Letter from London

By John Martin

About five years ago our parish (St. Barnabas, Ealing) started running cinema evenings. One spur was the closure of the nearest local cinema. For reasons no one understands, wrangling continues over plans for a replacement. The site is still a hole in the ground fronted by a sad-looking skeleton of an unfinished facade.

Meanwhile, our cinema evenings go from strength to strength. Screenings attract just more than 30 viewers, on average. Attendance is primarily local, mostly people living within walking distance. We think less than one in 20 is a regular churchgoer. Between January 2010 when we launched and June 2015, a total of 6,764 people crossed our threshold. We charge for entrance at about two-thirds the price of the nearest cinema complex about two miles away. This has become a handy income stream, boosting parish finances.

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Several weeks ago we were declared runners-up in the National Film Society award for best local event. On the anniversary of the start of World War I we ran a cabaret-style evening. People heard moving diary accounts and poems by locals who fought in Flanders and on the Somme. Food served replicated what soldiers ate in the trenches. The centrepiece was a screening of Lewis Milestone’s award-winning 1930 American epic All Quiet on the Western Front, which won two Oscars.

Our experience with Pitshanger Pictures (that’s our brand) is that, like so many Church of England parishes, we are quite good at getting people onto bridges we build into the local community, but we find it much more difficult to persuade people to cross them to become part of our worshiping life. That’s despite lots going on: local groups use our hall for events ranging from fitness classes to a nursery school. There’s an abundance of musical events.

We gradually realized we needed to create more stepping stones to encourage people on the journey. There are various options like the Alpha Course. It is a remarkable instrument bringing people to faith, but in Pilgrim, a national discipleship course launched two years ago by the Church of England, we found something better suited to local temperaments.

Church House Publishing reports it has sold 90,000 copies of the study book and harnesses Twitter campaigns to promote it. So far eight modules, each containing six parts, have been released.

Pilgrim is distinctively Anglican. A team of 31 authors worked on it, several diocesan bishops, some academics, and the evangelist J. John. One of its strengths is that leaders do not need to be theological heavyweights, and Pilgrim groups work for people of all ages and abilities. It main method is Lectio Divina, which leaders and participant quickly pick up.

The first module, “I turn to Christ,” engages the six questions the baptism service puts to parents, godparents, and candidates able to answer for themselves. Then follow modules of six parts on the Lord’s Prayer, the Commandments, and the Beatitudes. Pilgrim has already followed up its foundation course with the Follow stage: six session modules on Creeds, Eucharist, Bible, and finally Church & Kingdom.

Our parish has now completed the first four modules and is moving on to the Follow stage. It has attracted a trickle of newcomers and held their attention. It has formed part of our confirmation preparation for adult candidates. During Advent we plan our own series, The Songs of Christmas, run in the same style as Pilgrim, comprising the Magnificat, the Gloria, the Nunc Dimittis and Benedictus.

Our vicar and church council agree we now have something ready-made in which people who come across our threshold and want to know more can find next steps.

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