Sunday, 9 March 2014

Mass Disillusion, or, Why I (Still) Go to Church

Since I was a child, church attendance has always been a regular feature in my life. Our family was in church every Sunday, and usually several times a week. And I always enjoyed it, not simply the social aspects but the ritualistic and spiritual aspects as well. Church interested me; I felt like it nourished me; it gave me a sense of energy.

Over the past four or five years, I haven’t felt that.

Rather than gaining energy from regular church attendance, I feel like it saps it out of me. I really don’t enjoy going to church.

Well, perhaps that’s not quite the right sentiment; it’d be closer to the truth to say that I find going to church more and more difficult.

There’s been much written in the theological blogosphere about church attendance and how my generation is attending less and less. I’ve read much of it and can relate to some of it. Yet I still feel a personal disconnect from a lot of it. Many writers- as well as many of my friends- seem to be quite content to have given church the push. I don’t feel that way. I really want to go; I don’t want to stop; in fact, I’m not sure if I’d know how to stop going altogether.

Many people I know have stopped going to church for very serious reasons of feeling abused or victimized by church or churchgoers. This hasn’t been my experience, but I completely understand it. And they were right to stop.

I’m aware that most of the issues I’ve chosen to highlight here are matters of personal preference and aesthetic taste rather than many of the issues of feeling hurt or traumatized by the structures of faith practice that many others feel; what I’ve felt from church over the years has been alienation rather than abuse. But I am still aware of what many others might feel from going to church; there is a sense of ennui, disillusion, and fatigue. I often feel like it takes an enormous amount of energy for me to go to church now. And that just doesn’t seem right.

I’m part of the Catholic Church, and feel a real sense of belonging to the worldwide Church, as well as to all of the worldwide Christian faith in all its diversity. I am constantly being nourished by the lives and experiences of my Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, and non-denominational brothers and sisters, and feel deep connections with them all. But that doesn’t translate into wanting to go to church- it sometimes does, and it certainly used to, but I feel it less and less.

So what is it that makes me not want to go to church? 

I don’t get much out of the music.

I have a B.A. in Music Performance, which included four years of taking music history. That’s where I fell in love with the full corpus of western sacred music. Early Christian liturgical music, from the chants in Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and Latin through to the music of the European Renaissance, is all very precious to me. But Palestrina was who changed my life. Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 1594), wrote sacred music that sounds like this:

That type of music is called polyphony, and Palestrina was the absolute master of writing it. To me, it sounds like a long piece of beautiful, rich silk being pulled over glass spheres laid out on a perfectly smooth wooden floor. Every time I hear the ‘Kyrie’ from his ‘Missa Aeterna’ I cry. Every. Single. Time. To hear it in an actual worship setting, as I did so many times in the cavernous sanctuary of the Cathedral of St. Anne in Belfast, was such an extraordinary privilege. It ruined me for anything else.

Of course, it’s unfair to expect to hear that kind of stuff from a small choir in rural Montana, and I do appreciate their time and their effort. But the music they pick is just insipid. The ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ we sing every week is just worthless. It’s not really their fault; any and all attempts to translate and sing it in English make it (I think) incredibly awkward and clunky. And it goes on forever. And I don’t like worshipping to piano and guitar. I’d get rid of instruments altogether, but no one asks me.

I don’t get much out of the teaching.

I have a PhD in theology. That doesn’t necessarily make me smarter than our priest or other clergy that I know, but it does mean that I’ve spent a lot of time reading theological reflection that is rich, creative and incredibly rigorous. I liken it to almost a physical discipline. I’ve had to develop and exercise theological ‘muscles’ beyond what is typical- and it felt really good. Sometimes I feel like an athlete who loves to do iron man triathlons taking part in a community fun run; I do it, but it’s not pushing those theological ‘muscles’ that way they’re used to being pushed. Lots of people I know, who have studied theology on an academic level, can relate to what I’m talking about. Many have told me so.

Like what I said about music, it’s not that the teaching is bad… ok, sometimes it is. I’ve heard the biblical text abused- made to say or mean what it absolutely does not say or mean. That’s incredibly destructive to our faith and to people within it. But more often than not, I simply hear the biblical text taught from the lowest common denominator, reduced to mushy little ‘feel good’ bits. It’s often lazy and soft. Don’t get me wrong; theological reflection doesn’t need to be complicated to be good. But it does need to be nutritious and constructive. A simple truth briefly stated can stay with you all week and helps you live a more meaningful Christian life. If I get that, I’m satisfied. But I rarely do.

I don’t like ‘folksy’ clergy.

Our priest seems to believe that the more relaxed and informal a worship service is, the better. He begins every service with a run-down of the local high school and college sports news. He’ll stop in the middle of everything to relate quick, clever asides.  His homilies are a series of humourous quips. He’ll break into light banter with congregants. I find it extremely distracting. I don’t need every worship service to be grim and somber, but it should feel different from a parish congregational meeting. I came here to experience the infinite; please shut up about the football.

I don’t like assumed uniformity.

Since the Catholic Church is hierarchical and centralised, this can be a particularly Catholic issue. But across Christianity- whatever the denomination- there is often a tendency to simply assume that everyone in our denomination or congregation all agree on any number of issues. I’m not saying that everyone can or should be able to believe whatever they want to believe; but we need to realistically acknowledge that our readings of social issues, doctrine and Holy Scripture are diverse, complex and growing. And that’s a good thing! Growth and adaptation are signs of life. But believe me: issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and reproduction are spoken of from the pulpit, in the announcements, the newssheet and the website as though we are all in agreement about how these issues should be approached. For those looking for more engagement and complexity, it’s alienating.

I don’t like default prayers for the military.

This dovetails with assumed uniformity. Every week, at the end of the prayers, our priest tacks on a sentence prayer for the members of our faith community serving in the armed forces overseas, for their safety and their safe return. This isn’t in the liturgy; it’s a personal addition. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but if personal additions to the liturgy are permissible, would it be ok for me to chirp up and ask for prayers for those I know who are active peacemakers, anti-war activists, or even incarcerated war resistors? Probably not…

I don’t like sweets for kids who haven’t had their first communion.

Yep, you read that right; kids who haven’t had their first communion get to go up after communion for gummy bears and chocolate. Both of my kids are communicants, and trying to explain to them the superiority of the tasteless chip of wheat flour and water they get to the treats available to younger kids is a headache. The whole practice spreads confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of the Eucharist. Call me a grouch, but I think that it’s important to get that stuff right.

I don’t like hand motions.

Benedict XVI will be long remembered as the Pope who screwed up the Liturgy and then quit. And one of the more ridiculous things put into the new liturgy was a re-emphasis on hand motions- raising our hands at this and that, striking our breasts when we confess our sins, holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer… None of this was a big deal in the working class parishes in North and West Belfast; Irish Catholics just looked at all that and unconsciously let out a small, disparaging laugh that said, ‘well, bollocks to that’ and went on as normal. But Holy God, American Catholics do love their hand motions. I don’t. So there’s me at Mass in rural Montana in an Antrim GAA top with my hands in my hoodie pockets, thinking it all feels incredibly silly. Sorry.  

I don’t like passing the peace. 

Again, this was less of a problem in Ireland, where you quickly make eye contact, take the person’s hand and say ‘peace’. Do that with the three or four closest people around you and you’re done. Here?  Well, first, stand around and wait for the married couples around you to finish their long, lingering embraces. Then wait for them to do that with each of their four children. In the meantime, some people have started to mill around the sanctuary finding people they know to greet. The whole thing quickly becomes a refreshments time with no refreshments. And who needs that?

I don't like the applause.

There is a talented violin player who plays in our worship times, and quite often he  plays in the interlude after communion. He's a lovely player with a rustic, western/Hispanic flavour to his playing. He fills the quiet space beautifully, until he finishes and- usually instigated by our aforementioned priest- we break out in applause for his performance. I find it very inappropriate and hugely distracting. At a wonderful moment of calm spiritual transcendence, it's  like  a  TV announcer saying 'This moment  of calm spiritual transcendence has been brought to you by...' There are about a dozen people  who help to make our worship service a meaningful time- the communion servers, the deacon, the readers, the greeters, even the people who put together the coffee and tea for after the service. None of these people gets applauded for their efforts. Either applaud everyone or don't applaud anyone. Actually, I take that back-  just don't applaud anyone... 

I don’t like flags.

This was a bigger deal when I was part of the Church of Ireland, the Anglican Communion in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Anglican churches- as well as most other churches identified as Protestant in Northern Ireland- are typically festooned with British flags and flags associated with the British military. I found it very disconcerting, like I was being forced to honour a British military and imperial history with which I did not identify and wanted no part of. Since moving away from the Church of Ireland, this issue has receded a bit for me, but I still don’t like flags- any flags- in a church sanctuary. Nope, not even the stars and stripes... Our religious faith should transcend any form of nationalism. When it doesn’t- as all the research I did during my Masters work in post-conflict reconciliation amply shows- the results can be catastrophic. When I’m in church, I want to focus fully on my faith and my spirituality. Flags never help.

So, with all of this constant, low-level irritation, why do I go? 

I think, for me, it comes down to the deep love and devotion I have for the Eucharist itself, known by many names across many traditions- the Lord’s supper, holy communion, the holy mysteries, the breaking of the bread, an t-aifreann. It is an ancient ritual, one that- beyond its spiritual and symbolic understandings- we in the Christian religion believe comes directly from Jesus himself. It is something he did and called upon us to do; to do, he said, ‘in remembrance of me’. It is a long, unbroken string dating back to- literally- the very beginning of our faith.

I’ll struggle with teaching, doctrine, music, practice and people, but all that recedes into the background for me when I am in the presence of the elements- this bread and this wine that at the same time we believe to be so much more.

This is where I meet Jesus.

It is where I touch the divine, where I feel a part of an ancient body of believers stretching from Palestine to North Africa; from Byzantium and Rome to Canterbury; From Ethiopia to Syria to Armenia; From Iona and Lindisfarne to Inishfree and Croagh Patrick; from Swiss reformers to Spanish Jesuits to French missionaries to Irish immigrants; from Catholic Workers to Mennonite pacifists; from Ignatian missionaries to Native Americans to the Flathead valley of Northwest Montana… to now.

If that connection to the Eucharist ever goes away- if that feeling of stability and connection to faith and history ever recedes- then I will indeed stop going to church.

But I don’t think it will. I honestly don’t know how it could. 2,000 years of spectacularly bloated bureaucracy, thoughtlessness, carelessness, cruelty, abuse, and just plain idiocy have never been able to completely obscure the simple faith of love of God and our neighbour...

But that’s the bottom line. 

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