Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, at St George's Church, Sunday 10 September, Trinity 13
We are at the start of academic new year. Sunday School restarts today; its lovely to see many of you back from holidays. Perhaps the greatest sigh of relief is from parents thanking God that school has restarted. The new year for church starts in Advent but at the beginning of this new academic year its worth pausing to reflect upon why, exactly, do we bother coming to church. Why aren’t you off playing golf this morning, or reading a Sunday paper at a local café?
Why bother doing something that is very similar week after week? What’s the point? The RC priest and Dominican friar, Timothy Radcliffe, asks exactly this question in his excellent book, Why Go to Church?. He begins by quoting 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? I wonder what it is that brings you here Sunday by Sunday? Isn’t church, well, a bit boring?
There are many important reasons to come to church – numerous research has suggested it provides better mental health; it creates community in what can be a populous but lonely city; we encourage our children, and ourselves in the process, in discerning what makes for a good life, how are we to live life in all its abundance.
The two dimensions that I’d like to focus upon this morning is ritual and boredom. First ritual, and this is also the case for 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 the ‘deep practice’ of accomplished athletes or musicians. 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, a certain way of being and of living. Prayer engenders gratitude; regular charitable giving makes us generous; the experience of abstinence in Lent teaches us self control; chatting to others after the service takes beyond our own world and simply our own needs.
We hear again and again (as we have in today’s epistle reading) 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 happen 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 2017, are the body of Christ. It’s what Cardinal Newman described as ‘God’s noiseless work’. Yes, ritual changes us. It has a transformative effect on us and on our community.
And to face the question about church being boring head-on. Yes, it often is boring. But that’s okay. In fact, its more than okay. We are surrounded in life by constant activity, a regular stream of newsfeeds, stimulation, bombarded with adverts, as well as social media demanding our immediate attention.
If you have a planet’s worth of entertainment in your pocket, it’s easy to stave off ennui. Its unsurprising, then, when we are faced with an hour in church without phones or computers or television or simply things to do, we naturally feel a twinge of boredom. That’s because we’re being, as it were, detoxed. And the experience is uncomfortable.
I once decided to do a three day food detox. It was not a happy experiment. I committed only to eat fruit and vegetables for three days. No coffee, no alcohol, no salt or pepper or sugar, no butter with a baked potato, no salad dressing to make salad actually nice to eat.
It was a disaster because by the end of it I was so sick of the restrictions that I went out and bought a MacDonalds… clearly undoing all that good eating! The experience was deeply uncomfortable because of years of a particular diet isn’t easily shifted in three days.
During our weekly de-tox here in church, perhaps sometimes feeling a sense of boredom, unseen things happen. It interrupts our regular life pattern and encourages a state of deeper thoughtfulness and creativity. Sandi Mann is a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire and she notes that a bored mind moves into a ‘daydreaming’ state. Many parents will tell you that children with ‘nothing to do’ will eventually invent some weird, fun game to play—with a cardboard box, or a dance routine, or, as we were treated to on holiday, after several hours preparation, a two minute fashion show.
The problem in today’s world is that we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We try to eliminate them. “We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices,” Mann says. This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums. Noodling on your phone is “like eating junk food,” she says.
So what we are doing on Sundays (and for those who can manage a daily time of meditation, which I highly encourage!), instead of always fleeing boredom, lean into it. This is what we can experience as we relax into the liturgy: space to think, question, journey and inhabit the tradition.
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’.
But something is happening: we experience a very gradual barely perceptible transformation of who we are. Ritual, and the boredom we might feel in these moments, gathered around this altar, changes the world by changing us.
Lord Sacks, http://www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical1785.aspx
Timothy Radcliffe, Why Go to Church?
Clive Thompson, ‘How Being Bored Out of Your Mind Makes You More Creative’, 01.25.17. https://www.wired.com/2017/01/clive-thompson-7/