It is three years ago today that I last took a church service. Sometimes, I miss the liturgy, particularly the hymns and the music, but I do not miss the church.
I still read the Gospels, still try to put together words of reflection on what Jesus might be saying.
Three years away from the church, the words of Jesus increasingly seem to have no reflection in the life of the institution, particularly in the life of the Church of England, which spent four months of lockdown being comfortably invisible while the work of the world continued. It’s hard to imagine that Jesus would have barred the doors.
Looking back, I remember during my time in Northern Ireland, there were church ministers who would talk about the “total depravity” of human beings. I wish I had possessed the courage in those times to tell them that the only thing that had achieved its totality was the nonsense they were talking. Human psychology contradicted their assertions, people are not totally depraved. Everyday life demonstrated that if there was “original sin,” then there was a far larger element of original goodness. If there was depravity, it was in the large incomes and houses provided to the ministers by church congregations, most of whom lived in considerably more modest circumstances.
The memory that shall remain with me always is of the innate decency of ordinary church members.
Reading a biography of Siegfried Sassoon this morning, I found lines he had written himself in his autobiography:
I have spoken of my desire not to remember unpleasant things very clearly. My intention in this book has been to commemorate or memorialize those human contacts which supported me in my rather simple-minded belief that the world was full of extremely nice people if only one could get to know them properly.
The bravest of soldiers, Sassoon encountered the world at its worst in the hideous slaughter of the Western Front, but retained a faith that people were “extremely nice.”
Sassoon’s simple-minded belief reflects my experience in the parishes in which I served for thirty-one years. There were rude people, there were odd people, there were people who insulted me, people who swore at me, people who sent me offensive literature, there was even a man who threatened to take off my head with a billhook, but my parishes were mostly people who were extremely nice.
I would go further than Sassoon, I met people who, perhaps without having any idea that they were doing so, showed to others, and to me, the goodness and loving kindness of God. I miss those people.