Friday, March 24, 2006

Return of the Lapsed

As it is Friday, a Happy Tablet Day to everyone.

Our deputy editor, Elena Curti, continues a series begun last week on the changing dynamics of religiosity in Britain. The first article touched on people who've left the church; this week, Curti visits those who return....
Today there are several programmes designed to encourage those who drift away from the Church but relatively few parishes use them. The most popular is Landings, which was imported to Britain from the United States in 2000 and now operates in around 40 parishes.

The importance of programmes like these is made clear when returners speak of feeling uncomfortable when they walked back into their local church for the first time, often after years away. “Everybody else seems to know each other. You are very lucky if anyone says ‘hello’ to you. You feel like a freak,” says Hillu, a woman in her forties who completed the Landings programme at Ealing Abbey, west London, last year.

At that time she was living in a parish a few miles away and read about Landings on a website. It took her three months to pluck up the courage to enquire about it but once she walked into the first session she was certain she had done the right thing. “I had a ‘wow’ feeling. I did not expect to be made to feel so welcome. There were six or seven other people there making the effort to welcome me. It was fantastic. You didn’t have to say very much at all in the first session. They guide you very slowly into it. You feel very safe and protected.” ....

Another popular tool used in Catholic churches both to introduce people to Christianity and help the lapsed is the Alpha Course. It was originally devised for Anglicans, but Catholic catechists and priests attest to its effectiveness. Fr Chris Brannan, who has been running Alpha courses in his parishes for eight years, believes that the key to its success is placing emphasis on Christ rather than the Church as an institution that can be shaken by scandals such as child abuse....

But other strategies are needed for people with greater diffculties. In the mid-1990s, Fr Paul Watson hit on the idea of parish visitations to lapsed Catholics when he ran the parish of Our Lady of the Angels in Stoke-on-Trent. Using parish records, he and his helpers sent out letters simply asking people if they would like a visit. A few replied rejecting the offer but they were the exception.

“People were not so much disaffected but had lost contact. When we visited we did not try to address any problems; we just listened to them. After that they were more open to hearing the Gospel message,” said Fr Watson, now director of the Maryvale Institute of Further and Higher Education in Birmingham. The results of the visitation were very positive: 60 per cent of those contacted either returned to the Church or were receptive to further contact.
See? As B16 likes saying over and over and over again -- and may more people actually heed it -- it's all about caritas.