a little shaping

When I was about seven – a lot of things seem to have happened when I was about seven, I wonder what was going on in my head at that time, is it a notable developmental moment in childhood?

Anyway, when I was about seven, I started to refuse to go to church – or more specifically, I started to refuse to go to Sunday School, which then led into going to church. I mean proper, digging-your-heels-literally-into-the-gravel, howling tantrum refusing. I can’t remember the exact details, but, fundamentally, I think I was bored. I don’t think it was church as the idea of church that was a problem – I don’t recall making any objections when my mother decided to decamp the two of us to a different church in a nearby town – but in my little village it was the same old same old every week, and I clearly wasn’t doing so well with that.

And I was pretty happy at the new church. I went from Sunday School into helping in Sunday school, rather than into the morning service, and when I was old enough, I was taken to the evening contemporary worship service instead of the main morning service – even though I probably wasn’t really old enough to engage with the sermons and spent that bit of the service reading all the gory history bits of the Old Testament.

For years, I’ve been bored by what I think of as ‘traditional’ church services (hymns and prayers and reciting words in the same way each service) because they didn’t do anything for me, either in terms of feeling or ideas: they were just dry and repetitive, and didn’t seem to bring anything of God into my world. I grew to like ‘special’ services, like Evensong, or the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, they were kind of higher, a bit like classical music concerts or Shakespeare, but they weren’t ‘normal church’. They were a little bit of a moment, and they had some cute choristers (what?, I was twelve), but they were also a little bit unreal. Also they were generally in gorgeous English cathedrals, not the little parish churches I grew up with. I thought, if I had to go back to that, a bit of me would probably die inside.

Yet over the last little while, I’ve been learning to appreciate the more traditional, regularly-shaped services, with their patterns of movement and moments of call and response. I’ve always loved the rhythms of services like evensong or the feast-time services (Christmas isn’t Christmas without a proper Nine Lessons and Carols, and personally I’d like it if Adeste Fideles was in Latin), and now, as I go on, that’s growing into ‘regular’ Sunday services. I’ve been learning to love liturgy – because I’ve been learning to understand it.

I spent most of August effectively mainlining James K. Smith’s two Cultural Liturgies books, as well as doing a chunk of research that took me back into thinking about how belief and ideology and knowledge are formed and created – this time, thinking about faith and belief, rather than the politics of my PhD. Smith’s thesis is that our beliefs about the world and the way that the world should be – the kind of kingdom we want to see – shapes and reflects (and is betrayed by) the things we do again and again, that make sense of the world for us. They become our liturgies. So he talks about shopping or the military-entertainment complex in US films (think Top Gun, or Pearl Harbour), that ‘believe’ in the power and salvation of shopping or heroism in a world of goodies or baddies. It’s a nuanced, detailed exposition of what my mother has always told me about the things you watch filling your brain.

He also talks about the way that the rituals and liturgies of the church service shapes our belief and our expression of it – verbally and physically, in the way we do life. The second part of the first book (…) Desiring the Kingdom walks through the format of a relatively traditional Protestant church service – welcome, hymns, creeds, readings, sermons, ceremonies (baptism, communion), etc – and explores what each bit says about the kingdom the participants believe in, and how the words and movements – sit, kneel, stand, sing, silence, wait, share, eat, etc – forms our belief in that Kingdom: how the church brings us in, shapes us, and sends us out again and what that does for our interaction with and engagement in the world. When he gets, in book two, to talking about the theory in depth, he describes it like this:

But as we’ve been emphasising, our action flows from our dispositions, our habitus, our non-conscious passional orientation to the world. Which is precisely why any Christian emphasis on mission and vocation and culture-making has to be rooted in a more fundamental concern with ‘dispositional deflection’. If the church is a centrifuge, sending out image-bearers to take up their commission in God’s good but broken world, it must also be a community of practice that centripetally gathers for dispositional reformation… In sum, any missional, formative Christian institution that is bent on sending out actors – agents of reformation and renewal – will need to attend to the reformation of our habitus.” (Imagining the Kingdom, 157)

(there’s a lot of Bourdieu, hence habitus)

It’s an argument I don’t struggle to understand or buy into, and probably not just because I spent three years thinking about ideology, political action and postmodernist theory – but having read it in the context of my faith and church-going, I’m now about 110% more aware of it within services (in the same way that reading Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope made me paranoid/reflective about the theology of hymns and songs). But not just in a way of worrying about what I’m being imbued with.

I’ve been finding that being aware of the way that these things shape me makes the service richer for me. I understand a bit more and also appreciate the mystery and awe of how God and humans interrelate, and the power of liturgy. The words of the liturgy (and I love some of the traditional wording, in the way that I love the old King James) are more beautiful. And the different beats of the service resonate, not in an emotional-wash, which is sometimes how it seems we’re meant to ‘feel’ God in church, but somewhere deep, possibly in my toes. And I find I want more of it, not less. I’m finding out I’d probably survive just fine in a more traditional, little, parish church.

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