Why bother coming to church?
A sermon preached by the Revd. Dr. James Heard, on February 8th 2015.
Do you ever stop to wonder about this? Why do we bother coming to church, doing something that is very similar week after week? What’s the point? We’ve just heard that famous Gospel reading from St John, the prologue, which we also heard at Christmas. Deep and profound theological wisdom expressing God becoming present – ‘tabernacling’ or indwell – our broken world. But we’ve heard this all before. Why aren’t you off playing golf, or reading a Sunday paper at a local café? I wonder what it is that brings you here Sunday by Sunday? Isn’t church, well, a bit boring?
The Roman Catholic priest and Dominican friar, Timothy Radcliffe’s has written a book, Why Go to Church, in which he quotes a teenager who likened attendance at the Eucharist to sitting through an endlessly repeated film, the outcome of which is always known. So why do we do it? Does it make any difference?
Matthew Syed (The Times journalist and TV presenter) has written a book entitled Bounce. He looks at what makes great people great. What is it that some people have and the rest of us don’t, whether in sport, literature, music or science? Is it that there is some sort of talent gene that’s built into certain people’s DNA but not in others?
It’s a key question and there are some fascinating stories on the way to an answer. Mathew Syed tells us of a street in Reading that contained more young table tennis champions than the rest of Britain put together. He should know. He was the British number one for years, he won the commonwealth championships twice as well as competing in a couple of Olympics. So, was there something in the water in this street that turn young people into table tennis champions? Probably not. Genius can’t all be in the genes.
The answer turns out to be the neuroscientific equivalent of an old joke. A tourist stops a taxi driver and asks how you get to the Royal Albert Hall. The taxi driver replies: ‘Practise, lady, practise’.
Which is, of course, what champions do. They simply put in more hours than anyone else. The magic number is 10,000 hours. That – roughly ten years of ‘deep practice’ – is what it takes to reach the top in almost every field.
Here’s another example. Mathew Syed highlights research conducted in a music academy in Germany. They discovered three groups of students: those who became the world’s best soloists, those who played in world’s best orchestras and those who became music teachers. They discovered that they had practiced, respectively, 10,000 hours, 8,000 hours and 6,000 hours. And the thing that surprised the researchers most was that there were no exceptions. There simply wasn’t a genius who became the world’s best by only practicing 4,000 hours.
It was even the same for Mozart, often highlighted as the classic example of a child prodigy. Mozart’s father Leopold was a considerable musician himself, as well as a dominating parent who forced young Amadeus to practise music constantly from the age of three. Although he achieved brilliance as a performer by the age of six, it wasn’t until his early twenties that he was composing what has become his most accomplished work.
So practice is the answer and, in particular, purposeful or ‘deep practice’. The caveat to this is that if you’re 5’4”, you’re probably not going to become a world class basketball player no matter how much you practice!
But there’s another very interesting dimension. Neuroscience has discovered that practicing a certain skill over and over again, actually reconfigures the brain, creating new neural pathways that make the connections speedier the more they are used. The result is that practice makes certain responses immediate and intuitive, bypassing the slow, deliberative circuits in the brain.
This is why someone like Roger Federer can, with incredible speed and accuracy, deliver a blinding return of serve. The more you practise the less need you have for conscious thought. That’s why after years of driving we no longer need to think about gear changes the way we did when we were still learners. We do this automatically, without going through a conscious process.
This is all very interesting, but what has it got to do with my original question about attending church week by week? Well, it actually has huge implications. And this is the case for Christians as well as for those from other religious traditions.
The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, suggests that it is ritual that is transformative. People tend to think that what differentiates religious people from their secular counterparts is that they believe different things. But that’s less than half the story. People in most religions behave distinctively. I’m not referring to whether Christians or religious people are better behaved or more moral than their non-religious counterparts. Although I would hope that our faith transforms us, little by little, on our pilgrimage of faith.
The difference is that religious people engage in ritual. They do certain things like praying over and over again. Ritual is the religious equivalent of ‘deep practice’.
And now we can understand why. Constant practice creates new neural pathways. It makes certain forms of behaviour instinctive. It reconfigures our character so that we are no longer the people we once were. We have, engraved into our instincts the way certain strokes are engraved in the minds of tennis champions, specific responses to circumstance. Prayer engenders gratitude. Regular charitable giving makes us generous. The experience of abstinence in Lent teaches us self control.
We hear again and again of the importance of love of God and love of one’s neighbour – that sums up all of the commandments. The transformation of our character, our lives, our habits quietly happens as we come to church week by week. We come week by week to hear God’s word and to receive simple gifts of bread and wine, and we are reminded that we, here in Campden Hill in 2015, are the body of Christ. Its what Cardinal Newman described as ‘God’s noiseless work’. The liturgy gives us space to think, question, journey and inhabit the tradition. And with a culture that’s obsessed with novelty, its deeply countercultural.
Timothy Radcliffe writes: ‘the liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one’.
Far from being outmoded, religious ritual turns out to be deeply in tune with the new neuroscience of human talent, personality and the plasticity of the brain. The great faiths never forgot what science is helping us rediscover: that ritual creates new habits of the heart that can lift us to unexpected greatness.
So we stop for an hour once a week – to be quiet, to stop being productive, we turn off or leave our communication devices alone for a moment, we get a chance to reflect on the week, to hear and think different thoughts, we pray for others who are in need, we join together to sing (which has proven health benefits). And we experience a very gradual barely perceptible transformation of who we are.
Ritual, what we do here Sunday by Sunday gathered around this altar, changes the world by changing us.