the art of choosing a church, part II

To return where we left off: I’ve come to terms with the fact that the church as a whole is imperfect and that there will, therefore, be no church that will absolutely never annoy me. So, if I was or am going to move church, then even if I don’t want to shop, I still have to make a decision. I need to think about where I am ready and able to make my peace with those imperfections, and where I cannot (or would rather not, because there is a process of prioritisation happening here). What was I looking for? Why was I thinking about moving at all?

I mean, was I thinking about making a move just because I’d got tired of the fact that the church I was a member of wasn’t a perfect fit and I didn’t want to make myself try and fit any better with it because I really do like an easy life? Or had the church and I begun to chafe at each other, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but still creating friction, and tension, and pain - in a way that wasn’t so much like bumping a knee and more like something that might create a chronic condition? In church we often talk about seasons, meaning ‘it was right for then, or it is right for now, but it won’t be right forever’ (or wrong, or whatever). Did the season change on me?

It had started to feel to me like it this was what was happening. For four years it had been a great fit: a church that I was able to slot into easily, that had enough things going on to get you into the church community, and it’s parish, like home groups and serving in some of the ministries, so that a shy introvert like me could find ways of getting to know people in a big new city without burning serious energy I didn’t have in overcoming social anxiety, and also be doing some of the stuff I want to be doing as part of a church. It was a place where I got to meet and know people who were quite a lot like me, at a time when I’d just moved to London and only knew a very few people and needed new friendships. In theology and worship style it was what I was used to, but on a larger scale. When everything else around me was slightly crazy and uncertain, that ‘known-ness’ was exactly what I needed.

None of those things have really changed about that church. Sure there are some different people, some different voices, in a slightly different time - but the fundamentals haven’t changed. But I have. Or perhaps I’ve learned some stuff about myself that won’t change. Or a bit of both. There were some things I felt I was starting to miss that I think I might've had before, some that I didn't even know I had or really wanted. And while there was no critical feeling of needing to move, there was also a sense of 'maybe it's time to go now, while a bit of you still doesn't want to, and you can still be friends,' in my heart.

So, if I was going to move, these were the things I decided I was looking for, and the accommodations I was willing to make.

(1) Location: A church that was in the area where I actually live was the key. Yes, I wanted to be able to walk to church, but more importantly, I wanted to be in a church that was trying to be a part of the community in which I live. I don’t have kids, I don’t work here, and most of my friends don’t live here so most of my social life is elsewhere, and so church felt like a way into making this my place. Plus, I believe that the church has something to offer to the communities it’s built in, and it was starting to feel odd to be doing that somewhere else where I really only existed on Sundays. I want to be here.

(2) That meant I wanted to be in a church that is looking to be a part of the community in some practical way (not just in verbal evangelism, which is so not my forte), and that was open to it, including all of the questions and concerns that people bring with them to church, often about church. I also wanted to be able to invite my friends to church if they were interested, or at times like Christmas or Easter without the fear of them running for the hills. I have a lot of love for Evangelical churches and charistmatic styles of worship, but I’ve learnt that most of the people I might be inviting find them a whole lot more alien than the traditional Anglican liturgy and hymns. I want my people to be able to come as themselves, to ask the questions they want to ask and get answers that are honest (including being honest about how hard and confusing a lot of us in church find the hard stuff), and to and feel welcomed, not ‘wrong’ in some way and like they have to be ‘right’ before they’re allowed to be a part of the church. I don’t want people to feel like they’ve got to have said yes to everything about Christianity and the church before they walk through the doors.

(3) I’ve tended to find that the kind of discussions I want to be available in church is easier to maintain without creating rifts in a smaller community, because it’s more likely the that the various sides or arguments in a conversation know each other and have a real affection for each other. The larger the church, generally, the more likely you are to find unity looking towards uniformity. It’s why the home group I was in was so great for me, and why home groups are important in big churches. So, I was looking for a smaller church.

Also, at heart, I’m a small town person. I love London, but it’s too big for me. I have to shrink it down, to live in my bit of it and find my spaces, in order to survive. I grew up two miles outside a pretty small village. I’m used to small churches. Suddenly a church of 500 was feeling too big. I kept going back to my mother’s church in Cornwall and being more and more envious of the fact that in her small church you could have more than a passing relationship with people from the ages of 3 to 83, all from a lot of different backgrounds. I was barely managing to maintain relationships with the people I already knew and cared about, let alone meet anyone new or be able to be a part of welcoming them. And most of the people I really knew looked and came from a fairly similar background to me, and live in a fairly similar world: the main differentiation was kids or no kids (yet). That’s not to say that there wasn’t a diversity in the congregation, just that I was finding it hard to get out of my box, and a part of that was that I am (a) a shy introvert, and (b) so much of my life was in different physcial places to my church, that it was hard to casually be around getting to know people. In a smaller church (and one where I don’t already know people) I have to make the effort to get to know people and I don’t get to be picky about who they are. It’s a challenge that I need to keep me honest about the fact that there is more than one kind of person in the world and the ones who aren’t like me aren’t automatically weird and wrong.

Those were my priorities. I then gave myself one accommodation that I wasn’t willing to make, and a couple that I knew I probably had to make. I wasn’t willing to go to a church that didn’t believe in women in leadership. There are plenty of places where I still have to have this conversation, and I have absolutley no intention of having it mentally and emotionally if not actually every Sunday morning. A church that doesn’t have women leaders at the moment is less of a problem for me, assuming it is happy to have them: we can work on making that willingness a reality.

And finally, I made an accomodation with the relative lack of importance of preaching and teaching, and of worship style. I can’t deny that there were moments at my previous where the teaching and I rubbed each other up the wrong way. But that on it’s own wouldn’t have been enough to encourage me to leave (at present - I could imagine there being things in the teaching that would have been enough, but it hadn’t happened) - so I wasn’t looking for a distinctly different theological or doctrinal perspective. But I also know that the Sunday Sermon is probably the part of church where I’m least likely to get a perfect fit, because I’m an opinionated so and so who reads theology for a living (or, as my mother said once when I was taking issue with a preacher’s definition of postmodernism, ‘Hannah, you know you’re not this sermon’s target audience, right?’), and because most vicars aren’t getting ready to give TED talks or inspiring lectures in their non-existent spare time. I have to remind myself that, barring actual heresies (actually fairly rare) it’s not a bad thing for me to hear teaching that doesn’t necessarily agree with me, and also, that the Sunday sermon is a long way from being my only teaching input in a week.

And so I decided: I’m going to the small Anglican church just up the road. It’s not technically my parish, but the one next door, but it’s the parish church of the community I feel like I live in. It’s small, it’s mixed, it has an affiliated missional community, it has a traditional Anglican liturgy, and they sing really quite badly (and my mother is going to tell me that the vicar’s handshake is limp…). It’s the kind of imperfect place that feels like the right kind of imperfect for me at the moment. Its ‘come to our Christmas service’ services are a Christingle and ‘Beer and Carols’, and for me, right, now, that’s just dandy.

in which I wrap up October

the art of choosing a church, part I