I recently had the privilege of living in London for an idyllic summer month. It was with some ambivalence that I attended some local parish churches for Sunday morning communion. I had seen enough of the magnificence of Anglicanism on earlier trips with orchestral mass at St Paul’s or evensong at the Abbey. I found myself anxious nonetheless about stepping into a community of worshippers that was not familiar, was not mine, even though the theory of Establishment means the local parish is open to all.
What I found was exceptionally ordinary; small but diverse congregations, priests whose good cheer was in inverse proportions to the number of congregants, grand old buildings that were out of all proportion to their contemporary use.
Each Sunday was straight out of an episode of Rev. There was the ancient lay reader, the environmentally conscious churchwarden, the intercessor self-cast in the role of vicar’s pet, the worshipper who wanted to be left alone at all costs, the couple who tidied up compulsively, the haughty server who was the only one who knew how liturgy really worked. In one case, there was a stunning choir of just four young voices who surely wondered why they were being paid to sing renaissance masses to God on behalf of a congregation of thirty.
Each Sunday I struggled to go. My excuses were myriad: these were not my communities; worship felt like hard work; I didn’t want to be the constant stranger; I didn’t want to be looked on hopefully as a future parishioner; I wanted to sing the bass line to the hymns and not stand out; when I say “holy” I say “wholly”, not “hoe-ly”, and in England you can hear it a mile away.
And yet, each Sunday morning, wondering what future there was for these struggling congregations, wanting to help that couple clear the space of the detritus of centuries, trying to discern the love of God and love of neighbour, I found myself in tears as the gospel light dawned, as the truth was glimpsed, as heaven and earth met together.
These were utterly unanticipated moments of ecstasy, in which priest and people were transformed in all humility into the image of what God calls us to be.
Gradually I realised the reason I found it so difficult to go was the revelation that this ecstasy, this divine communion, happens not because of deep roots in a particular community, or a worshipper’s strong ego or profound faith, or a priest’s guru-like capacity to inspire devotion, but solely because of the miracle of grace that God gives wherever two or three are gathered, even where they are strangers.
Some would explain away such ecstasy as a psychological response to natural phenomena, others would suggest it is unimportant because it is the intellectual assent to the precepts of scripture and the magisterium of the church that matters.
Such explanations miss the point. After all the experience of ecstasy is not something to be desired in and of itself. It is too exhausting, too challenging, even too embarrassing. In her novel Cousins (1983, p. 82), the late Monica Furlong wrote of her character Laura’s struggle with artistic creation:
A deep boredom had settled upon me as it always did towards the end of any major piece of work, just before the final burst of energy and enthusiasm and the delight of finishing. I had mentioned this once to a fellow-sculptor who had said, in the most matter-of-fact way “It’s to save yourself from the ecstasy, isn’t it?”
Laura and her fellow artists could not live with ecstasy all the time. Boredom – discipline? – is necessary not to prepare for, but to avoid the gut-wrenching, heart-rending experience which human beings cannot endure.
Furlong’s words remind me of the habit my parish seems to have of putting me down on the intercessor’s roster on Pentecost. In accepting this responsibility, I wrestle with my desire to avoid as far as possible using the words “Come, Holy Spirit”. For what if the Holy Spirit actually came? Anything could happen! And how could we ever endure that moment of ecstasy, of divine union, of complete transformation?
The truth is that this ecstasy is unavoidable, on ordinary Sunday mornings in ordinary communities, when the church does what it has always done in response to the command to remember the one who saves us. The Holy Spirit does come; the good news is proclaimed; and we are offered a glimpse of what truly is.
And this is why it is hard to go to church.