As followers of this blog will know, I host and run a fellowship group in Chelmsford Cathedral. It wasn’t something I sought – I felt that I had done my bit as far as ‘small groups’ are concerned. Nonetheless, I was persuaded to take on the role, and in the process have enjoyed developing friendships with the fourteen or so members of my group.
However, I have a vision of encouraging my group not just to be friends of one another, but also to develop friendships with others in the Cathedral. For to my amazement I have discovered that many of those who have been worshipping at the Cathedral for years do not know one another. Indeed, I have even discovered that it is possible for people who have been sitting next to one another for years not to know even one another’s names!
In August I wrote to my group a letter, setting out my vision for the autumn term. There I said:
I was much struck by what Imogen (our new canon for evangelism and discipleship) had to say at our summer party about her vision of being ‘friends of Jesus – and of one another’. Although ultimately we need to extend friendship to people beyond the boundary of the Cathedral, it seems to me that perhaps in the first place we need to learn to be ‘friends of one another’ – here I have in mind not friends in our fellowship groups, but friends in the wider Cathedral fellowship. Sadly, my experience is that most of us scarcely know many of our fellow worshippers.
Instead of doing a Bible study series, I wish to propose that… we invite to our meetings a different ‘friend’ within the Cathedral with a view to getting to know them better. As part of that process I will ask them to come prepared to share a Scripture passage that has been special to them.
In addition, I wish to suggest that on one particular Sunday or week of this autumn each of us invites for a coffee or a meal a ‘friend’ – or ‘friends’ – in the Cathedral who we have never welcomed into our home before. I guess that for most of us this would involve inviting people into our home but if you find it easier to go out to a coffee-shop or a café, so be it. This ‘hospitality Sunday’ could transform many a relationship in the Cathedral.
On reflection, perhaps the most radical thing I proposed was to dispense with formal Bible study. Up until that moment studying a Scripture passage had been a major feature of our programme. ‘What a strange Evangelical!’ some might have said. However, there are times when we need to put the teaching of Jesus into action rather than do more study – and this seemed to be one of those times.
I then had to draw up a programme of people to visit us. Fortunately, on average our group meets only every other week during ‘term-time’, so I only had six slots to fill.
- Our first visitors were three members of the youth group together with two of their leaders. It was the first time that most of us had ever spoken to any young people in the Cathedral.
- Our second visitor was the wife of the Dean. We all knew who she is – but many of us knew very little more.
- Then the retired medical director of the local hospice and his wife came. They have been active in the Cathedral for years – but most of my group did not know them.
- Our next guest, a former churchwarden, shared with us his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. Inevitably death became the topic of the evening
- Unfortunately, I was in Egypt for our next speaker: although appointed a canon a year or so ago, most people had little clue as to her job – let alone were aware of how she met her husband!
- Our final visitor was a very recently appointed university chaplain, whom in a previous life I had baptised (along with her husband) and had taken too their wedding. I had no idea, however, of the challenges she was now facing.
It proved a fascinating series – and even more importantly, it proved a spiritually challenging series. At the same time we had the joy of making some meaningful friendships. Not surprisingly, the group wanted more. As a result, before we get involved in a new Lent course, I have arranged three more such evenings: the first evening we have the Cathedral’s temporary operations director; then we have the chief executive of the Church of England’s pension scheme together with his wife, a university development officer; and finally we have our newest canon who is responsible for evangelism and discipleship. I know nothing about one of them; enough to write two sentences about the husband and wife; while the third I have begun to get to know. And what is true of me will almost be certainly of most if not all the members of my group.
I appreciate that for many if not most of the readers of this blog, this experiment in friendship will seem very small ‘beer’. Yet, in my judgement we have begun a small revolution, which I am very much hoping will make a real difference to our life together in the Cathedral. My prayer is that we will begin to change the Cathedral’s DNA – so that friendship replaces anonymity. I’ll keep you posted!