I came across this post in my 'drafts' folder, and had a sudden memory of a Blogger failure which prevented me from posting it. Never one to let a bit of writing slide into oblivion ...
I had cause a few days ago to think, not for the first time, about what it is that makes people go to church. I mentioned the question in a recent issue of the SEC magazine Inspires, when I wrote about a young child's reaction to services full of colour, music and exotic scents, but I'm not going to think about young children today. Indeed, when people talk about the need to have children in church, I often think rather of the need to have their parents there, especially in a town that young people tend to leave for further education and not return to until they are parents themselves. So what is it that a forty-something finds to draw them to a church? Or someone in their 50s, or a pensioner who suddenly discovers in himself a hunger to be more serious?* And what keeps them there? And why should they bother at all?
People who know me - or indeed who have read this blog over the years - know that I came to church through music. That sounds simple, but it's misleading. Music was the vehicle, yes - but I was singing the music, not listening to it. So am I still in church forty years on because of music? Not really. I am fortunate in that when I go to my own church I know that I can rely on the organist to meet my standards and supply the conditions under which worship is possible - but I'm married to him, and this isn't possible for the rest of the congregation. Not all at once anyway. I still like to sing - preferably plainsong or music of the Renaissance - but I'm not in a church choir on a regular basis. And I do not care to have to listen to a choir as part of my participation in the Eucharist - I long ago decided that the fun there is in the doing rather than the passive listening. It becomes positively painful when the choir isn't up to the music they sing, just as it is trying to have to listen to a poor organist.
So music can't be the whole story, can it? Time to stop thinking about myself, to consider the people among whom I worship and the church where I have been a member for the whole 40 years since I fell off my donkey. The institution, the people and the atmosphere have changed enormously in that time, and give me hope for the future. So what is it that trails us up that trying hill, to the not-very-easy carpark, to the church-that-could-be-warmer, at the very back of the town where it peters out into the hills?
Here's a list of attributes that I perceive as being the reason for people to come to a church - and to come back again. For a start, the atmosphere should be welcoming. Not just on the part of the official person at the door giving out the books, but of everyone else too - not intrusively, not oppressively, but welcoming so that the visitor can decide how much of herself to commit in conversation afterwards, feels able to ask questions. And it should be a safe place - safe to be sad, joyful, mad; safe to weep or to laugh; safe to ask for help. Ideally, the human nastiness that lurks in us all should be kept well out of the public arena: no bitching in the pews, no glares or sniffs because someone forgot their place in the rota or sat in the wrong seat. And there needs to be no self-importance on view - an inflated ego in the wrong place in a church setting can put the fragile enquirer right off their scone.
Do we come to church because we are always sure we shall be entertained or swayed emotionally? It might be pleasant to say 'yes' to that, but it wouldn't be true. What would be true, however, is that people come to church to be loved, loved for themselves and as themselves; that the people of God will reflect the love of the God they are there to worship; that in that setting, be it never so chilly or lacking in adornment, the combination of liturgy, music, prayerfulness and mystery will open a door to the bright places beyond. When that happens, it is no longer a question of why people come to church.
No. When that has happened, the question - one that is asked if for any reason someone is missing on a Sunday - that question will be a different one: why are they not there? Is something wrong?
And I believe I am fortunate, for after all these years in one church, I believe we are becoming that place.
*Philip Larkin: Churchgoing