Christians don’t go to church for a once in a lifetime experience but I do. I go to a different church each weekend hoping to have a spiritual epiphany or at least learn something new. My choice to visit a different church each weekend entirely misses the point that going to church is a communal ritual not an individual journey of self-discovery. Not that going to church does not help form ones identity but it is an identity that is intrinsically linked by weekly visits to a community. In earlier posts I have commented on my voyeuristic and isolationist position in relation to the congregation which has so far defined my identity throughout my blog but this week I grew indifferent (which is generally not in my personality). I don’t like being indifferent, I feel I lose my sense of self-worth. When I ask myself “Why indifference,” I naturally conclude that it was because “nothing happened,” but nothing is always something. The word nothing is merely used by people to explain that they don’t have an opinion on the something that happened. So when I say “nothing happened,” I mean that nothing changed me and therefore my feeling of nothing is ironically the presence of everything being familiar. So what nothing happened at St Pauls of West Hackney Church on Stoke Newington High Street?
Nothing took many forms. It took the form of a recognisable 1960s modest church building. Nothing was the Byzantine interior design that created an intimate forum for worship, very similar to St Paul on Bow Common and St Michaels of All Angels on Landsdown Drive. Nothing was the Christian Liturgy from the Lord’s Prayer to the the sharing of the peace finishing with Communion and final blessing. Nothing was the typical urban multicultural congregation: young families with kids playing in a crèche behind the sanctuary during the service, the older families who seemed to be missing some relatives, the single women who run the church and the elderly who fill the majority of the pews. The only oddity was a young couple who it later transpired were soon to be married confirming themselves as another cliché. All these people are not the stereotypes I described and do have unique personal stories but it is their exterior familiarity that limits my interest and that is because the service allows me to be disinterested. Engaged in a ritual rather than seeking spiritual fulfilment I fall into the routine boredom of the Eucharist. Unlike the aggressively passionate evangelicals, the institutionalised passivity in the Anglican Church leaves me to be who I am and not to be spiritually transformed or challenged. The curate, Janet Buchan’s (who conducted the service at St Michaels and All Angels in January) sermon encapsulated the modern Anglican Church message of tolerance and passivity.
The church deacon Janet Buchan was so pleasant and unassuming, tiny in size with giant smile and breathy voice which would be at home on Radio Four. Janet based her sermon around a passage taken from Mathew Chapter 13 “But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” Jesus’s parable is a clear statement on the virtues of tolerance that understands that Christians must allow other walks of life to co-exist. The final line indicates that heathen existence is not be judged by Christians on Earth but in heaven by God. Janet Buchan elaborates on the parable that despite the best intentions of certain moral crusades you can sometimes blindly cause offence. In many respects the sermon indicates the pitfalls of evangelism and religious extremism and the general notion that one should not judge as God would. The sermon was not interested in the sins outside religion but sins within religious institutions. Buchan’s thoughtful sermon indicated the Anglican Church’s highly self-conscious identity and its desire to be accepted as a modern and liberal institution.
I found the sentiments unchallenging and uninspiring as they merely replicated my own sense of morality. In this respect my feeling of nothing was agreement. The liberal plea for democratic tolerance and understanding was echoed in the pamphlet. Every word of the liturgy, every word from hymns and every word of Bible readings were included. At the back of the pamphlet was an advertisement for a Farmer’s market held in the church, public information on plans for a new Sainsbury’s shopping centre (whose mere presence was an indication of opposition) and an advertisement for a comedy fundraising event at the Bloomsbury Theatre (whose headline act Stewart Lee has been famously boycotted by the Christian Right for his comedy musical Jerry Springer The Opera back in 2006). All of these announcements at the back of the pamphlet bred familiarity and chimed with my own personal interests and therefore I felt nothing. But how has the Anglican Church become such a liberal centre of Christian philosophy in comparison to other churches I visit? My simple answer is it is due to need a need to address the rise of criticism religion has experienced by science.
Religions in recent years have taken a critical battering by science. You would think science had something better to do like find the cure for cancer, develop an infinite power resource, or feed the world but instead science seems to have retreated into kicking the morality out of religion. Below I have attached an extremely good video from the Guardian that sums up morality without God. I think the video articulates the obvious shared set of values held by most agnostics, atheists and some theists. The Anglican Church is such a liberal body and self-conscious of social developments that I am sure they will have accepted the benefits of this no god centric morality. Unlike the Catholics and Evangelical groups I expect that the Anglican Church welcomes a more plural perspective of morality and may even have been humbled by the recent developments in social science. I think the video brilliantly articulates the predicament of the liberal Anglican Church goer as they find themselves in a world dominated by scientific thought over religious scripture.
The video does have its problems. For one I reject the notion of human progress, as it creates a concept that countries are developing for the better and that the most developed societies (the UK) have utopian ideals. I accept that certain societies are victims of a lack of education and good governance but surely all societies have their benefits. To hold up a so called developed society such as the UK as the promise land is a fallacy. Ironically in its projection of a superiority complex onto the lesser developed countries the video displays how the scientific study of society replicates Christianity’s Western bias. History has shown that democracy existed long before Christianity and Ancient Greece but in tribal cultures in Asia, Africa and America. Similarly long before the homophobia of Christianity we have historical records of homosexuality existing in every continent on the planet. Also the belief that racism was prevalent in the past is a fiction, racism has developed in time through science and economics, and we have little proof of racial segregation and persecution being as common in societies until colonialism. My point is that scientific ideals risk replacing religious ideals as proponents of power in a global hierarchal system instead science should merely reveal universal morality and separate it from religion.
The other key problem with the video is its need to define scientific morality in opposition to religion and therefore it misses the non-moral benefits of church. The video indicates how morality does not need religion but it importantly does not outline why people don’t need religion. The Anglican Church should take comfort that morality can be handled by the scientists and they can focus on the pure celebration of the Holy Spirit. The belief of the unknown and the communal raising of a shared consciousness are beyond the scientific realm and it is the central reason people go to church. The Anglican Church should focus on recognising Grace, God and the glory of the unknown in our lives instead of defending itself against the modern world. If church merely replicates the morality that I and fellow agnostic/atheists share then it is being made redundant by social developments in modern society. When I go to church I don’t want to feel nothing, I want to be challenged, I wanted to be inspired, I want questions not answers and therefore I want religion not science.