Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Why I Have Stopped Going to Church

It is a funny thing, being ordained. Well, it isn't funny at all; it's a serious business, but it is a funny old thing. The process of being called by God to ordained ministry (the only ministry that I can speak of - other ministries are available) goes a little like this:

 - Born
 - Go to church with the family
 - Grow a little 
 - Grow a lot 
 - Be born again (if that is your thing)
 - Feel the gentle constancy of God's call
 - Say "yes"
 - Jump through many hundreds of discernment hoops
 - Train
 - Put on the collar after a jolly old time with the Bishop and the Holy Spirit
 - Stop going to church


But you see up there in the list - the whole going to church thing, well that halts at about the same moment that the professional church provision begins. Providing and facilitating 'church' is not about 'going'. I accept that this probably sound ridiculous, but it is a fact. The Eucharist, for me and others with whom I have discussed this, is about managing little arrangements to enable the prayer and praise of God's People to go as it should. As a priest, I either preside or I worship - the two rarely overlap.

I know that some of you still are not convinced. Some of you may be mildly irritated by my words given that we have the perfect excuse to be doing the whole church thing all the time. Part of the calling to priesthood is to approach God with the 'people on our hearts' (Michael Ramsay's idea from "The Christian Priest Today") and to approach the people with God on our hearts. This connects with Bill Countryman's idea that priests exist on the "border of the Holy" - all of which is short hand that tells us that our church, our nourishment and spiritual edification, is to be found away from the community to which we are called to minister. Sometimes, this is a hard thing for new priests to grasp - as there are times, believe me, when we don't feel like we have had a moment with God for weeks or months - a moment with God for ourselves, that is. We are called to have that space elsewhere. If anyone feels called to priesthood to be closer to God, then I would suggest that their wires are crossed. 


  1. Interesting piece, and a good challenge to those of us who are thinking about possibly going into church leadership in the future.

    Would you say you never engage in worship whilst leading - surely it is an act of worship?

  2. It would be wrong of me to say that we never engage in the worship, because in many ways we are central to it (in the sense of its facilitation) - however, the worship is (often, though not exclusively) not mine. such is my experience at least. Worship for myself energises me as it would be expected to - but worship for others depletes me (in the same way that ant worthy effort would)

  3. I know what you are saying, but I think there are one or two things to be said.

    1. This is not exclusive to the priesthood. Others who take a leading part in worship have a similar situation. I am thinking here about organists and other musicians, and Readers (I have been all of these in my time).

    2. It is often more acute for priests, especially in benefices where they are expected always to be leading others in worship. Very occasionally I have the opportunity to share the leading with another priest or a Reader, which does allow a bit of space to engage oneself. Even better, if it can be arranged, is to be able to sit in the congregation while someone else (say a retired colleague) leads. I manage this about once or twice a year - it caused a few comments when I first did it, but people are more used to it now.

    3. The odd foray to your cathedral or another church mid-week can help reconnect. It also helps to see what others do, what you might wish to emulate and what avoid.

    4. With Admiralcreedy, I believe that leading others in their worship IS itself an act of worship, but it is sometimes difficult to feel as though it is. We have to learn not to rely too much on our feelings to judge the quality of the worship we offer to God.

    Hope this makes sense.

  4. Even with my limited experience of leading worship once a month, I know exactly what Father David is talking about.

    It is impossible for it not to be in some sense a performance - remembering to catch the organist's eye when necessary; switching the microphone on and off; if you have a bad throat, remembering to take lozenges; glass of water; concentrating on what happens next in the order of service; making eye contact with the congregation; remembering (in my case) not to talk too fast - etc etc - you get the idea.

    The closest I came to worship on those occasions were the heartfelt prayers in the vestry before and afterwards, and as I was taking Matins I used to try and go somewhere else for Evensong when possible.

  5. Great post. Becoming a priest meant for me no longer leading a worship group (including prep and practice), no longer being involved in other parts of the act of worship readings, drama, intercessions, no longer leading fellowship groups - occasionally being allowed to preach (rota and readers allowing) and a few lines of liturgy!

    The sacrament of The Eucharist is always an act of worship, I would say, however that is very much a collective act that is in itself a sort of act of intercession, if I might be so bold, and not so much about personal worship but about facilitating a corporate act of worship that does not allow for personal devotional prayer/intercession/waiting on God space if you are presiding, as your prayerful focus is surely on both God and communicants at all times?

    I have taken to squirrelling off on Sunday evenings just to go and freeeeeely worship 'elsewhere'. I think of it a bit like being a part of a very busy family all week where you feel like Taxi-Mom and that is my 'date night' or 'long hot soak in the bath'.

    Strange but true!

  6. David, this is a unique perspective, which I have heard others describe in a slightly different way.

    My Vicar spells it out clearly in that he likes to go to services where he is a communicant along with the people, and where he does not have any official function to fulfil. Quite, like you, he does not get this opportunity very often.

    In some sense I can feel that same. If I am involved in the service , normally as a server and the administration of the Cup, it can be a distraction from the worship, as you are thinking about what needs doing next.

    I met our Curate at the Cathedral for an 8am service a few weeks ago. She had gone there as she was due to lead Matins later that morning, as well as curating a Holy Communion service later that morning. She echoed what you say.

    I've had discussions elsewhere about the role of the Priest in Worship, and your description of it not being about you, being as a facilitator seems to match my idea of the role of the Priest, while others disagree.

    My DDO explained that the Priest in worship, particularly at Holy Communion is somehow the conduit (his word) between God and the people and the people and God. The means where the Grace of God is able to flow and reach out through the Sacrament to the whole of the people, whether communicant or not. The role of the Priest is to facilitate that process.

    It's quite intimidating when I think about it, but it also feels so central to the call I feel to Ordained Ministry. So, a question to pose to myself, would I be substituting the joy of worship for the joy of being a facilitator of others worship? And am I prepared for that role. It remains to be seen....

  7. I understand what you are saying, but I honestly find offering the sacrifice is 'Going to Church' for me.

    But sacrifice is the word. We sacrifice 'going' to church as worship leaders and worship God through that sacrifice.

  8. Absolutely spot on. Worse as an incumbent, because even when you are not leading, if you are there, you are on constant red alert.

    Of course leading the Eucharist is a worshipful experience, but you have lost the sense of voluntary participation that we once had and that others assume is a permanent state. I think comments along the lines of "Oh but it's such a wonderful privilege" are actually quite dangerous, not because it isn't, but because there is a danger of dehumanising oneself or even putting oneself on a pedestal.

    PS. please explain the link between the picture and the ensuing text.

  9. Thanks to you all for your kind comments. Yes, it is no less a joy for all that I say, and yes, it is intoxicating too.

    As for the picture, it is a living testimony to the fact that I very often say something different to what I started out to say - which is also short-hand for 'there is no connection, but it made me smile'

    It is also very helpful to have the opinions of lay worship-leaders here too. They offer, by very definition, a distinctive perspective.

    I need to read these comments again more thoroughly. I think the meat on this particular bone is to be found in them and less in my words.

  10. You highlight a real problem for those of us who regularly lead worship. I think there is always a tension between doing the best we can to facilitate and lead the worship (including coping with the technicalities e.g those mentioned by Lay Anglicana)and being worshippers ourselves. Someone once advised me that the secret of worshipping while leading is "to be fully present". This is only possible after thorough preparation, but in any case I have found to be a huge challenge. I'm often not 'fully present'. The person who gave this advice was an anglo-catholic in a church where the ritual was particularly elaborate. He also said that leading in this way (fully present) is totally exhausting, so he usually retired to bed with the Sunday papers for the afternoon! I lkie you Meerkat diversion by the way!

  11. I frequently operate the sound desk in church and have the same experience of not being involved.

  12. I know this feeling. In the past I have been part of a team setting up and facilitating 'alternative worship' events, which were reflective in character. After the long hours of preparation, and the gathered moment of divine encounter arrived, I tried as hard as I could to feel a part of it. But the feeling never came. Looking back, I realise that's part of the cost of being a facilitator. It's about being a servant. And that never really brings a pleasant feeling, because it goes against our human nature, the ego. But the whole event wouldn't work the same if there wasn't some cost involved somewhere.

  13. You outline well the mamy issues facing those who work in a church setting. In a previous life as sound engineer and technical director I found I was always there but rarely present and recognise all that you write.

    There is the danger of entering Mary and Martha world and the peril of working for God rather than living with Him.

    A personal niggle of mine is the bishop who comes amongst clergy and wants to say the grace. I think that here, and other places, blessing is required. We also need to go places and be believers rather than workers - I use audio sermons, visits to other places and lectures for that.

    Great post,


  14. I found exactly the same thing while working as a parish evangelist (I'm Church Army). Even on days when I wasn't leading or preaching, and I simply sat with the congregation, I felt like I was 'on duty'. There was a part of me always checking everything was happening as it should, so if someone didn't do a reading I could jump up and do it. If someone was upset I could take them out etc.

    I think the moment Church became work I stopped receiving a lot from it in a personal building up my faith way (like you said I stopped going to church). At both parishes I worked in there was an evening service as well so I couldn't go elsewhere in the evening. Also the things that I was committed to in my church on weekday evenings meant I couldn't get out to a home group (either at my church or another one) either.

    I ended up completely loosing my faith (I was on my way to being a fully fledged atheist). There were other reasons behind this as well, but being in a situation where I rarely received from a church service didn't help. Also people assume that because you are the parish evangelist you faith is as strong as it could be all the time. It becomes hard to 'own up'. Do we unnecessarily put our clergy and other church staff on a pedestal as being much holier, and more full of faith than the rest of us?

    I left ministry and now work in secular work. My faith gradually came back once I got out of church work (I'm now writing a book on the experience of loosing faith in full time ministry - He Never Let Go).

    I'm not sure I could ever face going back to parish evangelism if I am honest. If I did I would be much wiser and would insist on various things like regularly being able to go to church elsewhere once a month etc.

  15. It's a bit like that being a Churchwarden. Have the people doing the readings turned up? If not, I get up and do it at the drop of a hat. Has old Fred gone a funny colour, does he need an ambulance or an undertaker? Has old Bertha just told a visitor to push off out of her seat? Are the microphones right? Keep an eye on that dodgy-looking bloke who wandered in half-way through. Is that the fire alarm going off in the hall?

    Worship? What worship?

    I once missed the Blessing by 'encouraging' (physically) a drunk to 'Go in peace to love & serve the Lord' after he smashed a bottle against a wall.

    I'm going to Church on Sunday - not here!

  16. I understand fully what you are saying. My worship is usually spoiled by vague or dreary hymns. Even the last one isn't usually rousing which really lets you down. The mid week service is usually better to connect with God if you can tune out the chatter of the price of bread in the supermarket whilst communion is taking place. Now i am asking myself why do i even bother.
    Keep up the blogs. I do enjoy reading them.

  17. The number of excellent comments show how true and accurate this post is, David. Church as work, however much we love it and feel called to it, is not church as personal worship in any accepted sense. It is also extraordinarily demanding and tiring to do it properly and by the end of a morning of leading services in three different churches miles apart I would be shattered.

  18. I read this on the day I'm off for one of those interesting 'discerning' conversations. What you say echo's so much what I have learnt about my own experience of and approach to leading worship as a Reader over the last two years. That holding of people before God, as a link in chain between the two is so important. It doesn't often allow for me to worship or receive myself at the time.

    However, at it's creative best the process of planning a service of worship, or writing a sermon, is the one in which I can both worship and receive from God - because I am learning something knew about him, or myself, and hopefully the relationship between the two.

    Even as a Reader, and especially as a Reader during a vacancy over the last year, I have found it vital to take time to meet with God in other places; quiet spaces which fill up the spiritual tank. Whatever happens in my process of discernment I don't want to lose those times - which for me happen about monthly.

    One other thought: should any of us ever simply 'go' to church? If we are simply going through the motions of attending church, being seen to be at the right place at the right time, or do the right thing at the right part of the service, then we've hit rock bottom surely. It may well be that our calling to enable people to touch, or be touched, by God, gives us a distinct purpose under God to be there, but we should never simply 'go' to church as a matter of routine.

    God Bless you on and in your imminent move - and through that touch many more lives.

  19. A very honest and helpful post, Father.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.



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