“One blog post a month”, she said. “It’ll be easy”, she said. Life does weird stuff, blogs get abandoned for a wee while, but it’s not for lack of trying! I thought I’d do something slightly different this time, in a number of respects, in that I’ll be using something that I wrote for a completely separate purpose, but that I wanted to share with people at large. I like to think I don’t make too much of a secret of my faith, although I’m well aware that by some standards I’m a little too private with such things for some people’s tastes. Last week, I was on a Christian sailing holiday in Norfolk called Bitternes B, an offshoot of Bitternes Afloat but for over-18s where leadership training, Christianity, sailing, and pub times all come together outside the confines of the original Easter Cruise. The theme for the week was the idea of how we see God, the world, the Church, people, ourselves, and how we can widen and improve what we see and how we react to it. I was asked to do a talk on the subject “What do you see when you look at the Church?”, a few minutes to gather some thoughts and get people ready for the discussions in Cabin Clubs afterwards. Anyone who’s ever got me onto this or any related subject will know that being given a few minutes to do this is, for me, at best a little restrictive, and I was somewhat concerned that I’d run away with myself on a few of my favourite rants. However, I think I managed not to do that too badly here, and I hope it did the job at the time. Failing that, I hope that this is of some small interest to you, even if Church/Christianity/Jesus isn’t your thing. I’m not 100% sure if this will translate perfectly into being written down, but I’d like to keep it as much the same as I can, so what you see here will be more or less what I said. Take from it what you will, but if you have comments, I would, as always love to hear them. Here goes…
“Most of us can now tack [for non-sailors, it’s basically turning a boat around, but much more complicated!] without thinking too much about it. We know what we need to do, and can describe it if asked, but we don’t have to walk it through in our heads every single time. We need to turn the boat around, so we do it.
Sometimes with Church, we do things on autopilot, without thinking. We get up on a Sunday, go to a special building, sing, pray, drink terrible coffee, catch up with people, and go home. More than that, we then get up on Monday and go about our lives without necessarily thinking about Church until the next Sunday morning. I’m not suggesting that we all do this all the time at its most extreme, but I would guess that we can all associate with this to a degree, or can identify a time in our lives when we could. What happens when we examine what we do in Church, and why we do it?
In the Church I attend most often in Oxford (as it happens, a Catholic Church [I’ll keep the name out, for the same reasons as with M’s name]), there is a lady called M [I gave her name in the talk, but I’ll keep her identity out of it for the internet]. She told me, when we met, that she goes to Mass every day if she can, and has been doing so for a number of years. The love and dedication she shows inspire me, and she way she centres her days upon this ritual is fascinating. The wonder with which she approaches the sacrificial table seems new each day, a fresh encounter with the supreme love of God that never gets old.
In this very same Church, I picked up a number of the conventions of worship and liturgy that I now know and like to practice wherever I am. For example, when the name of Jesus is mentioned, we bow our heads momentarily. During the Creed, we kneel for the passage describing the Incarnation of Christ – “Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man”. We kneel during the Eucharistic prayer, and bow lower when the words of Jesus are said – “This is my body…This is my blood”. I’ll admit, at the start, it was difficult to see the significance of this, and I honestly thought it was needless Catholic pomp, bowing and scraping for no purpose. Over the last few years, though, I’ve thought about it more and more. To bow one’s head at the name of Jesus is to venerate Him, to show that He is holy in amongst the rest of the words in the sentence. To kneel at the recounting of the Incarnation is to be once again in awe of God’s miraculous plan for our salvation – an angel, a Virgin, a baby, a stable, it’s insane and brilliant. To kneel during the Eucharistic prayer and bow at Jesus’s words is once again to humble ourselves at the memory of His love and sacrifice, to lower ourselves in the face of God’s mercy.
I appreciate that this might not be entirely what the doctrinal point of these actions is about. There are theological differences abound wherever you look, regarding the significance of the Eucharist, but in the ned, when one engages with Church personally, and thinks of this meaning and significance, it stops being automatic. We engage with God’s love by using what we are given in the liturgy, however strict or relaxed it might be, according to our preferences.
What happens when we engage with what we are given in the worldly Church? The building is one thing, but the Church in the world is also vital. By calling to mind these moments of wonder and encounter with God, people, God-through-people, ‘Church’ becomes wherever we are. When we “Go to Church”, we often go to the same building. For people like M, Church is an act, a state of mind, and something that transcends place.
To know this and to stop just going through the motions is no simple or easy task, but when we take steps towards this goal, we can allow the actions of Church and out thinking about them to become ingrained in us, and overflow beyond us so that Church becomes us and we become it.
With this in mind, let us pray together, with whatever version we know, and in whatever manner we wish. Let us not just go through the motions. Engage, encounter, pray, and hopefully we will find something new in the way we see God and His Church.