Letter from the Vicar (September 2011/October 2011)
What kind of choices have you made in your life? The choice of a career, perhaps or of a partner. These are really fundamental choices, ones that have lifelong significance. Other choices are not so basic.
You choose a car or where to go on holiday, both of which I did recently. A choice of where to live can be fairly important, it may affect what friendships you establish and various important connections you may make in your life. To what extent does the matter of choice arise in relation to religion? In the past people tended to worship in their own parish or at least in the Church to which they or their family belonged. Increasingly, however, we find that those who go to Church make a conscious decision to belong to a particular type. They may choose to go to a high church, a charismatic church, an evangelical church. They may choose a church where they like the Vicar, they may like the time of the services. All sorts of reasons, some important, some trivial affect the choices people make. But what about the more fundamental matter of whether or not to go to church at all, whether to be a Christian? In some ways this is a choice fewer and fewer people make today, because going to church is simply no longer within the horizon of possibilities for many people. It’s just not one of the choices many people would consider making. Clearly this was not true in the past, and nor is it true the world over. As someone said to me when I was in America, “In Europe you’ll scarcely ever be asked ‘Do you go to Church?’, whereas in America people will be quite likely simply to say ‘Which Church do you go to?’”
There have been times in history when choosing a particular religion has been dangerous. This was certainly true in the early period of Christian history when those who chose to follow Jesus were persecuted. Jesus’ earliest followers believed that there was something so special, so unique about Jesus that it was worth facing persecution. They believed that he disclosed to them truths which are eternal. Jesus shares in the life of God in a very special way and he communicates that life to his friends. Followers of Jesus choose him because he brings God to us and us to God. As a result the first disciples were willing to surrender everything, including their lives.
The reason to follow Jesus that his early followers found so powerful remains valid for us today. The figure of Jesus Christ remains for us the bearer of eternal life and our means of relating to God in an intimate way. And we should see our discipleship as a choice for Christ. But we do not live in an age when we are challenged by persecution – it is most unlikely that we will have to give up our lives, or indeed very much at all for the sake of this choice. But there are certain basic things that discipleship today depends upon. In the Acts of the Apostles the early Christians are said to have continually worshipped together, continually been celebrating the Eucharist together; they continually were learning the faith and growing in it and continually enjoying fellowship with each other. These were the foundations of discipleship. And they still are. What is more we can put these foundations in place simply by coming together regularly Sunday by Sunday to worship. All of them are provided in the context of our weekly Sunday services. I stress regularity of attendance, because this is a vital part of putting in a firm foundation. If we are intermittent in our churchgoing, as many sadly are, we undermine the foundation of faith in ourselves, in others and in the whole worshipping community. In former days Sundays, along with greater Holy Days were called Holy Days of Obligation. In other words, we should have a sense of obligation about being in Church Sunday by Sunday. Not an external obligation enforced by a threat of punishment, but an internal obligation, the belief that through regular weekly attendance at worship we are maintaining the firm foundation that discipleship depends upon. This is the basic and irreducible minimum of being a Christian today, attendance at Church every Sunday. It is not a lot to ask or expect of ourselves. And, of course, if we really cannot get along on Sunday then let us make another day our regular weekly time of worship. If we have genuinely made a choice to be followers of Jesus Christ, then let’s see that choice through by making our weekly worship together the basis for our common life as Christians.