6. Almost the Conclusion
A parishioner of the church I used to attend said to me many years ago: “I know you don’t come to church any more, but aren’t you pleased that churches still exist?” I assume he meant for the benefit of others, and of course I answered yes. Now, however, I need to qualify how I would see the role of churches in general, particularly when many atheists would deny that they have any role to play at all. In my own case, I have a love of old churches, of the great cathedrals too, particularly in my native England. Even in the former Soviet Union, a few churches were recognized as being part of Russian culture, and since the downfall of communism many of them have been restored or rebuilt.
To start with, I can hardly deny others their right to worship as they wish, often in the “faith” they have been brought up with. I may deplore the growth of fundamentalism, which I suspect is due to the fact that questioning established beliefs is profoundly uncomfortable—it is simpler not to question. Yet I obviously believe that questions lead to greater growth and understanding.
If nothing else, churches should be maintained as museums, with the enormous costs associated with their upkeep borne by tourists willing to pay a suggested fee for admission: preferably on a voluntary basis, for one would not wish to prevent anyone from entering, and some tourists may come as worshippers also. There can also be the problem of locked doors because of theft and vandalism: thus volunteers are needed at the entrance. This, though, is a comparatively minor matter.
Churches as temples.
I personally find a church a particularly appropriate “holy” place in which to pray and meditate. In the cathedrals there are usually chapels where one can escape the noise of tourists walking around or of a service in progress. In Catholic churches there are set hours for those wanting confession, so why not have a minister (or again, volunteers) to be available, certainly not to interfere but to help if anyone wishes it?—and of course they should have a knowledge of local medical, psychiatric and assistance agencies that might be contacted.
The problem of ceremonies.
Let us also be aware that there is a problem with ceremonies in general, particularly those where a certain gravity is needed. When I was in basic training in my national service, we had a parade every Monday morning for eight weeks. During it, the padre always recited a prayer for those nominally Church of England, while Catholics and “others” (including atheists) were allowed to “fall out” before we all marched off to the band playing the Royal Air Force March. It was impressive enough, but the “religious” element never failed to annoy me, for the whole parade was intended purely as a military exercise.
How, though, does one mark a special occasion such as a graduation, a wedding, or a funeral (see below)? On such occasions, there is often a “religious” element of some kind, even for a funeral “service” consisting only of reminiscences of the deceased, but held nonetheless in a chapel.
It happened while I was writing this that the royal wedding between William and Kate Middleton took place. Except for the vows, it was the traditional Anglican wedding service, expressing a viewpoint I do not agree with. I was struck, however, by the beauty of the language: of the service itself and of the Bible lessons. When read and listened to in church every week these are mostly ignored, but for a special ceremony, spoken with due seriousness, they acquired more meaning. The wedding service in Westminster Abbey was a happy compromise, and in his address the Bishop of London managed to express a wider view. It does seem that changes are coming within the church.
On the other hand, a week before the wedding was Good Friday. The radio made a great deal of it, as a holiday, rather than as a religious festival. Despite my particular views I found myself offended by the fact that every announcement was followed by some “music” that was little more than noise. Would not something more dignified, at least inspiring reflection, be more appropriate?
We might note that the church is generally uncomfortable with silence, even for the two minutes of the armistice service. People get restless, and indeed, even the church’s efforts to provide community (with people going around wishing each other “the peace of the lord,” when there is nothing peaceful about it) can lead to more of the mindless chatter with which our lives are filled. Being of a more taciturn nature, I would welcome more silent meditation, as was originally the rule in Benedictine monasteries, where only a Bible reading was permitted at mealtimes. More expressive and meaningful is a practice followed at the annual conferences of a group known as the Kingston Fellowship, where silent meditation is the last item of the day rather than being in the middle. People then depart without speaking, sometimes not until they get home, thus carrying the experience of meditation with them.
Funerals are a particularly interesting example of ceremonies that most of us are familiar with. In my own case, my fundamental beliefs are of obvious importance for how my funeral is conducted, since I obviously would not like a service that conflicts with them. At the same time I recognize that funerals are for those attending as well as myself and, with a strong belief in “God” (however I may define “him”) I have no objection to a service in a church or chapel. The traditional Anglican service, however, with its emphasis on Christ as saviour—which I don’t accept—is inappropriate. Nor should any congregation be obliged to recite the Creed (as happened at a couple of funerals I was at recently) when several amongst them, certainly, will be non-believers. A memorial service, with a few short reminiscences—and even perhaps some indication of what my beliefs are—would be my choice.
While my version of the Creed would be too controversial to be a part of the service, the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps as rewritten by myself, could be included if desired: “We glorify you as the source of everything within us and in all universes. Your kingdom is everywhere, your will and our will together create everything on this earth and in the eternal heaven. You protect us this day, accepting us as your will has made us, as we too joyfully accept all others. You do not test us beyond our strength, keeping us from what we least desire. For your kingdom, power, and glory are with us forever.”
The following could be also be included:
Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) which, with only a couple of reservations about the wording, expresses much of what I believe.
Similarly, the hymns “Oh God, our Help in Ages Past” and “Abide with me” (in this case omitting verse three with its “What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?”).
But please, no “Amazing grace,” a dirge that I thoroughly dislike as I’ve already mentioned, and no “through Jesus Christ our Lord” (or anything suggesting he was other than a most admirable man). If either of these should be included I shall personally arise and walk out!
Finally I particularly want one hymn, Lord of Creation, sung to a traditional Irish melody (Shane) that I love. This is number 634 in Ancient and Modern, but the words I prefer (and can totally agree with) are tricky to find, so I set them out below. Lord of Creation
Lord of creation, to you be all praise!Most mighty your working, most wondrous your ways!Your glory and might are beyond us to tell,And yet in the heart of the humble you dwell.
Lord of all power I give you my will,In joyful obedience your tasks to fulfil.Your bondage is freedom, your service is song,and, held in your keeping, my weakness is strong.
Lord of all wisdom, I give you my mind, rich truth that surpasses man’s knowledge to find.What eye has not seen and what ear has not heardis taught by your spirit and shines from your word.
Lord of all bounty, I give you my heart,I praise and adore you for all you impart:your love to inspire me, your counsel to guide,your presence to shield me whatever betide.
Lord of all being, I give you my all,If e’er I disown you I stumble and fall.But sworn in glad service your word to obey,I walk in your freedom to the end of the way.
This indeed provides a fitting conclusion to my fundamental beliefs.
Should I not go back to church? I do in fact miss going to church, and I sometime ask myself whether, taking account of my views as expressed above, I could not start going again, while making mental reservations about the words I say or sing, as I always used to? But within myself I resist this, precisely because it would mean going back. Much as I appreciate what is good about Christianity and Christians, I simply do not wish to be identified with them and the way that many of them think, such as expecting me to come to the same conclusions about religion as they do. Basic doctrines such as Jesus being God’s only son and redeemer of the world (related to the whole doctrine of the Trinity), not to mention “God’s” being outside myself rather than myself as “God,” are foreign to me. “Thank you, God, for helping me to understand that this problem has already been solved for me.”
What I believe.
“I believe in one ‘God,’ the source of everything within us and in all universes. And in his son Jesus, as we too are his sons. Being God’s incarnation on earth, we were born of our mothers to become human, experiencing human pain and suffering as well as the joys of life. After death we rise to experience again the presence of God, where we shall determine how we shall return to other lives as they continue in the eternal moment of now. I believe in the spirit of God within me, who speaks to me in all kinds of ways. I believe in a human community of seekers for meaning in their lives, where there are no sins but only the consequences of actions. Again, I look for release from this world and the lives to come in eternity.