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The point of no return?

by
04 September 2020

Ted Harrison finds that broken habits are not so easily reinstated

Jan Halaska/Alamy

AS CHURCHES open again for Sunday worship, I am seriously asking myself the question: will I want to return? Having policed the lockdown with dedicated thoroughness, the church authorities continue in the same vein, and have issued a raft of instructions on how to restart worship and stay Covid-safe. Members of congregations have to keep their social distance. There is unlikely to be communal singing, holy communion is dispensed with clinical distancing, and prayer will be offered through face masks.

Returning to things as they were is not an option, and, inevitably, when services recommence, the whole atmosphere of worship is very different. But that is not the reason that I am asking: will I want to return?

For my entire life, Sunday worship has been an established and unquestioned fixture. I have now not attended a church service for half a year. I have attempted to participate in online worship, but find it technically challenging and spiritually barren. I have listened to the BBC’s archive recordings of Choral Evensong, and watched teleservices led by lone clergy figures in empty churches with music from vintage editions of Songs of Praise. I cannot get over feeling that all of these virtual substitutes fall far short of the real thing.

So, I now find myself in the position of having been unchurched for longer than at any other time in my life — including the time when I first left home to go to university, and felt released, at last, from the restraints of growing up in a vicarage. But, even then, I found myself inextricably drawn back into the church fold, as my horizons were expanded by reading John Robinson’s Honest to God, and I discovered new and exciting ways of thinking about God

Over 50 years, my churchgoing has seldom lagged — that is, until now. And I am finding, to my surprise, that I now no longer miss my familiar Sunday mornings. I am even beginning to feel that I don’t want to return to my old Sunday routine. I have gone so far as to wonder if I might have kicked the worship habit.

 

SOME people might deduce that, if I am so little bothered, perhaps my faith was not very deep in the first place. Yet curiously, if anything, my faith has deepened over the lockdown period. If faith is defined as trusting in God rather than simply “believing” in a creed, I can say that my faith is now more secure than it was.

This year, I have taken a walk along the same country lane from my home to the local churchyard and back almost every day since March. Over that time, I have seen the whole scene change. I have watched the leaves develop on the trees, the spring flowers bloom, the lambs in the fields grow and fatten, and now I am eating blackberries from the hedgerows and trying to catch falling leaves.

In other words, I have watched God at work in a way that I have never previously had time to do. The playing out of the cycle of life and creation, in full view and slow motion, has provided me with a renewed sense of tranquillity, such that my trust in God has strengthened. And, without being directed and constrained by the church calendar — Good Friday, Easter, the Ascension, Whitsun, in unrelenting order — I have developed a more complete and holistic image of Christ. And all this without going to church, hearing a sermon, or receiving the sacrament.

I suspect that I am not alone in having these thoughts. If that is the case, and I am one of hundreds or thousands of people in a similar frame of mind, the long-term implications for the Church are huge. Time will tell; and if, by this time next year, most churches are recording a substantial drop in attendance, difficult questions about the purpose of collective worship will have to be addressed.

I suspect that I will creep back to my old ways. It will just take a taste of what I once thought that I depended on to entice me back. But it may be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. I will, perhaps, no longer be a regular but, rather, an occasional worshipper. I will still find that I draw much inspiration, joy, and comfort from the sound of a cathedral choir, or saying evensong in a small country church. But I will have confirmed to myself that God is bigger than the Sunday-morning Anglican version.

 

Ted Harrison is a journalist and artist.

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