Letter from the Vicar (June 2011)
Why do you go to church? What is it that makes you want to be there on Sunday mornings? These are questions that I have been wondering about in recent weeks.
I think vicars may reach dangerous conclusions unless they enquire closely and reflect diligently. We might assume, wrongly I fear, that all who attend come because they have a fervent faith which is well thought out and which leads them to the inevitable conclusion that church on Sunday is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. In fact people go for a whole variety of reasons, some good, some not so good. Habit is a fairly common reason. “We always go to Church on a Sunday, it would feel strange not to.” The social dimension is very important for many - “It’s where I see all my friends.” Loyalty plays a big part - “I belong to Holy Trinity, it’s my church, that’s why I go every week.” Closely related to loyalty is a sense of duty - “I really feel that I ought to go to church each week.”
Many parents, particularly, come to church to support their children. They feel that an upbringing in the church is good for young people, that it makes for a morally better life and so they come along to encourage their offspring. Some people come solely or mainly because their partner comes. A lot of folk come, I think, because they actually like church services. They enjoy the sort of thing they find in church services, the music, the ceremony, the sense of grandeur.
Now it is an unwise priest who sniffs at any of these motives for church attendance. I happen to think all of them are fair enough. To be honest I have to admit that I sometimes wonder what exactly would get me into church every Sunday if I were not a priest. You might find that quite surprising, but priests are as liable to spiritual laziness as anyone else! Being in orders or you might even say ‘under orders’ is a powerful incentive to doing your religious duty! I have just as much inclination towards a churchless Sunday as some of you clearly do sometimes, but whereas you can just do it, for me its another matter. I remember David Hope, the former Archbishop of York, saying exactly the same thing to me a long time ago.
To the reasons for churchgoing I have suggested I would like to add another important one, which many of you, I believe, hold to be very important. For many you hope that coming to church will give you a sense of comfort and support. “I go to church”, I have often heard it said, “for peace and strength.” I know full well that many people, many of us, come to church seeking comfort. This is also a perfectly reasonable and acceptable reason for attending church, though some have challenged comfort as the sole purpose of religion. The great Cardinal Newman, for example, considered that “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night.”
What Newman was driving at is that Christianity contains challenge as well as comfort. It would, I suppose, be possible to make our religion too comfy and cosy. Perhaps some would respond to that positively. Perhaps a religion based solely on comfort would fill the pews, after all there are many broken hearts in every one. But it is my conviction that though there is a place for comfort there is also a place for challenge. The true function of a preacher is to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.
Without a doubt this seemed to be the pattern of Jesus. He did much to disturb the comfortable of his day. Equally he comforted many who were disturbed. And he gave us a powerful means of continuing his ministry of comfort, the Eucharist. We find comfort in the miraculous feeding of the Eucharist. It is a free gift to those who are spiritually thirsty or hungry. It is a symbol of God’s will to heal us and bind up our wounds.
So when we come to church Sunday by Sunday and especially when we receive communion we should expect the comfort of God. This is given through the worship. I hope it also comes through the preaching. I know that people also find it in the social interaction before and after the service which these days is such an important feature of Anglican worship in particular. But comfort for one another must continue at other times. Christians are told by Jesus to love one another. All of us from time to time need the prayer and support of our fellow Christians. It is a right and natural part of our Christian lives.
We who have been comforted have a responsibility to bring comfort to others. We are sent out from here to live out lives of care and concern. Church may be comforting but at the same time it must also inspire us to live out our Christian lives to the best of our abilities. May the comfort we receive by going to Church strengthen us to love and serve a needy world.