Returning to Christianity (the Anglican Church) after nearly 50 years away…
How does it work to come back – what has changed? What are the benefits? What have I noticed?
I was confirmed when I was 13 and went to church and took communion regularly. I was committed. It all ended in late adolescence, when rationality kicked in and traditional faith succumbed to reason. No-one was around to help me through this particular barrier, so I left.
Over the last 20 years or so, Ken Wilber’s Integral map in particular opened my eyes to other ways of understanding traditional religion. And Thich Nhat Hanh, from his Buddhist perspective, helped me see the value of Christianity as my root spiritual tradition.
I saw that I had a fractured relationship with God. And a fractured relationship with God, I realised, was a barrier to my spiritual life – whether or not I was involved in Christianity. I spent maybe ten years gradually working through various issues that helped heal that fracture, and enable me to take the next step.
Paul R. Smith’s book ‘Integral Christianity’ was an important guide in being able to take that next step.
A couple of years ago I started attending our local Anglican church.
Here are a few points to ponder.
(NB In ‘Intimate Devotion’ below I use some Integral terms: ‘first person, second person, and third person aspects of God’. Also ‘Infinite, Intimate, and Inner God’ which are Paul Smith’s version of these terms. The context should help you understand them even if you are unfamiliar with them.)
Church is really, really good at second person God: the intimate direct personal devotional relationship with God, with Spirit. The Buddhist and Quaker practices that I have done focussed on third person (the infinite out-there nature of Spirit) and first person (I go within to discover my Buddha nature, or ‘that of God’ within). Not much on devotion, particularly in present-day Quakers.
In church, we communicate a lot directly with God. The emphasis is on love and devotion. It’s just what you do. It’s a relief and a joy to be able to do this so naturally with other people. It brings a fullness and rightness to my spiritual practice. There had been something important missing. I can now connect with God, with Spirit, in all three faces: infinite (3rd person), intimate (2nd person), and inner (1st person).
The Church considers itself to be like a family – and acts like a family. There is a lot of love around, in a grounded, understated, undemonstrative English kind of way. It feels genuine, and appropriate. The community knows its limits, and recognises and mostly handles the inevitable minor conflicts with good humour and forbearance.
In some religious environments it is sometimes possible to observe an intellectual commitment to compassion that is not necessarily matched by personal action.
When I am within a loving community like this, then I feel my heart starting to melt more. Slowly, slowly…
The hymns of my childhood, that I sang so often, bring me joy and delight as I sing them again. They help re-awaken the innocence and love of that time.
Singing opens our hearts. Singing with others connects us to them and takes us past words and opinions and differences. We are more as one when we sing together.
And now there are new hymns, and praise songs, and Taize chants, and all sorts of other new, and reworked old, and developing musical delights. All praising God, praising and celebrating the life of the Spirit. Finding joy, creating joy. Marking grief, and gratitude, and greatness. How great Thou art!
There are skilled, experienced, and permanent leaders. They take responsibility. What a relief!
I’ve experienced a lot of ‘non-hierarchical’ organisations, including spiritual ones: ‘democratic’, ‘we can do all this for ourselves, let’s share out the tasks, we don’t need leaders’ stuff. It can be exhilarating and liberating. And annoying, inefficient, exhausting, conflict-inducing. There are opportunities to take on facilitation and leadership roles very early, but sometimes way too early.
So priests are great. They handle all that leadership stuff (thanks guys, great work!), leaving me free to concentrate on my spiritual life, and contribute in the right way at the right time.
And nowadays some of them are women… Awesome! Organised religious and spiritual life that includes a powerful loving feminine presence. So right, so full.
Our current church community is mostly older. But it’s wide: it contains people from a variety of different backgrounds and occupations, with different political and cultural leanings. Again, I feel a sense of relief at this. Partly it’s just that a narrower alternative of, for example, a homogeneous post-modern left-wing consensus can feel suffocating. But partly it’s because I am back once more with people like the family and friends I knew from my childhood – and I like it. I can relax and be appreciated for who I am, not accepted for the opinions and views I might (temporarily) possess.
In my deeper moments I know that God is love, and love is God.
But even in my shallow moments I know God is not a left-winger. Nor a right-winger. Nor both, nor neither. (Just to be complete.)
I’m big on freedom. It’s one of my core values. Oddly, I feel freer in the Anglican church than I did or do within the Buddhist or Quaker communities I was or am part of. I did not expect this. Especially as the view from the outside is that the conventional Christian church is ‘credal’ (not like us outside) and has strong (primitive) belief systems that you have to sign up to.
But I have realised that the Anglican church has got tremendous form in being a broad church. It has often had to seek clever ways to enable people of very different perspectives to live and worship together. Sure, there are Anglican churches that will emphasise a traditional approach, or a rational, liberal approach, or a post-modern approach. But plenty of others that just do their best, being broad, translating between the approaches where they can.
So I am the beneficiary of this. I feel free to experiment with my own (slightly unorthodox) theological interpretations. Nobody is requiring me to describe, justify, or defend my position. I am free to be positionless. At this stage in my spiritual life this is incredibly valuable.
Every week I sit with my fellow worshippers and confess my sins, state that I am not worthy. What’s not to like?
None of us are perfect. Here we say it to each other in public. What a relief. No one is pretending to be perfect, or even perfectible. It’s not possible. We just acknowledge that, and then we can all get on with our lives in the knowledge that we are all human and fallible, and mess up sometimes. Yes, folks, that really does include me. And you. And everyone else.
And there’s a mode of forgiveness for this human fallibility. There’s compassion from God, compassion from the priest, and compassion from the congregation. We are forgiven, we forgive ourselves, we forgive each other. It’s a start in dealing with the crushing burden that guilt can load on us – on me!
From these beginnings, new insights start to flow for me. The role of suffering in the world, and the importance of a transcendent element in trying to deal with it, starts to become clearer to me. What next?
The words. The liturgy.
Ah the words. The beautiful words of the King James bible. The lovely language of the Book of Common Prayer. The familiarity from childhood of the Creed. The poetry of the hymns. The Iona invitation to communion. All the contemporary attempts to use inclusive and welcoming language…
When I am not wedded to a particular interpretation, or even the need to have a particular interpretation, then the words provide me simply with access. Access to the shades of meaning beyond the surface. Access to a closer connection with God. I can sink into ever-deeper realms of meaning, and truth, and mystical connection which transcends my everyday world. Phrases that I thought I knew all about turn out to be alive, and changing, and inspiring in unexpected ways. They take me by surprise sometimes, make me cry, so I have to stop singing, or praying, or listening. They say, ‘Keep coming in, there is even more here if only you will let go of your prejudices; what joy awaits…’
There’s something very satisfying about ritual. As humans we tend to like and value it – as far as we can tell, we’ve been doing it since we started being humans. If our rational worldview denies the validity of ritual then something important goes missing in our lives. We may or may not notice that.
Over many years some of my friends and contemporaries have worked to bring back ritual into contemporary life, recognising its importance. Sometimes these rituals work well, are powerful; sometimes not so well, and end up empty and hollow.
The church does ritual. As a matter of course. Sometimes powerful, occasionally a bit hollow.
I have experienced communion, being marked with ashes, having my hands washed, being anointed with oil. I have been part of baptism services, and weddings.
The ceremonies are familiar, and they prepare the ground. But, for me, it’s the awareness of the preciousness of this moment shared with others which makes them powerful and meaningful.
Our local church is a building that has housed a worshipping community for hundreds of years. Wow. And it is just down the road and I can pop in any time. Bliss. No more driving hundreds of miles a year just to get together with fellow travellers in whatever important but small-scale outfit I was currently engaged with.
And my ‘fellow travellers’ now are also local. I see them in the street, or in the shops, or driving around. I’m not as isolated as I once was. This is a big deal.
We have limited energy, especially as we get older. How can I avoid wasting my energy and instead use it most effectively for supporting the spiritual life? Staying local helps a lot.
The Anglican church is Big
The Anglican church may be shrinking, but to me it’s still very, very big. The Christian church in the UK as a whole is even bigger. And Christianity in the world is just huge…
I’m aware of Christianity in the mainstream of history. I’m aware of two thousand years of heritage. I’m aware of 400 plus years of the Anglican church. I’m aware of its established position in English institutional life. It can look after itself. It doesn’t depend on my puny efforts to keep it going. I can relax into its massiveness. I don’t have to defend its boundaries against scepticism. I don’t have to limit myself in case I upset it. I could explore its territory for a long time before hitting any edges. And I know it has had mystics who go all the way up.
If you exist in a non-mainstream sub-culture, you have to expend a lot of energy defending boundaries. What a relief not to have to do that. What joy to be able to go with the mainstream flow, and feel the nourishing, supportive aspects of that. From that particular broad base, new insights, new love, new creation emerge just that bit more easily. Thanks be.
These points to ponder are some of the headlines. I could have written more detail on all of them, and one day maybe I will. I would like to describe examples of how you can translate the words in different ways depending on your stage of consciousness. I would like to describe how mystical awareness often lurks unnoticed in some of our familiar hymns. I would like to describe how powerful feelings and insight arise in me both in and out of church. But all that can wait for another time.
Till then, farewell!