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An interesting four weeks of church

I attended the local Anglo Catholic for the last of my four weeks yesterday. I have been asked to write up my experiences for my DDO and reflect on what I found new and exciting, what I thought was curious and what I found difficult. Since I’ve had some time today and while it is still fresh, I’ve sat down to write up my thoughts so here they are (names have been removed to protect the innocent):

In order to experience and reflect upon the variety of churchmanship in the Church of England, I spent four weeks in July and August attending St XXXX. St XXXX is a church close to the town centre and is situated in a parish that is closely associated with young upwardly mobile professionals these days. The church stresses at the top of its service sheet that it comes under the sacramental and pastoral care of the Bishop of XXXX. My visit coincided with the final weeks of the incumbent, Fr XXXX. Three weeks were spent with Fr XXXX present and the fourth week was the week after he had left.

I spoke with Fr XXXX after my first visit and explained my presence and he was the perfect host in affording me every welcome while I was with them. It certainly was an interesting month. Before I attended for the first time, I checked out the church noticeboard for service times and the main Sunday meeting was described as ‘solemn mass’. Given that we didn’t know what the solemnity would involve, we agreed that my wife and baby would not come with me initially so I went alone to see what the church was about. Unfortunately, events transpired that meant my wife was unable to join me with our daughter at all during my month there despite our intention that they would attend for at least one Sunday. I enjoyed some aspects of the worship immensely and was not entirely sure about some of the other aspects.

What I found new and exciting

  • I enjoyed greatly the process of signing myself with the cross at the appropriate moments in the liturgy. The thought of covering myself with the cross in that motion was reassuring and yet challenging. I thought of how I am to live my life ‘dead to sin but alive in Christ’. I wasn’t entirely sure when to do it at first but noticed that the service sheet had little cross symbols at the right points so got the hang of it quickly.
  • The importance of scripture in the service was significant for me. Inasmuch as the gospel procession and the carrying of the Gospel to the middle of the congregation with great ceremony to be read and all the singing and liturgy that accompanied it gave the gospel a tremendous centrality to the liturgy as a whole and seemed to underline its importance to the church. Often in my own church, apparently evangelical by tradition, it can feel as if scripture is relegated a little. It is something that gets done, it gets read but not that a big deal. I’ve even been to the odd family service where scripture wasn’t read at all. There was no danger of it not being read or not being a big deal in this church and I appreciated that greatly.
  • I enjoyed some of the liturgy but will come back to that later since other things disturbed me.
  • I enjoyed the hymns which were all rousing old favourites but again I will come back to that later as something I also found difficult.

Things I thought were curious

  • The use of incense was something that really intrigued me. It is something I have been aware of in church services but I have never looked into the significance. Upon investigation, I understand it is meant to symbolise our prayers rising up as a pleasing offering to God. Initially, I personally found it unhelpful as I couldn’t understand what it was for. Even after understanding its significance, I still didn’t find it particularly helpful in the ensuing weeks.
  • A bell was rung during the Eucharistic Prayer. I thought at first that the phone was going and was on one of those ‘outside’ ring things that you find on farms and other places where you may be in the building but not at your desk. Upon investigation, I understand it is intended to invite the faithful to worship at the Consecration of the elements. As with the incense, I am not sure I find it particularly helpful in any way.
  • I tried the bowing of the knee as I left the pew. I can understand the symbolism here but I felt uncomfortable doing it. Admittedly I was not part of the church at St XXXX for a lengthy period and it might come easier with time but certainly after four weeks it felt unnatural and awkward. The essential symbolism of demonstrating an attitude of humility, dependence and helplessness before the cross and the altar is something I can associate with and I stuck with it because I enjoyed that sense of symbolism in that part of the worship.

Things I found difficult

  • After the mass had ended, there was a separate liturgy that called upon and presented supplications to the Blessed Virgin Mary for assistance. I felt unable to participate in all good conscience since I disagree with praying to anyone but God alone. I kept silent for that period of the service.
  • I found it extremely difficult, given my job, that the liturgy was not Common Worship or Book of Common Prayer but the Roman Missal. Given that it is not authorized liturgy in the Church of England, I found it odd and difficult to accept the deliberate ignorance of canon law. I additionally found it ironic that evangelical churches get into trouble for using official liturgy sparingly or not at all, when there is more official liturgy in such services than there was in the entire month of services at St XXXX.
  • The congregation was not very large (I’d guess at about 40 people including children) and they were rattling around in a very large building. As a result, the hymn singing was very timid with people spread out and no sense of community or ‘gusto’ to some classic gusto-esque hymns. I was disappointed by that and felt inhibited given the lack of passionate singing around me.
  • Given that it was the Roman Missal in use, there was mention of transubstantiation in the Eucharistic Prayer which, again, I found tricky theologically.
  • I think my most damning critique of the services was the level of welcome and accessibility in general. In my four weeks, in spite of deliberately loitering looking for a welcome and Fr XXXX apart, not one person in the congregation spoke to me. Given that the church I am part of would not dream of letting a visitor go out without being welcomed and made to feel at home, I found it quite disconcerting. Added to that, in two of the weeks I was there the service was a Mass with an Infant Baptism. There were people there who were not regular churchgoers, there were children and very little seemed to be done to explain what was going on or to include them. The Eucharistic Prayer had a note in the service sheet even asking parents to make sure their kids were quiet, sat down and solemn during one particular part to emphasise it’s solemnity. Given that all of our churches need to be outward facing, welcoming communities that enable people to find their place; ‘mission-shaped’ to use a phrase I hear a great deal at work, I felt that it was not a church that I would have felt comfortable asking a non-churchgoing friend to attend. 

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