Thursday, 18 June 2015

This surprised me.

When I was a girl, I went to church in an English country parish. An old, flint-built church with stained glass windows, lovingly polished pews, set in a big churchyard where roses grew among the lichened headstones.

We worshipped according to the Book of Common Prayer. Almighty God, unto who all hearts be open and from whom no secrets are hid . . . and Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord . . . and O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. . .

The worship was quiet, and had about it a quality of ordinariness that fed my soul. It was, if you see what I mean, no big deal. Nothing was done to make it Fun or to Attract The Young. There were no sound systems, worship bands, brightly coloured banners, news sheets, greeters, videos . . . There was the smell of stone and beeswax, the quietness, the strong stone pillars and the tiled floor, the deep warm brown of the old wood, with the colours of stained glass flowing over as the sun moved round. And the peaceful, hidden gladness of the Mystery.

I loved it, and I think it formed my soul.

My faith journey has wandered a twisting trail since then. I’ve been a Roman Catholic and then a Methodist, been in ordained ministry (Methodist) both as a pastor and a chaplain in school and hospice – and briefly in hospital.

I’ve worshipped with Quakers in silence full of light, and with the highest possible high church Anglicans, with the incense rising through the airy spaces up from among the candles and coloured vestments into the nostrils of God.

I’ve loved it all, but in the last few years I’ve had this longing to come home.

I miss the humble, earthy homeliness of Cranmer’s prayers. I miss the peaceful understatedness of the worship when I was a girl.

What has surprised me, is that the nearest thing to it (for me) is not in the Church of England. Even in Cathedral worship, I feel the tug towards innovation among clergy let loose on the intercessions, and a certain self-conscious almost-snobbishness about The Way We Do Things Here. So much to get right, so much to get wrong, so many rules and permissions, such a thick crust of hierarchy and obstinate tradition. Bit chewy.

But just across the valley from me – the nearest church in fact to my kitchen – a Methodist church (I was once its minister), where by some means (and you can’t do this by trying, it happens all by itself) that humble, earthy homeliness is still there. They sing the old songs, and the Local Preachers who lead worship speak with unaffected homely reverence to a God they obviously believe in.

What surprises me is that in this backwater town the Methodist worship is what captures the humility of Cranmer.

Graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same . . .

Dust in the sunlight.



Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

I go to Sunday Evensong every week at the 12th century church just around the corner from me - it is the one service which has not been "enhanced", "improved", "tweaked", and ultimately destroyed. It remains lovely, reverent and beautiful, a quiet oasis of calm in a manic world and I have found it has become the cornerstone of my week.

Numbers in the congregation can vary from 8 to 25, with a choir of about eight as well; I dread the time when the eventual decision is made that Evensong too should be altered beyond all recognition or even scrapped.

Pen Wilcock said...

I love Evensong. When I was a girl, I used to always go on Sunday and often during the week. Very peaceful, nourishing to the soul. xx

San said...

We all need somewhere we can call our spiritual home, a place that truly feeds our souls.

I have a friend who needs lively worship time and although raised a Catholic she has gone down the evangelical route, that is where she gets her nourishment. Although I attend a worship group and prayer meeting on a Monday night, my soul is also fed during the quietness of a weekday mass, where I am transported back to Calvary and doing my best to stay a while with my Lord and saviour as he offered himself on the cross.

She feels there is a lack of joy in the Catholic Church and for some there may be that element of rote prayers and collecting one's attendance for the week but the people I see are ordinary humble folk appreciating all that God is in that silence of the Eucharist.

Thank you for sharing your heart, we are all pilgrim's on a journey x

Pen Wilcock said...

A lack of joy in the Catholic Church? That astonishes me. It must surely be a local experience. When I think of the lightheartedness, cheerfulness, I've known in Catholic monastic communities, and the enthusiasm for a party or a dance or a sing-along among Catholic lay friends, I'd have thought lack of joy was absolutely not a Catholic problem.
I love the Catholic Church too. I find it quite difficult to belong to any of them, because they all like you to say you aren't part of the others - and if I had my druthers I'd be a Catholic Methodist Church of England Buddhist Anabaptist Taoist Quaker.

Terra said...

How beautiful that this little church near your home has captured your heart and provides a simple quiet service. I like all types of church services from simple to high church, and right now am a member of a loud, boisterous, happy church. It is all good.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

It is indeed all good, as Terra wisely said.

Given half a chance, I would be a hybrid Eastern Orthodox/High-Church Anglican/Amish Anabaptist. I can't quite work it out either ;-)

Pen Wilcock said...

Good combination! xx

Susan said...

When I was a girl I went to a little Methodist church (in upstate New York). The worship was very similar to the feeling you described in this post. It was holy. It was homely. It shaped my faith in a profound, long-lasting way. Then when I was a young woman, my husband's job took us to Massachusetts. For four years I went to a "Bible Chapel" that had its roots in the Plymouth Brethren movement (I think I've shared about this church in your comments once before). In the end, I found my way to the local Methodist church for another four years. It was there I learned(as a grown-up) that the worship style of each Methodist church is as traditional or contemporary as the taste of its current pastor. When our pastor retired things changed rather dramatically, so we moved up the road to a very plain Roman Catholic church. How strange to find myself at "home" there, back to the sense of worship I so strongly felt in my childhood. If anyone had told me years before that I would become Catholic, I would have laughed in disbelief, but that is what I have been for ten years now.

Sorry for the long comment! Your post brought many things to mind for me. : )

Pen Wilcock said...

No need to apologise - that's most interesting. I find just the same thing. That unassuming, quiet holiness is not the property of any particular denomination. I remember it also with the Poor Clares in their monastery at Lawrence Street, in York. I love the Mass, and was very happy as a Catholic. My lateral drift was circumstantial, not disenchantment.
I see you are based in New England. Here in (Old!) England, the pastor does influence the ambience in a Methodist Church, but perhaps less so than has been your experience. Here, all Methodist Circuit ministers have responsibilities for several churches - usually three to five - so they kind of skim the surface of each of their churches without affecting them deeply. In our Circuit here, I've known the churches since 1980; they've seen many ministers come and go, and my perception is that the essential character of each church is pretty much what it was in 1980! But this is a rather backwaterish part of the world.

Pen Wilcock said...

Friends, I think you would enjoy Susan's post about the rabbits' nest in her garden, over on her blog 'Home Hum'.

Anonymous said...

I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren (the Open branch, not the Exclusives, who are pretty much a cult) and as a teenager I found their worship very difficult to cope with: it was intolerably boring and rigid and seemed as dry as dust. (And sexist: their interpretation of Paul led to them laying down the rule that women must be completely silent in all public worship, hence women couldn’t pray out loud in ANY of the chapel services. My 17-year-old self became a feminist because of this misapplication of Scripture.) By way of contrast, the charismatic movement promised colour, joy and vitality. The charismatic movement had (and has) its own issues, of course.

I have oodles of respect for Cranmer the man: I am not convinced that 21st century worship should be in 16th century English. Having said that, I do love going to Evensong in a cathedral. And I am very much drawn to the contemplative side of things.

Every ‘tradition’ has its particular strengths and weaknesses.

- Philippa

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a part of the US so isolated in culture and geography that we did not go to church - the hour drive one way would have been an impossibility for our situation in transportation and expense. I think this has left me forever somewhat cursed, because to me "church" just cannot be found in gatherings of people, in buildings of men - though I have tried for all the decades of my adult life to find some place and conform myself into it! I need miles of open land outdoors, the feeling of anything else of humanity between myself and God feels only that it puts me further from Him - even music and at times human speech itself seems so falsely contrived against this Truth. Maybe my upbringing was a way to raise hermits. ;)

Pen Wilcock said...


Like John the Baptist. Every religion in the world was born in desert places. Buildings and organisations are the shell, the outer husk; sometimes that's all they are. xx