Turning Up and Being Counted

I’m currently going through a strange time. I’m away from my congregation on sabbatical. It is a good thing to do and I’m having a great time, meeting fantastic people and learning a thing or two by stopping for a while to breathe.

There’s always things that you miss when you are away from the place you know best. For me, the fact that Branston Pickle has not conquered the world is astonishment and I’ve missed it in far flung places all around the world over the years. However, there’s something more quirky, churchy and odd that I really missed this year.

Last Sunday was the day that the Scottish Episcopal Church counts all the people in its churches and reports the numbers back to each diocese, which then sends them to the General Synod Office in Edinburgh and the numbers are published in the new year. The count always happens on the Sunday next before Advent – the one we call Christ the King. The idea is that it is a fairly normal Sunday at a time of the year when most people are not on holiday and so you get a fair idea of the size of the worshipping population of the church.

They key thing though is that you have to turn up to be counted.

You might be on an electoral roll for a congregation (we report those numbers too) but if you are not there you would not be included in the annual count of who is in church on the Sunday next before Advent. You might have been baptised in the church or confirmed in it. You might have had the most glorious nuptials that church ever witnessed or have buried your great uncle Albert’s surprising bidey-in in the churchyard. You may have had tea with the rector once or even been to a carol service in 1972. But no matter how close you think your relationship is with the congregation, on the day when the count takes place, you won’t be counted unless you are there.

And I missed it.

Somehow not being counted made me feel a long way from home.

There’s all kinds of criticism of the kind of congregational statistics that we gather in Scotland, as there is in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. But the trouble is, we’ve got a great data set of next before Advent statistics and we need to keep measuring that one, even if we want to start to measure other things, if they are going to be of any use to us.

I’d quite like us to record average Sunday attendance as well. Some people want to count the number of people who enter the church at any time to measure the effective reach of the church. And some people don’t like the idea of counting at all.

But I do.

I don’t particularly want to rehearse the arguments for how we should count people in church but it does seem to matter to me that we have some sense of the trends and patterns of people’s worship patterns.

Quite a lot of people care more about the numbers of people whom the church is in contact with through the week and through the year than about the numbers of people in church for worship.

I’m probably in the minority by not counting myself amongst them.

I do care how many people are in church to worship and tend to think that worship is not only the most distinctive thing that churches offer but also the most interesting.

There are currently some very deep fears amongst clergy and lay leaders in a great many churches and of different traditions and theological persuasions around the numbers attending. It is also very difficult for Christians to talk about these fears openly.

There are obvious fears about how to keep paying the bills and the fact is, the greatest and most glorious expenses that most churches have are the people who work in them. Clergy, lay workers, musicians are all looking at attendance figures at the moment and thinking about the future a little nervously.

Clearly churches have to pay the bills and usually this money comes from those who turn up. One of the questions that the pandemic has raised is whether the link between turning up and coughing up (cash not phlegm!) is being broken.

I seem to be hearing stories of congregations being significantly down in number but where giving has risen at bit during the pandemic but no-one knows what that really means.

I have another anxiety which goes beyond worrying about how we are all going to pay the bills though. My primary anxiety about current changes in churchgoing is that what is done in church only really makes much sense if you are there every week to experience it.

The Liturgical Movement, which led to the kind of worship that many mainstream congregations now have, is predicated on the very idea that if you turn up, week by week, your personal faith will become deeper and more satisfying by being formed by the worship that you experience. Not just that, but when you gather all those individual experiences of deepening faith together, you build the strength, confidence and witness of the whole people of God who, acting out of that renewed faith, will turn the world upside down, usher in God’s kingdom of justice and joy and all the world will be saved.

(I know it isn’t particularly fashionable to talk about all the world being saved, but some of us still think it kind of matters).

One of the things that I realised as the events of 2020 unfolded was just how badly the Liturgical Movement had prepared us all for the pandemic. Somewhere along the way we’d become so focussed on community piety and devotion that we’d lost the idea that individuals on their own can deepen their faith.

Two years on, our communities can gather again in most places. However, all around the world, people are reporting that numbers are still quite disappointing.

It is clear that in many places some people have simply given up coming to church during the pandemic. Links were broken. Relationships were harder. Some people got angry in the midst of it all. And as usual with anger, it is difficult to pin down. Anger at oneself, anger at the pastor, anger at God, anger at those one lives with and anger at just about anything were all part of the pandemic.

However, my hunch is that numbers are still down in very many churches not primarily because of people who have left but more because of people who are turning up less often than they used to do. That was already a feature of life in the pre-pandemic church but as with so many things, the pandemic itself seemed to hit the accelerator on this process.

It is also the case of course that some people have changed health circumstances and are simply not able to do what they used to do.  (Online worship is a joy to some but we’ve no idea how to count those attending that way).

This year’s statistics, gathered in many different ways and in many different denominations, are going to show that a lot of people did not show up and were not counted.

But how are we going to talk about this in public?

Clergy are very wary of telling people that they must come to church every week and for good reason. We don’t need people to come to church because of a guilt trip that someone has induced in them. We need people to come to church for more positive reasons.

I want people to come because turning up helps them make sense of life. I want people to come because it is gloriously fun. I want people to come to be inspired to help make the kingdom of justice and joy a reality. I want people to come because it helps us to learn how to live when life isn’t gloriously fun. I want people to come because friendships formed as we worship together challenge us all to live as salt and light in the world. And I want people to know that sometimes,  out of what I can only describe as a very strange sense of humour, God even seems to enjoy teaching us good things through people whom we would never otherwise be with.

It has been the universal expectation of Christianity that worshipping together weekly is the norm for Christians. I suspect that there have been very many times in the history of the faith that those who count the numbers have sighed deeply and wondered how to convey the giddy joyful truth, that deepening one’s faith by committing to weekly worship, is life changing and life affirming.

Clergy and lay church leaders are planning how to deliver another festive season that will be both wonderful and exhausting. Very many, I suspect are also trying to work out how to convey that maybe, just maybe, part of our healing from pandemic-driven exhaustion might be found in finding regular, weekly rhythms of faith.

You know the drill. Advent Sunday is upon us. A new church year dawns. Ecclesiastical new year resolutions are the best new year resolutions of them all.

In a few weeks time we’ll be celebrating someone who turned up and was counted in a census just over 2000 years ago.

And a God is for life, not just for Christmas.

Ruth Innes RIP

Mother Ruth

This week the funeral will take place of an extraordinary priest, the Rev Canon Ruth Innes of the Diocese of Edinburgh.

Ruth served various congregations in that diocese – St Fillan’s, Buckstone, Christ Church, Falkirk, St Mark’s, Portobello and St Peter’s (formerly St Mildred’s) in Linlithgow along with St Columba’s, Bathgate.

Ruth never worked in large churches. Each of these places had their own vulnerabilities. But to her, each of her charges were for the time she was with them, My Little Flock. She was defensive of those she cared for too. Not so much a mother hen as a mother lion.

People will remember her as pastoral, caring and imaginative. Some will also remember her with that double-edged description – that she was colourful.

Ruth’s outrageous sense of humour and extravagant love could make some nervous of her. However, Ruth was not merely colourful in the sense of being slightly quirky – she wasn’t slightly anything. Her personality lit up the world and made it far more vibrant.

Despite working as a rector only in relatively small congregations, Ruth was widely known throughout Scotland and beyond. She cultivated her friendships and they lasted many years. Some of these came from the Cursillo movement, some from people she met on conferences and some from friends she holidayed with. Ruth put her friendships to work too in her pursuit of justice. She was a founding member of Changing Attitude Scotland and a key person in the early years of the movement to enable same-sex couples to get married in church. She turned up as a priest in a clerical collar to Pride marches long before it was fashionable to do so.

She cared about the poor. She cared about her family, including her two sons.  She cared about the sick. She cared about the dying. She cared about the homeless and spoke, to the considerable surprise of many who heard her, of her own experience of homelessness.

My guess is that when others were making decisions about whether Ruth should be ordained she was described as coming from a “non-traditional background for a priest”. Most clergy don’t have years of experience as a cocktail waitress to draw on after all. Ruth did and she knew much about how people tick as a result. She also brought a sense of fun and good humour to every room she entered.

Ruth was an adult convert to Christianity having been captured by the beauty, peace and joy she found in the church of St Michael and All Saints in Edinburgh one day when she wandered in. These things turned her life around completely.

In recent months, Ruth knew she was dying and was brave and honest throughout. She had been present at the deathbeds of many in her care. She knew the consolations of religion without ever being sentimental about them. She knew that God loved her very much and she loved God greatly in return.

Spirituality is a personal matter. For Ruth it included a love for religious tat. In life, she gathered many icons, statues and rosaries. Some were exquisite. Some were exquisitely camp. None gave her more joy than the pectoral crucifix which also operated as a cigarette lighter – the flame appearing as if by magic above the head of the crucified Lord. She loved all these things but as death approached, she started to let them go. Visiting friends would get to choose from the tat collection but nothing could be removed without one first hearing about the story of where the object came from and what it represented.

Most treasured of the things she gave me was an icon that Ruth always described as Ugly Mary. Having noticed it in a monastery shop, she realised that no-one else would take home such an ugly icon of Our Lady and that thus it fell to her to rescue her and love her. “Why should Mary always be pretty, anyway?”

There is a tendency when someone dies to represent them as either a saint or an angel. Ruth was neither of these. She was something much more – a human being fully alive. Devout, fully alive and full of fun.

May she rest in peace.

And rise in purple.





[Many thanks to Kimberly Bohan for the picture]