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On going to church
VI Easter 2001
Today I read an article by Helen T Gray in the Kansas City Star, 'Worship on the web', a reaction to the recent book Give Me That Online Religion, by Brenda E. Brasher. This article includes the quote 'By the end of the decade we will have in excess of 10 percent of our population who rely upon the Internet for their entire spiritual experience.' That sounded awful to me. It was the last thing I read before I went to church, so I paid close attention to what I got out of attending church that I would not have been able to get online.
It was uncomfortably hot, and I was glad to sit down in the cool dark nave, to kneel and pray and wait. Our fabulously talented organist played some piece of music that I had never heard before. Some women of my mother's generation, including Kitty and Emile, sat here and there around me. Handsome Rick, who I've always thought must be a radio or television announcer but is a businessman, sat behind me. Clare, who is my age and who was my daughter's confirmation sponsor, sat a few yards to my right. Slowly the pews filled. I knew some of the people and didn't know others. The service began, and the altar party processed in to 'For the beauty of the earth'. As the deacon passed my pew she leaned over to ask me if I could please lead the Prayers of the People, as the person scheduled to lead it had lost her voice. I nodded assent, then remembered that I had never done it before, but knew that it was hard to do wrong. Clare read both the first and second readings, and had me spellbound: she is such a good reader that I always get something new out of hearing her read a familiar passage. A few years ago I told her how much I enjoyed her reading, and she blushed and said 'I just read the way I read stories to my children when they were little.'
Our parish has recently begun an elaborate Gospel Procession, which I quite like. The choir sings a refrain, the congregation echoes it, the choir sings a line (today it was 'Let us rejoice and celebrate; creation lives in us, we dare not hold it back as long as life endures') and then the congregation and choir sing the refrain twice. I am not very good at reading music, but I found that by the third time I came to the refrain I could sing it, which made me feel good.
During the sermon my mind wandered. I suppose I shouldn't admit this, but today's preacher has talents in areas other than preaching. I think that if I had been listening to this sermon in RealAudio I would have closed the window and moved on, but I had to sit there and act dignified until it was over. I noticed some sort of chemical burns on the skin of a middle-aged man in front of me to the left, and wondered if he was in pain; the burns looked fresh. I noticed that one of the men near me in the pews was Leland, who is president of the parish Men's Club, and I remembered that the Men's Club was going to have a dinner this coming Tuesday. Leland has such a very kind face, and in looking at that face I decided that I should try going to the Men's Club, which I have never done before. I tend to be a loner with respect to parish activities. (During coffee hour after the service, I went to the Men's Club table to give Leland the money for a ticket, and noted with a smile that he had no idea who I was or what my name was.) Before the sermon was over I found myself studying the carpet to see if it really looked as worn as the parish bulletin had said; there was some talk about replacing it or removing it, and I usually never remember to look down. It is yellow and looks very industrial.
After the sermon we recited the Nicene Creed, and then moved to the Prayers of the People and then on to the Peace. I almost always sit alone, so I wait until the people around me have exchanged the peace with each other, and then I greet them. While I was waiting I wondered if I should walk back two pews to exchange the peace with whats-her-name, who has hardly spoken to me since I got divorced 12 years ago. I didn't. Maybe next week. So I'm a sinner. I admit it every week.
I think my favourite part of a regular Sunday service is the Richard Proulx setting for the Sanctus from A Community Mass. Our congregation sings that Sanctus like we really mean it, which of course we do. The choir's three power sopranos, Grace and Loretta and Jan, belt out the descant at thunderous volume during the last 'Hosanna in the highest'. There's something magic about a room with 200 people all trying to sing 'Hosanna in the highest' as loud as they can. When it ends, in sudden silence, it's impossible not to feel like you're kneeling at God's feet.
Ah, kneeling. Our interim rector likes us all to stand between the Sanctus and the Fraction. Everybody in the parish over the age of 50 likes to kneel after the Sanctus. When I'm feeling crabby I like to kneel after the Sanctus, knowing that about 2/3 of the congregation will follow my lead (I'm very big and I sit near the front and I act like I know what I'm doing). Today I was not feeling crabby, so I remained standing, but pretty much everyone who is a generation older than me knelt for it.
During the communion we sang 'Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless', which is very hard for me to sing, but I like it so much I tried anyhow. About halfway through I just stopped to listen to the people around me who had actual singing talent. At the end we all said:
Zowie, that was really about me. I really felt like a living member of Christ. I prayed, I sang, I learned, I meditated, I confessed. Not in that order, of course. David, our organist, launched right into the processional out, 'All creatures of our God and King', and we all got emotional and sang it really loud. That hymn has a refrain that dares you to belt it out at full volume, and we all did.
Afterwards in the parish hall I didn't find anybody to talk to, so I just went back to my house. I sang 'God of mercy, God of grace' while I was driving, until I noticed the the driver of another car staring at me, so I stopped singing and listened to the news; it was something about bombs and airplanes and violence, so I turned it off.
If I had tried to do some cyberchurch thing I would have missed all of that.
I think the role of the internet in my church is to help bring people together, not keep them apart. Bringing people together means getting them in the same room, where they can see and smell and hear and touch each other. I go to church every Sunday to help nurture my feeling of being part of the Body of Christ, to reinforce the sense that I belong to an unbroken chain of the faithful, to the communion of saints. Here on my computer I can read it and write it, and maybe even say it, but when I go to my parish church I believe it.