My sabbatical will have two foci of interest. The first, and the one that will grab immediate attention, is my trip to Sri Lanka. There I will be re-establishing an old friendship with a Sri Lankan Anglican priest who studied at the University of Kent 15 years ago, while I was vicar in Whitstable. I plan to say more about the Sri Lankan angle in a future magazine.
My second focus will be to explore other churches where congregations meet for different types of services just once a month. One of the trends we have seen in church worship over the past 50 years is an increase in the variety of services on offer. This is very different from the situation in the 1960s and ’70s, when the ideal was considered to be the weekly communion service as focus of unity in the parish. Back then, the great bold vision was to bring the community together in a single service, as a symbol of the unity of the family of God.
Paradoxically, other cultural strands of the 1960s concurrently encouraged a greater emphasis on the self. Instead of increased unity, we now have fragmented communities – in churches, this trend is reflected in the variety of service styles taking place at different times. In Biddenden and Smarden, this ranges from the traditional language Book of Common prayer services, the more modern Common Worship Eucharist, as well as a monthly Active Church (Messy Church). All of these services to some extent attract different congregations.
For those prepared to travel outside the parish, there is even more variety including a monthly charismatic worship The Filling Station (Kilndown) and a monthly contemplative Taizé inspired prayer (All Saints Staplehurst). There are other examples around the country, including forest church and messy churches centred around a simple meal. What inspires people to choose particular styles of worship, and how do these feed them spiritually?
Increased variety of worship also means less frequency and hence fewer opportunities for people to come together, which makes it harder to to create networks of support and encouragement in faith. I therefore will be researching the ways in which these congregations can meet this challenge. Ultimately, we want to know, can such congregations ‘do mission’ and grow themselves?