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Reform Magazine | August 14, 2022

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Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘As many nonconformists together as you can shake a bishop’s crozier at’

Do  stay for tea and coffee: ‘As many nonconformists together as you can shake a bishop’s crozier at’

Paul Kerensa gets together in Nailsworth

In my day job as a stand-up (well, evening job), I tour the land doing comedy shows for churches – which this week led me to the delightful Cotswold town of Nailsworth. Winding down the zig-zag road into the valley, I found this picture-postcard epitome of English country life. It’s what Americans probably think all our villages are like: grey stone buildings, an old clock tower, quiet quaint independent shops and restaurants, surrounded by woodland aplenty. Oh, and a wonderful old United Reformed church (pictured) – my destination for the evening.

But when is a URC not a URC? When it’s an LEP, perhaps? This local ecumenical partnership is a place where URC, Baptist and Methodist all worship as one: as many nonconformist backgrounds as you can shake a bishop’s crozier at, all joining to nonconform together.

I began the show asking the audience who attended this church – a nice cheer. I asked who was in from other denominations, and the same people cheered.

Each Sunday in this Gloucestershire church, Baptists, Methodists and URCists (I know they’re not called that) all gather as, well, Christians. Or even, for those early in their faith journey, just ‘people’. Their minister happens to be Baptist by background – the building’s the same, a beautiful 1830s Baptist chapel with gallery. For nearly two centuries, Methodists and URC members have found a home here, turning Shortwood Baptist Chapel into Christ Church Nailsworth.

What a lovely lot they are too. There at the comedy show, I encouraged cheers from the Baptists, cheers from the Methodists, cheers from the URCs. The interval included a few jolly complaints that I didn’t get Catholics to cheer too. I didn’t know they were in! (The Anglicans cheered too, once I’d handed around sheets with their cheers printed for them in bold.)

In the case of Nailsworth, those three denominations all muck in together, all services for all. It’s a single congregation LEP. The Churches Together website states that ‘The uniqueness and creativity of each LEP should… be expressed in its Ecumenical Vision Statement’. I like that recognition that each merger will be one-of-a-kind. What did Jesus say? ‘Where two or three gather in my name…’ Well, each two or three will be different, offering diverse gifts, making each gathering unique in flavour.

Elsewhere across the country there are shared church buildings, or those who loan a service here and there. A church near me in Guildford alternates Sundays: mostly Church of England, but some weeks the Methodists take over, and occasionally it’s Orthodox. Mass spiritual catering! (With Mass, probably, sometimes too.)

I wonder what other ecumenical denomination-mixing is there out there? Perhaps Salvation Army meets with Hillsong: brass bands given the platinum-selling record label treatment? Or Quaker meets Baptist, which to my uneducated mind implies porridge with more water than usual. Or Church of England meets Greek Orthodox: cucumber sandwiches on plates that are then smashed on the floor in the customary style.

Far calmer than any of these, Nailsworth was delightful, not just as a picture-postcard village, but as a church that focuses more on our commonalities than our differences.

With one God, one Church is surely the ideal – one church yet eight billion people. What it then looks like when we all fill it, that’s up to us.

Paul Kerensa is author of books including So a Comedian Walks into a Church and Noah’s Car Park Ark, and is permanently on tour bringing comedy shows to churches (paulkerensa.com)

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This article was published in the July/August 2022 edition of Reform

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