Stepping into the unknown

Last week I was being royally treated by a diocese somewhere in England. Due to the pressure of time between presentations and meetings and our lack of local knowledge, there was only one option for a meal. Yes, the Golden Arches beckoned.

Now for most people it seems this is pretty familiar and ordinary. But quite quickly it became clear that me and the Director of Mission were on unfamiliar territory. Both of us began by saying, “It’s years since I have been in here.” Strange memories of taking the children lurked, or even further back to student days. But recently? I have lost touch. Not my world anymore.

At the counter we looked in a bewildered way at the choices. I wanted to say Whopper, but somehow knew it was the wrong thing. A family in front clearly knew what to do and smiled kindly at us. I tried to make sense of that was on offer, but could only cope with the big coloured pictures. Could I order something different? What if I don’t want bread? What if I don’t like pickles? The lovely young person at the till asked politely about drinks. More panic. “Water,” I said, and with relief so did my host.

We discovered sauces and salt, serviettes, but not cutlery, and sat down sheepishly. In our dog collars. A boy of about nine smiled nicely at us. The food was okay too. I might even go again.

It made me think how hard it is to come into church. We know what it is about and what everything is for. We know the menu, the procedure, the practice. But those who come back with memories feel awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes they want something that echoes the memory, sometimes they just need a friendly smile.

Every week tens of thousands of people find themselves in a Church of England-led occasion as they join friends and family marking one of life’s big events. They have stepped into a church building for a wedding, a christening or a funeral. They may be at a crematorium seeing a vicar for the first time in years. And they may well feel a little confused and tense…. Smiles and warmth make a difference. And if what we do is good, why, they might even want to try again in a different branch!