In the run-up to Christmas there were all sorts of claims and articles circulating on Twitter about church. This is nothing new, Christian Twitter is like this all year-round, but triumphalism and tetchiness peak when fuelled by Advent calendar chocolate or from the satisfaction of saying ‘Advent is penitential’ ad infinitum. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Christians should be passionate about church! We should be concerned with where church attendance is declining and excited about where there has been growth and where the Spirit is moving and leading (and shaking for those of us who are charismatics).
Amidst all this was lots of discussion about choral evensong and no-strings-attached church. In an article for the Church Times, Angela Tilby writes of evensong-attendees:
They are often people who like to attend church on their own. They don’t want to be jollied along, made to shake awkward hands with their neighbours, or sway their bodies or clap their hands. They are not looking for sermons or for instruction in the Christian faith. They come for God, I think, relieved that no one is going to get at them. The music is important, of course, but so is what the rhythm of speech and music does for them: that slowing of the heart rate and breathing, the quietening of the mind, the sense of space and mystery and presence.
Her conclusion I like; the slowing and the quietening are underrated facets of worship across the ecclesial spectrum. Whether we emphasise music or preaching or communal liturgy, the silence to encounter the great I Am is so often pushed out at the expense of doing things, rather than just being before God. Yet, there is something I find troubling in Tilby’s words here and in much of the ensuing discussion of both this article and many of the others circling around in recent weeks. Because, actually, church should be about someone coming to get at you. They come to love you and then know you – really know you – and love you even more. They come to get you into the family.
Church is a contact sport.
That person who squeezes your hand slightly too hard during the peace is the person who will hold you together when your life falls apart. The person who always has a face like thunder has a face more radiant than sunshine when a small person makes a break from their parents and scurries up to the front to cause mayhem. To be a church family is to show one another the ugliest parts of your soul, deliberately and accidentally, and for them to treat you like they have only seen your most beautiful parts. To be a church family is to journey with the person whose winter seems to last for an age and to still be with them, even when the first spring leaves begin to appear.
To treat church like a solitary endeavour, to view attendance as something done in a vacuum, is to miss, I think, the whole point of church: that we do it together. Because silence and space are great, they are undeniably profound conduits of divine encounter. But God’s greatest creation, his children, are perhaps the most extraordinary way he makes himself real. Love, sacrifice, service, mercy, forgiveness, grace, joy, grief – human beings give and attend to all those, however imperfectly.
Obviously there is the need to be sensitive and not over-burden people. There is such a thing as too much church involvement, which I learnt a few weeks before Lent when an email came through from the Parish Office asking if I’d lead one of the discussion groups for the Lent Course and my response was to burst into tears. (The irony now is the ongoing “discussion” between me and my DDO over dropping my church involvement as the bomb of ordination training disrupts my life and I melodramatically proclaim things like ‘but no-one will love my teenagers as much as I do!’ and ‘theological college is inherently infantilising!’ One of those things is obviously not true. One of those things is up for debate).
And I get wanting to be left alone! I spent the first few months at my church leaving as soon as the service had ended. But it’s like learning to drive, isn’t it? You’re so conscious of exactly what your hands and feet need to do to change gear that you think it’s never going to be easy, and then one day you’re driving along and think ‘oh, this is normal now.’ One Sunday thinking ‘oh, this is home now.’
And I really am sold on silence and space! A year in God’s time absolutely sold me on those things! But church has to be a contact sport. There’s a song in the musical ‘Hamilton’ with a repeated lyric to the eponymous hero, ‘why do you write like you’re running out of time?’ I wish the question all non-Christians asked of those who know Jesus is ‘why do you love like you’re running out of time?’ We should be promiscuously benevolent, love with a reckless abandon, pursue the known-ness of ourselves and others, that is love like that Love which opened his arms on the cross and which he will close around us in embrace on that last day. That’s why we hold each other, it’s a foretaste of what is to come.
In the genuine known-ness of ourselves and others, there is such joy and such sweet freedom! Yes, there are sacrifices and risks, such as the risk my vicar took in the game of Russian roulette between my mascara and her surplice after the Christmas Eve service. But it really is the greatest gift both to give and to receive. And not being known is killing our society. Society’s diet of pluralistic spiritualities contributes to the side effect of crushing loneliness all sectors of our society are experiencing. The government has created a minister for loneliness but it is our churches which have the cure.
Church is not about being forced to clap and sway, pretending to be happy, enthusiastically engaging in audience participation. Rather, it is about being truly known and being loved for being fully yourself. Space and silence are meaningless when not contained with an impregnable love.
Church is a contact sport. We’ll get it wrong but often we’ll get it so right. Come and seek God, in the silence and the space, in the noise and the person who shakes your hand slightly too tight. Come and be known, truly known, and loved all the more for it. Come and when you’re ready, why not get your hands dirty. Come, God is waiting for you and he’s got a whole for family for you, inside.