It’s undeniable that across Cornwall we have a problem with missing generations in our Anglican churches. Not just the elusive ‘youth’ but whole other generations below and above the age of retirement. So, it’s very tempting to think that the older generation are okay – they have the type of church they want and are being very well served, thank you. But are they?

What if you feel housebound? What if you’re trying to live with dementia? What if you’re lonely and have lost the confidence to walk into a church. Maybe mobility is a problem, they start too early or they will insist on changing things around to appeal to a younger congregation! What if you feel that the church you knew and loved is no longer accessible to you and besides, everyone you knew has long since left?

Remembering God

God laid all of these questions on the heart of Barbara Bennett who decided it was time to act. Once a month Barbara organises, “Remembering God” at Stoke Climsland, part of the Callington Cluster. Led by Revd Annabel King, it’s a short service designed specifically with older people in mind who, for whatever reason, have lost their confidence in church.

“There are always rousing Hymns,” says Barbara, “Old favourites like To God Be The Glory, because that is what people remember and love. If you are living with dementia, music can be transporting, bringing clarity and joy at a time when everything else can seem so muddled.”

Barbara was volunteering at their Church Café and realised, through talking to those who came along, that there were many barriers to people either coming back to church or trying it for the first time. “Some would say, ‘Barbara, this café feels different,’ and I would suggest, ’That’s because God is here!’ And then we would talk about what that meant. When I asked if they might like to come along to a church service, the answer would often be that they didn’t feel they had a place there anymore, or couldn’t physically get there at the appointed time, or it’s not like it used to be.”

So, with the blessing of their Rector, Revd Tony Stephens, a time for all who need to worship God in a simple and uncomplicated way evolved as Remembering God. It’s welcome to everyone and every effort is made to make it as easy as possible to come along. “We have a fantastic team of volunteers, including a transport team. Because the service is only on the first Sunday of each month, it’s slightly easier to co-ordinate and share the burden. It also helps that it’s in the afternoon at 2.30pm, giving people plenty of time to prepare.”

Gentle, familiar and tactile services

The services are very gentle, familiar and tactile. “We have familiar Christian symbols, like a cross, as well as the Bible, with God’s word and message to us, and a lit candle that different members of the congregation pick up to pass to Annabel, symbolising the light of Christ, before she speaks.” The services are short, always end with tea and cake and are well attended, even by those who swore they’d never step foot in a church again! “One lady, who pretends to be a little cantankerous, said to me, “When I went into the care home I thought I would never be able to worship in a church again, but these services have made it possible.”

As Barbara says, the services must be well planned and sensitively put together, “But we don’t always get it right. We held a service on Mothering Sunday but it was very difficult. Because many of the congregation are living with dementia, talking about mothers was a reminder to some that their mothers had died, or that their children were no longer close, and so relived the painful memories.” On the other hand, as Revd Annabel said, “It was difficult, but giving people space to be upset also shows they can be real and still be loved.”

Remembering God is well supported by prayer. “It’s all the tiny things that make this mound of love,” says Barbara. And those tiny things include prayers from across the benefice, asking for blessings on the people and their carers and all those volunteers who are working to make the services happen.

Making quality time to pray

Part of Barbara’s daily regime is to walk to open and close the church, making it a designated time of prayer. “It’s so important. We all have lists that we bring to God, whether that’s a list of thankyou’s or requests, but having time set aside to just listen to what God wants to say to us, that’s something to really make time for.”

Barbara jokingly says sometimes she wishes she could be a little deaf sometimes, “God has a habit of asking me to do things I don’t think I can do!” she says.

Barbara jokingly says sometimes she wishes she could put God on mute! “He has a habit of asking me to do things I don’t think I can do!” she says. One of those things was becoming a street pastor on the streets of Plymouth. “I couldn’t stand drunk people!” she laughs. “Now I can think of no place I’d rather be than on a rubbish strewn street, sitting on the kerb, alongside someone worse for wear handing them water while quietly praying for them.”

Barbara is an extraordinary woman who constantly seeks the will of God and obediently listens, even when it’s at a cost to her. “When you hear the will of God, embrace it with all your heart,” she says. Her two very different ministries came together recently when an elderly lady at Remembering God thought that Barbara had been someone who had helped her when she herself was living on the streets in Plymouth. “It wouldn’t have been me because she was talking about a time way before I even lived in Cornwall, probably. But it told me that that this dear old woman had had a hard life, and when I heard her sing and raise her hands in joy to shout ‘Hallelujah!’ during a Hymn, I knew I was right where God wanted me to be and that this woman had come home.”

If you feel moved to do something similar in your parish please do get in touch with Barbara or Revd Annabel, and let’s help to make all our generations feel they have a home in our churches.