by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod
The past few weeks in the church where I work there have seen some of the largest numbers ever, and some of the lowest. What’s going on?
Remembrance Sunday was mega all around the country. We ran a variety of events across that weekend. They were all well attended, and it was standing room only at the service following the ceremony around the memorial. At the end of the day, we had a quiet thoughtful evensong and 50 people attended. That is huge for a little village church. Then the bells rang out again (the third time that day) and we processed out into the dark to light the beacon. I was bowled over. Yet more crowds. People had walked up the hill in the dark to come to a very simple ceremony at a church they otherwise never go near.
The service for folk who have been bereaved called ‘Remembering with Love’ was also packed. When we manage to offer something that people actually want, they pitch up.
I asked some of them why they had come. ‘It’s important to remember.’ ‘This year, in particular, we need to be here.’ ‘My Grandfather died in WW1’ ‘It’s a sign of respect.’ ‘We need to say thank you.’ Lots of very good reasons. Here’s the issue: their motivation was good and solid and human. These were all the sort of person who had depth and an instinct for values beyond their own personal story. But none of them said they were in church to worship God. None of them. Not even the regular paid-up churchgoers.
So were they worshipping? When the community got together to remember WW1 and all the sacrifice and the honour and the relief and pride that it all came to an end on 11.11.18 -were they doing something secular in a church building, or was it worship? I believe that when you do something that comes from the depth of your humanity it can it be worship even when there is no deliberate religiosity about it.
One of the depressing aspects of Facebook is the snarky comments of the super religious. The colour of the advent candles, the exact vestments, the singing of carols before Christmas. All these and of course more profound issues are bickered over as if true worship can’t happen unless we get it all correct.
Maybe real worship can’t be conjured up at all. A bit like happiness, it is what falls out of being fully alive, of living in a connected loving, compassionate way that makes sense of being human. Maybe the unchurched; pitching up at Remembrance Sunday, were more in touch with God than the faithful few who work so hard to get their liturgy right in order to conjure up God. I’ve just read Anglican Mainstream’s response to the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Guidance for blessing transgender transitions. I struggle to discern even the faintest fragrance of God in what they say, and yet they are confident that they speak in his name
The same probably applies to ‘Mission’ We are running on old software. Our aim is still to get people to come and join the club, and we totally fail to recognise that most people have a pretty deep inner life and firm and good values. They just don’t articulate or express things in religious terms. My example would be the Christmas Tree Festival we held in church last weekend. Again the church was full to bursting with folk who rarely come to services. There were multi-layered conversations, lots of laughter, children having fun in the church rather than being told to be quiet. And yes, someone said; ‘This is what church means to me. All sorts of local people from our community getting together – looking out for each other.’
That little festival felt pretty close to the way Jesus saw it – they’ll know you are Christians by the way you love one another. Surely mission falls out of loving one another and loving your local community?
On the whole, the Church is moving in the opposite direction. It is looking for ever more ingenious ways of telling people their lives are shot without God. In a way that might be true, but the offer is always ‘you need MY type of God’ and it simply is never going to work. Think of the way things have changed in the world of shopping. In a very short space of time, people have moved online. It is no good shouting at them telling them to get back to the High Street. Things have changed. It really is the same for church. It is not good shouting at people telling them they ought to come. The thing which we call a ‘Service’ is probably toast. Some of us love it, and in Cathedrals and the like, it will survive as a supreme part of our culture. Most surely you can encounter God there. But it is mostly a social and cultural construct which now carries with it so much baggage that people look elsewhere for ‘a God moment’.
The baggage certainly makes it tricky for me. The class, the hierarchy, the bigotry, the language; it’s all neatly packaged and the good experiences when they come, happen despite that massive handicap. In a way what we actually do in church doesn’t matter that much. We have created some wonderful and some dire liturgies over the years. Surprisingly, research shows that people are not that interested in what is taught either. Warm supportive relationships, in a context where power is used well and justice and equality, are clearly the ground values, make for something worth striving for. The way that happens for the next generation is surely going to be very different. The regular ‘service’ will probably continue but as a niche product.
At the moment that drive to define the church as a place for ‘true believers’ is very strong. The bar for belonging is getting higher. There is more emphasis on discipleship and on getting the fringe of the CofE drawn into the centre.
My personal experience is that I see more of Christ in people on the edges. Getting really keen on religion doesn’t seem to be very good for your character. Most of the in-fighting we are struggling with at the moment is amongst sincere but judgemental people who “know they are right”. Treading lightly, with a good dose of doubt and questioning and creating a holy space where you can just come along as yourself is healthy.
Religion is not the point but the pointer. We have to remember that most of it is a human construct, built with extraordinary creative imagination, but also with the desire for power for personal and political ends. A lot of what we have inherited is glorious for people who like that sort of thing, but a wise friend of mine has a strategy: ‘enjoy but don’t inhale.’
As a ‘sacramentalist’, though I go along with Canon Rosie’s general trend here – about the fact that sometimes the Church expects too much of people in the way of dogmatic loyalty to its extant tradition – I am also a firm believer that the Church needs to gently advertise the spiritual benefits of sacramental grace.
We are here, not only to provide beautiful buildings in which people may find personal solace (although that is still part of the attraction of churches); but also to encourage their participation in the grace uniquely available in the sacraments that the incarnation and lived-out life of Jesus brought into our world as a way of connecting with the God who is the source of all that we treasure and value in the lives we are given to lead.
When I first saw the title of Rosie’s piece, I immediately thought of my personal regard for the use of incense in worship – as a reminder of the ‘fragrance’ rendered in our common worship of ‘the God we cannot see’. In saying this, I am aware of the fact that – at the Christmas Season – we are made aware of the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi – Gold for Kingship; Myrrh, as a sign of selfless Suffering; and Incense, as a worship offering of the prayers of all the Saints throughout the Christian era.
(“In every place, incense shall be offered unto my Name, and a pure Offering”, says the Lord of hosts).
The reality is that these gifts had a tremendous significance for pointing to Jesus as The Christ, the Redeemer of all humanity who, in his helpless infancy was yet instinct with the glory of future Kingship – but not before he endured the suffering that he undertook for the sake of the world. It is for this that we who believe in the divine purpose Jesus assumed on our behalf are called to offer the worship we come to understand is his due.
However, the work of the Church – as the Body of Christ – is to welcome ALL into a safe place of encounter – a place where we who are disciples of Jesus can accept people as they are – not as we might expect them to be. Only in this way will outsiders come to encounter, understand and know the Living God we are called to proclaim – not as the self-righteous, but as fellow sinners, showing other sinners where to find bread.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand