Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Differing Experiences

There is much made in Church circles of the fact that, while local churches struggle to maintain congregations, those of cathedrals and greater churches are growing apparently without doing anything very special to make this happen, other than what they’ve been doing for a couple of centuries already. My Goth friends Archangel Janet and her partner Mart have recently moved to Glastonbury partly because it’s the centre of neo-pagan Britain; they were visited over Christmas by Ms Valery and Msr Peugeot who are also of that general bent. And they all went to Midnight Mass at Wells Cathedral. It struck me that this was an unusual decision to take and so I asked why, and they were kind enough to tell me.

Archangel Janet herself said she’d ‘Always wanted to go to Midnight mass. The Pagans went to church in the early days and followed both I think. Personally l love the music and singing and the building … I also wanted to see the embroidery up close on the altar cloth’ (which makes sense, from a former employee of the Royal School of Needlework). Valery and Msr Peugeot also said they enjoyed the choral music. Valery ‘did feel slightly anxious that I would be criticised for being a “tourist” ‘ although to an extent Msr Peugeot recognised that that’s what the group of friends were: ‘I considered myself a tourist while there and in a way I went like I'd go to a show (and I don't mean it in any derogatory way). It was pretty spectacular.’

Valery speculated more about why Goths might be drawn to Christian worship: ‘I think every goth has some 'old Catholic' sensibilities, being drawn to mediaeval churches, crosses and (altar cloth) velvet. Or perhaps it's the fascination with mediaeval history and culture, drawing you to the high gothic architecture of churches and cathedrals. And of course the mediaeval music, most of which is religious.’ But although my friends liked the worship, the setting and the music ‘traditional’, they also wanted enough modernity and flexibility to make them feel welcome. ‘I was very surprised when the bishop turned up and it was a woman!’ said Janet, ‘I even got a blessing from her’ (it would have been Ruth Worsley, the Bishop of Taunton). Another friend who wasn’t at Wells on Christmas Eve but joined in the Facebook conversation, Oenone, commented ‘I was brought up Orthodox but I find the Anglican Church much more friendly and welcoming. For example, the mass is in English and I can understand it, people join in the singing of hymns, etc. (Though I have been to a mass at Hampton Court, and hated it … ). My neighbourhood church is LGBT friendly, flies the rainbow flag’.

My friends are aware of the distance between joining in worship and subscribing to dogma. Valery says ‘I do experience a sense of the sacred in churches, although more in a universal way’, and Msr Peugeot added ‘I enjoy the spirituality of places of worship as well as the cultural influences they had on our history but I keep a distance from the teaching and have no part in their rituals’. Oenone finds her experience slightly different: ‘I’d feel more ‘at home’ in a simple country church than a magnificent cathedral where I’d feel more like a tourist. For me, the grandeur gets in the way of spirituality. I’ve been in Buddhist temples and Shinto temples where I’ve felt the same. But many people feel more or less like tourists in church, I think it’s normal, and some churches welcome them more than others.’

At the Midnight at Swanvale Halt a bare minority of the congregation were people I knew, and I can but speculate about what drew the rest of the souls there. It may have been many things, far more than a normal Sunday gathering. The task of those who organise that worship, whether the deliberate grandeur of Christmas Eve or the humbler liturgical offerings week-by-week, is to honour the threads of God-ward-ness woven through those mixed and perhaps inarticulate motivations, and to salute with welcome those who are guests of Christ, not of us. 

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