In the Spirit: Take Me to Church
Stained glass window inside Brussels cathedral. Photo: Julian Elliott Photography/Getty Images
Here, how a belief in God can go beyond the gospel truth.
My eyes fill with tears every time I hear “Amazing Grace.” Watching Barack Obama break into an a cappella version at the funeral for the Charleston pastor and his bible study group gunned down several years ago had me blubbering alone in front of CNN: for all his oratorical splendour, he is not a natural singer, but the raw authenticity struck a chord.
The words in the song that nail me every time are “How precious did that grace appear/The hour I first believed.”
I believe in God. Amazing how many years it took for me to say that to myself, let alone out loud.
And amazing how radical it feels to me, after half a lifetime of being more concerned about being cool and intellectually superior to what I long considered sheep-like behaviour.
But grace did come to me one day, all of a piece, sitting on a hard pew in a soaring church in Quebec City, with the morning light of a crisp fall day streaming through a stained glass window. The hour I first believed came in the form of a physical lightness and a freedom. No question it was a gift. To me, it felt as if I had finally grown-up.
In his book Signs of Warning Signs of Hope, Kerby Anderson wrote about what he calls baby boomerangs, who are coming back to the faiths of their childhoods. He describes how secularization marginalized religious institutions in the ’60s and ’70s. And how pluralization simultaneously expanded everyone’s world view.
“This increase in choice led naturally to a decrease in commitment and continuity,” he wrote of the generation. “Spiritually hungry for meaning, [boomers] dined heartily at America’s cafeteria for alternative religions: est, gestalt, meditation, scientology, bioenergetics and the new age.
Others sought spiritual peace through 12-step programs for alcoholics, workaholics, even chocoholics. This have-it-your-way-salad-bar spirituality has been high on choices and options but low on spiritual commitment.”
While there has been a steady decrease in religious attendance and a rise (now about 21 per cent) of Canadians who identify as religious “nones,” there are signs that boomers are changing their minds. Faith itself has taken on a different, less rigid format: Pollsters are starting to find people reporting belief in an unaffiliated manner. There is also big growth in “unbranded” urban churches, beyond the stodgy old denominations.
I attend Deer Park United Church at Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto. This is a newish thing: I began going with a boyfriend about five years ago. It is not something I generally bring up in conversation, for I can’t bear proselytizers: this is personal for me.
I’m not winning any regular attendance award nor do I participate in community functions beyond a really cool tour of the organ pipes in the church attic. I have no scholarly prowess in theology and, as for the Bible, I have read Genesis (which is spectacular) but am dodgy on much of the rest of the stories, piecing things together on the fly.
For a few years, I also went to a funky little Anglican church downtown called St. Matthias, where they did pet blessings (some parishioners left dog bowls in the pews); the very urban and ethnic mix of of Queen Street West made for one of the oddest and sweetest nativity pageants I’ve ever seen.
Deer Park United is more straight-laced, an amalgamation with Calvin Presbyterian; the two congregations share space and the respective reverends swap out Sunday sermon duties. And this is what has happened as congregations dwindle, and it appears to be a successful experiment: there is new energy as rituals and traditions are sewn together.
In fact, the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 out of an earlier union of Methodist, and the Congregational union and part of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, so this current mash-up isn’t so strange.
It took a long time for me to summon the inner stillness to appreciate sermons. But I feel open now, which is a lovely place to be.
I have grown to treasure going to church with Bob, my partner today. Bob was widowed young and tragically and then raised three kids on his own. Church is a meditative time for him, and I have been intensely moved in sharing that space in the pew beside him. Bob’s faith is his own story to tell, but I find myself drawn to his quiet confidence in the matter.
This is what I love about going to church: I love the predictability, following along with the order of service in the bulletin, reading the announcements about potlucks and flower arrangement credits.
It fulfills a yearning for simplicity in my over-extended life stage, with a quintet of teens and young adults in a newly blended household in which I am predictably making loads of missteps and blunders. I like the formality, the stained glass, the ponderous organ, the giggly children’s circle and the gravity of Communion. I like the bit where you shake everyone’s hand to offer the peace, the processionals and the tea and cookies afterward. Ecclesiastical songs in United Church world can be hauntingly beautiful or dour, and either way I like the rhythm of standing up and singing along softly in my dreadful tone-deaf way.
And the people at church are astonishingly welcoming: I’ve never been a joiner, but church is a pursuit you can do alongside other people yet alone. As in any crowd, everyone contributes their energy to the room: in this room, the energy of prayer is wildly positive.
By the end of the service, I always feel better, lighter, clearer and recharged. It is the letting go of the dumb little stuff and taking a few minutes to think about something larger than my own navel.
I’m okay today with wearing the disdain of some of my literary heroes. It has taken decades to reconcile my attraction to Sartre and de Beauvoir and the crisp, clean arrogance of the Godless world of their Existentialist cabal.