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Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday 8th August 2021.

‘Signs of the Times’

In the 1960s, the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a song entitled ‘The times they are a-changing’. Here’s the first verse:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

People have called Dylan’s song a ‘protest song’, but basically he was saying: society doesn’t stand still; it has always changed in the past; and it will continue to change in the future; and if we don’t embrace and adapt to change, we will “sink like a stone”.

I think that a lot of people don’t like change in their lives, because it can take them out of their comfort zones. I have found that this applies particularly to the Church of England. Having spent 40 years as Registrar of the Diocese of Peterborough, I can tell you that the largest source of objections to change in church buildings comes when Parochial Church Councils want to reorder the interiors of their churches.

You can’t make changes to churches willy-nilly. You have to obtain a legal permission, called a faculty, which is granted by the Chancellor of the Diocese, who is usually a barrister or judge. There is a system for giving notice of proposals and inviting objections. For most of the time Chancellors will make decisions on the basis of written representations, if the parties agree, but sometimes it is necessary to hold a Consistory Court, so that the Chancellor can hear the arguments for and against the proposed changes before making a decision.

I was recently asked what I thought about the proposals for changing the furnishings and fittings in a particular church, and my reply was akin to saying, well, we’ve moved on from travelling everywhere on horses and carts, because we’ve found something better, more comfortable and more convenient, that better suits people’s needs today. Many churches have adopted the same view. Life has moved on, and always will. We need to adapt to change. Times change, people’s needs change, liturgy changes, and so on. We need to adapt, otherwise we will end up as a fading snapshot of a bygone age.

For example, a lot of churches used to have their altars against the east wall, so that the priest celebrated Communion with his back to the congregation. This does not suit the modern Communion liturgy, and so many churches have sought faculties to move their altars forward, so that the priest can celebrate Communion facing the congregation.

Many churches nowadays are applying for faculties to install toilets and kitchen facilities. If churches want their congregations to grow, they need to provide the facilities people need and expect, especially for the very young and the elderly.

The largest number of contested faculty applications relate to replacing pews with chairs. This can be partly for the comfort of the congregation (many churches have pews which are very uncomfortable to sit in for an hour), and partly to allow the church seating to be adapted for different church and community events.

There is a school of thought that says that, unless we adapt to meet future needs, churches and their congregations will decline.

But to get back to the general topic of the ‘the signs of the times’, a few years ago two tablets dating back to 2800BC were discovered in Babylon. They both commented on the trends of the day. One of them read: ‘Times are not what they used to be.’ (Echoes of the 1960s song, ‘Fings ain’t what they used to be’!) The other tablet reflected a major concern of the people all those centuries ago: ‘The world must be coming to an end. Children no longer obey their parents and every man wants to write a book’. (‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ – nothing changes!)

The signs of the times are pointers from where we are to where we need to be. And we need to think not just about our own personal feelings and needs (for change or not) in a changing society (including the Church), but for the needs of other people. We should not bury our heads in the sand and ignore the signs that mean we need to make changes and adjustments to the way we live, work and worship.

I am sure that not everyone will agree with what I am saying in this reflection, but life is a compromise. Society is constantly changing. So churches need to find the ‘sweet spot’ between treasuring their heritage as far as possible and sensitively adapting for the future, because that ‘sweet spot’ is where we will be most content and find our peace. And hopefully future generations of church congregations (if we can attract them) will too!

Fr. Ray