Friday, June 12, 2015

At Choral Evensong: Trying to understand the Church - "Things Fall Apart"

10th Sunday Ordinary Time 7/6/15

Readings: Jer 6:16-21 Rom 9:1-13

I frequently find the sermon or reflection for Choral Evensong difficult if only because so few come to Evensong any longer.  On this occasion I decided to express my own unease and expand on that aspect of faith and questioning.

When I read the lessons set for this evening I felt a certain disconnectedness between the readings and the here and now of our Cathedral life.  The concerns that Paul expressed, while acute to him, seemed to be an argument remote in place and time; the dire warnings of Jeremiah against the hypocrisy and dishonesty of God’s people was more generally relevant, but still so remote from this moment.

I suspect that if I find the readings difficult to engage with, that there may be others who also find that.   It is easy to extrapolate from that to a more general suspicion that the church is irrelevant to many; perhaps also to point beyond the church toward a more widespread sense of disconnectedness and doubt over relevance and meaning.  As someone pointed out to me, one of the most quoted lines used in student essays reflects the post modern unease: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Of course the church is desperately aware of the problem of how to continue as church in a fragmented, sceptical post-church society.  I am intrigued and sometimes exhilarated about how the uncertainties of the church are treated in film and literature.  For example the UK TV series ‘Rev’ starring Tom

Hollander as the Rev Adam Smallbone, Vicar of St Saviours in the Marsh an inner city parish.  The series exposed and celebrated the vulnerability of clergy and people and the hazards of the diocesan machinery and the destruction the church wrought upon itself.

About 25 years ago, the British playwright David Hare did something similar in his very serious play about the Church of England, Racing Demon.  Though not, I understand, a believer Hare undertook a very serious and compassionate approach to his subject.  (His incorporation of gay clergy and a women priest as ‘issues’ suggests how much the church has moved on since then.) 

What fascinated me about Hare’s play was how insightful he was about the position some of the clergy were placed in.  There is the Vicar of the inner city parish – Lionel, a liberal modernist, who struggles within a compassionate but spiritually limited framework.  His opening soliloquy (at prayer) sets the play in motion.

"God. Where are you?  I wish you would talk to me.  It isn’t just me.  There’s a general feeling.  This is what people are saying in the parish.   They want to know where you are.  The joke wears thin.  You must see that.  You never say anything.  All right, people expect that, it’s understood.  But people also think, I didn’t realize that when he said nothing, he really did mean absolutely nothing at all.  You see, I tell you, it’s this perpetual absence – yes? – this not being here – it’s that – I mean, let’s be honest – it’s just beginning to get some of us down.  You know?  Is that unreasonable?   There are an awful lot of people in a very bad way.  And they need something beside silence. God.  Do you understand?”

There is the Evangelical curate Tony, a shallow, treacherous and tacky character with a nasty self-seeking shallow agenda!  His closing remarks are indicative:

“It’s numbers, you see.  That’s what it is, finally.  You have to get them in.  Once they’re there, you can do anything.  But until then you’re wasting your time.
It’s a question of confidence.  If you don’t allow doubt, the wonderful thing is, you spread confidence around you.
And, for ever, so it goes on.”

I admire Hare’s play but I think his examination was aesthetically and practically limited to the surfaces of the church in the 90s (Modernist versus Evangelical) – and the depths of spirituality, theology and prayer never really came under scrutiny. 

But this brings us back to Evensong and the lessons and to the question of the Church and faith in a time when (still) “things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.”  Always, beyond theological positions such as modernism or evangelicalism, the deep life of the Spirit endures.  Its relevance to a fragmented post-modern, post-church milieu is, I believe, absolute.

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