Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Family Fun

Home Front
Catholic Herald 04/11/05

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, we are told by lifestyle gurus. And we do try to! We try to keep a straight face, and think about the positive, but every now and then the negative breaks in, and before we know it we are rolling around on the floor hooting with laughter. For while the positive may be all very well, it’s the negative experiences which, so often, actually bring us closer together.
This was the problem the other day when I sat down round an episcopal conference table with a group of Catholic luminaries, and a vast pot of episcopal coffee, to hammer out ideas for “family friendliness” in churches.
Of course the question immediately reared – what is a family friendly church, anyway? Should not a church be welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes, whether they come in family packages or not?
It’s almost a false question, as there need be no principle of mutual exclusivity at work here. Of course we want to make separated and single parents, childless couples, and single folk welcome. But welcoming one lot of people should never mean ignoring another lot.
There is no other institution which takes the cornerstone of family life, namely the sacrament of marriage, more seriously than the Catholic Church. So if married couples do not feel valued here, they will feel valued almost nowhere.
There is no other institution which accepts the concept of having a large family as passionately as the Catholic Church. So if larger families do not feel welcome here, they feel welcome nowhere.
But back to practicalities. I and my fellow committee members have been asked by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to look at good ideas for family-friendliness, and spread them about a bit. There are many churches whose priests and parishioners are brilliant at making families feel welcome, and it seems well worth doing a bit of information sharing.
Some ideas which flowed around faster than the episcopal coffee: “Lads and dads” weekends; golden wedding celebrations organised by the parish; welcome packs for new parishioners, pre-Mass meeter-and-greeter rotas – all manner of solid practical ideas which, when combined with warm smiles and a genuine interest in other people, go towards building a whole new universe of human contact and support.
You see, having a meeter-and-greeter rota pinned up in the back of the church won’t necessarily save the world on its own. But it does show parishioners how they can put their natural kindness to work. Kindness is a much under-rated energy source outside the Church. But within the Church, we have an abundance of it, and we have the means to channel it, too.
But as the episcopal coffee pot emptied, the conversation, as conversations do, veered off into the negative. Nearly all of us had funny stories to tell about spectacularly unfriendly churches, and the ghastly experiences we have had there.
There was the priest who barked at a red-faced young mum clutching her howling infant, “It’s either him or me!”
There was the church where a young family were greeted sadly with the doom-laden words, “Oh, you won’t want to come here. People with young children usually go to St Michael’s.”
We joyously toyed with the idea of a hunt for Britain’s Unruliest Catholic Family, Britain’s Most Surly Priest and Britain’s Most Miserable Church until Elizabeth Davies, who is the “marriage and family life project officer” at the bishops’ offices, had to rap the table sharply with her ruler and bring us into line.
“We want people to think of the positive, not the negative,” she said. “Can we appeal for POSITIVE stories about churches where people felt welcomed?”
So here I am, appealing for positive stories about churches, parishes and occasions where you felt genuinely welcome. Now, now, I said positive stories. You are NOT to send your favourite horror stories about hair-raisingly unfriendly churches to Elizabeth (c/o Department for Christian Responsibility & Citizenship, Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, 39 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1BX). Positive examples only, please!
But if you slip the odd funny story in, it will at least give us another good laugh at the next meeting.

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