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Contemplating the role of the Church today

Posted on December 7th, 2016


Three things have happened this week that have led me to pause and think very seriously about my relationship with ‘Church’ in all its dimensions, and some of these thoughts may resonate with you. Please do comment with any reflections you have on these points. I hope this doesn’t read too much like a diary but rather allows space to think about some of the issues the modern church is facing.

On Sunday I was asked to bring my guitar along to my parish church’s communion service to lead the ever beautiful Taizé chant, Adoramus Te Domine. As always, I was humbled to find so many people I hadn’t spoken to before approaching me and wanting to talk about the chant. The power of the prayerful songs from the wonderful village of Taizé!  If you haven’t heard it, here is one recording of it.

I was asked by some of these people why they hadn’t seen me at church very often on a Sunday morning, and at last I felt I could answer that question. So often when I talk about why I sing or how I experience God I begin by talking about visiting Taizé when I was 17, and it’s because it unlocked something inside me. The simplicity of the worship, the absence of any sermon or preaching during the services, the ecumenical welcome of the community and the repetition of such beautiful words all combined to melt my heart and help me to experience God in a new way for the first time in my life. The sad realisation I had when I was talking with members of the congregation after the service this week was that the normal format of worship at church almost always leaves me feeling nothing; no closeness to God, no desire to contemplate the meaning of the scriptures, no eagerness to return. In the most extreme terms, Taizé allowed my faith to flow and most church services make me feel stifled.

This has been a devastating realisation for me to process this week, and one that I have ignored for a long time. I can remember going along to a Taizé service with one of the brothers from the community 8 or 9 years ago here in England. I spoke with him afterwards about not feeling like I fitted in with any churches I went to and I was shocked by the vehement response I got: you must be part of a church was the message. For a long, long time I have carried this with me, feeling almost like an impostor when I have felt called to attend church and feeling thoroughly out of place when chatting to the people I’ve met there. More often than not, though, I have stayed away.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I have been to church and loved every moment of it. For example, I will never forget going along to midnight mass on my own when I was around 19 years old and having an immensely powerful experience. I had never been to that particular church before as I didn’t live in the parish, and I didn’t know anyone there. We shared communion and there was exactly enough space around the altar for every person to kneel simultaneously. When the priest said the words “we are one body because we all share in one bread” I felt totally connected to the other people I was kneeling with, more intensely than I have ever felt connected to anyone. In that moment, I felt as if we really were one body, joined by the power of our faith and the power of God’s love. It was an awesome moment, in the true sense of the word. The pattern of worship is so full of symbolism and meaning, and on that occasion this was crystal clear to me.

And yet I have never felt at home at a church. Since October I’ve been attending a course at my local church for people wanting to build their relationship with God and the Church, which has been very interesting in many ways. Last night was the final session and there was a period of reflection where our priest asked us to discuss the impact the course had had on our faith. The content of the course had not made any positive impact on me, but the sense of community had. I was able to share with the group my fear of being an outsider and not being able to benefit from the positive relationships that can be built from a foundation of faith. I almost wish I had never studied religion and theology at university, or that I hadn’t taught RE, because so many of the topics we had discussed were second nature to me. How to have meaningful conversations without reverting to being a teacher is something I still need to work on! I found myself wanting to share all those videos and quotes and books and prayers that go around my head with them, but being terribly afraid of taking over and dominating the group, and also of sharing too much and challenging some of the conventions of the church. When my students used to ask me if I was a Christian or if I believed in God I would sometimes answer, “what I believe is much too complicated to talk about now”, which is the most truthful answer I could give!

So here is my paradox: I love God, I have met with God and I long to worship God. The only way that I have ever connected with the unconditional, all-consuming love of God is when I sing songs to celebrate the Lord, which is why I recorded my CDs and why I give held concerts: I want to share this pure, unadulterated joy with others in the only way I know how. But although I have tried, I haven’t found a way to become part of the Christian family in the way that many people have been able, leaving me often alone and without friends who can understand this part of me.

But I can’t be the only person feeling like this! Today I read the news headline “Where is the world’s most ‘godless’ city?”, which actually posed some interesting questions despite the extreme title. It’s no secret that church attendance is falling all the time and as I know all too well from my RE teaching days, there’s a stigma attached to declaring you have a faith in God in many circles today. And yet at the same time ‘mindfulness’ is now a word people around the world are familiar with, ‘spiritual’ is a comfortable label for some who do not identify with organised religion, and more than 80% of the world is believed to be religious by many sources. How can these things all fit together to give a clear picture of the state of faith in our world?

How many people attend church (or other places of worship) because they relish the worship, and how many attend for other reasons? Is one motive any better than another? I can’t say I think it would be, because to me God is beyond all human understanding and however someone finds the love of God, I can’t see it being better or worse than someone else’s method! And equally, how many people are drawn to religion as an expression of their relationship with God but find that it isn’t compatible with their lives or feelings or beliefs? Could it be that in the modern world, where we can have endless choices in some aspects of our lives, that a whole body of people are missing out on the benefits of a faith community because that community doesn’t fit with them? And what of those people who love the pattern of worship they find in church every week? How can the Church reconcile their needs with the needs of other seekers, who they want to draw in and encourage to grow in the love of God?

I have always believed that God speaks to us in our own way, and it is for us to approach God on our own terms when we are ready and willing to embrace a relationship with faith. Yet I think we are suffering as a society because where the Church has traditionally given care and support, many are now turning to an overburdened NHS for help or experiencing loneliness, fear and depression alone. A friend of mine is a GP and planted this idea in my mind, giving the example of a bereavement. Where someone may have been supported by the Church both in pastoral care and in prayer, many people now turn to their doctor for support because they don’t know where else to turn. I really believe that the Church has an immensely important role to play today, as always, and a part of me wishes I could be part of it. But I also feel it is not the right place for me to develop my faith.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of these questions, but it is something I will be praying about for some time, because fundamentally, I can sing with all my heart Adoramus te Domine with the congregation of my parish church and feel totally at peace.