Friday, 7 November 2014

More thoughts on church

From my post the other day about plain and simple worship with no correlated socializing, a very interesting comment thread developed. Two commenters put their finger on something that has been an issue for me, that I’d like to look at more closely. I don’t think I have any solutions, but the questions are strongly felt, and I am inching my way towards a reconsideration of a lifetime’s assumptions.

Here are the questions my commenters asked, that I wanted to stay with and muse on a bit longer:

‘I understand and share your longing for "worship"...On the other hand, Scripture itself seems to point toward "community". Surely there is place for both?’  (Rebecca)

‘I wonder whether church goes beyond my needs. Whilst I crave a singular worship experience, maybe it is those very connections that help me to better love and be loved and to give to others? Is their need greater than mine?’  (Lucy Honeychurch - but my emphasis of the 'my', which seemed to be implied.)

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, in the comment thread that developed there, a friend (she reads and comments here, but I won’t give her name as my Facebook page is not public) made the point:

There is, of course, a place for both types of community and worship. Children, in particular, are not inclined to sit still for an hour while adults do boring stuff that they don't understand. Once they would have been expected to, like it or not. But I can't help feeling that this was rather selfish on the part of the adults.’

Again, she put her finger on a difficult aspect of this.

In my own life, it shows up most clearly in respect of my grandchildren. They (with their mother) attend church at a small village chapel in the countryside. It is a most loving faith family; welcoming, kind, inspiring, open to change. Everyone in the chapel is on the church council (this frequently happens in the small village chapels), so all decisions are made and actioned together. Music is a mix of traditional and new, and a projection screen fits in unobtrusively alongside a traditional pulpit, organ and sanctuary area.

In that chapel, the stained glass window in the sanctuary was designed and made by my daughter Alice, and the cross above the pulpit by Bernard, my previous husband – the last piece he completed before he died. Even he, with his deep dislike of all things ecclesiastical, felt comfortable in that little chapel.

Simple, plain, cheerful, reasonably democratic, it would be the obvious choice of worship community for me.

Since my first grandchild came along, it has also gradually increased its attending children from usually none to a small number – perhaps half a dozen or so. The adults in that church have a real heart for children, and have given huge swathes of time to working with the village children in school and after-school activity settings. Children are always welcome there.

Children are also always welcome at the big high-church Anglican church where the Badger goes. They are loved, encouraged – and so are the many chronically ill and disabled folk who come along pushed in wheelchairs or accompanied by assistants from the care facilities where they make their home.

This, in my opinion, is absolutely, unequivocally, one-hundred-per-cent a good thing. Jesus said ‘let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them’. Jesus had a special soft spot for the helpless, the sick, the outcast and little children. A church that doesn’t welcome children (in practical terms as well as theoretical) is not his church at all. I am all in favour.

But. Oh, isn’t there always a ‘but’!

A couple of years ago, I went along to that little country chapel, and came away quite shaken. It had been my intention to maybe settle there as a regular worshipper. It was during Advent, and the tree and crib figures had been put on display.

The children in the church ran about everywhere. One mother brought in her children (late), and they ran in and found places to sit (not near her), and got out their electronic games. Any thought that occurred, they either called across to her or ran across to tell her (then back again). One of the older children encouraged the younger ones into tinkering with the crib figures and dismantling tree decorations. All the children a lot of the time ran round the whole church and – rather like flocks of starlings – in circles round and round the central space at the front. Sometimes adults remonstrated with them, but it seemed to make very little difference.

Meanwhile, in the big church where the Badger goes, something similar happened at the back, where the children liked to congregate because toys had been set out for them. Of course toddlers and crawling babies cannot usually stay still the whole length of a church service, but these were children of perhaps eight to ten years old. Sometimes a cup would be knocked over and broken from the crockery made ready for after-church coffee. Once a free-standing notice board was felled with an almighty crash in the middle of the intercessions. In the back few pews, the care assistants accompanying the (quiet, orderly, reverent) disabled worshippers chatted continually at normal speaking volume.

I cannot say I have any objection at all to any of this. If it seems appropriate, if it makes people feel welcome and relaxed – then I am all in favour.

In similar wise, if making the passing of the peace into a time of social exchange and general chat is the cultural norm of the church, I don’t mind – I don’t think it’s wrong. I’m not against quiz nights and alpha courses, after-church coffee, mince pies and mulled wine with the carol services; it’s excellent, it’s great.

But it isn’t me.

I understand why other people should not be forced to worship as I wish to do – that would be terribly selfish of me. I understand that church envisioned as a community social event is very healthy and positive.

But I don’t want to go. And what I don’t understand is why I should, or why not to go might be selfish. It seems that if things are done my way and the other people don’t want to attend church because of the way I do things, I’m being selfish (yes, I see that). But if things are done the other way and I am the one who doesn’t want to go – it’s still me being selfish (and I don’t get that).

I have no criticism to make, I do not disapprove, I applaud the openness and the moving with the times. I accept that church as I knew and loved it has gone and is no more. I don’t grumble about it, because I think it is hugely important that church is inclusive, and that the little ones have a chance to join in. God bless them, God bless them. I love them. But church as it is today just isn’t me. 

Same with the big Christian festivals where the worship is organized according to the format of a rock concert. Am all in favour. Isn’t me.

When I say, 'isn't me', can I make clear - I mean as in, it does my head in and I just can't stand it. I'm not talking about a simple matter of taste or preference. I have always delighted in all sorts of different ways of doing church - from cathedral worship to smells and bells to anabaptist.

Each to his own. I don’t want to put a damper on anything, interrupt, or interfere. But I don’t want to go any more.

For a long time I buckled under the pressure of my sense of obligation – that I ought to be at church. But – like many other people – as I grow older I find it less easy to be what I am not in order to please others.

So I pray. I love and trust the Lord Jesus and I try to live my life as I think he would want me to. I hold the church in love, and each week as Sunday approaches I hold into the light of God’s blessing the various church communities with which I have been connected; but I don’t go.

I have tried attending Quaker meeting, which I dearly love. But again, there is the pressure towards socializing, and strong overt reminders of our duties in that direction. And then - oh Lordy! makes me blush - oh dear - last time I went to meeting, I was one of only two people who offered spoken ministry in the course of the meeting. In the Afterthoughts, a couple of others spoke. One of the Friends observed that he had been sitting in the meeting wondering why he was there, seeing no point to it at all, until the two Friends had contributed their Afterthoughts. My spoken ministry in the main part of the meeting had been about together holding the light, and had included reference to Siegfried Sassoon’s beautiful words ‘In every separate soul let courage shine; a kneeling angel holding faith’s front line.’ Too late, I realized this was probably a serious faux pas because of Quaker Peace Testimony! Uh-oh.

I don’t want to be a jarring note in any faith community. It’s because I love them, because I don’t want to be selfish and spoil things, that I don’t go (and because of the rather terrifying intra-congregational wars and aggression but that's another issue). Not being there is the best contribution, given what I am and what they are, that I can make.

I know it seems so unsatisfactory; for now, it’s the best I can do.


Judy Olson said...

(If you want to edit this for brevity, feel free.)

I was raised in the Roman Catholic church, but after I got married to a non-Catholic, I stopped going. After some years, my then husband and I tried a church that had it's start in Norway and met in people's homes. I left that church because a friend in the church was cautioned by the elders to not let her mother into her home, because the mother was "living in sin".
Then I got divorced, and remarried. The RC church was out because now I was "living in sin".
I went to the Baptist church (you can't drink alcohol), and I went to a Pilgrim Holiness (you can't cut your hair).
My daughter is all "worship band" and "fellowship" and "saving people from hell". I don't think there is any such thing as hell.
There have always been those who are "called out". To live apart. I see it as living on the boundaries, like a watcher. I live out here on the fringe, to keep everyone safer somehow. Sometimes it's lonely, but mostly it's just feels right. Like the desert abbas and ammas. Like monastics, especially hermits. These called out are found in many religious traditions, I don't feel like I should be going to church, because I am called to something other. That no one understands this, is not my concern.
(If I ever do get the opportunity to visit a church, it would be at a monastery.)
I consider myself very much a part of the community, I help where I can, I pray, and I live a life which I think is a good example, for whoever may need it. It doesn't seem unsatisfactory to me, in fact quite the opposite!
At my age, I really don't need to go to a church to seek teaching or wisdom. I can sit in silence and Wisdom comes to me.
Hope this feeds you in some small way. You feed me in great heaping platefuls!

Pen Wilcock said...

Also like an anchoress, maybe?

Thank you, Judy. How very, very interesting.


Buzzfloyd said...

Who has said that you're being selfish by not going to church?

Pen Wilcock said...

In essence I believe that is implied, but put as simply and concisely as that it misses out a few of the stages. It goes like this:
1) Christians should attend church.
2) Therefore it is wrong to miss church
3) Church is for everybody
4) Therefore worship practice should be inclusive
5) To make it possible for some who are (or feel) presently excluded to attend church, the worship as needed to change to be as described in my post
6) Those changes (and some other issues not discussed in the post) make church attendance feel beyond what I can cope with
7) I am not considered to be in a special needs bracket (You, knowing me better, may differ on that!!)
8) Therefore I should be the one to consider the needs of others and accommodate them
9) Not to do so is selfish
10) But Christians should attend church
11) But my needs and the needs of others are in sharp conflict here
12) So I have stopped going
13) Because I have begun to acknowledge and accept my own needs
14) Which is selfish if I should be putting the needs of others first because our needs are in conflict and I ought to be going to church

That's roughly how it goes.

Patricia said...

Wow! I feel very much that you and Judy Olson must have been in my head listening to my thoughts and struggles. Thank you to both of you for putting your thoughts out there they have been very helpful.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Judy Olson said...

Pen, God made you to be like you are, because there is no one else that can manifest the Divine in exactly the same way. You are here to be YOU! As much YOU as you can possibly be! If he wanted you to be like the others, he would have made you that way.

Putting the needs of others before your own, is a VERY BAD THING TAUGHT IN CHURCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You are a temple of the holy spirit, treat yourself as you would treat God. With care and love and gratefulness that you are who you are.

*Waves to Patricia with a smile*

Pen Wilcock said...


The needs of others thing is complicated. It's not so much that oneself is of no account, as taking account of realities.

To clarify what I mean, here are a couple of examples.

1) Eberhard Arnold (Bruderhof founder) came of a culture in which small children, to show respect for their elders, had to wait until last to be served at meals. But Eberhard said that in his community the little children should be served first, because they found it hardest to wait. So, if one has a small child in tow, their needs must be preferred above one's own (where a choice is necessary - sometimes everyone can be kept happy) because they are only little and haven't the maturity to cope as well as an adult.

2) Suppose one attends a family party with an old, deaf, confused elderly aunt, and nobody else can be bothered to talk to her. Getting food from the buffet is too much for her, too. One might have to forgo enjoying the party on one's own terms, because unless she has somebody to take care of her she will feel humiliated, neglected and lonely. And if she is simply not invited, she will feel so hurt when (inevitably) she gets wind of the family event.

3) Visitors drop in. After a while it becomes apparent they've settled in for a long chat, and it seems hospitable to serve hot drinks. It is no one person's particular responsibility to take care of this, and you don't want to miss out on the conversation, but someone has to do it, so you do. And why not?

Every day, in all sorts of little ways, one prefers the needs of others above one's own. Nothing spectacular, just normal. It seems like a Jesus way to live, to me. But every now and then, it becomes apparent that the effort is great while the resulting good is insignificant - and then it's time to quietly stop. My church attendance seems to be in that bracket.

Before someone comes along and tells me that if everyone stopped going, there'd be no church, let me emphasise that I am absolutely not recommending we all chuck in church attendance - only where the church culture has become too much at odds with one's own temperament.

LANA said...

I feel much the same way in regards to the way church is now compared to when I was young. Talking or running around was absolutely not done and would have been considered extremely disrespectful. But it's another world. Your words ring true when I tell myself I should be going, but then I just can't bring myself to attend. I don't think it is selfish if you are helping humanity in other ways. Like Mother Teresa said, we can do small things with great love.

Judy Olson said...

I thought it went without saying that one should treat others like God also. Love your neighbor as yourself, not more than yourself. Treat others as if you were treating yourself. This supposes that one treats oneself fairly well.

I am feeling like this deserves a long chat with a cup of tea. Not this inadequate computer stuff!

tonia said...

This all makes perfect sense to me and is virtually identical to the conversation I've had with myself over the last years. I identify with Judy Olson too, about being one of those on the outside. I don't know why it's this way - I agree in principle with the concept of church and I generally get along with people just fine - but the church makes me feel like I've got a scritchy collar on and it's too tight and I can't quit squirming and I'm hot and I really just need to get out of here and go home. :)

DaisyAnon said...

With you all the way here Pen. I love Judy Olsen's comment. She has written my experience (in general not in the particular detail) and my thoughts exactly.

I love the bit about how her lifestyle 'keeps people safer'. I feel that too.

I also have felt that some of the pressure to attend church, belong to a church, verges on the cultish.

Rapunzel said...

If everyone stopped going to church then everyone would have to just go straight to God and leave out the middleman.

I like to think God could handle the extra work.

Since I stopped going to church a few years ago I find I can sing Welcome, Welcome Sabbath Morning with a great deal more heart.
I looked for ages for a church here that felt right, then finally concluded church is for churchy type folk (like my dear parents) and I am not one of those.
Nor, apparently, are you, or many of your readers.

As a teen I used to think people who claimed to be "spiritual but not religious" were just too lazy to go sit through church. Now four decades later I understand that particular concept from the inside.
Apart from the things about church that drove me nuts there was a certain amount of teaching us to think alike that seemed not a great idea. After all, God didn't just make peonies.

Pen Wilcock said...

Well. I get up this morning and find all these lovely people in my computer. Actually, Judy, it does feel quite a lot like having everyone gathered in a room for a chat. Almost, anyway. And maybe things can be said here that we might not have said if we'd all been at a church meeting - it would have seemed impolite. Or, seeing most of us seem to be skulking at home and hurrying away from meetings, we might never have met at all, and that would have been sad! I like a lot the idea of treating other people as God - reminds me of the Indian saying, 'Guest is God', hospitality with reverence and a sense of privilege. Also, once it is shifted onto that ground (treating others, treating oneself, as God), then somehow it recaptures the reverential space in which I feel able to breathe. Going more slowly, more tenderly.

Hi Lana, hi Tonia - waving! How intriguing that we seem to have been thinking these same things.

Daisy - I have read Judy's comments several times. Each time I find such riches in what she has said - but for some reason I can't find the bit you refer to about 'keeping people safer' - although when you said it, it leapt out to me as a 'yes'. Why can't I find it? Am I going mad?

Hi Rapunzel. Not just peonies, eh? Ooh, you radical! Next you'll be telling me there's even space for weeds!

I am loving this conversation dears. The internet is very subversive. It creates clumps out of tiny minorities - the power of the aggregate.

Pen Wilcock said...

Stella! I lost your comment! I think I must have got the cursor in the wrong place and clicked Delete instead of Publish - oh dear.

Anyway folks, this is what Stella said:

Who says that christians should attend church? Churchgoers I think. I beg to disagree.
I take your point about there being no church if everyone stopped going, but turn that on its head. If being a christian depended on church attendance, then the number of christians would be limited by the number of seats for them to their backsides on.
Pen, you are a unique human being. I have read some of your books - In Celebration of Simplicity and the entire Hawk and the Dove Series. They have touched my life in a way that no other books have. And not only me. Friends who have borrowed the books have said the same Would you be able to touch people in that way if you were caught up in the paraphernalia of church?
Accept that you are different and live your life joyously, listening to the promptings of your own heart and not by what other people expect of you and tell you is the norm. That's how I live my life.

Judy Olsen - you have put into words exactly what I feel.


Anonymous said...

How grateful I am for places like this blog where I have met such lovely people, who allow me to express my radical thoughts and understand where I am coming from.
I am happy living as a non churchgoing christian, thriving actually. However I am aware that there are those people who may mistake my absence from the church as loss of faith, or turning my back on God. Nothing could be further from the truth, but how do you explain it, without appearing to criticize or be rude? Thankfully, people who really know me, will know the truth and maybe I shouldn't care what the others think , but even so.......

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter for you too Pen?


PS: In my previous comments I mention Pen's Hawk and the Dove books. Those books have told me more about how to live as a christian, than a thousand church sermons would have done.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Stella - thank you so much for saying that about the Hawk & Dove books - it lifts my heart. Have started work on Vol.8 . . .

DaisyAnon said...

Hi Pen, Judy's comment about making the world a safer place is lines 10 & 11, just after 'So' line 9.

Rebecca said...

My head is spinning trying to discern common ground/understanding re. definitions of church, Church, worship, community, etc. I find the comment thread scary and stimulating at the same time :)

For the record, lest I be TOTALLY out of the loop, I share a preference that children not run around like maniacs in church! (For that matter, ANYwhere.) Put me in THAT clump, please! I also have preferences about music style, etc.

Pen Wilcock said...

Aah! Got it! Thanks. Yes, I agree - like everything else she says, it puts its finger onto a key point. xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Rebecca - we cross-posted. Once your thoughts are ordered enough to write down, I'd be so interested to read them.
About the maniac children, another issue to add into the mix is that it does seem to be that ADD, ADHD, and ASD are (for whatever reason) on the rise, such that there are simply more children around who simply cannot be contained. What to do? How to do church in such a way as can encompass us all. I don't know! Though one all-age pointer I think might crack this is Godly Play.
Prayed for you and your healing joints in the quiet light of dawn this morning. xx

Pen Wilcock said...

PS Everyone - by healing joints I mean that Rebecca had surgery, not that she smokes therapeutic weed!

Rebecca said...

Thanks for clarifying that - about my joints. And actually, they ARE doing better this morning (after a kind of rough night)!

I only brought up the children running around because I read it either in your post or a comment. And I'm not talking about any of those conditions as much as that resulting from an apparent parenting philosophy..

Pen Wilcock said...


Yes - the bit about wild children is there in the post. And it has been definitely part of the problem for me, but what I meant (in my comment) was that the increase of these conditions makes the sorting it out more complex than it once used to be - or I think so anyway. Though maybe these conditions always existed but were treated without sympathy?

Actually, pews helped my own kids. We sat in a pew where one end was blocked by the wall and I blocked the other end!

Anonymous said...

Picking up on Rapunzel's point, I remember being confused by those who said " you don't have to go to church to be a christian".
I think that here there is a distinction to be made between those who don't go to church, who feel that if you live a vaguely decent life and don't rock the boat, you can legitimately claim to be a christian. Maybe so, maybe not, but it's not for me to
But what we are talking about here, is steadfastly and deliberately living the best christian lives that we are able to outside of the framework of church. Turning every single moment of our lives into our offering of worship and prayer. This is a very great commitment, but a commitment to God, not a commitment to a group of people or an organisation.


Pen Wilcock said...

Yes - good point, Stella - living intentionally and purposefully. xx

Elin Hagberg said...

As a mother of a 2 year old I am endlessly grateful people can stand her in church. We love going but it is nerve wracking for me hoping she will not cause any stir. My church has a toy pew where children can play with non noisy toys. My daughter usually does that for about half an hour, then she needs some other distraction. Sometimes she is OK with running up and down next to the pews (no shoes so no noise) but sometimes the running leads to screaming and then she gets one chance to quiet down, then I carry her out and let her run in the hallway outside the church. Best case scenario she has calmed down after a couple of minutes and we can go in and light candles for her two grandpas and her grandma that has passed. After that she will often sit down and have a snack and if we are lucky this lasts until communion which she loves and she takes it already like a pro. After communion we often go out and wait until it is time to drink coffee. I am so thankful we get to have some church to go to and that not everyone is dying because of her being, well, a child.

I do however understand that church with kids is not for everyone and what you describe would not be for me either. I would honestly be devastated if I had to take my daughter to such a church environment where the older children are not role models and instead the ones that are the worst.

Pen Wilcock said...


I love the idea of her taking communion like a pro! Fab!

I'd like to make it really clear that I enjoy the company of children in worship.

When my children were small (I have 5 children and they were all born within a space of 6 years), I didn't expect them to be still and silent. We took toys, books and snacks to church, and I and their grandparents worked hard at involving them in holding the hymn books, and quietly pointing out to them interesting things to look at etc.
I think with my children it helped that I and their granddad were preachers and their dad was a church musician, so they always felt a sense of involvement in what was going on.

There was also a little girl who loved to dance in the aisles during the hymns. She was delightful.

When I became a church pastor, I had the back of the church altered to create a carpeted area with toys and books for children, so they could play quietly if they were not interested in what was going on, and I provided percussion instruments so they could play along with the songs.

We had a lot of music - everything from pieces from Handel's Messiah through hymns to modern choruses.

We had many people with profound disabilities, and I worked hard to ensure that they were not merely included but were right at the heart of the worship.

All that was fine with me and still would be.

What I find difficult is when older children are just running wildly about and calling across the church, and when the fundraising and socialising escalate until the whole experience feels more like a club than an act of worship, with jokes and applause and loud chatting.

LANA said...

Even though I like quiet worship, I have to say here that I also enjoy rockin' gospel music as well. I used to go to a Pentecostal church and the music ministry was so great you could just feel the Spirit fill the room, and see it on the shining faces of the choir. However, I wanted more authenticity in teaching, and I found that most churches with good gospel music were "mega" churches, which I do not like. So now, when I am the only one in my house, I put on some CD's and praise the Lord and sing and dance all by myself. Only He can see me, and that is how I like it. Other times I like to meditate and quietly pray. That is my custom church just for me.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Ah yes, indeed. In the years I was a church pastor, I came to see that the music ministry in a church is as important and as spiritual as the ministry of the word.

I love music in church - and dance. What I find difficult is the importation of not-worship elements, so that it becomes like a day-centre or a playground or a club.

Nearly Martha said...

As this is stirring up a lot of comment - didn't want to be left out. Just wanted to say - I don't want to go either. I would prefer to run out at the end but for me(and this is only for me) I know God wants me to get in. He wants me to do stuff and say stuff and also because I am quite insular and only have a small family, I do think I need to push myself a bit or I would end up quite isolated. By the way - I am obsessed with The Heretic. Am doing very little else but read it at the moment, will review when done

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello Nearly Martha! Yes, isn't that a fab book! xx

DaisyAnon said...

Stella's comment about living intentionally and purposefully for God being the hallmark of the quiet way summed it up for me.

That is the distinction between this and superficially similar lifestyles.

To the observer there might not seem to be a distinction but we have an inner awareness.

One of the challenges is living without external validation of any kind.

Pen Wilcock said...

"One of the challenges is living without external validation of any kind."

Now that's an interesting thought. x

Anonymous said...

Thanks DaisyAnon
All this time I have been trying to put my finger on it and now you have beautifully summed it up in your final sentence.

Ganeida said...

I have waited to comment because I have a slightly different problem. As the pastor I have to find a balance between what I can bear & the needs of the people.

Most people love music. We have ended up with a mostly folk/rock sound in an effort to provide both music to enjoy & the quiet to which most of the ministry team leans.

We don't have children running round. I would find that almost impossible to preach through. Have NO idea how people manage it.

Being really bad at *fellowship* morning teas are incredibly difficult though we try & guide the conversation along scriptual lines rather than letting it drift into inanities ~ which would probably see me being most unpastorish!

My understanding is that most of what we call church is man made traditions ~ which are burdensome & drive the people crazy. Finding a path is more about the journey than the destination.

Pen Wilcock said...

It is indeed - well put! xx