people don't get mounds of books given to them; there is nothing scary about it. I find that if we take the scariness away, people really do open up.

We have children up to the age of 14 but don't seem to attract the older teenagers. In saying that, it has been successful beyond my wildest dreams in drawing people into the Christian family.

One of its wider effects can be seen in the number of baptisms having increased phenomenally across the benefice – most of whom are people who have come through Holy Commotion! and then fed back into other churches. It has also had an impact on my other congregations, we have introduced a fourth Sunday family service because the 9am Mass attracted one kind of clientele but it wasn't right for people with families. Now, after the Mass, the 9am crowd sit down for breakfast with the congregation arriving for the 10.30am service.

There have been some rumbles of 'It's all very nice but when are they going to come to proper church?' Well, Holy Commotion! is church and the fact is that these people simply will not come to what many think of as a church service. If they didn't go to Holy Commotion! they wouldn't go to church anywhere else – Wednesday has become the new Sunday for us.

I'm a high churchman and I was very much stepping out of my comfort zone when we first started – now I find it all hugely encouraging. The wonderful thing is that the people who come are here because they want to be here, not because they feel they should be here for whatever reason. Perhaps more importantly they tend not to come with any baggage, politics or prejudices associated with church life.

Holy Commotion - prayer treeHoly Commotion! is quite intensive in terms of energy and resources – and of course I have the life of the wider parish to look after as well but thankfully, because this is 21st century, I can communicate with the Holy Commotion! people extensively via email, text or Facebook.

There's no doubt that we really need to be doing this, we need to be doing both fresh expression of church and traditional church. It's the only way forward. When we started I was quite keen that whatever was to be presented had to have some kind of liturgical structure. That wasn't so much based on a deep theological reasoning, more that it was a complete experiment so I just stuck to what I knew and put together a service that was sort of familiar in structure. This included a welcome, gathering prayer, hymn or song and a reading from Scripture – I wanted it to be recognisable as church rather than just a social gathering.

People didn't find it off-putting. Instead they took to it all immediately because we forget how unusual it all is – they have not heard the Bible read so it's great to see their reaction to something like the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Also to have teaching is unusual because they don't know about Jesus. To me, that's what it's all about, a fulfilling life with a spiritual dimension. On the whole they are truly intrigued by it all because they see it as something incredibly relevant to today.

It could have such a different story on the first evening… we got to about 6.25pm and there were only three of us there. I was just about to say, 'Oh well it was worth a try but that's that' and then suddenly everyone came in through the door and there were about 36 people in the room. Our age range is from newborn to a lady in her 80s, the number fluctuates – for our harvest social there were more than 70 but I would say we have a core of 50.

Perhaps a testing time next year will be when I take a six-week sabbatical in March. I've tried to do my very best to get the message across that Holy Commotion! isn't me, it's them. My own personal resources are limited and one of the struggles is to try and think of new things to do, coming up with the ideas is tricky.

We need to resource it with people from either Holy Commotion! itself or other local churches. There are sufficient numbers of them to do that and the shape and form of it can continue in my absence because they now have a template to work from but they can develop it in different ways.