Father Duncan Mathews, the vicar of St Luke’s Anglican Church of Farnham, was concerned. He had been concerned since he joined the ministry, but right now, more so than ever. Church attendance was in serious freefall. He had just finished evensong with a group of three individuals; only two of them were members of the church. Both membership and attendance were in serious decline. It was time to call an extraordinary meeting of the church council, a group of six individuals; a solution was imperative before the doors of the church closed permanently. He stepped out of the church in a pensive mood. This was the vocation he loved; his calling had been strong. He gazed lovingly at the stone construct of this ancient English edifice. The setting was serene, with the grounds melding into the lush green of Bishop’s Meadow. From both the library and Farnham Castle, the church tower was visible in all its majesty. The church itself dated back to the Middle Ages. Father Mathews walked slowly across the graveyard, stopping now and then to read the partially visible inscriptions on the ancient tombstones. He loved this place and would do everything he could to hold it together.

The meeting was to be held that evening in the council room, an upper-level room of the tower. Father Matthews was the first to get there. He sat at the head of the table, waiting for the members. They arrived in quick succession of each other. There was Ed Dawson, the farmer, John Fairweather, who owned the supermarket, Mark Simpson, an engineer, Frank Fellows, a farmer, Amanda Smith, an accountant and Dora Banks, an elderly housewife. Duncan, the vicar, was pleased to see that all were present. Amanda quickly opened up the books to make a note of all present and take the minutes of the meeting. She was very efficient but had some competition from Dora, who appeared to think that the position was hers; she kept her own records. While Dora’s interference was occasionally annoying, everyone looked forward to the homemade cakes and biscuits she generously brought along to each meeting.

“Thank you all for being here today. You all know what this meeting is about…we have talked about this problem before. The church membership and attendance, as you know, is at the lowest it’s been…I’m terribly worried that we may soon have to close our doors. So, perhaps we should all put our minds together and come up with some strategies to increase our attendance, at the very least. Let’s make this a brainstorming session…see if there are any bright ideas.”

“Don’t mind me,” said Dora. She was busy laying out cakes and biscuits on the table and serving out tea and coffee. She knew what everyone liked. Her activity did not stop her from formulating some thoughts around the big question, though.

After about 15 minutes, Father Mathews beckoned for ideas.

“Www…why don’t we do, do, do…a leaflet drop?” said Frank. “Www…we could tell people www…what happens in church, mmm…meetings an’ cake and all.”

“Ah! That sounds lovely, Frank,” chimed Dora, who seemed quite taken with the idea. “I could always bake lots of cakes for an open day. I think they’ll luv that.”

“Why don’t we do what those Methodists down the road do? You know, they have informal prayer meetings in the village hall…they’ve even held services at Carstairs Millers. They seem to do all right! We could go to Carstairs as well…on a different day to the Methodists, of course.” That was Ed’s contribution. He was the oldest of the group.

“I think that St. Adolphus Catholic Church is struggling just as much as we are. Particularly with all that child abuse scandal around them. People have been leaving the church in droves. So, here’s two suggestions. First, we could try to capture those leaving the Catholic church, or we could join forces with the Catholic church to stop the departures and grow together as one big church.” John considered his contribution to be more substantial than those hitherto given. He was all for inclusion and growth, the same strategies he used for managing his supermarket.

“If we consider joining another church, why don’t we include the Methodist church as well. After all, there’s very little difference between us Anglicans and the Catholics or the Methodists,” said the pragmatic and efficient Amanda.

“I think Amanda has the right idea,” remarked Mark, who had been silent all this while. Mark was around 60 and generally on the quiet side. He always weighed up what others said and then went along with one of their suggestions.

“I’m not certain that joining together is a good idea,” remarked Ed. “We might all get confused about what we believe in.”

“Oh, aye. And hhh…who knows, www…we might end up, bbb…buried as Ccc…Catholic or Mmm…Methodist,” said Frank.

“Nonsense,” said Dora. ‘I could make name badges for all of us. I could mark each one with “ANGLICAN” in big letters, just so they don’t get us mixed up with the others.’

Father Mathews was nervously tapping the table with his fingers. It was a good time to interrupt; he butted in quickly. “Hmm…perhaps we should think a little seriously about an alliance with one or more of the other denominations, as already suggested. And Dora…we could look at the finer points of differentiation later on, when matters are more cemented…”

“We aren’t going anywhere near those Pentecostals, I hope. If we do, I’ll be going my own way of worship,” said Ed, looking very concerned.

“Why? What’s wrong with the Pentecostals? They seem to have a great time, singing, dancing, going into trances and doing all sorts of exciting things,” said John. “In fact, I’ve been to a couple of their services and their place gets packed to the seams. Perhaps all our members have gone over to them.”

“Ed, just to reassure you, no, we shan’t be going anywhere near the Pentecostals. They are too far removed from our beliefs and values. We’ll only consider the mainstream religious affiliations, so let’s keep our focus on the Catholics and Methodists, shall we?” said Father Mathews.

“Yes, that’s best,” said Mark. ‘I don’t believe I’d want to go near a Pentecostal church. They’re rather a weird bunch. One wonders how honest they are about all that faith healing and so on.”

“But Father Mathews, we don’t want to go on our knees to the Pope. He’s no God…and neither do we want to want to kiss statues and rosaries, or confess our sins to you…or to anyone else,” said Ed.

“I don’t imagine we’d need to do any of the things that we don’t do now, Ed. We’ll simply put the idea of amalgamating for the sake of worship and see if we can draw on bigger crowds. This may simply be an exercise in planting the seeds for growth.”

“So, should I be contacting, let’s see…the Reverend Father Benjamin of the Catholic church and Mr. Roland of the Methodist church, to organise a meeting?”

“Yes, Amanda,” said Father Mathews. “That should start the ball rolling. What I would hope for is that each week, we would attend a service or meeting held by them, and they likewise, would come to one of ours, let’s say evensong or the Sunday evening service. We’ll see how they respond to it, anyway.”

After several round table meetings between Father Mathews, Reverend Father Benjamin, and Mr. Roland, with Amanda presiding as secretary, they drew a plan up in agreement. All the churches were concerned about the fall in attendance. They hoped that the general goodwill shown through the alliance would be a draw card for attracting new members.


Reverend Father Benjamin put his hand up to be the first to open his church to a communal service, and he invited all the Anglican and Methodist communities to attend on that Sunday morning. Although there were a few concerns regarding acceptance, the three clergymen got on well and concluded that a comfortable level of acceptance was all that was required to make this work for everyone.

The members of the Anglican church council went early to ensure a smooth entrance for their church members. They stood outside below the church steps to greet their members, make them feel more comfortable about entering an unknown place of worship. Just inside the church were the Catholic council members, ready to meet and greet the new arrivals. On entry, they welcomed the guest members and presented each with a string of beads, the rosary, and a holy card of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sadly, this did not go down too well with some of the Anglicans or the Methodists.

“Am I supposed to wear this around my neck?”

“What’s this for? I didn’t come here to worship the mother of God!”

“Oh, that would make a nice necklace. I just need to take the end bit off.”

The welcome was too confrontational for some. They simply turned around and left while the council members tried hard to convince them to give it a go. Ed sympathised with those leaving and decided to join them while egging Frank to do the same.

“Well, we didn’t expect everyone to be supportive, but at least there are some who are trying to be more open-minded, thank God,” said Father Mathews to his council members. “At least we’ve done better than the Methodists. Several of them refused to go past the church door. Quite rude, I thought.”

Apart from the awkwardness at the reception, the service went ahead and concluded on a sound note. After all the congregation had left, the three clergymen convened to discuss the result and concluded that it had been a reasonable success. Reverend Father Benjamin was apologetic about the inappropriate welcome. He understood that the rosaries and holy cards were offensive to some and assured the other two clergymen that it would not be repeated. Mr. Roland was intensely upset with the response from his congregation; he apologised profusely for their behaviour.

It was now the turn of the Methodist church to host a service. Mr. Roland, the lay clergyman, seemed excited and confident at drawing everyone in on that special day. It surprised Father Mathews to receive a call later that week to say that a bus would pick the Anglican and Methodist communities up at the end of Church Lane. He said nothing further. This was going to be a surprise for the group.

It was a Friday afternoon on which they gathered together for the pickup. They were around 30 in all. They boarded the bus, which took them to a local picnic ground by the river, a beautiful, serene spot that was well frequented by the locals. The Methodists soon had a table set up and proceeded to lay a huge picnic for the group. It was very uplifting on this lovely spring afternoon and, much to the delight of Mr. Roland, everyone was soon partaking of the feast.

After most of the food was demolished, people relaxed under and around the beautiful elm tree that had been there for centuries. Mr. Roland tried hard to get people from the other groups to mingle, with little success. He, therefore, began to preach to the group. His temper was fraying as he realised that only his own congregation was listening to him. They knew the game. The Catholics and Anglicans did not seem to realise that a sermon was being preached. Instead, they had a good social chinwag amongst themselves and created no end of noise and disturbance to the Methodists. The guest groups remained none the wiser that Mr. Roland had preached a sermon when they boarded the bus for their return.

“Thank you for the picnic.”

“What a lovely idea that was! We all enjoyed it. Thank you very much.”

“I think this was a great idea. We should do more of this,” said Ed.

Mr. Roland and his congregation politely accepted their thanks. Roland pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off the frustration from his brow. He wondered whether he should have explained the order of events beforehand. It might have made his life easier. The learning curve was always hardest at the start. He would do things differently next time.

Dora was the most excited when it was their time to host.

“Father, how many do you think I need to cater for? Would we expect 20 or 30? I don’t want to run out of food when they come.”

“Dora, there is really no need to feed them. They are only coming to join us in communion,” said Father Mathews.

“Oh, I know that. But it’s important to make them feel comfortable. A sandwich or a piece of cake will put them at ease very quickly.”

“Very well, Dora. But don’t go overboard. We’re not feeding the five thousand!”

Dora was ready with sandwiches and cake laid out on a little table just outside the church entrance that day. But things were not going as well for Father Mathews. He had come down with a high fever the previous night. By dawn, he realised that he would have to rely on a locum. He called Vicar Samantha; she was always obliging and his congregation liked her very much.

Dora’s cakes and sandwiches went down well. Besides, people were getting used to this new idea of going to another church. Vanessa was late arriving, so the council members stepped in to greet the guests to their church. They were all seated when the vicar entered with the altar boys and walked down the centre aisle. Faces turned as she entered. There were smiles from the Methodists, shock and concern from the Catholics. Before the service could commence, the Catholics were turning on their heels, exiting. How dare they be expected to listen to a woman! This was no way to pray to God. It was none other than blasphemy!

The Methodists had no objection whatsoever. They listened eagerly and convened later to discuss the merits and demerits with Mr. Roland. Amanda had organised a meeting for the three clergymen to confer over the success of the plan. Once again, a red-faced Reverend Father Benjamin had to apologise on behalf of his congregation. They decided that time would be the best judge in the end.

Unbeknown to the three groups, several other local groups had become curious about the communal activities of the past three weeks. It included the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and last but not least, several arms of the media. Their focus was more on the changing demographic of the village. To satisfying everyone’s curiosity, the local rag published a front-page article with the very appropriate heading, “United we Stand, Divided we Fall.” The local radio station conducted an ongoing commentary over the three weeks and went further by inviting the three clergymen to a round-table discussion. But there was one other group that was interested in the activities of the church: the atheists, who met regularly in the village hall.

Emma and Russell Smith presided over the meetings of the Atheists’ Association, held once each month. As a group, they dissected the churches’ antics like autopsy students. They chuckled at the Catholics turning on their heels when they saw a woman vicar. They hooted at the Catholics and Anglicans, unable to see God on the riverbank. “Hello 21st century,” said Russell, to all present as he tut-tutted to his wife.