I was walking through Colchester this morning on my way to take a school assembly. I walked along Crouch Street and then through an underpass under the main road. At the bottom of the underpass are some plaques commemorating different aspects of Colchester’s history: for example one reminds us that Colchester was originally called Camulodunum by the Romans who made it their first capital of Britain.
Another commemorates the Crouched Friars, after which Crouch Street gets its name. I wondered what had happened in order to give the Crouched Friars this unusual name and decided to do a little research when I got back home in order to find out. Part of me hoped that there was something about them that caused them to develop a stoop. Perhaps they spent so long in a penitent prayer position that they were permanently leaning forward. Maybe they believed that a crouched posture was the most appropriate for someone whose life was devoted to Jesus. Perhaps they only admitted people who had back problems. Maybe they lived a life in the starting block position because they wanted to be ready for when Jesus told them to go somewhere. Perhaps they felt it was important that their coat tails should drag on the ground and walked in such a way as to make that possible.
It got me wondering about other unlikely names for religious orders. Perhaps there could be Tiptoeing Nuns, Hopping Monks, Crawling Clergy, Prostrate Priests, Drenched Baptists…
From the source of all knowledge in the world, a.k.a. Wikipedia, I discovered that the Crouched Friars are so called because they used to carry a staff with a crucifix on the top. ‘Crouched’ is a word that is a derivative of ‘crucifix’*. It was nothing to do with their posture at all. I confess to being somewhat disappointed.
But on reflection I have decided that actually this is not unlike the way some people encounter church. They will have acquired preconceptions about what church should be. Some will expect church to be like Songs of Praise. Others might expect a church to be dull and boring. Some will imagine cold dusty buildings. Others will imagine that the church’s message is summarised as “no!”
Others will have positive preconceptions: expecting to find joyful people who are willing to serve. They might be looking for a community that will welcome them with open arms. Some will hope for a place of safety and comfort. Some might even expect to encounter Jesus among us.
If the Crouched Friars were still in existence in Colchester today I suspect that they would be regularly explaining the origin of the name and the reasons why preconceptions like mine are wrong. I hope that churches do not have to explain why we do not match up with God’s expectations and preconceptions about church. I hope that people coming into a church will be pleasantly surprised – no matter how positive their preconceptions are about what the church will be like.
It would be nice if, after they have encountered us, people’s reflection is, “it was better than I thought it would be.” Wouldn’t it be fantastic though if they reflection was, “it was better than I thought it could be”? That can only take place if we are allowing God’s Spirit to transform us as individuals and as communities so that we are more and more like Jesus: good free samples of him. We need to allow him the freedom to change us, to challenge our prejudices and to open our hearts so that we can see people as Jesus is and respond to then as he would respond.
Be blessed, be a blessing
* kudos to my colleague Susan with whom I discussed this on our way back from the school and who suggested that it might well be something to do with the link between the words ‘crouch’ and ‘crucifix’.