This is a reflection comes from a discussion on a URC Facebook page about what amounts to the Fellowship necessary for worship. I am not answering that question directly here but looking at the forms of fellowship that happen during Christian worship. This is a personal piece reflecting on my experience.
Firstly in the two years before Covid I was regularly going over to Manchester monthly and quite often in an emergency at short notice to. I had just changed from a URC to the local parish Anglican Church that was very definitely Anglo-Catholic. Its prayer meeting was a rosary group and I got drawn into that. The group often met on the day I was visiting Manchester and I started saying the rosary while I travelled (by train). It became natural for me to pray the rosary on emergency visits as well despite the fact the group were not praying then. One thing it did was give me a strong sense of being connected to a spiritual fellowship of prayers. I was with others in prayer.
Secondly, I want to juxtapose that with my experience of watching the mass during the lockdowns. I did this with the parish church as it was streaming daily through the first and second lockdown. I did it daily usually as well. When I was able I did it at the time of the streaming and would then use an act of Spiritual Communion at the distribution of the elements. If I was not able to do it at the exact time due to work commitment or other (I have worked from home since just before the first lockdown) I would watch later but I would not then make an act of Spiritual Communion. I was blessed during the second to be able to receive communion weekly because I helped with the broadcast of the service on a Saturday. This highlighted for me how much was missing even from a Spiritual Communion online.
Right I think there are at least seven ways of keeping fellowship with others in the act of worship:
Fellowship of the Church – All worship from a hermit in isolation to that of community living together in the same building is an act of fellowship. We are always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of which we are members as part of the church.
Fellowship of place – where we use the same space where others have or are worshiping. This is one of the reasons why places of pilgrimage are so special
Fellowship of time – where we are aware of worshiping at the same time as other people whether or not they are present.
Fellowship of form – when we use the same form of worship as others. So following a recorded online service does this but so does my praying the rosary on the train.
Fellowship of the table – when we share the same meal during worship with others. The fifth came late but I think it is important to acknowledge the sociological insight that humans, as are all animals, are careful who they share food with and there is an assumed bond between those who share a table that goes beyond the table.
Fellowship of touch – The fellowship of touching and being touched by fellow human beings. Think of its use in sharing the Peace or greeting someone with a hug. I am going to admit that when I originally posted this did not occur to me. It did not occur to me simply because for me it is fractured and what I experience when used is no longer fellowship.
Fellowship of silence – I talk of the place where I meet internally with God as a silence. Like many people who use contemplative prayer I have found it a place where I am profoundly met. It also seems to echo through many of the other silences in my life. When I am with someone in silence the echoes from my silence create a harmony with the echoes of their silence and this deepens the worship that is happening around it.
There are two tribes within Christianity who are holding a debate about which is the better way to faith, that of simple trusting faith or that of the struggle of doubt. In a sense, this is talking to this debate but is doing so by picking up an aspect that is overlooked. My faith, which is the one God blessed me with falls into neither camp and can appear to fall in both. My faith is both searching and inquiring without going into doubt.
The first thing I want to say, is there is not one sort of faith that is right and another that is wrong. The form your faith takes is part of your spirituality, it is the shape God has given you and thus part of your call. Whether your faith is a contented trust with no desire to explore further, the desire to spend time in quiet contemplation of the divine, the avid study of the Bible, the desire to seek a world that conforms to God’s justice, a servant spirit that is drives you to serve others, the doubter who wrestles with God, a combination of all or some of these or another form entirely, it is both uniquely yours and also one of the myriad forms that God has made. Do not feel that it is wrong because it is not the same others. All in the end bring us to the same place, the compassionate heart of God.
The second thing to say is this is personal. I am talking of one of the strong strands within my own faith calling. It is not the only strand; I can trace at least two others: a contemplative strand and an activist strand. Indeed the contemplative strand is going to lurk in the background as I write this. These two intertwine in complex patterns within my vocation, the contemplative is surprisingly strong but the scholarly is more developed. So I am going to need to be aware of how this piece is shaped by my experience.
I am re-reading Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli as I thought it might help a friend and then found it was no longer on my bookshelf. I have just finished the chapter on Risky Curiosity which is making me think. My PhD business cards to say “Basically I have been compelled by curiosity” which is a quote by Mary Leakey but sums up my approach to research pretty succinctly sums up my approach to research. It is driven by trying to answer questions that intrigue me. I am not particularly limited by subject or discipline. I find that working with passionate people who are researchers invigorating. This naturally spills over into my faith. So much so that my doctorate is in theology, albeit contextual theology rather than systematic with a focus around ecclesiology and how we do Church. The chapter naturally appeals to me and is confirmatory rather than challenging as other chapters in the book. However, it did not arrive in my reading alone.
Last Thursday I ended up talking with a friend about our pictures of the divine. Neither of us really has much time for the picture of God as the old man up in the sky who is a loving Grandpa, a sagacious arbiter of our fates and ultimately sovereign. We tend to struggle with words such as light, fire, flames, communion, dance, aurora, plasma, vortex, compassionate, beloved, transcendent, imminent, intimate, personal, furnace. We know we are struggling to put into words our vision. I know many people say God is as in Jesus and that is good as far as it goes. Let me take you to a detail of Michelangelo’s painting of Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel
Now if you look carefully the hands are apart. Talking pictorially I would say Christ is the light that emanated from the point at which God’s hand touched Adam. Christ is both the Beloved of God and the Lover of Adam. It is God who reaches out to humanity not humanity that manages to reach God. Let me leave this image here except to point out that even when I am thinking of Jesus I at times am thinking in terms of light and to point out Jesus is reported as saying “I am the light of the World” (John 8:12).
So when on Friday (28th August 20) was St Augustine’s day and the Office of readings contained the passage
Having convinced myself that I had to return to myself, I penetrated my interior being, with You as my guide. And this I was able to do because You, Lord, succoured me. I entered and I saw, with the eyes of my soul, in one way or another, above the capacity of these same eyes, above my mind, the immutable light; not the ordinary and visible light seen by any man, no matter how intense or clear it might be, being nevertheless incapable of filling all with its magnitude. Rather, it was a completely different light. It was not merely above my mind, like oil over water or like the heavens above the earth. Rather, it was light in the Most High, since this Light made me, and I was at the lowest, as I was made by It. This Light is known by the one that knows the truth.
St Augustine Confessions
Now it came as a bit of a surprise to me but then my brain almost at once started to recall the papers found in the coat of Blaise Pascall
The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, the feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about half-past ten at night until about half past midnight,
FIRE. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ.My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have departed from him: They have forsaken me, the fount of living water. My God, will you leave me? Let me not be separated from him forever. This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him. He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel: Renunciation, total and sweet. Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth. May I not forget your words. Amen.
Blaise Pascall – Memorial
You will see a surprising similarity between the way two great thinkers describe a spiritual experience. I do not think that they are in any way equivalent. Augustine was a 4th Century Christian Bishop in North Africa. He spent quite a bit of time arguing with Manicheas while Pascal was a 16th Century French philosopher was a Jansenist which could be seen as a Catholic form of Calvinism. Though Pascal, no doubt, knew Augustines work as it was required reading for theologians, I doubt they would have been intellectually in agreement with each other. What they do have is strong enquiring minds.
I have heard a rumour of a third great thinker who had such an experience. The story as I recall it is that towards the end of his life Thomas Aquinas had such a spiritual experience while participating in the Eucharist that he felt that all the rest of his life was wasted. Lets for the moment assume it as plausible. Then we have three great intellects all of whom have an experience of the divine that to them overshadows completely their intellectual endeavours. They know that even at the height of their intellectual work they fail to communicate the essence of the divine and fall into silence or poetry. To put it in a way that is indebted to C.S. Lewis, their experience is similar to children playing at being lion hunters when a real lion turns up. I must admit if these are only children then they are some of the most skilful lion-hunters among us intellectually. Their experience does not nullify the immense value of their work one iota. It still stands as a statement to the rest of us about the nature of the divine. However to them, all abstract thought, even by our standard sublime abstract thought, was dirty dishwater when compared with the eternal spring of living water that is the experience of the divine.
I suspect there are others, in some traditions you do not write this down sort of thing, the mystical experience of the divine is not usually open to the sorts of requirements that the tradition demands. It is notable that Pascal did not publish his and as I said earlier I have not managed to check the story I remember about St Thomas Aquinas. Maybe Eastern Orthodoxy would be more receptive but the Western tradition with its strong rational bias finds these experience often though personally powerful, not valid evidence within the debate. Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal are able to acknowledge them because they are such good rational thinkers. A lesser thinker, which is most of us, will shire away because it would undermine our status as rational thinkers.
Let me change tack for a while and look at the story of Job. I am not looking at Job’s friend, nor making a stab at the theology of suffering that the author proposes. I am wanting to look at Job’s interaction with the Divine. The story is well known. Job, a righteous man, is devastated by Satan acting with God’s permission. His three friends come to comfort him but after a week of silence finish up debating theodicy instead. To his friends only some evil done by Job could justify this action by God towards him However, they are defeated in justifying God’s action to Job who insists on his own righteousness and that he wants to hold God to account. A young man, Elihu, feels the friends have given up too easily and doubles down on Job. Then in chapter thirty-eight God appears in a tempest and starts cross-questioning Job. Job gives in so quickly it is embarrassing; with God present, he pleads ignorance. Faced with the presence of the Almighty Job basically opts for silence. There is always that niggle, that if it had been us rather than Job we would probably have asked more. Eventually, God speaks to the friends instead of Job and where he has been giving an extended account of his actions before God is now succinct and imperious:
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now, therefore, take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
Job 42:8-7 ESV
What is striking is that last sentence “For you have not spoken of me (God) what is right, as my servant Job has”. Job who has insisted on his righteousness and wanted to call God to account is held by God as speaking righteously whereas the pious words of his friends and Elihu are not right with their seeking to find fault with Job.
Now I am not claiming Job is a scholar, his questioning is driven not by curiousity but by his own suffering. He does, however, have two characteristics that I think mark many scholars: persistence and integrity. His persistence shows in his refusal to accept the friends plausible explanation and his integrity in that he does not allow him self to be classed anything other than righteous regardless of what is convenient for the theodicy of the times.
Now the book of Job is often likened to a play. I am not here to debate it but what we see is someone driven by the need to answer a question to the point where their questing is answered by the Divine. There is a problem if is a play; how do you show the awesome reality of God? That is what I suspect all the chapters of God’s speech is trying to do. It fails to the modern mind. The question is not solved, but Job falls silent before a reality that surpasses the question. This then links back to the earlier experience of Augustine, Pascal and Aquinas. The end of Christian scholarship is not to make God intelligible to humanity but to find oneself caught up in the joyous theophany of the Divine and to know oneself known by that which cannot be known. Those with this vocation seek to know and instead find ourselves known. In other words, the quest inevitably ends in failures but in so doing the scholar is found.
It is worth drawing some codicils and corollaries from this.
First importantly this is not the way to salvation, there is no way to that except through the cross. However, the lived-out nature of the way of the cross is different for different people. Normally it has three steps: obedience, service and devotion. Of these, I would see obedience as the highest. It is in Evangelical speak what is to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The latter two just capture what it is to Love your neighbour and to love God. It is in our ability to Love our neighbour that the process of sanctification is most clearly seen. However, without the devotion or the desire to love God and seeking ways to express it, our obedience becomes rule-keeping and our service duty.
The form in which I am talking about scholarly vocation is that of devotion. The thing that drives this is our desire for God. I acknowledge that many with this vocation will find that amongst the service part of the vocation is the call to apologetics and to teaching the faithful. I would suggest that those are never the whole of their call in that area. The simple service of their fellows through acts of benevolence is never removed from a Christian. We can never serve Christ truly if we do not serve Christ in the people we encounter.
Equally the revelation here granted is not superior to that granted to those whose devotion is expressed through:
service of others
faithfulness in public worship
service of the church
or other acts driven by the desire for God
However, it should also be clear, that sometimes it is not the right thing to do to seek to stop someone from exploring their faith further. While it can and often does lead to an individual going through a time where their faith feels broken down, the risk of not allowing them to explore this way is for their faith to become sterile as they lose the devotion that powers their faith. The way through the desert is in the scholarly vocation as much as it is in any other but when water is on the other side of the desert then there is no merit in turning back to the stagnant springs you have left behind.
There is a risk as with all styles of devotion that we will mistake the means for the end and fall into idolatry. For a contemplative, that might be the calm the practice brings, for service to the church that might be the Church itself, for those who seek to bring about the kingdom that might be the changes in the way the world is structured. I can go on. For the scholar, it is the knowledge itself that becomes the idol. When the niceness of your theory becomes more important than speaking the truth of the nature of God, then your theory has replaced God. This is regardless of the academic plaudits you can earn for the attractiveness of your theory. In no other vocation does a commitment to speak honestly about the nature of God matter
I hope that in this piece I have argued that the scholarly vocation is a way of devotion to God that it seeks, in the end, God’s self-revelation and when that is granted the experience is on a par with other vocations of desire but a scholar finds themselves known rather than knowing. Arising from this that to seek to stop someone seeking this way is to put their faith at risk but that the big risk is not having their faith destroyed by the new knowledge but instead making the new knowledge an idol in place of God. There are similar idols for all vocational practices but to have no devotional element to your vocational practice is to find that your faith is running dry.
I am regularly hearing the line that goes something like this “we as Nonconformist do not use our churches for private prayer we do that at home” The implication being that Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholics only pray in church buildings. I am needing to call you out on this. It is not true, personal devotion in church does not discourage personal devotion at home. Indeed the two go hand in hand.
Firstly I left the URC recently after over Forty years of attending and having had a deep attachment. Indeed I still keep a role for the URC and at times act on its behalf. I had worshipped in all sorts of URC churches. I have been to evangelical ones and to liberal ones. I have been to ones with Presbyterian heritage and ones with Congregational heritage. I have been to small churches and large churches.
I did pray at home while I was a URC member but the support I got from the local church to do so (excluding my parents’ own practice) was practically nil. I got support to study the bible as a teenager at home although I cannot remember much of that as an adult. I did the TLS course which included a personal year and a social year but that again was not the local church. Encouragement to be involved in social action was widespread, encouragement to join with corporate meetings including prayer meetings happened. Occasionally courses on how to pray. But things that supported private devotion at home was nil, indeed it seemed to be a taboo topic. As if to talk about it makes us automatically hypocritical.
I am now in an Anglo-Catholic church. I meet weekly to pray the rosary with others. This is the prayer meeting that is there. This is where the needs of the church are prayed for, where we pray the church will be guided by God and not led into times of trial. This is where personal prayer requests are shared. However, this is not a coming together for doing our weekly prayer slot. The rosary is the ‘office of the people’. The group teaches people to pray the rosary and then encourages them to pray it at other times. You can pray it up to four times a day. One member prays it at least every day and for me, it is a way to connect in with a worldwide network of prayer when I am highly anxious but I try to pray it at other times weekly as well. All those times are not in church. The church gives away rosaries to anyone interested in praying it with no requirement to come to the rosary group. In other words, the rosary is a pattern of prayer people are encouraged to pray at home.
The other part of the “office of the People” is the Angelus which gives three times of prayer daily, rising, noon and 6:00 pm but takes a couple of minutes. Some Catholic and Anglo-Catholic church will ring the bells for this to remind people.
Let me next take you to my style of prayer, the office. For those who do not know the terminology, this is following a formal pattern of prayer at least once a day but up to seven times. Since I was a teenager this for me has meant at least morning and evening prayer. Now for those who think this means that I have been joining Mattins and Evensong each day, let me assure you that public celebration at this congregation as with most CofE congregations is not a daily occurrence. Just before lockdown, we had evening prayer twice a week and morning prayer once. That had grown over the previous year from just evening prayer once a week and I never made the morning prayer. The vicar however does try to be faithful to his Office and we know this, partly because he will put up a prayer on social from it when he has appreciated it, partly because he mentions when he struggles and partly because he is open about saying the office when we are at church for a long time during the day e.g. over Easter. Other people in the congregation have slowly caught on and are trying the office for size. Plus we have a few like myself who naturally are drawn to the office. It is organic and largely at home but we are aware we are praying with others in so doing.
Add onto this that the vicar has run an Advent course on prayer and then there have been two meditation courses. Also, the vicar will mention occasionally suggested ways of prayer during the sermon. One is simply to invoke the Trinity on rising and going to bed as a way of giving the whole day to God. Plus there are leaflets on prayer at the back of the church for anyone to pick up.
That gives some idea of how prior to the current pandemic private prayer at home was encouraged in an Anglo-Catholic congregation. I now need to deal with how lockdown affected it. There were two issues at lockdown. Firstly to keep contact with the sacramental life of the church primarily with Communion and secondly to develop people’s personal prayer lives at home.
With respect to the Mass two things happened. Firstly the vicar started streaming mass every day! It is do-able but tough on the vicar. The face he was streaming mass meant that we also picked up other streamed services such as the Pope’s exceptional Urbi et Orbi in March. However, the vicar also just before lockdown started encouraging us to think about making spiritual communion. This did two things. One it gave us a way to feel we were not simply watching but participating in the Eucharist. It also pointed us to preparing for Eucharist by reading and meditating on the words of scripture for the day at home. As a result I think many people are actually praying more often at home.
The second was a deliberate attempt to encourage personal private prayer. Two packs went out during the intense period of lockdown with resources for personal prayer. Including such things:
as a Divine Mercies Poster, the poster bears the signature “Jesus I trust in you” and is for display;
a copy of the parish rosary booklet with a litany specifically written by a member for these times
an act of contrition, which was an essential addition for those who avail themselves of the confession and therefore would want a way to do the preparation for confession even when not able avail oneself of it.
The second thing we did on Zoom, after the weekly business church wardens meeting, was to continue the rosary group which immediately increased by one individual who was furloughed. The vicar also in the early days made a practice of saying evening prayer with individuals each evening. This might be from within the congregation or without the congregation. Then the Church Union put up a page with resources for people and parish during the pandemic. Also the weekly newsletter each week encourages us to share something about our personal devotional life whether it is where we pray at home, our favourite hymn, saints who have influenced us or something that brought us joy. In other words, we are encouraged to share something of our devotional life.
Let me be clear this has not been our sole response to the pandemic. The Parish Nurses have been busy in unexpected ways and the church has set up a discretionary fund to help people in financial difficulties, the congregation rings around all members each week, there are coffee and catechism meetings after Sunday Mass by Zoom and there is developing a book club for spiritual reading. We are fortunate that nobody has died within the congregation but we do have members who are shielding and members who suddenly were income less with the lockdown. What I want to make clear is the prominence of personal prayer at home has played both before the pandemic and in the congregation’s response to it.
Yes, we will be pleased to have the ability to open churches for personal prayer. Some of us have been deliberately shaping our walks so we pass by the church as part of our personal devotion. The reason is not the building, so much as that it contains the blessed sacrament. Symbolically the blessed sacrament plays the role that the URC so often uses the Bible for, a sign of what is central to our faith. However, personal prayer in church is not something we do instead of personal prayer at home. To my parish, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The practice of one supports the practice of the other.
My experience would suggest that there is more personal prayer happening in the homes of Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics than URCs simply because we are being supported in doing it. So my challenge for those who claim that “we have homes for personal prayer” is how have you supported your members in doing so during these times?
This came up recently when I was talking with my parish priest. I am of Reformed heritage, he is a Society Anglican. Wanting a term which did not include URC clergy as well as Anglicans and did not carry the baggage of ‘priest’ so opted for ‘Minister’ and then got caught out on his understanding of who is a minister (anyone who minister within the church) and so made a point about acknowledging the ministry of women. Before you ask we were talking about my background. Now, I have spent a few days trying to find a suitable term.
Cleric – dated, closely related to the word ‘clerk’ as it is an abbreviated form on ‘Clerk in holy orders’ but ‘clerk’ has a totally different meaning within the Reformed tradition, basically meaning committee secretary
Presbyter – archaic, so maybe due a revival, but feels as if it requires a theology degree to use
Priest – Strongly associated with the more Catholic traditions and while I understand its derivation from the Greek as is Presbyter but also used in those traditions that emphasis the ‘sacrament of the mass’
Minister – has far wider interpretations, see opening paragraph, and is strongly Free Church language. ‘Free Church’ is correct, Methodists are not Non-Conformists or Dissenters while Roman Catholics are.
Ordained minister – a mouthful and does not work in Reformed settings where they ordain elders. I have refused to tick boxes when they say ‘are you ordained or lay’ within a URC setting. Not just because all the ordained are lay but also because I am ordained (as an elder) but not to the presbyteral ministry.
Pastor – is again too general see the problems with ‘minister‘.
Elder – again widely used to cover different groups. Rather like ‘clerk’ in Reformed instances in that, it is used often as a shortening of ‘Teaching Elder’ as opposed to ‘Serving Elder’ who are not in any sense Priests and would not want to be mistaken for one. Actually, many Teaching Elders would not want to be either but would see themselves as filling a similar role to Anglican vicars. The term ‘Elder’ is predominantly used by independent churches and New churches.
Vicar or Parson – are too technical terms within CofE
I also recall from my lay training that there is a similar linguistic problem about the Lord’s supper/Eucharist/communion/mass. The course, I was on, was of Scottish origin and therefore had chosen ‘Eucharist’ as a denominationally neutral term. What this means is they had chosen to use the language of the smallest group participating and in Scotland that is the Episcopalian church. In England talking about the Lord’s supper as Eucharist indicated quite strongly ‘Anglican’. The most neutral term I think in England is ‘Communion’ but that is obviously CofS in Scotland.
Then there is the oddity that denominations as a term only really works for Methodists in England. For Roman Catholics and the CofE, there is the claim to be a far wider body than a denomination. They are not part of the Church they embody the Church in the fullest sense. For Roman Catholics that is worldwide and for Anglicans that is within England. On the other hand for classical non-conformists and newer churches, they really do not see the structures as so strong. These are amalgams of convenience for the time being. The structure does not imply the character of the local congregations.
The paragraphs above illustrate the ways the language between Christians of different traditions has not matured enough over the past century to really have got beyond the basic need to talk about terms. I think we are short an agreed language to hold discussions between different traditions. This may not matter if you are not interested in Ecumenism but has deep consequences if you are.
One problem with this is that we get misunderstandings that can damage unity for a lot longer than people can think. For instance, when the URC merged Congregationalists and Presbyterians quite a few of these terms were no sorted out. Particularly no-one looked at the problem of how people talked about ‘tradition’. The English Presbyterians always said ‘As Presbyterians we…’ but the Congregationalists never used the name tag, it was always just ‘We..’ The dropping of the tag is perceived by those influenced by the Presbyterian tradition as a dropping of the identity particularly as the Congregationalist ‘We…’ is far more amorphous as the speaking individual is usually primarily meaning the tradition of their local congregation. It also allowed Congregational tradition to dominate in ways that have led to Presbyterians feeling excluded.
Language matters, the ability to have a broadly agreed language help and yet despite over a hundred years of the current Ecumenical Movement we are still lacking a common language to discuss the central concepts of the church. Perhaps it is time we start to look not just to learn the dialects of other traditions but also to develop a Christian dialect which allows us to talk about the differences we experience.
Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa. It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading Twin star Biblical Interpretation
I have been attending St Matthews Carver Street at the evening (6 pm) Mass. I suspect it is done partly as it gives a time the priest can be quite contemplative while praying the Mass and partly so members of St Matthew’s Carver Street who cannot make the morning Mass have another opportunity. Whatever the congregational reasoning is, importantly for me, it is a service of worship that does not depend on my attendance to happen. It does have a small core congregation. I think we might be reaching 3 to 5 and has a group perhaps five times that who attend irregularly as well as the congregational members who do it as a one-off. A good attendance is when we reach double figures. On the other hand, it is a growing congregation and includes recent converts. It is also an extremely prayerful situated service. It feels natural to turn up early and spend time in personal prayer and to continue personal after the service. I go because I am able to pray with other Christians there and that in itself is a joy.
In the run up to Easter, between the 5 pm Evensong and the 6 pm Mass they each week had communal Stations of the Cross. I did not participate but found that sitting in the church doing my own devotions meant that my mind formed a complex pattern where the devotions wove in and out of my own prayers without tying me particularly to them.
The final thing is to know that St Matthew’s decided to host an evening of prayer as part of Thy Kingdom Come and I was asked to put together an Iona style devotions for the evening. That would be a midnight so not many attending. They were starting with Evensong and Benediction, then the Rosary followed by devotion to the Sacred Heart, then personal prayer, then Charismatic style worship and Benediction aimed at the younger members of the congregation, finally personal prayer until closing. I felt that if I was to take closing worship I should at least turn up for something else. However, the Charismatic worship and Benediction clashed with the time I normally phone my parents and I also felt there was a good chance that it would make my mood lower. So I chose to attend the first part, then go home to ring my parents and pick up the last hour and a half again. With the rosary, my intention was basically to be in the church building and do as I had done with the Stations of the Cross.
Evensong and Benediction had been in the choir but with the rosary, the congregation moved to the main part of the church. I went halfway back in the church and knelt down to pray. I probably was not far enough back. The vicar came and sat on the same row. Maybe the rosary prayers spotted this. Anyway, one person put a rosary and the relative sheets beside me on the pew. Then they asked the vicar which set of mysteries to say as they had prayed the glorious ones earlier in the day. He said to stick with the glorious ones. These are:
The Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord (John 20: 1-29)
The Ascension of Our Lord (Luke 24: 36-53)
The Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-41)
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (Revelation 12:1)
The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth (Psalm 45: 14-15)
Alright, I need to check the last two but I know the fourth reading was from Revelation.
They also asked me whether I would like to announce. I said very clearly “no”. I had no clue how the decades were announced and although I accepted they wanted me to participate, leading at all on a first time through just seemed to me a BAD idea. I needed to get the feel.
Most of the time it flustered me. While the repetition of the “Hail Mary” was uncomfortable it is prayer I have heard regularly and semi-know. Other parts of the words used were completely new to me e.g. “O my Jesus”
O my Jesus
forgive us our sins
save us from the fires of Hell
lead our souls to Heaven
especially those in most need of Thy mercy
In the end, I gave up trying to use the beads and just tried to keep up with the prayers others were saying.
However when the final two decades happened my brain heard an elision happening. The passages that were used to refer to Mary were in more Protestant traditions understood as referring to the Church. If I took Mary, not as Saint but as a metonym for the Church then the Rosary became a profound prayer for the Church.
At then when I tried to return the rosary beads but asked to keep the instructions the lady who had placed them on the pew insisted I kept the beads as well. There is a strange part of me that thinks these beads are a proper rosary because I received them as a gift to be used in prayer whereas a bought rosary beads would not be.
Firstly, what I am not saying. I am not saying that all devotion to Mary is devotion to Church. Without a doubt, much of the devotion to Mary is straightforwardly aimed at the Virgin and is to me as a Protestant over the top. There is good reason to critique of the way it has fostered a poor idea of saintliness for a woman, where sexual purity seems to be the end all. Much of the later Marian tradition seems to me to be counter to the holiness I see as manifest in Christ and I would, therefore, deal with it as a suspect.
That said this elision is important. John Calvin makes the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. I tend to be generous where I see the visible church and view it as present anywhere where:
“Wherever we see the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
Although I do not fuss too much about purely, it is enough that an attempt is made to speak the Word with integrity, to ask for purity is to ask for it to preached by angels and not humans. With this low understanding of the visible church, with what I have experienced of it, seen done in its name and heard of by report, it would be sensible to leave except there remains the Church Invisible.
” Sometimes when they mention ’the Church’ they intend that which is really such in the sight of God (quae revera est coram Deo), into which none are received but those who by adoption and grace are the children of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit are the true members of Christ. And then it comprehends not only the saints at any one time resident on earth, but all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world.”
Inst. Bk. IV. ch. I. § 7.
It is this act of God that is referred to by Calvin as ‘our mother’ where salvation lies. Thus, because, there is still a connection between the Church and the Church invisible that I stay in the visible church however hard it is. In the end, I take Calvin’s interesting interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on divorce
…I shall start, then, with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his children, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry so long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach to the goal of faith. For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder [Mark 10: 9], so that, for those to whom he is Father the Church may also be Mother.
Inst. IV. 1.1
Not as simply applying to the Church and Christ, thus using the marriage synonym for that relationship as does Paul in Ephesians 5:21-26 but take it to imply a connection made by God between the Visible Church and the Invisible Church. The Glorious Church as seen by God can not simply be separated out from the dishevelled reality fo Church as experienced by many Christians.
What interests me is that the elision to Mary from Church as I experienced in praying the rosary maybe a bridge over the gulf that has grown up in Protestant theology between the Invisible and Visible Church.
Church as Mother, Bride of Christ and New Jerusalem
I am going to explore slightly. The actual clear New Testament references to the Church as our mother are few. You can take Galatians 4:21-31 and see that Paul clearly refers to the Church as our mother. However, it should also be clear in doing so that he is picking up on already existent Jewish thought about the nature of Israel and the Jewish people. We get in Revelations the Woman who is giving birth and though that might be seen as Christ, hence the elision to Mary, when it talks of her other children (Revelation 12:17) that would imply the Church. We also get the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21) which is described as a bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9). There are more verses particularly those that liken the relationship between God and the Church to that of marriage.
The problem is that when it is dealt with in the New Testament the imagery always looks at the positive side of the story. The Church is seen as a virgin princess on her wedding day, the obedient spouse and the good mother who brings up righteous children. However, I think it is important to note that this is picking up a well-developed imagery for Israel from the Old Testament and that is not restricted in the same way.
First, it does have its fair share of such images and the Visible Church has readily appropriated them even when they are not in the text obviously about Israel. Thus the royal marriage Psalm ( Psalm 45 ) is seen as applying to the Christ and the Church. This includes also the positive imagery in Isaiah 62 which is a great poem to the future relationship between God and Israel.
However, we need to note that even here there is a different note. This is not about a virgin marriage but about a reconciled marriage. Israel is not purely pictured as the positive. Perhaps most noticeably in Hosea 2: 2-13
Plead with your mother, plead— for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband— that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts, or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no pity, because they are children of whoredom. For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers; they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge her way with thorns; and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.’ She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal. Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season; and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand. I will put an end to all her mirth, her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her appointed festivals. I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, ‘These are my pay, which my lovers have given me.’ I will make them a forest, and the wild animals shall devour them. I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals, when she offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewellery, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the Lord.
This is not easy reading and the Church has too often seen this as only applying to Israel. We want Israel’s place without Israel’s judgement. If we are, to be honest about the Visible Church we too have gone after Baals. They may not be human idols, but the courting of power, those in power and the maintenance of face have led to a lot of betrayals by the Visible Church. One element that really annoys me is the tendency of Christians to be well aware of this happening in the parts of the Visible Church where they are uncomfortable and their willingness to turn a blind eye or deny it in the parts of the Church they are comfortable with. The failing runs through the Visible Church like the raspberry ripple running through ice-cream. To uproot it would take vigilance of all Christians all the time. What is worse is the very positive side of the imagery has been used to shut up people who would voice elements that indicate the dark side is present in the Visible Church. To be open about this is seen as failing to believe in the glorious nature of the Invisible Church.
The result of this denial of the dark side of this imagery, when applied to the Church, has led at least in me in a paucity of ability to pray for the Church. The continual struggle to keep the glorious and the dishevelled together overwhelms the attempt at prayer. I can pray for specific parts of the Church in specific situations. It can be easy for instance to pray for the persecuted part of the Church and those Christians who are persecuted but just for the Church.
A Protestant Mary
It is a glib remark that Protestants don’t do Mary. Like most glib remarks it is only partially true. There is a much more stripped-down theology of Mary within Protestantism which focuses on her ‘fiat’ and her nature as Christ-bearer. With this, we tend not to deify but to concentrate on the humanity of Mary. She is not an idealised woman but a real woman. As seen in the Bible:
a young woman, unmarried who finds herself with child
a young woman who says dramatically yes to God
the mother of a runaway son (Luke 2:41-52)
the mother who provokes a son into doing a miracle (John 2:1-5 )
who is denied as his mother by her son (Matthew 12:46-50)
who see her son die (John 19:25)
From these fragments, Mary is neither a virgin saint nor a whore but a complex woman dealing with a potent and incalculable divine experience. There is no road map for this experience. She reacts sometimes with acceptance, sometimes with incomprehension, sometimes out of bewilderment and sometimes out of love. She is capable of provoking the divine to action and yet also has to accept the divine will is always beyond her control.
If I use this image for the Invisible Church two things happen. Firstly I can see why the Invisible Church needs prayer. Secondly, the divide between the Invisible and Visible Church is not so far. I can see the exasperated outworkings of a very human institution struggling to be faithful to a potent and incalculable experience of the divine in the visible church.
Returning to the Rosary
I have come a long way from my initial experience in writing this. I suspect that this goes back to my question “What does it mean to pray with St Cuthbert?” and particularly the first part of the answer which was to pray that the Church in the North of England may be close to its people. Intrinsic in this is a need to pray for the Church. I am not talking the concrete forms here. Increasingly my intercessory prayer has become a holding imaginatively before God of those I am praying for. I struggle to do this for the Church for reasons given above. What I am finding is that while the Protestant in my still jibs at the language used, the holding the image of Mary as a metamyn for the Church while trying to focus on the salvation story (and yes I equally do not always think the passages chosen are the best) is actually quite a good way of trying to enter into this prayer.
I spent Easter as a guest at Iona Abbey. The communal side of the Abbey is run by the Iona Community, while the Tourist side is run by Historic Scotland. Most importantly the worship that regularly happens in the Abbey is largely under the auspices of the Iona Community. Therefore if you go to the communion service on Easter Day at Iona Abbey you are attending a communion service that is run in line with the principles of the Iona Community. The Iona Community has two areas of concern that play significant roles in what goes on during Easter week. These are:
the building of the common life between the guests, volunteers (vollies) and resident staff.
the renewal of worship as the activity of the people
Therefore guests had part in the preparation of worship as well as sharing household tasks and serving at meals.
I have separated that into three the people who live and work around the Abbey under the auspices of the Iona Community. Those are the boundaries as used by the community but the boundaries are not as clearly drawn as such. The guests do work, that includes serving and washing up after meals, household tasks including cleaning toilets and participating in the preparation of worship. The tasks are less arduous than those undertaken by the vollies and Residents but still necessary for the well functioning of the Abbey. They are not purely symbolic. Technically most resident staff are also volunteers but long term with contracts (between nine months and three years). There is a subtle and complex interplay between these three groups.
The worship team, i.e. the resident staff who have a contractual responsibility at present for worship are Rosie (Director), Deborah (Sacristan), Richard (Musician) and Callum (Musician).
I was a guest. There were around 37 guests present this week and in three chore teams. Most of the rooms were shared with twin or bunk beds. The rooms are cosy space wise and this is good because it also helps with their cosiness in other ways as the building has limited heating.
From our perspective, the preparations for the Triduum started on Monday when people start preparing for the stations of the cross on Good Friday. The Iona Community takes overall organising responsibility with Bishops House Retreat Centre for the one at the Heritage Centre and the Parish Church doing the one at the Parish Church. The Iona Community then asks the guests for the week to prepare the other five.
The second part of preparation that was handed over to us was the sermon slot for the communion on Easter day. This, however, only started on Wednesday. Actually, you could say we divided ourselves into seven teams. The five for stations of the cross, one storying team and a movement team who eventually ended up being involved in the Easter Sunday Evening Service.
The third part, and it is only third because I keep forgetting it was done, was the Big Sing and the not so Wee Sing. These are times when guests are taught the music for upcoming services. This is not a choir rehearsal but a chance to familiarise us with the music and teach parts. If you have ever been to Iona Abbey services and participated in the congregation singing happily in three parts, then this is how they do it. Basically, a significant proportion of the congregation has already been primed. I was spoilt as the number of musicians among the guests was large and therefore we did four part rather than the usual three part harmonies.
The first service was the foot washing which happened on the Tuesday in the Chapter House. That might seem odd being outside the Triduum but Tuesday is the day the Iona Community runs pilgrimages around the Island. There are two an on-road and an off-road. Therefore there are lots of tired sweaty feet in the afternoon. In other words, the timing was chosen so it was at the point when feet needed washing. Oddly we were a fast group and three of us had already gone through the process of cleaning our boots! It was low key. Rosie explained what was going on. The song “Brother, sister Let me serve you” with resident staff and vollies making sure that water and towels were available. The process of washing feet was mutual. Anyone could sit in a chair for their feet to be washed; equally, anyone could take the place of the foot washer on the floor.
However, like all modern Protestant liturgical Triduums it really kicked off properly on Thursday Evening with a Gathering in the upper room. This is probably Protestants nearest equivalent to Corpus Christi. This was held in the refectory
This focussed both on the foot washing from John’s Gospel but also the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There has been a large use of John this Lent, not quite sure whether that is because Matthew is difficult or just people wanting John for a change. The room was packed with the tables put up against the walls, the benches and upright chairs in front of them. The poem “Directions for using a towel” was read, the hymn “Great God your love has called us here“. That hymn is one of my favourites simply because it catches the complexity of the human condition in ways that speak to the sociologist in me. There were four stations at which communion was served: one for Judas, one for Peter, one for Thomas and one for another disciple with us being asked to go to the one that reflects where we are at.
The service closed with us leaving singing Jesu Tawa Pano and processing to the Abbey. The Abbey was then stripped. That is any ornament that could be taken out of the Abbey was removed including the Celtic Cross that is normally on the high altar. Anything that could not be removed was draped in black and all the candles were put out. The photo shown was taken I think the following afternoon but it gives an idea of the starkness of the stripped church. This was all done in total silence and the residents and volunteers doing the stripping were all dressed in black. We left our way lit by battery lanterns and we all went out by the main door rather than to the cloister.
Friday was the busiest day worship-wise. It started with the normal morning office in the stripped Abbey. Then it was on with tasks but pretty soon had to set out for the stations of the cross. As far as I can recall the progress was as follows:
Martyrs Bay – Jesus Condemned
War Memorial – Jesus is mocked
Nunnery – Women Comfort Jesus
Heritage Centre – Jesus Falls
Parish Church – Jesus is Crucified
St Martin’s Cross – Jesus Dies
St Columba’s Shrine – Jesus is buried
Now I am going to have to give an impression. The day was dreich and full waterproofs were a good idea. On the other hand, it certainly attracted people and by the time we got to jetty there was a crowd following the cross including Iona Community members who were not part of the staff at the Abbey. In between each station, we moved singing a short chant quite often from Taize. I am afraid it did not really get going for me until the women at the Nunnery where we heard the interaction between Mary, Jesus’ mother and modern women’s stories. The Bishop’s house connected Jesus’s fall with all the whys we have. The cross was dropped and instead of a man picking it up a woman did. The Parish church was a meditation by Barabbus asking us whether if we could get out of suffering we would not let someone else take it for us. The crucifixion was two monologues by two soldiers taking different aspects. One took the Dorothy L Sayers idea that one might have been the centurion whose servant had been healed by Jesus. The final one involved taking the body of Jesus and laying it in St Columba’s Shrine. Then the door of the shrine was slammed shut.
From 2:00 to 3:30 pm there was a vigil kept in the church. I along with many others by this time was flagging. I dropped off a couple of times during the vigil but stayed. However, quite a few others left early precisely because they were falling asleep. The result was the Abbey which was about half full at the start of the vigil was only a scattered few mainly in the choir seats and we drifted out after the end.
That evening it was a dispersed service. This was services in small spaces around the abbey. For instance, there was one gathering in St Columba’s Shrine, one in the Abbey Library and the one I attended in the Burrows. I went to the Burrows for two reasons. Firstly it was warm and worshipping in the warmth appealed to me. Secondly, it is a utility space used for washing and drying clothing and sheets and as a short cut to the kitchen. It really was the core space for me while I was a vollie on the Abbey Housekeeping team over a decade ago. The service was short and focused on a reading of Lamentations 3. In the Burrows, there were 6-10 people present and we were full.
Easter Eve started once again with the morning office in the stripped Abbey. This was very routine. The differences from normal were slight in that there was no music playing when we came in and we sang unaccompanied. On the evening was a service of waiting. This gave time to reflect on the actual importance of paying attention to waiting. Again a very stripped down service and quite meditative. This was kept as a partial fast day as I think was Friday and no puddings were served but only fruit. Oddly enough outside of worship, an excitement was beginning to boil as the last preparations were being done for the Easter day service.
Easter day started with a 6:15 at St Oran’s Chapel. This is the chapel in the burial ground beside the Abbey. The day had a damp start and once again I could have done with waterproofs trousers as well as coat and walking boots. The acclamation was joyful and we were handed a flower (not necessarily a daffodil). There were candles representing Easter fire but in the damp, they were rather poor. A good volume of Halle, Halle, Halle as we walked from St Oran’s to the Abbey where we left our flowers at the font before progressing through the cloisters for the Wee Breakfast still singing. The Wee Breakfast consisted of Simnel Cake and Hot Chocolate (alright I was a party pooper and chose hot cross buns and tea but that was just me).
Sometime between the waiting service and 9:00 am on Easter Sunday the Abbey had been re-decorated with daffodils everywhere. The cross with the daffodils on it was actually carried down at the start of the service and the high altar had a white communion cloth on it.
The candles were lit unlike in the photos which were taken on Sunday afternoon. I had a reserved seat for the service because I had been part of the storying group and needed to be able to get to the microphone at the main desk.
The attendance was such that people were standing outside the Abbey and therefore the doors could not be shut. Handbells were used twice during the service and we also had a group of guests doing shape-note singing. The hymns tends to be modern versions of Easter classics so we had “God given Glory” instead of “Thine be the Glory” and a new version of “Jesus Christ is risen today” both by Jan Sutch Pickard. Equally the form was actually very strongly based on the form given in the Iona Abbey Worship Book with seasonal words used. The text for the service was John 20:1-18, this got represented three times. Firstly it was read, secondly the modern form of “Jesus Christ is risen today” tells it again and finally, the storying group had interwoven this story with the stories of others told during the week and finished with an invitation to create a new story.
You would think with all that, that Easter was over but this was the final day on Iona for us guests and we would be leaving on 8:50 ferry next morning. Thus, as is customary the night before guests leave, there was a service of commitment. It was a quiet abbey in the evening where a good number of people gathered for the service. I know because I was sat in the choir stalls when we were asked to come forward for the act of commitment and for a considerable time after I returned to my seat people filed in. The movement which was based on actions symbolising community was done in silence in the space before the act of commitment. It felt the most personal service. This was odd. Commitment services usually have high guest inputs but because we had been so busy during the week we did very little apart from the movement and yet it still drew us in.
About a decade a book came out called “A Churchless Faith” which broadly argued that those who were leaving the Church were Stage IV in the Fowler Stages of Faith and that this made them less than docile sheep in the flock.
Now I am not convinced. Certainly I understand that there are congregations and traditions that like conformist sheep. I have two cautions. Firstly this is to overlook the role power plays in this situation. The transition between III and IV is often connected with a change in power dynamics. The desire is often to be more actively engaged in the decision-making process. Now it might be genuinely a difference of stage, or it might well be a situation of the abuse of power. If it is abuse we are being dishonest by referring to it as a stage difference, equally if it is power struggle does the stage actually matter? The second reason is that it typecasts all congregations as a certain type associated particularly strongly with independent Evangelicals and denominations with strong hierarchical control. There are a lot of congregations out there where this is not the norm. Indeed my experience of URC was that the desired church member was someone in stage IV. That is questioning and engagement with theological ideas and such was actively encouraged.
That said I am in the process of reassessing. Firstly I have come increasingly aware of the number of members in United Reformed Church congregations who were “Dones” and are testing the water again. Secondly, I am struck with how hard many “Dones” have worked to maintain a relationship with the institutional church. Quite often people who have given up have tried several congregations before finally leaving.
There are several things that I notice:
Unlike many “Nones”, “Dones” may have a fair grasp of the gospel. The idea that sending them on Alpha or another basic introduction to Christianity is they way to start them off is often a BAD Idea. It is a denial of where they are coming from.
They may indeed have a wrong understanding of the gospel but that is not the same as no understanding and what one congregation considers “wrong” another might accept. Correcting ideas that people have already accepted needs to be done carefully.
The like many people who have been hurt they are pastorally and politically difficult to handle. They are likely to have sensitivities that you know nothing about. They may be cautious about saying anything at all or go to the other extreme and always have loud views. Both approaches are methods of testing the water.
There is a good chance that they have some sort of involvement burn, whether that is burnout because too much has been expected of them or catching too much of the heat from a hot internal politics.
You need to consider that there has at least been a breakdown in fellowship in their Christian experience. Even if it is the case that the congregation they previously belonged to has had to close and they were happy with it right to the end.
A congregation which has a lot of former “Dones” can thus be very turbulent indeed. Ever so often things will get blown out of all proportion to the intention. It maybe something as simple as singing a hymn two Sundays running.
A congregation who wants to be a place where “Dones” can edge back into membership, and I happen to think many URCs could do this, needs to think seriously about how it deals with the following:
Good governance and open decision-making structures – You want to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy. Remember these people have been hurt in their encounters with power in the church previously. Be clear about what you expect from people with responsibility and make sure it applies to all. Work on having checks and balances.
A theology of restoration – partly a theology of healing, partly one of forgiveness and with something more as there is a need to get beyond the grievances and hurts that “Dones” carry. They have often made the first step but can you offer then something that is worth risking being hurt again for or are they better off in the safety of being done with Church
A big emphasis on pastoral care – as the place where restoration is worked through. I do not simply mean the building of the relationship between minister and “Done” or elder and “Done” but the care that the congregation gives each other. How does pastoral care fit within church arguments? It is worth thinking about because the one thing I can be certain of is these arguments will arise.
Jamieson, Alan. A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK, 2002. paperback.
Fowler, James W.. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995. Paperback.
I started going to the gym about 20 months ago. This was after a slow realisation that Ph.D. had left me in a relatively poor state. I was obese according to my BMI although nobody commented on me being overweight. I was also relatively unfit. I came to acknowledge that my lifestyle was largely sedentary and I needed more exercise. One of the things that had scuppered previous exercise routines was that they got disrupted by circumstances. Walking depended quite a bit on the weather and people to go with swimming was cancelled whenever there was a competition in the pool and yoga was simply too much effort most mornings. Actually, I was intermittently doing yoga but that was really it apart from general walking with life. The ability of Ph.D. to eat time that was available and still be hungry did nothing for my routine. What I needed was something that I could fit around my life and was less likely to be cancelled. That for me meant reluctantly going to the gym. As it turns out gym suits me when it is part of a wider regime.
Now fast forward 16 months and they gym is being refurbished so changing rooms are less comfortable than usual and there is no hiding away in a cubicle. Another girl came in while I was changing for a gym session. I could see my sixteen-month-earlier-self in her and could sense she was nervous. I also suddenly realised I was one of the reasons she was nervous. You see having been going to the gym regularly for little over a year I looked like a person who went to the gym. I think I had only just got down to a normal BMI but I was confident in the settings and I as long as I stuck to my routine I knew what I was doing.
Having heard others talk in the gym, I would say that the same is true of most of them. There was a time when they were that new, totally unfit, klutz, trying it out for the first time. Indeed, I suspect many like me still by default think of ourselves that way. It means that the gym goers when they notice a new person (many gym goers are very much working on doing their thing) think not “look at that slob how dare they come here” but “good on you, hope you stick at it”. However, that is not how they are perceived by the new gym goer.
Now this is not an article encouraging people to take up the gym. I could write that but there are plenty out there. Rather it is an article about people who come to church. It is so easy in a church to look at other people and think they have their lives together, that they know what they are doing. This is particularly true of when looking at those who have been at the church for a long time. That is not how many of us see ourselves in the church. We see ourselves as messed up individuals who are struggling to make it up as we go along. We are often focused on our needs and getting those dealt with, just as gym goers are. We are not the super religious that others look up to. This is our perspective.
When people less familiar with the setting come in they do not know this. What they see is, like a new gym attendee, that everyone else is more proficient and able to cope than they are and that includes us. I wonder how much the accusations of “hypocrite”, so often thrown at people who attend church, is not the equivalent of “gym rat” used of those who go regularly to a gym. It comes from a person’s feeling of inadequate and is addressed to those who they as making them feel that and judging them. Whether of not they are in fact being judged is irrelevant, the perception is all.
I cannot say that I got it right, but that time I broke the changing room taboo and spoke with the girl telling her my story. I hope it encouraged her. The questions is how do we let people in the idea that we were all once the newbie with our congregations and we are not always as sure of how things work as they appear.
There is a lot of hitting out at groupings suggesting that they are causingdecline at present. I have a memory that goes back to the early days of grouping within the URC, and I think it is time to tell the story of why they originated. I am talking of things that happened in my teenage years.
Let’s be clear Congregationalism had a loose form of groupings probably going further back than the 1950s. My father’s first pastorate was “Oundle and Wheeldon” i.e. two separate congregations who had combined resources in order to be able to employ a minister. Equally in my childhood from 1972 my father was the minister for a group of churches. The key characteristic of these groups is that a number of congregations came together to employ a single minister.
In 1976 my Dad stopped being in parish ministry, and we worshipped in an experimental group of churches. That is it had a team of ministers and also a large number of churches. It was a deliberate attempt to go against the then policy which was often to merge small churches together. The statement I remember went along the lines that merge two churches with fifty members and in then years you have a congregations with fifty members. In other words, it was a serious attempt to reduce the decline closure and merger was creating. The argument was that people were motivated to keep their congregation going but were often not motivated to keep the merged congregation going.
They worked at least short term. The group I was part of lasted from the seventies through to the nineties and maybe even into the zeros. Some of those congregations found through various initiatives a lease of life during those years and actually the level of lay leadership increased through those projects. The congregation I was closest associated closed shortly after its social outreach was taken from it. I suspect that if it had remained there may have been another decade of life in the congregation. In other words it worked, it slowed the rate of decline. There is one church (maybe two) in an area of Manchester where under merge and close there would be none.
Now the study was not academic, the ministers who were trying different things to see if they could halt decline were of course the innovative and go ahead ministers. You cannot sort out the quality of the minister from the experiment. It also gives a hint of what might be wrong with the current debate. If a successful minister is one who has a single pastoral charge may it not be that there is a tendency for ministers not to seek group positions if they can get a single pastorate?
Of course, the big problem is not that groups cause decline. The sort of grouping being talked about is what the Methodist have done for centuries and forgive me although Methodism is currently in decline, I would be very reluctant to describe it as that in the middle on 19th Century! So what to make of it.
The problem is that grouping that is often talked of is done without concern for the Ecclesiology of the tradition. The relationship between the minister and the congregation is not the a top-down relationship within the Reformed tradition. Ministers are NOT appointed by Bishops (like the Roman Catholics), General Assembly (like the Methodists) nor by other ministers. They are appointed by the local Church. The local Church has normally been associated with the local congregation. There is however no reason why it should be a single congregation. Could not a local Church consist of a number of worshipping communities serving different constituencies within a wider community? These constituencies could be defined by place, age, theology, worship style preference or missional service. The one thing they would need to agree on is an Ecclesial structure (or how they interact formally with each other)
A grouping of local congregations under a central-governing body is not something new within the Reformed tradition. This is what seems to have happened with the Geneva Consistory. It needs to be noted the consistory did not belong to one congregation but to the whole of Geneva and had responsibility for discipline of ministers among other concerns. It was however primarily made up of lay people with the chair being the senior minister and as far as I can tell no other ministerial representation. Ministers were given responsibility for specific congregations or missional work by the Consistory.
I do not think this will be popular with anyone, but I do think that it highlights what is theoretically missing in the current discussion. That is a coherent thinking on the relationship between congregation and minister. At present I see the talk of grouping and the resistance to it being a discussion about power. If the local congregation can retain the power to appoint a minister then the members understand their connection to the minister. If, however, groups are created with minister or synod appointing other ministers then we become a denomination ruled by ministers. Unfortunately that model, I can see members deciding that the denomination has lost interest in them so there is no reason to belong.