Let us not pray
What’s so great about not going to church? After 50 years without missing a Sunday, Ian Gregory conducted an experiment in bunking off
William Inge, the dean of St Paul’s, said: “One of the lasting pleasures in life is that of not going to church.” I have sampled most of the “lasting pleasures” of life that the law allows, and became intrigued by Dean Inge’s claim about this one. What have we all been missing by going to church whenever possible, and being so strongly attracted to its holy ways?
If you are Dean of St Paul’s, of course, the experience will not be the same as the lay person’s. All the same, one has to be up betimes, decently dressed, familiar with the prayer book, and not averse to organ music. All these criteria being ticked, I decided not to do what I have done every Sunday for more than 50 years: Get to church and Sunday school up to three times per week. Now, as a retired Congregational minister, I would consign this blessed habit to history, at least for one week.
It rather shook the household when I announced this from my still-warm bed one Sunday morning.
“Not going?” said my startled wife.
“Not well, Granddad?” asked my worried grandchild.
The dog noted that I was not wearing the normal Sunday-scented trousers.
“Day off, then, vicar?” said a neighbour, seeing me take said dog for an unaccustomed Sunday walk as he religiously shampooed his Ford Mondeo.
“No, Alex,” I lied. “Just catching up on desk jobs.”
Not engaged in the usual routines of going to church, I was obsessed by the clock, thinking about what people would be doing on the premises: Fixing the microphone, lights, screen etc; rushing about with bits of paper; making sure the water in the pulpit was fresh; briefing the organist and musicians; making sure the children’s leaders were revved up; getting the coffee crew lined up for afterwards; stranger-spotting… I determined to watch anything sacred-ish I could find on TV or listen to a service on radio.
I began to feel truly guilty about 15 mins after the service started, decided to read Psalm 103, about how everybody is busy praising the Lord except me, and felt even worse. I rang up a deacon afterwards to see how it all went, and confessed that it was not a good idea to have a day off. The worst guilt came when a child appeared at the door with flowers normally sent out to somebody not well. “Let that be a lesson to you,” said nearest and dearest. I missed not going all week afterwards; it was like getting over an illness – though being inwardly compelled to go to church is in itself a kind of illness. It won’t happen voluntarily again.
During the week that followed my absence from the familiar pew, it was like a death notice in the local paper: I was “sadly missed by all”. Worse was meeting friends in the street: “Gardening leave?” said one; “Better now?” asked another. I hardly dared to say that it was deliberate test, to see whether a regular like me would miss the Sunday morning routine, and if so, why?
I once asked six regulars’ to miss church attending for two weeks, and report what it felt like. “It was like having my feet cut off,” said one. “Didn’t sleep all week afterwards,” said another. “Went Pentecostal instead, much better sermon,” was one sarcastic response. “Methodists make better coffee,” said a fourth. One confessed to reading the football results and star signs over and over again in the Sunday papers and (I think in jest) contemplated suicide. One never came back, or sent a message.
None had discovered the “lasting pleasure” that Dean Inge found in not going to church. Indeed, John Newton promised lasting pleasure to Zion’s children: “Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, all his boasted pomp and show,” he said, and he, a world expert in pleasure, would know. In truth the only ones who delighted in solid joys and lasting treasure were Zion’s children, which, if I have got it right, are those who pay serious attention to the Christian church.
Ian Gregory is a retired Congregational minister
This article was published in the July/August 2014 issue of Reform.