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.


Marcel Duchamp, Calvinist

Tonight, Mrs Acilius and I were watching TV.  The program was a documentary called Paris: The Luminous Years. In a video clip from the 1960s, Marcel Duchamp said every visual artwork was a collection of shapes and colors.  The essence of art lay in the artist’s choice of these shapes and colors.  One set of shapes and colors was as eligible for this choice as another, and the actual production of the artwork was purely incidental.  Once the artist had made his or her choice of shapes and colors, the “art” is complete.

Mrs Acilius (who posts on WordPress as “Believer1“) said something about this.  “I think art is freedom.  When I paint a plate, I know that I’m painting it with fingers that have cerebral palsy.  So I have to start by accepting the fact that the picture I have in my mind is not going to be the same as the picture on the plate.”  We talked about this.  I asked her if she was saying that art wasn’t just something that happened in the artist’s mind, or just the finished product, but was to be found in the process, in the difference between what she was trying to do and what wound up happening.  She confirmed that she was saying that.

A plate by Mrs Acilius

I told Mrs Acilius that the difference between her and Duchamp reminded me of the difference between Calvinism and sacramentalism in Christian theology.  Duchamp’s idea that art is art simply because the artist has decided so, and that the events that take place in the physical world subsequent to that choice have no bearing on its status sounds rather like the Calvinist idea that the Elect are the Elect simply because God has decided so, and that events that take place in the physical world subsequent to his free election have no bearing on their status.  Her idea, by contrast, sounds like a form of Christianity that regards salvation as inseparable from particular forms of matter and particular events in time.

The Mrs is a Quaker; unlike the classical believer in the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican versions of Christianity, Quakers typically reject ritual.  They do, however, embrace sacraments.  Quakers do not practice baptism by water, not because they think it puts too much of God in the physical world, but because it puts too little of Him there.  Believing that the soul can encounter the Holy Spirit under any circumstances, they see the whole world as the scene of baptism.  Likewise, in their meetings for worship they do not have a ritual sharing of wine and bread, not because they lack communion, but because in their shared silences they make their fellowship a communion, and their whole persons an altar on which it is consecrated.  They do not make lists of sacraments, such as the traditional seven sacraments of Western Christianity, not because they deny that God interacts with humanity through matter, but because they believe that He interacts with us in more ways than we can count or foresee.  So when the Mrs puts an emphasis on the unpredictability of the artistic process, she is using categories familiar from the theology of her religious tradition.

In the flesh?

Most Sundays, Mrs Acilius and I can be found in a Quaker meeting down the street from our home.  She is a member of that meeting and a convinced adherent of the brand of Christianity associated with Quakerism; I’m not a member of any religious group, nor am I convinced of the truth of any religious doctrine.  The Friends are a likeable bunch, though, and I always feel that my time among them is well spent.

In  many ways, the Quakers are a group apart from other Protestants.  Not in all ways, however.  For example, like many mainline Protestant denominations the US branches of Quakerdom are currently rumbling with disputes about the status of homosexuality.  In some areas of the country, these disputes have gone very far.  The venerable Indiana Yearly Meeting, which has been going since 1821, is apparently considering a proposal to dissolve itself so that the local meetings affiliated with it can sort themselves into pro- and anti-gay groups.  Other yearly meetings may be approaching a similar point.  That means that Quaker denominations that have already made their minds up about the issue are facing the prospect of reorganizing to accommodate refugees from the divided groups.

Because I hear about this controversy quite often, I took a keen interest in Eve Tushnet’s notes on a talk that Christopher Roberts gave at Villanova University a few years back.  This bit especially piqued my interest:  “* CR: Progressive theology of marriage separates creation and redemption–for progressive, pro-gay-marriage theologians, sex difference is about creation/procreation and is private, while redemption (linked to marriage?) is ecclesial but unisex. ”

Roberts’ view of  “Progressive theology,” as Tushnet relays it here, reminds me of a problem at the heart of the sacramental theology of Quakerism.  The Quakers have traditionally held that the sacraments of baptism and communion are entirely “inward”; that is to say, what makes them holy is nothing to do with the physical elements of a ritual, and everything to do with supernatural events involving the soul and the Holy Spirit.  So, most Quakers do not practice an initiation ritual involving water, nor do they take wine and bread together in meetings for worship.

I haven’t read deeply on these topics.  If I were to study the arguments that have been made for and against Quakerism over the 350 years that the Friends movement has been underway, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some old writer who thought he had reduced Quaker sacramental theology to absurdity in this manner: 1. Quakers hold that the sacraments of baptism and communion are entirely supernatural, and that no particular physical act or material form is necessary to complete them.  2. Quakers do not deny that marriage is a sacrament.  3.  Quakers do not provide any reason to regard the sacrament of marriage as radically different from other sacraments.  4. To be consistent, Quakers must therefore hold that no particular physical act or material form is necessary to complete the sacrament of marriage.   5. The difference between male and female is known to us through particular physical acts and material forms, and in no other way.  6.  Therefore, Quakers have no grounds for insisting that a marriage requires a male and female body for its consummation.

Nowadays, many Quakers might accept this line of argument, and might proclaim that they are following in the tradition of the weighty Friends of the past when they endorse same-sex marriage.  Many others continue to resist it.  I’m not at all knowledgeable about Quaker theology, but it might be interesting to learn what sorts of arguments are exchanged in this matter.  If you happen to have knowledge I lack, I invite you to comment.