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Jan/Feb 2009 – Uncomfortable on the Pew, Uncomfortable off the Pew

Oh, I was a smart little bastard when I quit church. It was 1975. I was 14. Church, even the humble, small-town, low-Anglican St. John’s that I attended, seemed more about the institution than it was about spirituality. Skirt-chasing ministers were making news for all the wrong reasons. Pews were hard, sermons stodgy, the breath of the old parishioners beyond toxic. No, church was irrelevant, often hypocritical. It was not for me.

I broke the news to my mother, a steadfast church-goer, over a usual Sunday lunch of home-made pea soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I told her I’d find my spirituality elsewhere and in more authentic circumstances—in walks in the forest, music, discussion with friends.

I am now 47. My views about the problems of churches have not substantially changed. But I am increasingly mindful of the shortfalls of what might generously be called self-directed spirituality.

As far as I can determine, self-directed spirituality too often leads to shopping for cheap tools on Sunday morning. Or driving the kids somewhere. Or catching up on office work. Or going about what many of us do the other six days of the week. The imperatives of modern daily life are such that, should we suddenly be blessed with an eight day week, we’d be just as busy taking the kids to another soccer match, pursuing yet another good buy.

Many of us ditched church but forgot to set aside time for an alternative, for real, hard exploration of non-material values—to study, read, think. (To those who claim to be able to explore spirituality and work or shop at the same time I have two comments: Good for you! Bullshit.)

I am also concerned about the message being sent to young people or, in the case of those of us who have abandoned church, the message that is not being sent. Whatever you think of the goings-on of a church, there is something meaningful in the fact that families gather to sing, pray, listen and discuss in formal, serious circumstances. To see, as I did in my youth, the mill worker sitting beside the nurse in church signals that prayer is a real activity, worthy of time, attention, respectful appearance.

Now, compare that to the image many of us telegraph on Sunday mornings. Dropping $50 at Canadian Tire, a coffee at Timmy’s . . .

I can see that I’m headed for trouble here—writing myself into a corner where I advocate either a return to church or, ludicrously, that we somehow have to outwardly show that we are spiritual individuals. I’m not pushing either. At this point all I know is that churches are both more and less than appears. Give me another 30 years and I may not even know that.