Our Experience of Secret Church in Salisbury

This is a bit of a brain dump after the Secret Church event I helped organise in Salisbury last night. If you aren’t interested in the background to our church and our advertising programme, just click down to find out what happened during the service.

In September, some advertising material for Open Doors’ Secret Church campaign came across my desk in work. I was instantly taken with the idea: it gave the opportunity to pray in solidarity with and for persecuted Christians; to raise awareness of extreme persecution, particularly of the ‘forgotten Christians’ of North Korea; and it also looked like a fun and exciting worship event. I consequently gave it a bit of publicity on the Diocesan website, weekly e-Bulletin and monthly Grapevine, but also decided to run an event as the first thing sponsored by our new Mission, Education and Outreach Committee at Sarum St Martin.

St Martin’s is not a very large church, with a usual attendance of around 40 at the main Sunday morning service. It is a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic parish (Resolutions A, B & C), now growing again after the departure to the Ordinariate of the previous incumbent with a sizeable minority of the then congregation on Ash Wednesday 2011. It has been in interregnum since.

Advertising and Attendance

Advertising JPG used on Facebook, correctly sized for the platform.

Advertising jpeg used on Facebook, correctly sized for the platform.

I produced a poster based on one of the image files sent out by Open Doors UK, and put it in a number of church and Christian venues in Salisbury City Centre. I also advertised the service on Facebook and Twitter, with images specifically sized for each platform.

However, all the attendees came either from St Martin’s or St Thomas’. In St Martin’s, Secret Church was also advertised in the parish bulletin and from the front during a Sunday Mass. In St Thomas’, it was usefully advertised via the parish e-mail list. St Thomas’ is a Central/Liberal parish church in Salisbury City Centre with a fine choral tradition, and a congregation several times larger that in St Martin’s. I attend Morning Prayer there regularly on weekdays. Word of mouth and personal contact remain crucial, and e-communication remains of limited utility in driving attendance for this type of event. It is, however, I think important in spreading ideas between different churches, especially geographically separated ones.

In total, 17 people came: 9 from St Thomas’, 7 from St Martin’s, and one from a C of E village church just outside Salisbury. We were particularly privileged to have Tony Miller attend. Tony is a worshipper at St Thomas’ and long-standing Amnesty activist, who chaired Salisbury Amnesty’s North Korea committee for some years.

All of our attendees were Anglicans, and indeed all from liturgical, Central to Catholic, traditions. This probably made our Secret Church event relatively unique, as Open Doors is an explicitly Evangelical ministry. I’d be interested to know if our worship turned out much differently from Secret Church events run by Evangelical churches.

Venue

Sign

Not making the venue too obvious.

I intentionally kept the venue secret from participants at all times – even their final instruction told them to go to a particular parade of shops and “look for the obvious sign in the window”.

I wanted a venue in Salisbury City Centre that didn’t feel too churchy and ideally one that wasn’t church related at all. However, practicalities and the fact that church venues usually offer discounts for Christian meetings meant I booked an upstairs meeting room in the excellent new community centre run by St Paul’s , SP2. The meeting rooms don’t have any obviously Christian symbolism displayed. SP2 is a fantastic bit of plant, which has a really good coffee shop on the ground floor.

The coffee shop is closed during the evening, and access to the upstairs meeting rooms after hours is down a side entry, through a door which is shared with residential flats.  We were the only people using the centre, so it did feel like we were meeting in an anonymous office block. A few posters with icthus symbols were placed in strategic places to help people find the right doorbell.

Getting there

I texted people around 6.30 pm with initial instructions to proceed somewhere by 7.30 pm, and sent final directions at the latter time. Those who I knew were driving had a first instruction to park in one of three car parks near the venue; those on foot were given an intermediate way point. I tried to stagger arrival times between 7.35 and 7.50. All of those who would otherwise have arrived alone were asked either to give someone a lift or meet up with someone en route. Mostly attendees arrived in groups of 2 or 3, but there was one group of 4.

I was terribly worried about the logistics of this, and with a larger crowd it could have become unmanageable. I would not recommend running Secret Church with a group larger than 17 without a dedicated logistics person! As it turned out, everything worked a treat – everybody got there with a 15 minute window, as planned, and I didn’t ever have two groups arriving at once.

The service

In our advertising, we asked people not to bring any Bibles, prayer books, rosaries or similar items, in solidarity with those in countries where people can’t afford to carry Christian paraphernalia for fear of punishment. We were going to have to run an hour-long service from memory.

After a brief introduction to what the service was and why we were doing it, I started by showing two short (~2 minute) videos: Get the Secret Church Experience by Open Doors Youth, which is a well-produced, dramatisation of what church might look like in this country if we had to gather under the sort of extreme persecution conditions faced by Christians in places like North Korea and Somalia.

The other video was by Open Doors UK and was Eun Hee’s Story, a which tells the tale of a North Korean martyr. The latter is an especially powerful story, and there was a visible intake of breath around the room when it finished.

As our group were all from liturgical Anglican traditions, the service loosely followed the pattern of the ‘Liturgy of the Word’ part of an Anglican Eucharist. The group were confident in reciting the confession from memory, and one of the several priests in attendance just as confident in pronouncing absolution, and we all then said the Kyrie and Gloria together.

Tony Miller, a long-standing Amnesty activist on North Korea

Tony Miller, a long-standing Amnesty activist on North Korea

We then moved to another part I was nervous about, asking people to share Bible stories from memory, just as many persecuted Christians do. I was worried attendees might freeze for fear of not knowing the words in detail. It did take a little time to get warmed up, but once we did, there was no stopping us! This section ran well over time, but everybody benefited a lot from it.

Bits of scripture we shared included: Jesus calming the storm, the feeding of the five thousand, the parable of the lampstand, the story of Mary and Martha, the healings of the woman with the issue of blood and the man paralysed from birth, the first converts in Acts 2, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the Servant Song from Isaiah 42. Several people remarked that two things came up repeatedly: the need for openness and not being afraid.

This Bible-sharing section segued into something I had intended for later, as people started sharing personal stories.

Peter shares his story of attending a Saudi secret church.

Peter shares his story of attending a Saudi secret church.

Two powerful stories came from Peter, who talked about attending a secret church in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s; and Aly who talked about other patients asking her to pull the curtain when priests came to pray for her when she was recently seriously ill in hospital.

At the end of this long section we tried singing some hymns from memory, which worked remarkably well: Guide Me Thou O Great Redeeemer and To Be A Pilgrim, followed by the Taizé chant Jesus Remember Me.

17 gathered in an Upper Room... #ApostlesPlus5?

17 gathered in an Upper Room… #ApostlesPlus5?

The final section was a period of intercession. We prayed for the four countries at the top of Open Doors’ World Watch List, places where confessing Christ often results in death: North Korea, Somalia and, sadly nowadays, Iraq and Syria. We also prayed for two vast countries where persecution is much more sporadic but still real, China and Kazakhstan. We prayed for agencies working for persecuted Christians in different contexts: Open Doors in a specifically Evangelical context, Forum 18 working for freedom of religion and disbelief generally, and Amnesty working for freedom of conscience in a secular context. We also expressed repentance for the times when Christians had been, and still are, persecutors of others.

We finished by singing a few more hymns: Let All Mortal Flesh and the 23rd Psalm to Crimond, and finished with the Lord’s Prayer, the Third Evening Collect (Lighten our darkness…), and the Grace. A hat was passed which paid for our room hire and should also cover a modest donation to Open Doors. I had some Open Doors literature available, which went like hot cakes, and gave people a 2 page intercession sheet to take home with them, which is available here as a pdf. Then we departed with a gap of at least 30 seconds between each group.

Conclusions

Perhaps the most important conclusion was that not only would we do Secret Church again, but several St Thomas’ parishioners said they’re definitely going to run Secret Church, possibly in Lent. It is unusual to attend a service that was tremendous fun, had aspects of game-playing, yet at the same time was deeply moving, profound, and shattered preconceptions. As someone remarked, the Church isn’t going to stop being persecuted in these countries any time soon, so the need for prayer and awareness-raising is ongoing. I think everyone who attended would recommend the format to any other church. The guidance material that Open Doors produce is really helpful.

On a purely personal note, I’d love to go to an event run by someone else where I could relax into it rather than fretting about organising!

Some other thoughts:

  • Although Secret Church seems to have been conceived as a youth event, it works just as well with an adult audience. Our youngest attendee was 22 and our oldest well over 70, with a bias towards the upper end of the age range, and we loved it.
  • The ‘cloak and dagger’ games about the location seemed a bit silly to some people beforehand, and may even have reduced our numbers a little, but it made a big impact on the night. One attendee said “Walking out from home in the dark, to get a lift from someone I didn’t know, to come to an unknown place, really made me appreciate what some Christians go through just to go to church”.
  • Many attendees spoke of how the event had made given them a greater appreciation of how generous God was to them, and that they should be more trusting in Him. I suddenly realised how lucky we are to have even the most basic Christian resources, like Bibles and orders of service.
  • Getting people to talk about their favourite Bible passages from memory was really worthwhile; people remembered more than they would have expected, and linked it in with their lives in all sorts of unexpected ways.
  • Liturgy really has value. People remembered lots of prayers, and across two churches with somewhat different traditions, they remembered lots of the same prayers. Prayers learned by heart through recitation day-by-day and week-by-week are with people when they really need them. I’ve made the same observation with older people who were starting to lose their faculties and whose only real social capacity was reciting prayers known since childhood with others.

Short summary: please run a Secret Church event wherever you are!

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