Sunday, 14 June 2015

Missing Sunday

Patterns of church going are changing. I find myself unrealistically yearning for something that seemed self evident during most of my churchgoing through the 70s 80s and 90s; that is, you went every week. It was a simple concept; the weekdays and Saturdays were for work, and play and shopping, and sport, and seeing friends, and Sundays we went to church. You expected to see the same people in church when you arrived, as were there the Sunday before, and would no doubt be there the Sunday after. It would never have occurred to us to go off anywhere else on a Sunday morning, especially not to visit grandparents, since they would be in church themselves. The whole warp and weft of life had a rhythm of sevens; these 'sevens' were embedded in the creation story and the subsequent life of Israel in Old Testament times - 6 days for work, one for rest in which you gathered to honour God, collectively.

It wasn't until I grew up, had my own family and went to live in a village that things began to get more complicated. The beauty and innate spirituality of a pretty village church tends to be negatively correlated with its functional use for young children, and so it was that we could only really cope with the village church experience once a month. But in those days (it was still the 90s) we would have considered once a month worshipping a very meagre diet, so the rest of the time we drove across town to a much larger church, whose non-aesthetically pleasing situation (beside a ring road and surrounded by a car park) was nevertheless positively correlated with splendid child care facilities. 

For some years we attended two churches. However, the time came when we felt we had to make a decision as to where our loyalties lay, church-wise. It was complicated, belonging to two fellowships. There was so much you had to keep driving to, while all the time our children were attending the village school and it seemed as though our local witness was compromised by being absent from the village while local Christians were gathering for worship. On one of our urban Sundays, with one child dropped off in the comfortable creche and the other two in the round the clock Sunday School, we entered the large church building and took our seats, pew sheet in hand. The theme was 'Belonging'. That word seemed to jump off the page and we felt that God was saying the time had come for us to fully 'belong' in the village. And so with very little notice, but with the blessing of that vicar, we threw our lot in with the pretty village church, the one with no child-care facilities/Sunday School/music written after about 1960. 

Even though it was hard going at first, we felt we were in the right place at the right time, and we felt loved. The children were still in that phase when we felt they should come with us whether they liked it or not, because we knew it was good for them, like the dentist, or a hot meal. As we stumbled out of the house on a Sunday morning, with three sometimes recalcitrant, grumpy or crying kids, carrying snacks, drinks, small metal cars and pieces of lego (and later, sheets of music and the odd guitar, because yes, we got roped in) I would sometimes ask myself wistfully why Sundays mornings, my 'day of rest', consistently seemed to be the most stressful time of the whole entire week.

All went well till around the middle of the primary school phase when we inevitably began to get swept into endless juggling of sporting commitments, birthday parties, picking up children from loud bowling alleys and general Sunday craziness. Our attendance began to be more sporadic, and sometimes one of us would arrive on time and leave before the end, or go somewhere else first and arrive late. It was stressful. Eventually it settled down and we became more able to sustain our regular gathering with the people of God. Because it matters to gather. 'Church' actually means gathering. No gathering, no church. If we don't gather, if at some point we arrive at a church-less future, it will be because not enough people could sustain the weekly gathering whilst all those who for whatever reason couldn't gather very often, or at all, were mostly doing other things on Sundays.

Of course nowadays, people gather in cafes, midweek, at Messy Church in the village hall and all manner of other Fresh Expressions/ways of being church. But I suppose it was inevitable that while I was a big fan of all this type of thing during my time as an active lay church-goer, as soon as I became a minster, I began to wonder, where will it all end, this dispersed way of being church, this never coinciding with the same people on the same Sunday, this 'haphazardness'...?

And sometimes I think we'll end up with at least a church buildings-less future, because the pace at which lives are lived, and the pressure not to let up (earning, working long hours, being busy, managing busy children) is getting worse. Cultural pressures are enormous: people are more mobile, busier and their lives more dispersed than ever. Working from home, one day feels like any other. In the summer especially, the number of things you could effectively fill up your Sunday with is eye wateringly overwhelming - driving, shopping, working, fetes, fayres, festivals, triathlons, cycle races, charity events, mini marathons, 10ks, 5ks, steam rallies, vintage car rallies, cricket, allotments, boot fairs. If a whole generation, then another, of people end up not really gathering for worship together, there will be no sustaining core, no finance and, eventually, no building.

So I feel old. I'm missing my rose tinted-spectacles-Sunday. But I guess everyone who's ever felt committed to church going has felt this about their perspective, and look: we're still here. Just. Life changes: deal with it. I do like the idea of being connected on social media but it's not the same. I know many people work on Sundays (hey, I work on Sundays); I know everyone's busy and 'family time' means sometimes not going to church because you're so pooped by the weekend that it's just one more thing. But I worry about the future. I imagine pretty (and more important, local) village churches closing. And I miss The Body, the fulness of all we could be, together. 

And Philip Larkin doesn't help.

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