A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Simple Christianity?

A few years ago now I remember being in a discussion on anarchy and religion. There were a lot of agnostic anarchists, a few Pagans, one guy who was trying to decide if he was still Catholic, a few Christians and one very quiet Muslim girl who looked intimidated when asked about the Qur'an (and me, of course. Oh, and Matthew, who's converted to Judaism now).

It was meant to be an open discussion but it was more of an open discussion for people with enough confidence to blurt out their point of view, usually interrupting someone who was still talking (Really, it makes it very clear why debates are usually led by a chairperson, although in an anarchist society a chair would somewhat defeat the purpose). One of the Christians tried to apply anarchy to Christianity - "Anarchy and Christianity are both about freedom" but it sounded suspiciously like he was trying to preach a sermon and I don't think the anarchists, knowing full well that "freedom" has different shades of meaning, were particularly impressed. The Possibly Catholic guy somehow got onto talking about Scriptural Authority (he confessed at one point he refused to trust anything in the Bible but the words of Jesus), the Pagans were fluffy and talked about how paganism is religious anarchy, and another Christian told us all how he hadn't bothered joining any Christian societies. He said, "I consider myself a simple Christian."

I can't remember who this person was, and I remember suspecting even at the time that he seemed a bit too proud of his non-membership of any Christian societies, but I confess that the idea of being a "simple Christian" attracted me immensely, and still does. Perhaps it needs to be tempered by my annoyance at the "let's go on being Christians but remove any last recognisable shred of Christianity" brigade (like the types who think you can be a Christian and not believe in God). But there are days when I feel so fed up with the whole "system" that to live "simply" as a Christian seems like a beautiful ideal.

On Sunday I went to a different church from my usual one (as it turned out, this was a good move since some members of my choir were performing and I joined in :D). I was rather intrigued, being personally rather "low church", at the "traditional" nature of the service. There were vestments and even an icon, hymns, and a very traditional church building, with an organ and pews and a pulpit, some stained glass, floor mosaics and those plaques that say "In memory of So-and-so of this parish". They did also have a band (with a guitar!) and a fairly large student population (most of CF seemed to be there), and they served excellent tea and biscuits afterwards.

Non-traditional churches sometimes congratulate themselves on not being like the above church, except perhaps for the tea and biscuits. They may meet in a school hall (or in the case of Hillsong, a theatre), they may have a full band, a gospel choir, and an overhead projector, they might try non-traditional methods of worship, they dispense with vestments, refuse icons, and change the pews for comfy chairs, or at least comfier pews.

Most still keep other traditions (and have traditions of their own), like regular sung worship, a sermon in which a leader preaches to the congregation (who are silent or interject with "amen" and "hallelujah") and many endorse tithing (that is, giving ten percent of your income to church funds), and, of course, meeting on Sundays. None of these are specifically required of the church, although Paul encourages meeting together and sang hymns when in jail, as well as encouraging people to be generous givers. James speaks of helping Christians in need and of course Jesus commands us to love one another. But there is also discussion of how in a meeting everyone has something different to bring, and I think we can conclude that they wouldn't have had a pipe organ.

I am not saying that later traditions are not useful. Seasons of fasting and feasting are useful ways of dedicating ourselves to God in different manners - fasting in discipline and sacrifice, feasting in freedom and celebration - both in their way an expression of what it means to serve God. My brother once stunned me, when previously I had smugly remarked on the pointless of Catholic mass, by telling me that he found Mass beautiful. I realised that for him, at the time (he's no longer a Christian as far as I can tell :( ), it had a special meaning that "low church" protestant me refused to examine. Tithing money can be a method of trusting God with our finances and being generous whatever the circumstances. Sung worship can be used very effectively to expression adoration, gratitude and reverence. Teaching by a knowledgeable person helps the one with less understanding to learn. I don't believe that traditions and rituals have come out of nowhere and serve no purpose. I am just concerned that our traditions may take the place of law - gaining an equal footing with the necessary basics of Christianity: believe and trust in Jesus, repent of sin, love God, love other people.

This is a difficult thing, however, because people can take pride in anything, and if they aren't taking pride of their dedicated church attendance, their financial commitment to the church, their church's impressive organ or impressive rock band, their church's refusal to conform with the world or their church's relevance to the world, they can certainly take pride in their "simple Christianity". We could throw out all the rituals, traditions, songs, formats and organisations, and we could still end up squabbling over who's doing Christianity right...

Perhaps Christianity doesn't lend itself to simplicity that well. People are still fiercely debating theology, which is fascinating but utterly exhausting. And loving other people has problems of its own - people just aren't simple, especially when they get into large groups, and when loving other people, we can't wait for them to reach perfection before we associate with them - and in that case, quitting a church or a Christian society may not be the best course of action. We can become armchair critics, sneering at the flailing church from the outside and congratulating ourselves at our own devotion to God instead of to the church and its traditions.

I suppose what I really want is not "simple Christianity" because I'm not sure that such a thing exists or if it can be defined - and attempting to create a movement for it would only divide the church further. I'm sure the church needs stirring up (don't we all get complacent at times?) but it seems that often a new movement can become an idol on its own - if I said that traditions are useful but can become a hindrance, I'm sure that a resulting movement could be made where traditions were declared anathema and any church with sung worship declared apostate... which would just be silly.

I suppose what I'm fed up with is "doing church". I long to know God and to understand and possess the love spoken about in 1 Corinthians 13. It's fun and can even be edifying discussing minute points of theology or singing a good rousing hymn or volunteering for a coffee morning, but aren't these just physical manifestations of what should be a spiritual foundation? We don't sing hymns to pass the time or because they're enjoyable, but because they express truth about the one we worship. We don't give money to our church because of some divine tax, but because we love our church and because as part of the church, we want to reach more people and bring more glory to God. We don't discuss theology because we want to be proved right, but because we want to discover the truth.

I've no doubt that many traditions are useful and helpful - and that if we want to know God, we can learn from other people. But I feel we need to be assured that the most important thing is to love and know God, and that all else should follow from that. If that means our traditions have to go, then so be it.



  • At 4:23 pm , Blogger Rob said...

    Some great thoughts here Helen.
    Simple Chritianity was always the aim of Francis of Assissi and the Franciscan order still try to follow this.

  • At 7:59 pm , Blogger Jean-Luc Picard said...

    Excellent post, with goot points mentioned.

  • At 11:14 pm , Blogger Dr Moose said...

    Good stuff as ever!

    The only problem being that as soon as we jettison our traditions we enslave ourselves to new ones. (No sarcasm/cnicism meant - just an observation of experience).

    And as ever, no I don't have the answers, and to quote Martyn Joseph, "maybe to always keep asking is part of the plan."



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