Sunday, 6 September 2009

Still searching, but I found something interesting along the way

This "finding a church" lark is feeling a bit like having cheap satnav.

Today I went again to Church-by-the-Station. I think I might be starting to lean away from there and toward Nearest Church.

If being told at intervals which paragraph of the service sheet we are on is annoying me on my second visit, it's going to annoy me a lot more after a few months.

Some people were friendly and remembered me from three weeks ago, but many didn't. Maybe there was something else going on... people didn't really seem to linger after the service.

During communion the choir sang an anthem and it was all I could do not to get up and join in. I really do need to be singing in worship, I think. And with that hymn book full of unfamiliar hymns and no copy with notation, I'm not finding that easy. But if that were the only hurdle I would just go and buy a full music copy, or arrive early enough to borrow one.

The sermon was... well, it made me think. It was outlining three things "religion" gives people, or three things God gives people, and it wasn't quite clear which was which at times. The vicar spoke of God giving us our existence, creating all the universe and beyond. He spoke of religious communities and the flawed but devoted way humans can use them as a framework for doing God's will on earth. And he spoke of God's love for humanity, so huge that He gave his Son... this is an idea that I can't quite speak of but I can sing of, I can't quite bring myself to believe the specifics but somehow I know the underlying message of love is true.

But the vicar in his sermon did come right out and say that Christianity offers something of God that other religions don't, that Christians have some sort of superior understanding of God or route to salvation and rescue not available elsewhere, and I'm not terribly cool with that, even as I feel so drawn to this faith. I'll go as far as to say Christianity offers me something I haven't found elsewhere, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist: just that I haven't been able to see it. I won't say that salvation is not universal, and that's the logical extension of the idea. I wish I could remember the wording used, maybe I am doing the vicar a disservice here. But I nearly shouted, my objection was so sharp, and some small part of me wonders what would have happened if I had.

And then it got interesting.

A bit of background...I'm not great with creeds, because some of my beliefs don't feel static to me. My belief in the existence of God is very strong, it doesn't matter whether I'm singing or speaking or writing or dancing or nearly asleep, it's just... there. But I struggle with Trinitarian doctrine, I am not convinced of the historical details, I'm not always sure what people even mean by the Holy Spirit (maybe that is what is alive in me when I sing? I hope so). So I usually say some bits of the creed and remain respectfully silent for others. In the Common Worship translation of the Nicene Creed, I usually say the first sentence, then nothing until "We believe in the Holy Spirit".

Today was a bit different. It suddenly seemed terribly important to say "through Him all things were made." So I did, loudly and clearly.

It relates back to what I wrote two weeks ago, the idea that there really isn't anywhere else to go, anyone else to turn to, that whenever we turn to the words of eternal life we are turning to Jesus whether we call it that or not, whether we understand it in that framework or not. Christianity is one framework for relating our lives to something ineffable and universal. That ineffable universal love is the only thing worth living for, but that doesn't mean Christianity is the only way to live in it.

I spent much of the rest of the service praying that the vicar might not have meant what he said, that perhaps I'd misunderstood in my usual defensive manner and really he does already know this on some level, the poor man. But I find it striking how hearing a denial of something I have come to believe made me believe it all the more fiercely, strange how being told something contrary to my strongest hopes seemed to affirm and strengthen them rather than leave them dashed to pieces on the floor.

Afterward I ended up talking to Networking Organist from Nearest Church; his wife attends Church-by-the-Station. This was a lot of talking shop, essentially. I don't want to go into a lot of detail here, but the general gist of it was this:

I need to sing in a choir, and probably to be involved with music provision on a more active level than just turning up and reading alto or tenor in rehearsals.

Nearest Church has a small struggling choir which may sink or swim; Networking Organist cannot build it up on his own. It may be a lost cause: it's a very small parish, a very small congregation, and there are no reliable strong singers. But it may have the seeds of something meaningful. Some of the congregation there sit and listen to the organ postlude, like I always do. Someone there commented on my singing voice the first time I turned up. They are actually at least trying to do some fundraising to get the organ fixed. I have asked what I can bring to the situation that might help.

Church-by-the-Station has a larger, but still small, struggling choir, and the music director (who is competent and energetic) is leaving in January for reasons which are unclear but which suggest that support for music in that congregation is lower than it might be and he is fed up. We talked about some of the politics of this, and particularly the fact that there is no talk of a sort of apprentice or shadow position for someone who would eventually replace the existing music director. That is what is needed, even if it would be unpaid. That is something I might be able to do, but I'm not yet comfortable enough at that church to volunteer to do it. I would want to have a long long chat with the existing music director, and today he had to rush off.

Both of those churches and also Long Walk Church have clergy who are nearing retirement age. In any of the three, things could change drastically in the next five years. Long Walk Church is not easy for me to get to, I want to retain some connection with them but I do not think I can commit to getting there every Sunday morning once the mornings draw in and the cold makes my joints complain more.

I can see myself getting involved in the music at Nearest Church or maybe even some sort of joint choral venture between there and Church-by-the-Station, with some guidance and support from Networking Organist and others.


Songbird said...

If you don't mind, I would like to comment on the tendency to orient the congregation to where you are in the order of service. A more experienced colleague engaged in ministry to previously unchurched people made the very good point that those of us familiar with how things go in church never stop to think about how mysterious it feels to people who haven't been habitual church attenders. He advised explaining everything, always, as an effort at inclusion. I've grappled with it, to be honest. Not knowing the orientation of Church-by-the-Station, I'm perhaps assuming something here, but is it a community in which they are reaching out to the unchurched?

Song in my Heart said...

Songbird, your comment is very welcome.

Church-by-the-Station does seem to be doing some community outreach work, and I'm aware that it is often useful to make some announcement as to what is going on when there are unchurched people present, especially in poorer areas where literacy may not be high. In most churches I have attended there is at least some indication... but at Church-by-the-Station it seems cumbersome and intrusive, patronising even.

By contrast, when I was attending synagogue services conducted entirely in Hebrew and couldn't follow the language well, if I was lost I would look at whoever was beside me and they were always happy to point out where we'd got to (except during the first repetition of the Amidah, which is done individually and silently--but that was explained to me with great sensitivity the first time I interrupted someone). In the first few months that basically meant sitting beside someone who was happy to follow along with a finger the entire time in order to show me where we were, because I couldn't follow Hebrew independently at all and had only just moved to England and so was also struggling with the accent! The only English announcements were the rabbi telling us which page the Torah portion for the week was on.

That may be a little too intimate an approach for most English churches, and I doubt many unchurched would be as inquisitive as I was in the synagogue, but I wonder if there is a middle ground, some way to make the liturgy accessible without Stopping. Before. Every. Prayer.

Rev Bosco touches on this difficulty in the "Visitors" section on this page.

Ernest said...


I find that reading your posts, especially when you struggle with stuff, is good, as questioning beliefs and understanding is ongoing, the day I stop asking how and why, is probably the day I will be in a box.

I was new to the CofE last year, having never been in one, let along being able to follow what was going on. I had been an RC some 30 years ago, but it is a long time, to be outside church and worship, so much had changed.

And of course, there are real differences between the RC and CofE, in terms of doctrine, liturgy, tradition and culture, My learning curve continues daily as I learn and grow within my community.

My first visit to my parish was by invitation - to see whether it was what I was seeking - I thank God that I had the invitation as I found a place where I feel safe, comfortable and at home.

It was gently explained to me that the printed order of service and pew sheets were there to help the whole congregation to follow worship and to participate more fully. I found it refreshing and helpful and worthwhile.

We don't have Audio Visual Aids, no microphones or loudspeakers etc, so the services are feel first person, and delivered naturally.

The only guidance given is which page the service on the main order of service will start at.

Being near Canterbury, we have lots of visitors in our services and I had noted them being welcomed and am now part of that team. The object is to introduce ourselves and briefly explain what they can expect before, during the and after the service. We provide refreshments and opportunities to meet and greet members of the community including the Priest.

it's margaret said...

God bless you for your prayers!

8thdayplanner said...

I am so enjoying your church search blogs as I am about to begin this journey myself and I share so many of your quandrys.

Reading your observations has helped me formulate questions and ideas for church assessment.

Song in my Heart said...

Ernest, thanks for sharing your perspective and how your parish welcomes people. I think this is something that will differ from place to place... and it feels like an area where the Church needs to attempt what seems impossible, to welcome everyone and alienate no-one. I don't claim to know how that is possible but we have to try.

Margaret, thank you. I'm not always sure what I'm praying for. Do I want to understand the vicar's viewpoint better or do I just want him to agree with me? If nothing else, I don't think there's much room for any kind of "my religion is truer than yours" in this society. On a purely pragmatic level the implications are messy...

8thdayplanner, I'm glad my ruminations are proving helpful to you in your own journey. I think it's often difficult for humans to see one another as beloved children of God, but I hope you find a community where people are at least trying to do so.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I'm not great with creeds, because some of my beliefs don't feel static to me.

Song, if you only knew how much company you had in the church. And with me, it has to do with how I believe. Some stories are so perfect, like the Nativity story, that if it's not true, it ought to be true. Of course, all of the details are not literally true, but I believe it because it's a lovely story.

I enjoy reading about your church search.