Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Cafe Church.

'What is going on here', you wonder. In the background is a reredos of sorts containing the ten commandments and the Lord's Prayer, topped by a surprising Baroque representation of the Holy Ghost. There are communion rails, very close to what looks suspiciously like an altar, underneath which a child plays with shaped plastic. Apart from pews there are cafe tables and there is a man bearing not a collection plate (for there is now a till), but a tray of empty plates. This is the Spurriergate Centre, in what was once Saint Michael's Church on Spurriergate (the place where the spur makers once worked) in York. It seeks to be a 'shop window of the Kingdom of God', although a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking it to be a cafe, that is, until one of their 'trained listeners' descends upon you, which would, I am afraid, spoil my lunch. Counselling is offered in the belfry and, naturally, fairtrade (sic) products are available.

Upon entering, and Karen is going to hate me for this, is a small shop selling the sort of crappery that gives Christians a bad name. Expensively packaged soap, horrible coffee powders, cards with wishy washy sentiments on them, knitted ego warmers (ok, I made that one up) and the like. Oh, and lots of those dreadful CD's with wailing people on them, screeching sentimental, out of context scripture-lite. Ugh. And ugh again. If you can make it past this retail outlet of new age Christianity without puking you get into what is a very nice cafe, selling good food. Cheap it ain't, rather like Alpha, it caters for the aspirant middle classes, offering a side portion of ethical living which is compatible with the Guardian. Peruvian parmesan anyone?

So you queue up here - and queue they do, this place does offer good food in a busy city and is, unsurprisingly, busy itself. Underneath the stained glass window now is a kitchen where good people produce decent food. It is served with care, the place is clean and so what's my problem? It is this, Gunga Din, that there is clearly a well formed community of people here who are bursting to hold Sunday services, but they are bound not to by the terms of the lease which they hold on the building. It was to be a way to use an empty Church with a broadly Christian ethos -and they are to be applauded for this - but the listeners and the angel cards and the toys under the altar and the counselling have stirred up a wish to begin a Church, which is based on this mission to the City but which has no basis in Church tradition. Where is the grounding in moral theology? In ethics (apart from the 'fair'trade logos) - in short, how can a community take on the role of being Church simply because they have a building shaped like one?

Am I being too harsh? Have the priests who, over the last few years, have supplemented my learning with rigorous study of the classical theologians and philosophers, been wrong in supposing that this is essential learning? Is the thrill of the new reshaping the world in the power of the Spirit? Whatever that is supposed to mean, I seem to be leaking charismatic verbiage this morning, do forgive me, I will probably come out in a rash. I can see the attraction - in a city of too many Churches, here is a community which genuinely tries to live according to the teachings of Christ and knocks up a mean lasagna - and it tries to bring people to God, and, unless I am mistaken, is at the stage when it feels when people say 'where next', rather than suggesting a local Church, they look to themselves, for people find it hard to make transition from one group to the next, and say 'what about us?'

And what about them? With probably the warmest Church building in York and the most comfortable chairs, and counselling in the belfry. This good, well meaning enterprise has, in my opinion, come from the wrong end of thinking. This seems to be a natural product of a Church, well established in the community, which looks for a means of mission, a way to go into the community, tell of the wonders of God (for he has made you whole) and bring people into their Church community. Instead, Spurriergate has the outreach without the church community which it so clearly wants to develop and will have to at some point - I only hope that they do so by aligning themselves with one of the other established Anglican communities in York. Otherwise another Church will appear, out of the group who took on an empty building because there were too many Churches in the first place.

All of which begs the question, 'is it easier to be a Christian in a Church building, even if that building is not used as a Church' and if so, is this sort of outreach something which established groups should be thinking of undertaking in abandoned buildings?