More Tea, Vicar?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Appointed Member of the Archbishops’ Council (1999 – 2004)

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“You’ve asked the wrong people!”

I still remember the silence that fell in the Archbishop’s Council after the comment from one of the archbishops following my presentation of “The Listening Programme” research.

We looked at each other and then one brave archdeacon piped up – “No, she hasn’t…we all know it’s true, we just don’t like admitting it!”

I had just spent the previous three months going around the country conducting focus groups amongst people on the margins, and asking them how they perceived “the Church”.  It had brought up some painful truths – that we were seen as an institution that did a lot of good but was always after people’s money!  We were aloof, out of touch, in love with tradition, old in demographic and patriarchal in mindset…I could go on.  The most memorable photo that someone had picked out when looking for an image that reminded them of the Church of England was a dinosaur in a denim jacket.  It spoke for itself really.  Another showed a picture of 1960s patriarchal bliss, a “perfect family” where everyone “knew their place”.

I had begged for 30 minutes to be able to present the findings, and had been given 10 – just before the end of the meeting.  It was squeezed in as an inconvenient interruption to the important business on the agenda.  I remember asking myself what on earth I was trying to achieve.  The answer?  I felt I needed to hold up a mirror and try and get the Church hierarchy to see itself as others saw it.  Not an easy task!

As the same archbishop went on to tell me a few months later – “Jayne, I know my clergy, I know what they’re facing – I read their prayer letters!”  I remember looking at him with great fondness and answering with as much love and kindness as I could: “You’re a great bloke, and I’d love to be able to go down the pub with you and have a pint – but you’re still the Archbishop!  Do you really think people tell it to you as it is?!  When you go into a church it’s always full!  People are happy and positive – it’s not like that all the time!!”

This same archbishop had moments before just shared his vision for the Church – both in terms of how he saw it currently at that time, and how he envisioned it could be.  I remember listening with quiet tears rolling down my face, trying to hide them as I knew everyone else was feeling so positive about such an upbeat appraisal.  Towards the end of the discussion I had been asked – “Jayne, are you OK?” I had gulped and said:

“Well I think you belong to a different Church to the one I belong to!  The one I’m part of loses 50,000 children a week, has buildings falling down, has clergy who are overstretched and demoralised, has a really negative image amongst the general public – and the saddest thing of all is that we seem to have our fingers in our ears, and our hands over our eyes – and no one wants to see it as it truly is!”

The response?

A smile, and then those memorable words – “I think we all need a cup of tea!”

Fifteen years on, not much has changed – we’re still drinking tea!

The recent You Gov poll results clearly show that less than half of GB adults believe the Church of England is there for anyone who wants to go to Church, and yet we confidently have it asserted that “the Church is there for anyone at any time”.  Try telling that to a young gay couple who want to get married!

Could we have asked the “wrong people”?  Perhaps.  You see, this survey asked the young as well as the old, those of no faith as well as those of faith.  In truth, we asked everyone – not just those within the Church, who often see things just as we would like them to (ie as we do).  We asked those on the margins of the Church and those who no longer want to be part of it, we asked those who used to go and those who have never been.

What did we find?

That there is a stark contrast between what people think on the “inside” to what people think on the “outside”.

Have we got the courage and humility to listen to them – or is it time for another cup of tea?

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Any thoughts?