There’s two pieces of writing that have helped me stick around church despite years of, and many tears shed in the dismantling and deconstructing of institutions, theology, people, movements and myself.
Annie Dillard writes in Teaching A Stone To Talk:
‘Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy…by the terrible singing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy and the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of the dready senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week, we went through with it….In two thousand years we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.’
And there’s this powerful paragraph about the seriousness of churches on a serious earth that I discovered when reading about the death of God and religion a few years ago in Grace Davie’s Believing Without Belonging:
‘We in England live in the chill religious vapours of northern Europe, where moribund religious establishments loom over populations that mostly do not enter churches for active worship even if they entertain inchoate beliefs. Yet these establishments guard and maintain thousands of houses of God, which are markers of space and time. Not only are they markers and anchors, but also the only repositories of all-embracing meanings pointing beyond the immediate to the ultimate. They are the only institutions that deal in tears and concern themselves with the breaking points of human existence. They provide frames and narratives and signs to live by, and offer persistent points of reference. They are repositories of signs about miraculous birth and redemptive sacrifice, shared tables and gift-giving; and they offer moral codes and exemplars for the creation of communal solidarity and the nourishment of virtue. They are places from which to launch initiatives which help sustain the kind of networks found, for example, in the inner city; they welcome schools and regiments and rotary clubs; they celebrate and commemorate; they are islands of quietness; they are places in which unique gestures occur of blessing, distribution and obedience; they offer spaces in which solemnly to gather, to sing, to lay flowers, to light candles.’
For me church has never been about a denomination or a building. I wasn’t raised in a tradition like that. My tradition if anything was about passion and zeal – so a passionate, zealous and life filled church was the best and most connected to ‘what God was doing’. Often this passion and zeal was measured in terms of attendance, conversions, emotions and exclamations and activity. And even more crudely: the attractive and fashionable people in attendance who were a great advertisement for faith and God, the media reach, the music and sound systems, the clear, structured and concise ways to access God. It was and has been incredibly life shaping and faith strengthening and soul nurturing to spend time in places and churches that hold very few of these markers, at least not consistently. I sought these places and churches out, after an adolescence and young adulthood lived around the life cycles and rhythms of ‘sexy church’ that eventually promised very little radicality when it came to structure and theology. I remain incredibly cynical when it comes to churches trying to be relevant via image and appearance, despite the significance of branding to my twenty first century heart.
For a while then, my measurements of authentic and meaningful church became about outreach, community engagement and what social justice movements they were a part of or even leading, the ways that they were radically engaged with the most marginalized in society. But I journeyed into understanding how oppressive these outreach models could be in terms of othering. How they carried an agenda, how they operated from a place of privilege and how they often sought to serve themselves, give themselves strokes and didn’t really learn anything or ask difficult questions of themselves structurally and institutionally. I found that common church-led social justice followed traditionally conservative models, that operated out of power bases and change making was not really explored in terms of upside down development and transformation, more in terms of reactive sticking plaster applying change surviving and power holdings.
In recent years, I’ve had a very loose commitment with church attendance, but I’ve been there irregularly. There’s what I like to call, very affectionately yet seriously, a ‘rubbish’ church that I’m connected to near my house. A small amount of people go, they’re random and diverse in many ways, there’s nothing about the structure, sermons or readings or music that has any wow factor. They are thoughtful, prayerful, heartfelt and time considered of course, but often random. I like this in the spirit of Annie Dillard’s sentiments and in my seeking a space that has no great sense of itself in terms of image or branding. What it attempts is to celebrate diversity, family and welcome. It fails all the time at this – and I like that too – as well as this causing me great pain. There’s nowhere else I’d attend church. It’s imperfect and ‘rubbish’ enough for me.
Why enough? Because in the years of dismantling and disentangling myself from faith, theology and church stuff that has been unhelpful, oppressive and limiting I’ve stuck with a couple of things:
I value the tradition of church, not the institution. And I affirm, seek and pursue the sacred.
In the spirit of holding onto some ‘last best words’ I like what a sense of the ‘divine’ and the ‘sacred’ holds in terms of the potential for mystical, spiritual and theological discovery and recovery – what is incarnated and embodied within ourselves and God.
I am deeply and profoundly conscious that Christianity, Western Christianity, Protestant, Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity is the story that I’ve found myself in. I’m climbing out of and trying to shake off that story and legacy as well as trying to hold the treasure in the embers and the ashes that is about connecting me to the divine. In the same way that my brothers and sisters in other faiths and cultures are trying to do the same.
An irregular showing up at church feels like making an effort in a clumsy and ill fitting moment to gather with other people, attempting to align attitudes and actions to the sacred and attempting to recover and inhabit the sacred, both in the moment but also by standing in the tradition that has sustained and nurtured our communities and ancestors before us.
My ‘tradition’ isn’t that ancient. It isn’t full of many beautiful or evocative words. It has no beautiful stained glass or soaring hymns (a few, but not many you’d hear much). It doesn’t often lift a soul to a place of religious ecstasy or invoke spiritual enlightenment via intoned rhythms and rituals. It is clunky music, poor singing, tea and coffee efforts, warm, enthusiastic conversation, an odd cocktail of people, awkward small group discussions and persistent failure and sadness as well as real moments of joy and connection. But to go and seek all those other more desirable qualities in other spaces and ‘traditions’ and totally abandon my ‘tradition’ would feel pretentious and false and as consumptive as the rest of my consumer choices that I try to examine and challenge.
I’ve a token investment in valuing what I’ve invested in ‘church’ more significantly in the past. I think for now my irregular attendance is like a ritual reminding myself about the efforts we inhibited and disconnected humans make to reach God and each other. Showing up is a bit about staring at old hope and experiencing new hope at the same time. Perhaps attending church irregularly for me is a little bit like visiting a memorial, a memorial to human and divine effort and failure.
My investment is virtually gone, and there’s been a real grief story attached to accepting that, but I’d be hard persuaded these days to commit or participate to anything that most contemporary church models try to deliver. But I’ll be writing next about what good gifts my faith and church community experiences have given me and linking to some other helpful writing about church for folk in similar positions/perspectives and that’s important for me to do.
If you liked this you might like: From Zeal to Mundanity to Eternity (Perhaps)