In a discussion yesterday about 'walking out of church' (which someone had done for purely practical reasons relating to noise levels), it was suggested that this is never acceptable; that it is always a selfish act 'all about me'. The speaker has a point, but what happens when something happens that pushes at one of our sticking points? We all have boundaries of taste, decency, theological acceptability even. We cannot be all things to all people.
I know people who have left when they have found elements of the service unacceptable to their understanding of worship; the two examples that I have in mind both involved things that were said. In one case I agree with the person about the topic, but it isn't worth me 'dying in a ditch' to change. The other situation doesn't bother me at all, yet to someone else it is a huge issue.
However I have also left church services in the past - not with a flounce, but slipping out quietly when the moment presented itself. It has always been because something has happened which has drawn attention to my own pain about particular issues, and hasn't been a criticism of the service itself.
Recently though, there have been two occasions when things have happened that have been directly related to my theology and I wanted to leave, but have forced myself to stay for the benefit of others - not wishing to draw attention to my distress, to create reasons for others to get upset, to spread my pain to others.
When yesterday's statement 'all about me' was made (not about me by the way!), I went away to reflect on my reasons for leaving, and how selfish I am when it comes to sharing worship with the community of Christ.
When is it appropriate to make a stand?
In the 1990s, I found family services unbearable. A host of 'smug-marrieds' with their perfect children and problem-free relationships - some of which I knew to be a fascade - worshipped with such forced jollity and thanks that I couldn't join in with any sense of integrity. It reminded me of the cover of a Christian magazine I dislike intensely - all perfect teeth, stereotypical articles, and completely irrelevant to my life experience. After a couple of attempts to sit through this, and resisting the urge to shout 'Get Real', I voted with my feet and attended the evening service on those 'first-Sunday-of-the-month Sundays instead.
This was undoubtedly a selfish reponse on my part; shouldn't I simply have joined in anyway, regardless of what I felt, because worship is about God and not about how I feel? It is. There have been some occasions since when I have looked around a full church and seen people worshipping, known that I have felt completely alienated and hostile, and still stayed in the service to try to give God my worship, even thought the environment was against me. I think this is the faithful and honest thing to do, within reason.
Sometimes reason isn't enough though. In Jerusalem, at the Pentecost service at St George's Cathedral, I struggle to cope with the language and culture. This struggle was part of my worship, and I offered it to God as part of who I was, there in that space. However, when people wandered up and down the aisles with cameras and video-cameras, I felt anger that God was being disrespected. How can someone be worshipping if all their attention is on what is in the viewfinder, not on the liturgy?
Yet... I stayed in that service, because I recognised that I was the visitor in this strange place, and that the behaviour I found so difficult was not meant as that by the perpetrators. Also, a little voice inside me said, "You go into churches and take photographs too, and you don't feel as if you are being disrespectful, so is it such a huge leap from what you do to what they are doing?" My reply, "But I don't photograph other people in churches when they are praying or taking part in services" is, I think, a cultural boundary. I'm glad I stayed.
The question about boundaries won't go away. Rather than walking out of services though, it is my hope that one day our community will feel safe enough to sit and talk about why we find some parts of worship easy and others difficult. That, to me, would be authentic worship. Grace is good, but it isn't always easy.
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