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Empty Church

Why Go To Church?

Empty Church

If we are to declare a positive reason for going to church, I think that the language we’ve used about ordination and Religious Life is the way we need to now speak of everyone’s participation in Christian common worship.

In my travels (around NZ), I have ended up (often after much effort trying to get correct information for where and when a service is being held) at a Sunday service with a stipended (remunerated) priest (often the youngest person present) and a congregation numbering 30-50ish people, the vast majority aged over 60 years old, with, if they are lucky, a sprinkling of younger than 60. There might be a high amount of time and energy put into preparing a powerpoint of cloud liturgy and cut and paste worship, and the experience can feel like a religious poetry recital (sung and said Greek-chorus like).

Why are these people here?! Why do they keep coming back? This isn’t some sort of rhetorical question – it would form a great doctoral study (do credit me if you do this – but someone had better get onto this quickly; these people are not going to be around a decade or two from now).

A large majority of these people grew up with the Book of Common Prayer (BCP 1662 and/or 1928). NZ Anglicanism jumped from being one of the most conservative liturgically to one of the most permissive. Communion services I’ve attended in NZ regularly have little to no verbal connection to the BCP rite (see, for example, here and here). That’s clearly NOT why they are here.

Is it habit? Guilt? Fear of hell? Community? Fellowship? The sermon? Teaching? Receiving Communion? …

As I follow online encouragement of (essentially ‘advertising’ for) people to consider ordination (priesthood) or Religious Life (monk, nun, brother, sister,…), I am increasingly seeing that the language used in such promotion is the language we need to be using to encourage people to join the common prayer of our gathered Christian community – to come to church. Furthermore, if this is going to be the language we use, we must be sure that it is/becomes the reality in our gathered community!

Promotional material for ordination and Religious Life says things like: “Do you want to be part of a community following Jesus in prayer and service?” Do you desire to live a simple life with others, living justly, caring for the marginalised…

THAT is the sort of language that I think we need to expand beyond ordination and Religious Life to the reality for ALL Christians. And we need to assure that this is the reality that people encounter when they come to church. They need to find us as a deeply prayerful community (not just a group of people reciting – and singing – nice words to each other from a pretty powerpoint presentation). They need to find us as a community that also teaches prayer, meditation, contemplation, mindfulness, the Daily Office – encouraging fullness of life better than secular wellbeing movements. They need to find in us a community that individually and corporately cares for the planet, the poor, the sick, and suffering – that strives for justice and peace.

There is some possibly-tangential Anglican precedence for this. Cranmer’s BCP aspired to having the whole of England being like a monastery, like Religious Life, like the life of good clergy. The BCP aspires, for example, to all, (not just clergy, monks, nuns, and friars), praying the Daily Office. Desert disciplines, honed in the monastic tradition, are available for all – our gathered communities of common prayer can not only be alive with the joy, meaning, vibrancy, and service that have often been associated with Religious Life and ordination – in a world wondering why meet, this can be a more positive way we can present ourselves.

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6 thoughts on “Why Go To Church?”

  1. What an interesting, exciting argument about using the language (and practice) or ordination and religious life to attract new church goers.

    I would *love* too see contemplative prayer became as essential a training as an alpha course.

    “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or they will not be at all…” (Karl Rahner).

    The history of the BCP in this regard, arguably, has both shadow and light aspects.

    The light: the distillation of monastic hours into Morning and Evening Prayer, with the hope that contemplative spirituality could be ‘deprofessionalized’ and practiced by all (is that pushing Cranmer’s intentions too far?).

    The shadow: the destruction of the monasteries (all 800) by the so-called Christian middle way.

    “A civilization that hates it’s spirituality cannot survive” (Richard Rohr).

    1. Thanks, Columba, we are exactly on the same page! I have no idea – maybe others do – if Cranmer was seeking to form contemplatives, nor do I know enough about his own spiritual depth. It’s something I should explore. And you are right: the terrible destruction of the monasteries, and the execution of many holy people is indefensible. Blessings.

  2. I guess the cleanest link between common prayer and contemplative spirituality is the daily, prayerful reading of scripture (or scripture re-arranged as a liturgy of hours) that the reformers sought to extend to everyday men, if not women.

    Modern contemplative masters like Thomas Keating ground the development of silent (contemplative) prayer in the practice of lectio divina. Slow, prayerful reading of scripture, which was traditionally reserved for monks, spontaneously tended inward past the surface or literal/historical layer, down through the moral and allegorical levels, and to a resting in the silence at the heart of the Word.

    In his ‘Homily on Scripture’, Penny Jones finds Cranmer describing something akin to lectio divina, what she paraphrases (in a rather lovely, bucolic way) as ‘chewing the cud of scripture’:

    “Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them.”

    Good guidance for enacting common prayer?


    1. Thanks SO much, Columba, for the Cranmer reference – one I was totally unaware of, and which I will most certainly explore further. For those interested in Lectio, there’s a good amount about this on this site; simply put it in the search box. Blessings.

  3. Thanks, Bosco.
    A helpful provocation which is right on target for us all… including religious, whether Catholic or Anglican. The present age is a precarious one for religious life in developed countries. Many communities are very shaky or in palliative e.g. Alton Abbey and Downside Abbey. Even the Little Brothers of Jesus and Kopua which are dear to your heart are much diminished in numbers and energy. Perhaps you have some insights or suggestions?

    1. Thanks, Greg – a great question. Perhaps Religious Life is going through a major transformation. Much originates in a nineteenth-century model. It might take some time for the Third Millennium form to arise. Blessings.

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