On What Conditions Will I Belong?

This week, I happened to ‘google’ our web site instead of going straight there. In the same search, I came across a site that I’d known before called ‘Ship of Fools’ and, lo and behold, there was a mention of us! They have this feature called ‘Mystery Worshipper’ where someone comes to worship and, without announcing themselves, writes a ‘review’ of their experience for the ‘Ship of Fools’ web site. Wel,l it was not very complimentary. But it made me think again about belonging.

What is unavoidably true is that when people come to us, they do evaluate. Even though, deep down, I think  that what happens in Church is not what the people up the front do for the people in the pews, but what everyone in the church does ‘for God’ in response to what God has done for us, it is true that before that occurs, newcomers will evaluate us according to their criteria, just like the man from the Ship of Fools.

Some of the criteria that I have heard are these. People say that ‘They want something for their children.’ There are many people who drive past us to go to other places because of the children’s ministry there. There are some who come to us because we do not have a big children’s ministry. That is a factor in evaluation. These different kinds of expectations made me think about ‘Starbucks’ or ‘Mac Donald’s’. A lot of people go there because of the uniformity. They know what they are getting all over the world. I wonder what would happen if he Church did this: if somehow there were imposed a formula that micro-managed everything about the Church on a Sunday, so that people knew that it would be exactly the same everywhere they went? Would this be any good? Would more people come, or more people stay away?  

Another person has said ‘I came wondering if I could find a community.’ They did not know much about the liturgy or expect much from the worship, but they did want to find a community. Which they have done.

The kinds of considerations I have been musing about come under the heading of ‘What kinds of circumstances make it possible for people to belong to the Church in any given location.’

In the days when I was prouder, I remember going to St. James’ Piccadilly in London where Donald Reeves was the vicar. I so respected what he was trying to do that I said ‘Here is a place that I could belong without trying to run the show!’ That is another of the conditions of belonging. There are many places where people do say ‘I will belong here, so long as I (we) can run the show. Then, when a change of leadership happens, and the people who used to run the show turn over, the people who have this ‘condition’ for their belonging feel dis-enfranchised. This is a shame, because no one likes to have people go away, but the condition for their staying is so stringent, that there is no room for new thinking or development in the life of a congregation. We deny the incarnation because we deny the need for a continual engagement with the environment in which we ‘show forth Christ’s death until he comes’, and we deny our discipleship because we stop allowing God to transform us. It is a kind of spiritual anorexia.

There is another kind of belonging that depends on everyone agreeing. I think of the Charles Wesley hymn ‘E’en now we think and feel the same and cordially agree, concentred all on Jesus’ name, in perfect harmony.’  This was not the case with John and Charles later on, but you can see the point. We feel as though we belong when we agree with the other person. The down side of this is the implicit rule ‘Thou shalt not disagree or else thou shalt not belong.’ Or ‘If you do what I disagree with, I will not belong.’ I don’t think that this is very satisfactory. I would like to envisage a church where disagreement was built into the ‘allowed’ structures of belonging. The structures of Chaplaincy Council are the ones that the Church of England has given us as a way of managing disagreement. Everyone  is invited to make their contribution, and then to accept that not everything can be done, and to support what has been done according to the structures within which we are required to work . But even at an informal level, I would hope for the kind of love that can manage disagreement. I say ‘If you disagree, make the case!’   Charles Wesley had a big disagreement with John when John started ordaining people.Charles believed that they parted theologically, but that the love between them was still there.  
But what about this story? There is a person who comes to worship with us in Switzerland when they are visiting from the UK. They love it here. Partly because in their ‘evaluation’, I think, the way we worship suits them. But also because this person became ‘known’ here in such a way as to enable us to offer genuine ministry of welcome with a remembering of their name, a blessing of them as they went, and prayer for their relatives when they were sick and so on. Now, in their home congregation in the UK there has been a change of leadership, and they do not feel ‘at home’ in that new environment. This person who does feel at home here as a visitor, can not now feel at home, when they are ‘at home’. There is great pain when this happens, and I can feel it here too. Is there a way out for this person? Is there a way for this person to express their ‘belonging’ while feeling that they are not able to worship God in the way that the congregation now does? Once a person has done their ‘evaluation’ and come to rest in a congregation that lets them belong and worship God in ways that fit their desire, if there is change, the first responsibility of that person is to adapt to the new situation as much as they can, because of the legitimacy of the appointments process. But also it means using the covenanted forms of managing difference to ‘belong’ but yet to disagree. This means being able to do the work that involves ‘making a case’.

This situation makes the case for a variety of worship styles where possible within one congregation. It also makes the case for the main Sunday Eucharist to be relatively conservative, with opportunities on other occasions for more radical expressions of devotion and service of God. It also calls on members to be more involved than just on Sunday mornings. Belonging is not just about Sunday, although Eucharist on Sundays is important as a sign of belonging.

But there is also room to ‘move on’ in love I think. If a person is not saying ‘I belong so long as you do what I want’ then there is a place to say ‘I love you all deeply but I have to move on. I think that this could be managed publicly, so that we acknowledge that not every kind of worship is going to fit everyone’s devotion. Some differenc is too large to be namaged in one place.

This reflection has been a bit ‘rambling’ I know. The whole thinking about what constitutes ‘belonging’ has not yet crystallised for me. I’ll keep you posted!


About frpaulsblog

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