I’ve just been to a betting shop. A vicar said I had to.
The Vicar concerned was my colleague Graeme, who asked all of us on the Church Council to spend twenty minutes in a betting shop before our next Council meeting – where we’ll be talking about how newcomers feel at church. Graeme suspected that what we’d feel at a betting shop might be quite similar to what someone not used to church might feel at worship.
I’m glad I went. But it wasn’t easy to work out what to do. First, because (even when I deliberately looked lost and in need of help), nobody noticed I was there. Second, because although there were three leaflets on offer, one was a request for customer feedback – “WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!” (which I’ve now filled in and returned), one was a “decimal odds converter” which I’m sure would be useful if I understood the concept of decimal odds, and one was about a gambling addiction helpline. Gambling addiction? I didn’t even know how to gamble yet!
So I went up to one of the two assistants (I could tell who to speak to by their badges) and introduced myself as a first-time visitor. “You can bet anything from singles up, horses, dogs, football or novelty,” she said without eye-contact - and got on with counting her betting slips. This didn’t help much, so I stood where I was for a while, hoping she’d say something else. She didn’t, because she’d spotted another customer she knew the name of and was chatting to her. The thing was: she was a perfectly polite, pleasant person, who didn’t realise that I couldn’t speak her language.
I know nothing about racing, and I’m too loyal to Newcastle to bet on other premiership sides winning, and too discouraged by Newcastle’s performance under Graham Souness to bet on them winning. That left me with international football; I managed to fill in a slip, betting that Senegal would win in the African Nations Cup. And I managed to pluck up enough courage to ask what “novelties” meant. But I’m not going to tell you; if you don’t know already, you obviously don’t spend anything like enough time in betting shops.
The point of it all? Well, mainly I want to apologise to all those of you have plucked up courage and walked into a church (whether here or somewhere else), only to find strange language, no leaflet to explain in simple terms what’s going on, and little human warmth. Church people don’t mean to be difficult, we just sometimes forget how hard it is to find our feet in a new setting. Over the next months, this is something we’re going to be working at; if you want to know the specifics of what we’re planning, come to church and ask any member of the Church Council – see if they make eye contact as they answer your questions – or give me a call. And if you’re not a regular churchgoer and have some advice about how we might become more newcomer friendly, we really want to listen to your advice. Or as the betting shop leaflet put it, WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
And if Simon Hughes and Senegal are successful, I owe you a drink.
(This article first appeared in "Viewpoint", Galleywood's parish magazine, in 2006. I thought it was worth reproducing here to get us thinking about how we can help the deanery's churches become more user friendly!)