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No action songs, please: there are adults present

02 November 2018

Services that infantilise are counter-productive, says Ines Hands

I WENT to church recently for the first time in several months. Dry spells of non-attendance are common with me. Attempts to engage, integrate, and make a commitment are thwarted by disappointments, disillusionments, and disenchantment. This last dry spell was, as ever, unintentional; but I had seen it coming. Many times in the previous months I had left church not uplifted but frustrated. I really did want to attend consistently. This was the church I had been married in only a few months previously — we had chosen it because it was local, lively, Anglican, and, in so many ways, familiar.

I am, you see, a vicarage child — or, rather, I was, until I wasn’t any more, and, since both my parents are graduates in theology and, in remarkably different ways, ecumenical, I have been round the block of Christian denominations. At various times, I have worshipped in straight-up Anglican churches, Evangelical Anglican churches, Roman Catholic churches, congregational chapels with conservative and Charismatic Evangelicals, even with Charismatic Catholics.

The only main denomination I seem not to have had any sustained affiliation with is the Eastern Orthodox Church, although I did have the privilege of attending the eucharist at one such church in France, and once participated in a glorious resurrection service with Eastern Rite Catholic nuns, also in France. Ultimately, though, I have always come home to the Anglican Church. I chose to marry in an Anglican church, and it was of the greatest importance to me that the officiating vicar should be a personal friend.

WHENCE, then, my recent dissatisfaction? Action songs. Every Sunday, without fail, we, an adult congregation, are obliged to make infantile gestures to songs written for five-year-olds, and look generally idiotic after the children have gone to their groups. Every Sunday, I feel my insides shrivelling up from embarrassment, and wait for it to be over. I look around, and I sense that others share my discomfort.

This is not the only way in which worship, in my opinion, has been infantilised. It has actually been several years since I could go to church expecting to be treated as an adult. The tone of so many sermons is all but indistinguishable from an assembly in a primary school. Being asked to “respond” by writing something on a coloured-paper cutout is as predictable as it is patronising.

Most painful of all is the now not-so-recent trend for explaining each stage of the service or eucharist as it takes place. How can one possibly concentrate on the language of the liturgy and on the mystery of the incarnation when one has to listen to this metatextual drivel? Far from unveiling the mystery, as it purports to do, the commentary has become as conventional as the words of communion are themselves. The manner of celebrating the eucharist has become so debased that it is like watching an educational video in an RE lesson rather than witnessing the action actually being performed, honestly and with confidence.

The coup de grâce is the parallel distribution of biscuits to children not yet confirmed. Do we not trust the words of the eucharist, honed over centuries, to mean what they do, to communicate what, objectively, they do?

I AM fully aware that these innovations are designed to make the church inclusive and accessible to families, and to the unchurched. But I can only see that they will be counter-productive in the long run. Will newcomers stay when they realise that there isn’t anything after elementary monotony? Sunday worship in this current mode is stuck on page one of the first textbook. We go over the basics again and again and again — and it is tedious.

The Church of England has lost sight of the crucial fact that Sunday worship is the principal time for believers, for God’s people, to come together in the fullness of faith to take sustenance for the week ahead. But we, the faithful, are being denied that: we are fed a diluted version of worship that leaves us hungry and disillusioned.

How can we expect the Church to survive if priests are not feeding their sheep — their own sheep — and exhorting congregations to love one another as Christ loves them, so that they truly will be a beacon to the world outside?

This, and not childish parodies of church, are going to keep the church healthy and alive; so, please, let us have a childlike faith, but let’s be grown up about it.

The author writes under a pseudonym.

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