"Do you welcome those who celebrate a non religious Christmas?" I ask Reverend Sue Powell, "even world famous atheist Richard Dawkins has spoken of his love for this holiday"
'..Of course we welcome people' replies the Hayes Free Church Reverend, "those of faith and those without"
At a time when Christianity in the UK is said to be 'on the brink of extinction' and community spirit is hard to find, I ask the Reverend to reflect on why the number of people attending church is on the decline, the search for a secular church and ethics.
Q Your Christmas message of forgiveness is a poignantly relevant one but many find it impossible to see past the hurt that another person has caused them
A Ask yourself if the tables were turned, what would you need? I helped a couple where the man had an affair and it devastated his wife, she asked him to renew his marriage vows, she stood there totally prepared to give him another chance and he stood there checking his mobile phone. Sometimes we want so badly to forgive and start again and it is not what the other wants or needs so put yourself in their place. Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is acknowledging what is wrong and either doing something about fixing it or moving on.
We all want to be and need to be loved and forgiven, yet we don't want to love and forgive others, but we must. There is a lack of care in our society today with too many people so focussed on their own lives that they cease to see what is happening in the lives of others. Many, even in our churches, are ignorant of the great need for the Food Banks that churches have set up, people seem determined to lay the blame at the door of the poor, the lazy or the 'benefit culture' without finding out the causes for poverty and the facts.
Q This message, like so many of the church's teachings is of relevance to people's lives, why are people turning their backs on the church?
A This is a question I often ask myself and others, 'what is the point?' is the answer I usually get, 'I can pray in my own home, I don't need to do it with a group of people I might not even like'. Yet the point of coming together in church is to encourage each other, just as family groups are now spread far and wide and no longer together in community, the same has happened with the Christian community, to the point that just as family become so far spread that we hardly know our own cousins any more, so the Christian family seems to have become the part of the family that we have lost touch with.
Q In my 'search for a secular church' I commented on the support network enjoyed by elderly church members and the apparent lack of a secular equivalent. As an atheist myself I wondered how the secular elderly can build a solid network of people they can depend on in times of need?
A Secular church comes in many guises, my mother's Bingo Club was always a great source of help to her, if she missed her usual session someone would ring to check. Age UK has a contingent of volunteers who go out and shop for the elderly and visit, local pubs where bar staff usually know elderly visitors by name.
Very often churches have groups with non-church members in them, Fellowship groups, Friendship groups, several men's groups in my area, but apart from such small groups where do we go together? Village halls don't really exist much any more, the local library no longer has the time to keep check on regulars, the milk man who would notice the unused milk, or the postman who would be aware of the collection of mail behind the door have all but disappeared.
Q A question that often divides believers from atheists; can you be a kind, moral, ethical person without religious faith in your life?
A All good people are kind, moral and ethical, the difference for a Christian are the teachings of Christ. Jesus didn't ask us just to be kind, moral and ethical - Jesus expects us to stand up against injustice and to protect those who are weak; Jesus calls us to love our enemies and our neighbours, to hold on to the eternal hope.. that we will go the extra mile, and then the other 500.
Q Are people 'missing out' by not coming to church to expose themselves to messages such as love and forgiveness?
A love and forgiveness is something that takes energy and work and that we should be practising every day to get it right - I wonder where else in society, besides churches that message is found today? How do people challenge their preconceptions and find ways in which to live out the love and forgiveness so many desperately need? I'm not sure we are finding these messages outside of the churches, and that worries me; I understand that church is not for everyone, so we must seek to find alternative ways of getting that message across.
Q What do you wish for this Christmas?
A That the peoples of this world find and know hope; there can be nothing worse than an existence without hope.