This blog was an experiment in keeping two separate blogs, one for ‘religious’ posts and another for everything else. I’ve decided to keep everything on my Livejournal. This blog will stay up for now, but will not be updated.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘church’ lately. I’ve had to, as I’ve been taking an introductory subject on ecclesiology, but I’ve found that this subject actually matters to me — ecclesiology is the area of theology that I have already thought about a lot, outside of study. I can understand ecclesiology more than, say, Christology, because I find it easier to deal with events and ideas in human history than abstract, undemonstrable theories. And ecclesiology matters to me because it is where (I feel) theology meets human action and relationship.
I am troubled by the attitude to church that a relative of mine demonstrates. He participates in church by singing in the choir and receiving communion, but does not attend when choir is in recess, and does not participate in any other way. His argument seemed to be that church means community, and his experience of community — of people being together — has been overwhelmingly negative, so he avoids community as much as possible. He is willing to put up with community involvement in activities that matter to him, such as cultural activities, but church does not matter that much.
I can’t address the question of the importance of faith in comparison with other areas of life, because that is so subjective. But his understanding of church and community bothers me. He sees no problem in participating in an individual, one-on-one level (with God?) — receiving the word or sacrament as a product for individual consumption. His evaluation of human society is realistic, but fatalistic — he admits that human communities are inevitably flawed and hypocritical, and that, for him, is a reason to avoid them. There is no sense that anything positive could come out of communal activity, or that one could try to improve one’s relationships.
He has also expressed the belief that Christians are supposed to be above hypocrisy, backstabbing, bitchiness, etc. — as if the sacrament of baptism permanently washes away all character flaws. This seems like an unrealistic, idealistic view of the gospel. It sets impossible standards for all people — he can never be happy with the behaviour of other people, because nobody is perfect — and there does not seem to be any room for grace or forgiveness.
I can’t expect to change anybody’s mind, but it helps to take time to try to understand this view and my reactions to it. There must be many people, both inside and outside the church, who see the church this way. Unrealistic expectations can turn people away from church, or can make church members judgemental and unforgiving. Perhaps a more realistic view comes through admission of one’s own sin, and through that, more realistic expectations of other people. The liturgical, communal confession of sin is a vital instrument for this — if people listen to what they say.
God, you have given us diverse gifts, and call us to diverse forms of ministry;
we thank you for the opportunity to meet together today to explore our vocations.
Give wisdom to the members of the interview panel and the examining chaplains,
as they decide on their recommendations to the bishops;
and give patience and calm to the candidates, as we wait for the decisions of the church.
We pray in the name of Jesus our Lord; Amen.
The interview process takes six hours (for the candidates; the selectors stayed on to make their decisions) and was thorough and exhausting. This is the culmination of at least a year of prayer, and meetings and interviews of various kinds. The four of us who were interviewed today will not be told of the outcome until at least after the end of the Lambeth Conference, as that is the priority for the bishops – we have about two months to wait. Life will have to go on in those two months.
I think I presented myself as truthfully, comprehensively and consistently as I could. There is no point in anxiously fretting or reviewing the process – what I might have missed, or said badly – all I can do is wait.
I have been Anglican for ten years and tried to ‘give something up for Lent’ for my first nine Lents. The first year, I tried not to eat meat, and although I sometimes failed to keep the discipline, after that first Lent I decided that I could live without meat. I have been vegetarian for almost ten years.
In later years, my Lenten discipline largely continued to be a diet plan in disguise. I have given up alcohol and dessert and tried to adopt a vegan diet. None of these practices has continued past Lent (sometimes they didn’t even last all of Lent). In using Lenten discipline as diet or self-improvement, I have lost sight of its spiritual focus. Lenten discipline has been described as a way of making more room for God. That won’t happen if I spend all day thinking about the chocolate or cheesecake that I’m not eating.
This Lent I’m trying to be more deliberate about making room for God. In addition to mass on Sunday and the daily offices, I’m going to try to attend weekday mass at least once a week. I’m also going to try resuming the eucharistic fast—not eating anything before the first mass of the day. The point of this is not to eat less, but to appreciate the sacrament as the first great joy of the day. Likewise, when I go to morning prayer or if I try to get to an early morning mass, I ought not to be grumbling about waking up early, but seeing prayer as the right way to start the day.
I will try to consume less alcohol, fat, sugar and so on, because there’s no harm in reducing my consumption, and Lent is no time for gluttony. But I won’t beat myself up for the occasional drink.
In the last couple of weeks I have had discussions with people (who essentially approve of the figure of Jesus) where the word ‘church’ has been used in a negative manner, in the sense of institutional or organised religion. I’ve been trying to understand why this makes me defensive about the word ‘church’. The Greek word ekklesia, which is translated as ‘church’, originally referred to the community of believers, but ‘church’ has now come to be identified with buildings and institutions. I can see why the church as an institution has a negative image, and I want to maintain or reclaim the meaning of church as community, but I couldn’t explain why.
Yesterday, while chatting with Ricky about this, I managed to say,
so (hypothetically) if I say that church is an essential part of my faith, does that make me sound like an active member of a vibrant community, or a mindless drone?
it depends on what the hearer thinks church is about
My understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus demands living and praying with others in community, and that is what ‘church’ means to me. My fear is that if ‘church’ is only understood as buildings or as worldly institutions, this older meaning will be lost. I think that is why I am so defensive about the word.
I often find December and Advent tiring and stressful. The season begins soon after my birthday, when I focus on how far I am from the person I would like to be. December in Australia brings warmer weather (which I don’t like), the jarring emphasis on ‘Christmas’ as a period of conspicuous consumption, and a sense of urgency at work, of everybody trying to finish projects before the end of the year. I spend most of December in a stew of anxiety and anger, but also make an effort to put on a happy face—and when I fail in this, I fail spectacularly.
And I forget about Jesus.
Of course I keep praying the office, going to church and hearing that we are in a season of waiting for God. But I don’t quite believe it. What if Christmas doesn’t happen this year?
But it does. Somehow I fight through the wildly fluctuating climate and the crowds of shoppers and party-goers, and arrive at the cathedral. I don’t want to be here. On Christmas Eve, more than on any other day of the year, this church in the heart of party city is filled with visitors, strangers, outsiders who do not know our ways. Outsiders: the very people for whom God came to earth in the form of a poor, dirty and hated child.
I know how the Advent story concludes—with the birth of the child Jesus—and I know how the life of Jesus concludes, too. Still, the cares of the world give me enough anxiety that, as the feast of the Nativity dawns, I am genuinely—again—surprised by the presence of God in the midst of our earthly mess. That is a fine reason to party.
The canonical hours or daily offices provide a structure for prayer throughout the day. I observe four offices throughout the day, on most days.
At least three days a week, I say morning prayer in a church near work, following the form in A Prayer Book for Australia (the Australian Anglican prayer book). Sometimes the priest is the only other person present. On other days, I say morning prayer alone, following the form in the ‘pocket’ edition of Celebrating Common Prayer, produced by the Society of St Francis.
Some office books provide a form for midday prayer, but—especially when I’m at work—at this time of day I can usually only cope with a few words and less structure. I say the Angelus followed by the Anglican rosary with the Trisagion and Jesus prayer. When I am at work (in a hospital), I go to the chapel for this, at the start of my lunch break.
Evening prayer is a fitting way to end the work day. In earlier days, when I had less regular work, I would attend choral evensong at the cathedral (using the form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) but this service starts too early for me now that I would have to rush into the city from work. Instead, I say evening prayer myself in the hospital chapel, using the form in Celebrating Common Prayer.
The day ends with compline or night prayer, again following the form in Celebrating Common Prayer.
It has taken me a few years to develop this routine. I used to complain that ‘I didn’t know how to pray.’ Somehow I had got the impression that authentic prayer had to be a spontaneous, ad lib ‘conversation with God’ that expressed my own personality and creativity. That may work for some people but it isn’t right for me. If prayer is about self-expression, then, at times when I am exhausted or miserable, I don’t try to pray—and that is when I need it most. Following a traditional form (or an adaptation of it) allows me to make room for God even if I can’t find the words for what I feel.
In my experience in Australia, only larger and more catholic parishes in Australia allow time for the daily office in the church. I started attending evensong in previous local parishes and, over time, it became a routine, as regular as mass on Sunday. And, as with mass, I learned that even if I sometimes wasn’t ‘in the mood’ for prayer, it answered a need that I couldn’t always express in words.
For a long time I couldn’t understand how the daily office could be said alone. The office books provide words that are said by the leader, and words that are said by all people. After talking to some people and lurking on message boards I learned that, yes, people do say the office alone by reading aloud to themselves. I try to say the office with others whenever possible, but I have now got used to saying it alone.