Summer Sermon Series: When the Church of Ireland has gone – 1
The institutional church has been in decline for decades, the traditional church with which most people will have identified has disappeared in many places and is struggling in others. To talk about when the Church of Ireland has gone can be seen as being gloomy, or it can be seen as being positive about the future of local churches. It can be seen as a way for the Church of Ireland to continue after the Church of Ireland has gone.
We begin this series with worship. Worship is what the church is about: while there is worship, the church continues. Worship in its fullest sense is about everything we do, about giving God his worth in all we think and say and do, but we are going to think about worship in the sense it is usually understood, the service in church Sunday by Sunday.
Most people who attend worship attend the sort of worship they like. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that why the Church of Ireland keeps going? We go where we feel that what happens fits in with our idea of what worship is.
Sometimes a service might not be what we like, yet for those gathered there, it might be proper worship. Why else would they have kept coming to a place for so many years?
One of the things I remember from coming to live in Ireland more than thirty years ago was my disappointment that worship in most churches did not match my idea of what worship should be; my disappointment that my expectations of what worship should be like were not shared by the people around me. One of the things I have earned in the three decades since is that worship can take very many and very diverse forms, but what matters is not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside. If there is to be a Church of Ireland after the Church of Ireland has gone, the essential things about worship need to be learned.
I think this was brought home to me most forcefully in the Philippines in October 2001. Visiting one of the Filipino villages, an Irish Presbyterian minister and I, were asked to celebrate Mass in a little community hall built from concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof.
We explained that this was not possible; we were not Roman Catholic clergy and would not wish to mislead people. Our interpreter explained to the people and turned to us, “nevertheless,” he said, “we would like to have a Holy Communion service.” There was only a Mass in the village once every three or four months and many of the people could not afford to travel elsewhere.
We agreed and said we would need half an hour to prepare something. We wrote the congregational responses from the Church of Ireland Prayer Book on large sheets of paper and stuck them to the wall. We found a Bible in Ilongo, the local language, for people to read the Epistle and the Gospel. We said the Creed in our own languages and people stood up to say their own prayers at the time of the intercessions. My Presbyterian colleague read verses from the 11th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as the Communion prayer.
The altar was an old table someone had brought from somewhere. A candle had been found and stuck in a glass. The bread was three little sweetbreads that someone had been keeping for a special occasion; the wine was rum, made from sugar cane that grew around the village, shared around in a china cup. Hymns the whole congregation knew were sung in the local language. There were about forty of us gathered under the light of a single unshaded light bulb. The hall was open on two sides – the wall rising to no more than three feet and mystified by-passers looked in at us.
To have looked at the scene through the eyes of everyday life would have been to have seen a gathering of poor people – some without shoes – and two Europeans – in a building that wasn’t much better than a farm shed. Yet there was there a sense that this was something special, that this was a place of holiness, that this was worship. If this can be worship, then so can what we do in our own places. Worship does not demand clergy, it demands people.
The experience was a lesson that holiness and worship are not about the form of service nor about where it takes place, they are about meeting with God and giving him the worship he is due. We do not need the whole organisation of the church to do those things.
If we read Jesus’ words in John Chapter 4 we are told that where worship takes place is not what is important; what is important is that God is worshipped in spirit and in truth. When we look at Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 35, we see Jesus setting an example that we can follow. Saint Mark tells us, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark” – Jesus deliberately sets aside specific time to be with the father. This was a time when there would be no distractions, nothing else competing for attention. It’s not so much the time of day that is important, it is the attitude, the state of mind. Do we come to worship with that degree of deliberateness? Is this to be a time that is completely set aside? Or is there a whole load of other stuff going on in our minds? We can still be the church if we are deliberate in our intentions.
“Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place” – he removes himself from a place where there would have been numerous things to divert his thoughts. This was the house of Simon and Andrew; there would have been rope and fishing tackle to make him think of the men he had called. There would have been the kitchenware on which Simon’s mother in law had prepared a meal, prompting thoughts of her healing. Jesus goes to seek a place apart.
For us a place apart might mean being in a church, or it might mean somewhere else. Where a Church of Ireland building has closed, the Church of Ireland presence has disappeared, that doesn’t need to be the case.
There used to be a bishop in the North who would say, ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. What service you had in church wasn’t important, what mattered was the spirit in which it was conducted. Our Communion service in that little Filipino village was a pale and pathetic effort in contrast with the liturgies of the great cathedrals, but its power came through the spirit in which it took place. It is the spirit of our church community that matters.
There is no set way of worshipping God, it is possible for us to believe very different things and still be right. What matters is that we learn from Jesus. It would be a nonsense, a contradiction of Scripture, if we believed that, for Church of Ireland people, worship would end when the Church of Ireland was gone.
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