Friday, 19 July 2013

The story so far …

It’s been more than six months, and I’ve attended 30 churches since my mission began, so it’s time to reflect, and where better to start than with a trawl through my Blogger stats?

Right out in front, with more than three times as many page views as its nearest rival, is my review of the Free Presbyterian Church in Inverness. Okay, so I’ve linked back to it quite often in subsequent posts, but even in weeks when I don’t it’s still clocking up the clicks.

The general trend seems to be that the more evangelical a church the more clicks it gets – Holyrood Abbey and New Restalrig are second and third respectively, and Charlotte Chapel and the Elim Pentecostal Church are not too far behind. Quite why that should be I’m not sure. Answers on a postcard, please.

I had wondered how far afield I might have to roam in order to keep myself supplied with new worship experiences, but apart from that trip to Inverness I’ve spent every weekend this year in Edinburgh. Perhaps I need to get out more! But on the other hand, there are so many flavours of church in Edinburgh that I’m unlikely to run out of options any time soon.

It’s also time to review the parameters of my mission, and this week a suggestion from one commentator has prompted me to do just that. He asked whether I might move the goal posts, away from “why I don’t fit and if I’m really okay with that” to looking for authentic faith – either in those who attend the various churches or in myself.

A fair question. It’s all very well being cynical and vaguely witty, but perhaps I should be digging a bit deeper. So here goes …

Authentic faith in others isn’t something I feel able to judge, but I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the people I’ve encountered in the first 30 churches, whether their faith is in voices from beyond the grave or in more orthodox Christianities. The authenticity of their faith is a matter for themselves and their god(s), and I’ve gone for the lower case g and optional plural because I have a suspicion that there are lots of incompatible concepts of the divine that are being believed in out there.

Any glimmer of authentic faith on my own part? Not while the rational part of me is still hung up on the philosophical stuff, but that isn’t to say that I can’t feel moved by a persuasive argument or by sublime religious music … except that there have been few genuinely moving experiences so far. Yes, there’s an aesthetic grandeur in the Anglican liturgy, as expressed at St Columba’s by the Castle and at Old St Paul’s, and there’s an impressive academic rigour to the preaching in the Free Church and Free Church (Continuing), but the more flamboyant charismatic churches just don’t excite me. All that clowning around, waving and dancing seems so unnecessary and immediately makes me suspect a distraction … from the weak theology expounded in the sermon, or from the awkward silence that could allow boredom or doubt to creep in. All that such antics inspire in me is cynicism; you might have noticed.

But I’ve been thinking a lot, and a lot more than I used to, about the kind of God I might be capable of believing in, though it’s easier to start with a short, but by no means comprehensive, list of what I don’t believe.

I don’t believe in a god who intervenes in my daily life. I don’t think he finds me parking spaces or job opportunities or lost five pound notes. Why would he do that for me when he doesn’t help a child starving in the developing world? And how could anyone believe that a god who prioritised such trivialities while ignoring major problems is good or powerful? And in case any readers think this argument is glib, I should point out that there are plenty of churches where you’ll hear prayers of thanks to Jesus for the new plumbing system or for making the sun shine at the Sunday school picnic.

And I don’t believe he intervenes in the world … not for the good, anyway. Eschatologists might see God’s hand in natural disasters (the wreaking thereof rather than their prevention), but as Sam Harris has said, there are Christians who could witness a mushroom cloud over Jerusalem and see a silver lining in it.

I don’t believe in Jesus. Okay, so maybe there was some zealot called Jesus roaming round Palestine in the 1st century CE, but the idea that he was the son of God, and that he also was God and is still God, being of one substance with the father and all that, and that he had to sacrifice himself to himself in order to redeem a sinful world that despised and rejected him and then mostly didn’t believe in him for several hundred years, is such a complex and improbable story that it’s incredible it ever gained credence.

I feel more inclined to believe in an Old Testament-style God than in the triune redux version. I can’t believe in a God who needs paradigm shifts, policy reviews and cabinet reshuffles to get people’s attention and then pretends that that’s what he intended all along. Which leaves me with two options: either a) the Jews have been right all along; or b) the Christians may have a point but their God sure ain’t the perfect being he’s cracked up to be.

And while we’re talking Old Testament v New, another observation from my first 30 churches is that the New Testament gets a whole lot more air time than the Old. Some weeks there hasn’t even been a reading from the OT or anything but scant reference to it, which always makes me think of the Marcionist heretics, whose stance at least seems to avoid the inconsistencies of the accepted canon.

So here I am, with a long way still to go, no nearer a reconciliation but feeling some anthropological satisfaction at having observed so many services and retained my sanity and a certain academic detachment. I’d like to think I’m not so detached that I can’t be moved to experience something, but I keep finding myself thinking of that song from A Chorus Line: “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul … I and I felt nothing.”


  1. How did I miss your 30 church review? An interesting re-cap of your experiences so far.

    What's missing from my perspective though is why did you stop believing - given that you describe yourself as post-Christian? My natural curiosity gets the better off me when I hear about people that used to believe but then stop or become sceptical (like Jonathan Edwards, the triple jumper) - why?

    To my mind, as garbled and jumbled as it can be, churches meet a community and a social need as well as a spiritual need? For some people, going to church means that they get out, speak to folk and feel part of something rather than staying at home looking at the same four walls. Is there anywhere else similar?

  2. Ah, thereby hangs a tale. It's a whole mixture of things, which I might get down to writing about one of these days, but I'm still trying to sort it all out in my mind. I think it might be a case of rationality returning after the initial surrender to faith and the apparent simplicity of the new belief system. That and the people. It's always the people who are problematic.

    Let's say you bought an antique table and it looks beautiful, and all you have to do is polish it occasionally. Simple to maintain, useful in everyday life, admired by all your friends. And then suddenly the woodworm that you didn't know were inside (because you didn't look close enough, or know what to look for) all emerge and fill your shiny tabletop with flight holes. It's still a reasonable table. You can use it and it's not going to fall over, but it isn't what you thought you had.

    And the bugs have probably infested all your other furniture too.

    That's kind of how I see it.

  3. I really like your mission idea - bit more organised and in depth than my jaunts along to many different churches when I was in a spiritual rut (+/- crisis) a few years back, including quite a few you mention. I would label myself a Christian at the moment, but still spend a lot of time analysing and doubting and wondering. It took my a while to realise that the reason I felt out of synch in my first church was just that it was too far along the clapping evangelism spectrum for me - episcopalian places suit me much better. Like you, I've had some terrible experiences with people in churches - but also some great ones. I guess the problem is that churches are meant to be for worshipping something perfect, but ran by imperfect people - and sometimes, things get irreparably tangled.

    I hope you find what you're looking for. You should send a copy to all the churches you review - particularly for things like the welcome team and their approach.

    best wishes,

  4. Thanks, Charlotte. There's definitely something about the anglican liturgy that appeals far more than the clappiness of some other places. I don't think some of the churches I've reviewed would thank me for my comments, though some have got in touch. You sum it up perfectly by saying that the object of worship is supposed to be perfect but the worshippers obviously aren't. The people are always the problem.

  5. I think having church 'mystery shoppers' is a great idea - so often leadership think that the welcome strangers get is fabulous, because the welcome old hands get is comfortable - but it's often not the case. Going to a new church can be hard, no matter whether you're a signed up Christian, or more uncertain about your beliefs - and being put off by either in your face teams, or totally ignored, must lead to a lot of people abandoning their search. I hope some places are seeing the value, at least.

  6. When it comes to mystery worshipping, the original and best is at Ship of Fools.