An evening service in another parish. The service could not have been more conservative, Holy Communion in Elizabethan English. A dozen in the congregation, the reassuring words of Cranmer, the Church of Ireland at its most traditional. Standing at the church door, shaking hands as the faithful left, a man bearing an unhappy countenance bade neither “good evening,” nor a word of thanks that someone should give up the Sunday evening of bank holiday weekend to come to his parish to take a service for a small number of people, instead he mumbled, “that was different,” in a grumbling voice.
It was a baffling comment. What was different? Every rubric had been followed; every prayer said in the exact form it appeared in the book; every movement, every word in accordance with the canons of the Church of Ireland. There was nothing to do other than laugh, thirty years in parish ministry have taught that church door grumblers are unhappy people who bring their unhappiness to worship.
Perhaps unhappiness was at the root of the complaint, the sermon had been on Jesus’ words that those who weep now would laugh, it had been about Christians being people of joy, it had been about facing whatever might lie ahead with a confidence that looked beyond the grave, it had contrasted the experience of Christianity in Africa with that in Ireland. Perhaps the man disliked the idea of joy, or disliked the thought of resurrection, or disliked the idea that the African church might have anything to teach the Irish church.
The Church of Ireland seems beset by grumblers, their objections rarely have roots in anything even vaguely theological, instead it is about what they “like” and what they “don’t like,” grumbles are about their tastes and preferences. To try to meet grumbles by pointing out what the Bible says on subjects is to invite a look of incomprehension: Jesus of Nazareth takes a distant second place to doing things as they were done by their fathers and grandfathers.
Pursue arguments, and almost always the response will eventually come, “you don’t understand, you are not one of us.” To suggest that there is a “knowledge” only attainable by those from within a particular community smacks of the sort of gnosticism that would have been condemned as heresy if it had appeared in the life of the early church, but which seems regarded as acceptable in rural Church of Ireland parishes.
As time passes, the number of people regarded as “one of us” by the grumblers grows ever smaller. Younger people unattracted by the prejudices of the past simply ignore the church and even those who have been ordained thirty years grow weary. The Church of Ireland is suffering death by a thousand grumbles.