Tag Archive | church

Evensong

Now that I’ve amalgamated my blog about religion into this one I feel it’s time for another post on that topic!

I always have so many mixed feelings when I come to post publicly about religion that I tie myself up in knots. I started the religion blog to talk about atheism and religion, but whilst talking about atheism is easy, it’s harder for an atheist to talk about a fascination with Christianity.

Why, as an unmoved atheist, do I now attend church on occasion? It really is simple, and nothing to do with belief. I have mentioned this in earlier posts, but I’ll reiterate here. I just like it! I don’t believe it even vaguely, and I don’t have anything to prove to other atheists or to believers. I respect believers more now (since writing my book, which necessitated my attending church for research purposes) but I can’t share their beliefs. I still believe in nothing, whether a god, or astrology or anything ‘New Age’, or even natural justice (‘what goes around comes around’) but I do get something out of going to church, even though of course I don’t take part in anything like the Eucharist (the vicar knows I’m an atheist).

So tonight I went to Evensong at my village church and it was good. I love to be in the ancient church and I like the old ‘Book of Common Prayer’ services. I suppose I might lose my interest in attending if this church eventually goes over to more modern services. I feel steeped in the past when I’m there, and I like the vicar’s sermons (if not his choice of hymns!). My reasons for attending may not be religious, but I know the vicar doesn’t mind, and considering the way things are going in the Church of England, another backside in the pews, atheist or not, is probably all too welcome!

I know I’m not the only atheist who attends church – I know of people who go because they’ve always gone but have lost their faith – but I suppose I tie myself up in knots because I was always such a strident atheist, and I know my younger self wouldn’t believe I’d ever do such a thing willingly. Still, I lie to no one about my true status and I think I shall carry on going every now and again for as long as I continue to enjoy it.

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Hymns

I have a problem with this blog in that I have so much to say that I can’t distill it all down into bite-sized chunks. I then end up posting nothing because all my thoughts and ideas seem so complicated and there simply isn’t enough time for me to write the lengthy essays that would result. Maybe when I have finished my OU course (Religion in History) I will have more free time for blogging.

So this is just a slightly tongue-in-cheek post about hymns.

I went to church again two weeks ago after a six-week absence. I came out disappointed. As an atheist, I’m forever wondering what I expect to get out of going, but sometimes I do enjoy it (or else why bother going at all). I like the sermons and being in the church itself and if there are any hymns I actually know I enjoy singing them. There are, however, rarely hymns I know, and I thought I knew a lot of hymns. The other Sunday there were technically two hymns I knew. ‘Father hear the prayer we offer’, which used to be one of my favourites at school, and ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’ which used to be one I detested at school. Unfortunately neither hymn was to a tune I knew so they might as well have been any old dirge. And dirges is what most hymns seem to be. What has happened to all the hymns with lovely twiddly tunes? When I was at school my favourite hymn was ‘For the beauty of the earth’, but nowadays it is almost always sung (I take ‘Songs of Praise’ as my source!) to the ‘wrong’ tune. It should be sung to the tune ‘England’s Lane’. The other tune is dreary. The church I go to holds traditional BCP services, which I like for the sheer weight of history, but they didn’t even have hymns when the BCP was introduced so I don’t see that they need to be so gloomy. When I was at school ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ was no. 1 in the hymn book and I couldn’t bear it because of its droning nature, although if the descant was sung it was vastly improved. The way things have been lately, I would even welcome the ‘Old Hundredth’ tune without the descant as at least I know it!

Bells and smells

Yesterday I continued my quest to comprehend various aspects of religion by attending a special service at a redundant church. I like the church itself for its history but I especially wanted to see a real service there, and as there are only two a year and one is at Christmas this was my best bet for a taste of ‘how it used to be’ (not that long ago – the church ceased to be used for regular worship in the 80s).

The services I have become ‘used to’ at my local village church use the Book of Common Prayer but apart from that are, I imagine, fairly normal CofE. The service that I just attended, however, was very high church and Anglo Catholic in nature. Very much an eye-opener for me. Incense, bells during the Eucharist, hail Marys at the end. Talk about ritual. It fascinates me because it seems so alien. I watched the priest kneeling and bowing repeatedly before the altar with total bemusement, and I listened to the visiting canon’s sermon with great attention. He seemed quite angry about the marginalization of Christians, and suggested that a government that is willing to spend money on maintaining ‘redundant’ churches ought to spend some on ‘promulgating the gospels’. I can’t say that there was much in this sermon that I agreed with, for obvious reasons. In my local church I often do agree with the sermons as long as they are on social issues, but not if they are on ‘the state of the Church’.

Speaking of the state of the Church of England, here we were at a specially organized service with a number of clergy, a canon, a choir etc. and the congregation (mostly drawn from the friends of the church itself) was around 30, which is what my village church gets most weeks. The new TV comedy, ‘Rev’, about a CofE vicar, gives a very grim view of the state of the CofE, with about five regular members of the congregation. I suppose my local vicar is lucky to have 30, but I often wonder how he and others feel, particularly when they have put in so much effort. For instance, last year I attended an Evensong service at the village church, simply to see what Evensong was about, and I thought there would be a big turnout as it is a once-a-year event. To my surprise there were only about 18 people there. I was more than surprised actually; I was amazed. Then I attended an afternoon Evensong at a big church in the town a few months later and was not just amazed but dismayed to find a whole choir performing to a mere five people. I was cringing with embarrassment, but this must be the norm these days. As an atheist, why do I care? I’m not sure really. I certainly don’t want to see religion in any form back in a position of power over the country, but there’s just something sad about watching the Church of England fade away.

It’s not logical, but it is the way I feel.

Not in church

So it’s Sunday, and these days every Sunday morning I wonder about church. When, for the purposes of my novel, I set out on the quest to imagine myself into a religious person’s mind I couldn’t even bear to read a single bit of religious language. I remember seeing, in the empty church, a leaflet which ended ‘may God bless you and keep you, always’. I cringed away, wondering what I was doing even paddling at the edge of the sea of religion. I wanted, however, to write about my religious characters as fairly and accurately as I could, plus as a writer my imagination was already engaged in the whole peculiar world of Christianity that I was discovering.

When I wrote to ask the vicar of my local church for help with my research I had no idea who he was. I had never met him or even seen him, despite living in a small village. I only knew that, from his writings in the parish newsletter, he sounded jolly and approachable.  When he took a very long time to find the time to talk to me (not, as far as I’m aware, because I’m an atheist), I resorted to reading books about, and by, vicars and other clergy. These books, although frustrating at times as far as the religious beliefs themselves were concerned, gave me a deep appreciation of parish clergy and the difficult job that they do. I had never thought about vicars before, other than as a symbol. I was impressed, and glad that I had picked a parson for one of my main characters, although 18th century parsons had a far easier time of it.

As time went on it became obvious that I wasn’t going to have an honest account of a church service in my book unless I actually attended one. All the same, it was very difficult to muster the nerve to go to church for the first time since 1970. It’s a small village church with an average congregation of 30. What if all the people stared at me? Wouldn’t they all assume I was a Christian? Would they besiege me with questions/try and get me to keep going? How would it look when I didn’t ‘do’ Holy Communion? What should one say to the vicar at the door (I hadn’t met him at this point)? I was so nervous that my legs were wobbly and my mouth was dry. When I reached the door I almost made a run for it. The needs of the book somehow made me enter, and once in I realized most of my fears were groundless.

As a writer, I was trying to absorb everything I possibly could about this service as at that point I had no intention of attending again. The church is very old and although small is frankly impressive with the lights on and candles lit. The whole experience was unexpectedly fascinating, partly because it was the old Book of Common Prayer service that my character would have used himself but also for all sorts of other reasons. Even the prayers were interesting of themselves, and the sermon was good, with some amusing parts. I was embarrassed at being the only person in the church not to go up for communion, but I kept my head down reading the Book of Common Prayer until it was over.  I didn’t have to talk to anyone and even the vicar was engaged in chat with others when I sloped out of the door. All in all, it was a pleasant experience, so much so that I decided to attend the subsequent week as well, striking while the iron was hot.

Sadly, that second service was not pleasant, although nothing bad happened to me personally. I still did not have to speak to anyone, and the vicar at the door simply said ‘Good Morning’. It was the reminders of my outsider status that spoiled that service, the more ‘Bible-thumping’ sermon, talk of a silent march for Easter, the fact that the church was unusually full as a celebration of the vicar’s being in post for many years. I came away wondering what on earth I was doing getting involved in all that nonsense when I had no place in it.

I didn’t go back, but I did get my interview with the vicar two months later. He was friendly and helpful and answered as many questions as we could fit into the time. As he was leaving I told him I’d found going to church very interesting and asked if he minded an atheist attending his services. He said no, not at all.

Since then I have of course not become religious. In fact, I could go so far as to say that all I’ve learned from my research and current study has only increased my distaste for religion and sadly for Christianity. However, there is still that spark of interest, that little glimmer that keeps me going to church every couple of months. There is something about churchgoing and Christianity that appeals to my idealistic nature. I wish there was a god. I wish that there really was brotherly love and that we did ‘love our neighbour as ourself’. I wish that prayers really did some good. Above all I wish that Christianity actually made sense.