Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why do I go to church?

The Anglican Diocese of BC here on Vancouver Island has had published several articles on declining church attendance. I thought a few weeks ago that I would attempt to write why I keep attending. Is it inertia, fear, or ignorance on my part? Or is it knowledge and love that motivate me? I have my share of all five of these. The Anglican service I attend is one that I have known since I was 8 years old. There are a few changes but the high church has retained the Prayer Book service for the most part and we follow a full liturgical year with a complete traditional musical program. We do not sing full Gloria and Credo with orchestra but we regularly sing a Missa Brevis from some ancient (or at least wannabe ancient) composer. My parish is online here - and don't forget to browse the Sunday School blog where I record the Hebrew lessons.

So is it inertia - is it easier to keep going than to stop? There have been many forces acting against my momentum. Given the laws of motion, it is not inertia that keeps me attending church. Is it fear? Perhaps the fear that things will fall apart if I change my pattern of worship. But things fall apart anyway. Fear won't keep things up. Ignorance then - I just don't know any better. There's lots I don't know - but what is better? Would it be better to be alone rather than in community? Would it be better to be silent than sing? (Definitely sometimes! Especially some hymn books whose editors have rewritten poetry not their own. I remember a very old post of mine (2003.01) on the hymn Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness which had been rendered as Deck yourself. No one validated that translation, eh?)

I live with lots of momentum and habit, degrees of fear, and plenty of ignorance, but none of these provides reason for attending church. Is it then love or knowledge? If it were my love or my knowledge, then I could be accused of seeking power. That may be true, but surely making money would be a better way of doing this than going to church. Why support a crumbling structure with dwindling numbers?

I am looking for a reason - I know there is one but it is hard to create the space in which it can be stated. I have known many bad experiences from church. It is a wonder, given all the publicity over sex and violence in this tradition that there ever has been anyone left. Was the church only a successful power broker all this time and now it is exposed for what it is? I am no stranger to abuse. I spent 9 impressionable years at an Anglican boarding school in the years where adult misconduct was not adequately corrected. Why would I not tar the church with this experience? Actually, that is too easy. The harder thing is to note that the abusers and the violent power seekers were themselves in terrifying need and did not know the recourse that they had in the very structures which they inhabited.

Such abuse and violence was inflicted on the body of Jesus and he did not retaliate or defend himself. Within the life of Jesus, somehow the liturgy 'works'. Prayer, music, thanksgiving, confession, absolution, and Eucharist work. They create wholeness. That's not to say that there are not differences. And there are some things I think I don't like that I cannot change. That's not to say that such healing is confined to church or even as well known in the church as it should be. But these are all opportunities for love, for service, and for developing patience, and for getting to the important issues.

I have been fortunate to worship in some very beautiful liturgies with some very fine musicians and preachers.  So I think the liturgy should be done with an eye and an ear to the great tradition. It should be done well. It should be learned. It should be more complex than a human can understand with one attendance. It should be rich food and enable growth. So I teach - music and Bible. But the growth is not mine to give - nor will I necessarily see the fruit of my labours.

That points to the real reason I go to church. I did not learn Christ there as I should have, but now that I have some knowledge of Jesus, the church is the place where he is taken seriously and therefore I do not stay away. I have learned that this person who is not me has demonstrated  love for me - and therefore for others also. This human casts out fear. The relationship is close - like being married. But no one enters into this mystery by the intellect. In spite of contrary forces, I am invited to enter. So I continue to respond. It is a hearing and doing. It is because I am sought that I seek and find. It is because I am loved, that I learn to love.


rbarenblat said...

Your last paragraph resonates for me. I go to synagogue for a variety of reasons: because I find community there (sometimes), because it is good for me to pray in community and not simply alone, because Jewish tradition mandates the presence of a community (symbolized by ten adult individuals) in order to say parts of our liturgy, and because being in community reminds me of my connection with God -- which does not originate there, but being there is a good way to keep myself conscious of that connection.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thank you Rachel. I am glad to hear your words. I think the assembling together is more important than I am able to give words to by myself. It is one reason I am grateful for the tradition of the liturgy itself. And I note how rich I have found the Jewish liturgical tradition. In both cases we are in community with the past.