A few remarks about church-going

I’ve mentioned here that Mrs Acilius and I can often be found among nearby God-bothering societies, notably the Quaker meeting of which she is a member and an Episcopal parish in which we are also active.  Recently, I shared with the readers of some other blogs this fact and a partial explanation for it.

In response to a post by Rod Dreher about an unsightly and not very obviously Christian work of art placed prominently outside an Episcopal cathedral, I wrote the following:

“You know it’s a rockin’ Episcopalian argument when somebody uses the word “ghastly.” That’s like chair-throwing in any other fight.”

One recent Sunday, I was at coffee hour in the parish hall at an Episcopal church whose doors I darken on a fairly regular basis. I happened to be sitting next to a stack of books that were being reshelved. One of the books was the Book of Occasional Services. A couple of parishioners noticed it. “Does that have an Episcopalian exorcism rite?” Another replied, “Free this soul of bad taste!” Everyone laughed.

The seriousness with which they take aesthetics and lightness with which they take themselves are among the things that keep drawing me to the Episcopalians, and to Anglicans generally. Not only do I find that combination attractive in itself, but I think it is a vital corrective to a culture that relentlessly encourages the opposite traits, militantly rejecting any idea that beauty is a real thing that makes demands on us while it rewards and glorifies the weightiest self-importance and the most morbid self-absorption. The Episcopalians are in a position to make a unique contribution to breaking the spell these vices have cast on us, and so I very much hope they thrive.

That said, when I mention the Episcopal Church to people not affiliated with it the single most common response is the question, “Is that still around?” So perhaps it will take some time for their particular share of the Light to overcome the darkness around us.

I went on at even greater length in responding to a post by Alastair J. Roberts called “Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons.”  While, as a Calvinist, Mr Roberts sees the chief purpose of preaching as instruction in correct doctrine, he also puts considerable emphasis on the value of the physical act of sitting still and listening while another person speaks at length, even when relatively little of the content of that speech stays in the memory of the hearer.  This led me to expound on the role of sermons in the religious gatherings Mrs Acilius and I most regularly attend:

Very interesting. On most Sunday mornings, my wife and I attend two Christian gatherings. At 8 AM, we go to an Anglican service. Then at 11, we go to the Quakers. Different as they are, the two traditions have similar views of the proper function of sermons.

The Anglicans tend to believe that the role of the sermon, like that of each of the other prescribed parts of the liturgy, is to sweep away the distractions that might be buzzing about in one’s mind when one enters the worship space. So the penitential elements sweep away, first, the sinful preoccupations that may have taken root in our minds, then the idle guilt in which we dwell on the fact that we have been in the grips of those preoccupations. The lessons and the creed sweep away any impulse to enter theological or political disputes, reminding us as they do that we not only agree on a great deal, but that whatever disagreements do divide us have been around so long that it is unlikely we will miss anything by taking a pass on any particular opportunity to try to persuade people of the rightness of our views. Hymns and corporate prayers and greetings dramatize the fact that we’re all in this together, sweeping personal resentments aside for the time being. The preacher must have a sense of what is going on with the congregation to know which of these distractions is likely to represent the biggest distraction at any given iteration of the Eucharist and design the sermon to put some extra force behind the broom aimed at it.

Our 11 AM gathering is more of a “Friends Church” than a “Quaker meeting.” They have hymns, accompanied by an organ; a choir, accompanied by a professional pianist; a sermon, delivered by a professional preacher; and other formal practices, all laid out in a printed program and introduced by cues that must be expressed in precisely the correct words. However, the climax of all this formalization is a period of shared listening, in which we sit for ten minutes or so, many times in complete silence, but not infrequently hearing from two or three Friends who feel that the Holy Spirit has entrusted them with a message for us. Quite often this message is something along the lines of, “I forgot to mention it during the announcements, but I brought some cabbages from my garden, please take them home with you.” Be that as it may, each of those liturgical elements found its way into the practice of our branch of Quakerdom as a preparation for that shared silence. As our Anglican friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find in the reception of the Eucharist, so our Friends friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find “wherever two or more are gathered in [His] name.”

My wife is more of an old-fashioned Quaker than are most in our meeting. For her, the sheer act of sitting still and waiting for the Holy Spirit in a circle of others doing the same is quite enough to achieve the clarity needed for the sacramental experience. If another should speak, or pray, or break into song, that is all the better, but she does not find it necessary. The physical act, as you put it, is sufficient to prepare her for an encounter with Christ.

These two descriptions may seem to depict liturgy as therapy, or perhaps therapy as liturgy.  Certainly in each case the goal is to help people to get themselves out of their own way.  Of all the parts of the liturgy, when liturgy is conceived as preparation for sacrament, the sermon is perhaps the one where the therapeutic is most likely to make itself obvious.  Perhaps this is why sermons so often inspire resentment, because the preacher may stray too far into territory where a psychologist might have a surer touch.  And so rarely does even the most engaged preacher really know what is on the minds of more than a small fraction of her congregation; a sermon perfectly crafted to clear the minds of that fraction may be pointless or even distracting to many others.

Mr Roberts’ post is really quite excellent.  I’d also recommend one of the later comments, from someone called Tapani:

Repetition is the mother of learning. I got an A in A level maths (a long time ago; wouldn’t pass GCSE now, I suspect!)—not because I could draw on this particular lesson or that for the answers, but because I had acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes over 14 years of mathematical education. I can recall just about one specific lesson (first term of lower sixth), and that because we were being something important (differentiation, from first principles) which I failed to grasp in the lesson and was, therefore, very frustrated. And yet I got that A.

I do wonder how much of this emphasis on memorability is a by-product, or at least sister, of the experiential turn in Christianity. We seek experiences, feelings, in worship in general, so we also seek experiences (feelings, or thoughts to hang on to) in sermons too. And if we don’t get those experiences but merely individual moments of life-long Christian formation, we are dissatisfied.

The phrase “individual moments of life-long Christian formation”  strikes me as a remarkably concise statement of a distinctly Protestant view of the role of preaching.  Anglicans are Protestants too, of course, even though some of them are strangely reluctant to admit it, and Quakerism originated as a radical reimagining of Anglicanism.   I do think that a tendency to equate cases of instruction in points of doctrine with “moments of life-long Christian formation” is native to Protestantism.  Surely that phrase would more naturally suggest, to a non-Protestant Christian, the experience of the sacraments.  In that sense, the emphasis on encounters with the divine and the aversion to systematic theology that characterize Anglicanism and its offshoots marks a point at which those movements part company with the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and move toward common ground with the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

Anyway, this post has the noun phrase “church-going” in its title, so here is Philip Larkin reading his poem “Church-Going“:

I am not much of a believer myself; my attitude is not really so different from Larkin’s, when one comes down to it.  I do think it would be a shame if a day were to dawn when even disbelief has finally withered away, when the last, the very last person has sought a church for what it was, and all that remains is a vague sense of “a serious house on serious earth.”  If that day never does come, and if at the end of it all there are still those like my wife and our friends among the Friends and the Anglicans who find renewal and transformation and surpassing truth in such places, I suspect the seeds from which that infinite future will have grown are striking their roots deeper in the hushed moments of sacramental encounter than in the ringing words of the dogmatist.

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