Postcard from London

The Rev. Steve Morris left a career in advertising and marketing to respond to a call to ordained ministry in the Church of England. Having served a customary four-year curacy, he moved to Wembley in northwest London, where his work as vicar of St. Cuthbert’s has radically changed his understanding of ministry.

“As a theological student in Oxford, I was told that to make a church grow you simply needed to recruit a lively worship band and spend two days preparing your main Sunday sermon,” he said.

St. Cuthbert’s had a mainly eclectic congregation when he became its vicar 18 months ago. Most worshipers traveled some distance to worship and few locals attended. Very soon after Morris arrived, there was a noticeable exodus of these commuters. The congregation dwindled to about 10.

He had little choice but to undertake a radical rethinking. His response was an intense effort to understand the surrounding community. “My question was this: where is this community hurting?” He found a neighborhood where the majority of residents were Hindus and hardly good prospects to become Anglicans.

It emerged that the majority of neighbors were elderly, many of them single occupants of large houses. No surprise, then, there was a high incidence of loneliness with many reporting they hardly spoke to anyone from one week to another. Digging further, Morris found there was a high incidence of dementia.

Dementia is a group of symptoms that commonly involves problems with memory, thinking, problem-solving, language, and perception. The symptoms are caused by different diseases that affect the brain. It’s a growing problem in the United Kingdom and fills people with foreboding for the future as aging sets in.

The parish decided it should address the dementia issue. Morris called the Alzheimer’s Association, a national charity, and found it had crafted a concept called Memory Cafés. At first St. Cuthbert’s focused only on people with dementia. Very quickly, however, it decided to widen the scope to include any elderly neighbors.

“Our Memory Café has radically transformed how I understand and practice ministry,” Morris said. Starting the ministry was simple. “All we needed was two sets of quiz questions and light refreshments.” He gathered a group of volunteer helpers, the only stipulation being they should be “bubbly and welcoming.”

The St. Cuthbert’s Memory Café runs for two hours every Thursday, 51 weeks in the year. Morris stresses the importance of maintaining a regular meeting time. Ten locals showed up for the inaugural meeting. Now attendance can be as high as 150. The menu offers quizzes, chair-based exercises, community singing, and crafts. Offering singing helped create a choir. A side benefit for the community is that Morris has become alert to scams that fleece older folk. “I find out about a new kind of scam just about every week,” he said.

The project has borne significant fruit in terms of neighbors connecting to the worship of the parish. Morris said half of those who have visited Memory Café are now regular worshipers.

The Rt. Rev. Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, has called it “Messy Church for Oldies.” One important principle Morris emphasizes is the need to treat people with dementia as people, not to see them as medical cases.

“It’s an entirely no-frills operation: no complicated catering, no rides or pick-ups. People come with their [caregivers], so there is no need for complicated people protection procedures,” Morris said. “There’s no heavy religious content. We begin with a simple prayer and I let it be known the vicar is available to pray with guests.”

With a high proportion of Hindu neighbors, are there issues about praying with people of other faiths? “Not a problem,” Steve said. He makes it clear he offers prayer in the name of Christ and people happily accept this.

“We don’t charge,” he said. “The project ticks many boxes for mostly small grants: mental health, community-building. Because costings are so precise, it is easy to isolate items out and build grant applications.” It appeals to corporate responsibilities departments on businesses: there is an active link with Lloyd’s Bank.”

Morris now believes every parish should offer a Memory Café.

John Martin

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