Boredom, Engagement and Fear in Church

Reflection 30th October 2011

I know a funny story about our perception of the passage of time. It comes from the ‘My Word’ programme. I think it was Dennis Norden who said ‘Going to a Wagner opera is like this: you go in at 7.00 pm and three hours later look at your watch and it is a quarter to eight!”

Similar fears were held about our wedding day. It was held during the service on the Sunday after Easter. Some people, seeing the potential length of the thing were worried that it would be too long and boring. As it turned out everyone was so caught up in the day, that no one noticed how long the Eucharist went for.

On the other hand, I do know of some people whose perception of Church is governed by other issues. My friend, Martin, is a clergyman in the Evangelical Church of Germany. There they celebrate the Eucharist relatively infrequently, and the shape of it is much like the ‘Matins plus Holy Communion’ Sundays here. Their normal Sunday service is a service of hearing the Word. Anything else takes longer. He has said to me that lots of people stay away on those days because the service takes longer, and they want to get home to look after the Sunday roast.

Similarly some Brides say to me at wedding preparation “How long will it take?” They don’t say this about the reception. People sometimes say to me about funerals too “How long will it take?”

I know one particular priest who says that the Eucharist should take an hour. Everything is trimmed so that people who enter at 9.30 leave by 10.30.

So what is going on here? Three words come to me: involvement, boredom, and un- comfortableness. Let me start with the last one first. There are a number of times when it is proper that Church makes us uncomfortable. A funeral is one of these. Death is never comfortable, and many people either try to avoid this uncomfortable reality by not having a funeral at all, or try to limit the time that they have to deal with death by limiting the length of the funeral itself.

But a funeral is a piece of church that has a task to do. It takes people on a journey. It helps them, within the framework of the liturgy and the hearing of God’s promises to integrate the new fact of death into their lives. Being in Church at a funeral is a safe place to do this. So a funeral does not ‘take a certain amount of time’ but does a certain job.

At funerals, you will see another kind of un-comfortability. This kind of unease is represented by the people who hang around outside and go in only when the celebrant has gone in. There are many people who what the Church to be over quickly because of the cultural distance that there is now between what Church does, and what most people are familiar with. So there is the un-comfortability of unfamiliarity. This may make people want to shorten their experience of such a strange world. (I hope that by the way I have conducted funerals, I have helped people to feel a little less uncomfortable when they come).

The next two words form a pair. Boredom and involvement are kinds of opposites. When a person is completely absorbed by an activity, then the passage of time is not a factor. What is important is the activity.

I remember when I first began to ride my bike, I rigged up a tape recorder so that I could listen to music. I was afraid that I’d be bored. After a while, I missed not being aware of the traffic around me, and the sounds of the bike and the scenery. So I stopped listening to the tape. Later, I was speaking to someone who came at the same kind of ‘involvement’ from a Buddhist tradition. They said ‘When you ride the bike, ride the bike’ That I liked.

Boredom on the other hand, represents a state of ‘dis-engagement’. This is the Wagner opera situation. Somehow what is going on is not engaging to the people present. So their minds seek something else to occupy themselves. When one is aware of being dis engaged in one area, but unable to escape it, a person says ‘Mum…I’m bored’.

This is not such a bad thing in itself. Boredom can be very creative, because it is the tension between the current dis-engagement, and the hope for some form of engagement that drives creativity. I remember during the long school holidays saying, at the same time as being bored, ‘Mum, I want to make something!’

For me, being in Church on a Sunday morning is like riding the bike. It is a totally engaging experience. This is partly because I am responsible for how the whole thing goes, as an overall ‘performance of God’s play’. Being responsible in the liturgy is a way of being engaged. The choir, for example, is more engaged because they are more responsible: so is the intercessor and so are the readers and so are the people responsible for welcome and hospitality.

I have often heard it said too, that when the leadership of the Eucharist is shared by lay people their sense of involvement in the whole process goes up. They say ‘It is one thing to participate in the Eucharist with the book. It is another altogether to be responsible for what comes next.’

But for me too, my sense of involvement is also heightened because the drama of the liturgy takes me on the journey of entering once more into the mystery of God’s life. I do, as the beginning prayer says ‘long for Christ’. I do want to ‘know Him in the breaking of the bread’ I do give myself to the process. All these possibilities are given to me by the nature of the actions we do in Church. The difference between different people is how they want to do these actions. Children will want to experience them differently form teenagers. Young adults will want to experience them differently from older adults. This is where potential tension arises. If the dominant group in the church is the older adults, then the children may be bored. If the dominant group is the Children, then there is not going to be enough to engage the minds and hearts of adults.

But the most important thing is that everyone has the opportunity to be engaged. This means sharing. Sometimes it means sharing the same service, sometimes it means sharing the time slot, sometimes it means sharing the building for different kinds of ‘engagement’ Then ‘how lond’ church goes for will take its proper place. In the background.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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