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.