The faithful worshipper

by
12 February 2008

Cally Hammond reflects on regularity in church attendance

Sunday: a day for shopping? This temptation didn’t exist in 1948TIM STRATFORD

Sunday: a day for shopping? This temptation didn’t exist in 1948TIM STRATFORD

This series for Lent looks at what the Church of England expects of its lay members (Faith, 8 February). It starts out from the six rules drawn up by a committee of the Church Assembly (precursor of the General Synod) 60 years ago, and asks how they challenge us today.

In the second of the series, we look at:

2. To attend public worship at least once on Sunday and on holy days (especially upon Christmas Day, Epiphany, Annunciation, Ascension Day, All Saints’ Day), and upon Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

EVERY Christian person should “attend public worship at least once on Sunday”. Since that advice was written, the goalposts have not so much been moved as dismantled, and the match abandoned. Sunday is not now a day when there is nothing else to do but go to church.

This series for Lent looks at what the Church of England expects of its lay members (Faith, 8 February). It starts out from the six rules drawn up by a committee of the Church Assembly (precursor of the General Synod) 60 years ago, and asks how they challenge us today.

2. To attend public worship at least once on Sunday and on holy days (especially upon Christmas Day, Epiphany, Annunciation, Ascension Day, All Saints’ Day), and upon Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

EVERY Christian person should “attend public worship at least once on Sunday”. Since that advice was written, the goalposts have not so much been moved as dismantled, and the match abandoned. Sunday is not now a day when there is nothing else to do but go to church.

That makes it harder for would-be worshippers to choose the right. It isn’t church or nothing, but church or shopping/football/TV/and so on. It also makes it harder for people who are employed to work on Sundays, who cannot come to church even if they want to.

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Many churches make an effort to be flexible in their outreach to those who cannot come on Sundays, with midweek services instead. Sometimes children’s work happens midweek instead of at Sunday school. Though we are not yet ready to abandon the expectation that Sunday is a day for rest and worship, only a month ago I heard a priest in Cambridge wish his congregation well, when they left church on Sunday morning, to go and “enjoy their shopping”.

Perhaps as long as we have been to church, we can now do what we like on a Sunday? If so, here is a huge shift in custom and expectation. As for going “<i>at least</i> once”, how many Christians go to church more than once on a Sunday now? Few, except for those with multiple jobs to do — churchwardens and organists, and, of course, the exhausted country clergy tearing round six churches in a day.

I once took the funeral of a woman who lived near one of my churches, but whose favourite Sunday-morning activity, by her own proud declaration, was leaning over the fence “to watch the hypocrites coming to church”. And that is the persistent stereotype, insisted upon by those who claim (how often we hear this) that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. In fact, church is full of people with sense and honesty enough to know that they need God’s healing.

These days, almost no one goes to church because they “ought” to. I think that counts as progress. The Church’s job is to set before us the gospel ideal of godly living. The job of the individual Christians and communities is to listen to that advice, and decide how to make it real. Listening to God has to mean listening to the Church, through which God reveals himself. And how are we supposed to do that, except by turning up?

Sixty years ago, it was set down in the Church Assembly committee’s rule that everyone should attend public worship not only on Sundays but on holy days as well, in particular Christmas Day, Epiphany, Lady Day, Ascension Day, and All Saints’. If that was hard to bring about then, it is still harder now. The Church itself has caved in to the conveniences of calendar and schedule, and allows Epiphany and All Saints’ to be kept on the nearest Sunday.

These fixed observances give way to the calendar pattern, and to the convenience of such habits of worship as still persist: they no longer always demand that people move out of their comfort zones of weekly custom to mark the great feasts. Neither the Ascension nor the Annunciation has the power any longer to fill most churches in the middle of the week.

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus once created a mad quiz show called Spot the Brain Cell, billed as “30 minutes of cheerful ritual humiliation of the old and greedy”. (Who would have thought 1970s Pythonism would turn out to be prophetic of modern TV culture?) In it, the quiz host introduced a contestant, Mrs Scum, played by Terry Jones, who specialised in Python ratbags.

She announced herself with words intended to sum up her character and make some claim to respectability, namely: “I go to church regularly” (you have to imagine Terry Jones’s ratbag voice). The stereotype, though, was soon overturned: Mrs Scum turned out to be very much part of that mad world by declaring that the prize she wanted to win was “the blow on the head”.

To “go to church regularly” was once a badge of social conformity, and a claim to the moral high ground. It put you in company with respectable elderly ladies. But the example of Mrs Scum encapsulates how even then the ground was shifting, as apparent normality turned out to be something else.

Going to church regularly was becoming an oddity, the exception, not the default — more likely to evoke caution and withdrawal in others than to be accepted as normal. Surely in our time the effort to go to church regularly, in a culture so indifferent and even hostile, will one day have its reward.

I cannot see a problem with rule number two being as worth while now as it ever was. The only problem with such a rule is that it could obscure the truth that going to church should be a privilege and a pleasure. Being with God, in the presence of our fellow-Christians: we should not need further incentives.

The lady who liked to “watch the hypocrites” gave a substantial amount of money to the church when she died. She is one of the people for whom the closing petitions of the Common Worship Litany are so apt, as we are bidden to pray for those who have confessed the faith, and those whose faith is known to God alone. I do indeed “go to church regularly”. Yet I hope my Master has plenty of room for those who don’t, and won’t, and can’t.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

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