Thursday, October 30, 2014

Welcoming non-believers to church

An Episcopal priest writing in the HuffPo catches on that there are people in the pews who are not believers. He is struck by
the astonishing notion that non-believers can actually enjoy and appreciate being part of a congregation. That they can take pleasure in participating in a family of faith, even without the faith.
I guess he's not read the discussion here at FoJ, where I have nattered on at length on being a "secular Christian" and a church-going atheist.   I was even quoted by Andrew Sullivan.  There are a lot of us who identify as culturally Christian but of course not all of us find a place where we are welcomed.

He goes on,
I believe there is something about experiencing the ancient liturgy that can take us to another part of our being, deep into our spiritual selves -- whether one can recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience or not. Participating in the taking, breaking, blessing, and giving of the bread and wine of the Eucharist can move us into an invigorating place in the spiritual stream of human history from the early church on.
Yesssss.... the rhythm of the liturgy is an important part of it, so deeply ingrained by my Catholic childhood that it is almost atavistic. Although for myself, I don't recite the Creed, and I do not partake of Communion.  Since I am not a believer, that (to me) would be disrespectful of those who are, those for whom there is true meaning (even substance!) in the host.  Although I'm technically "legal" having been baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic church.  (I've argued before that my example makes a good case for open table--why should I, a non-believer, be welcomed to partake of something that means nothing to me, when a newcomer for whom it feels life-giving may be denied?)

There's also this:
Worship services provide a place not only to experience sublime peace, but to be challenged to serve. Getting involved in an active community of faith, even without faith, can help us build mutually beneficial relationships, and can also offer opportunities to meet the needs around us --to get out of ourselves and our own concerns, see the hurting world around us, and do something constructive and meaningful about it together.
YES! A big part of the attraction to me is the community. It helps enormously that the community is educated, thoughtful, and active.  Since moving to the Episcopal Church, my wife BP and I have realized that nearly all our friends are fellow Episcopalians.

But the concept of church-going atheists is clearly new to the writer.
This is a phenomenon I'm not sure many church leaders and members are even aware is happening, or can happen. Perhaps we should find a way to open our doors wider to welcome more of these folks who may be "religious but not spiritual" -- the "Friendly Non-theists" -- without seeking to convince or coerce or convert them into belief. That is a matter between them and God, after all, whether the God they don't believe in exists or not.
Well, actually, you already are. We're here.   Because, as the saying goes, you don't have to check your brain at the red door.  We get this:
The Episcopal Church is among those denominations considered to be more open to doubt, questioning, and unsettledness regarding aspects of faith than some other traditions. That sort of faith seems stronger and more authentic to me than an unquestioning, doubt-free faith. It requires work and thought and struggle and prayer. Work that I and many others find pays off in deep meaning and purpose in life. 
So there is room in the church for doubters. Is there room in the church for non-believers?
Depends on the church.  Certainly I'm "out" as an atheist, and in our very educated community, it's not a problem.  I am technically a member, even though I don't identify as Christian:  I was baptised.  I give time and treasure to the church.  I serve in various capacities. I attend services regularly.   Indeed, I'm married to a verger, comment on church politics, maintain an extensive collection of classical polyphony  recordings, and almost certainly qualify as a "church geek".

The Episcopal church welcomes me.  How radical is that?

Some of my previous musings on the subject:
Living with Church
Secular Christians
Secular Christians:  who is welcome? 

1 comment:

James said...

It is actually quite seriously radical, because I sense the Church of England is going the other way. It has been subverted by the New Wine crowd and their networks, which are gradually putting their placemen and placewomen into church leadership. The theology they hold to is uninterested in nuance and complexity: it's about "our way or the highway".