‘If you want to change church, the thing that has to change is you’ – Sermon in Christ Church Cathedral
Canon Gary Hastings, Rector of Holy Trinity Killiney, was the preacher at Sunday morning’s Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 30). The readings were Acts 2:42–47 – Psalm 23 – 1 Peter 2:19–25 – John 10:1–10. His sermon looks at movements which seek to change church. It is reproduced below.
We’re told here in the Acts of the Apostles about a time when the Christian community was spit new, enthusiastic, pulling together, minding each other and loving God. Just like all our own dear parishes. Then things went astray. They have rows and fall out with each other, including one huge row between Paul and Peter. Paul didn’t write his epistles to the different churches because he missed them and was thinking about them, they were because of arguments. Most of the rules Paul came up with were to settle fights. The Apostles were bickering even before Christ’s death.
Now, when people want to reform the church, because they’re disillusioned with the present one, they usually want to go back to scratch, and the scratch they all try to go back to is what we see here in Acts, where everything seems to be going smoothly, and people are getting on with each other, and are of one mind. Except that was never the case, and it never will be the case. But they try to design their new church from the bottom up, and work out rules and structures and theologies and before long they find out it’s not so easy as all that, and people are people, and are quite capable of being power–mad on occasion, and some of them even being really noxious, and a few of them all the time, and all of them sometimes. And somehow the original church set up, even with it’s awkward bits, and its old–fashioned bits, and its silly bits can begin to look not so bad after all.
Our Anglican church isn’t too bad at all. It isn’t too much this way or that way. Anyone can worship here if they like how we do things. You can hold all sorts of opinions and we can still all exist within the same church. And the constitution of the church is quite impressive, and no one has all the power, bishops or clergy or people, and there are lots of checks and balances to make sure things stay that way. So we have a sort of middle way through all sorts of pitfalls and alternatives. But even so, people, as I have already said, aren’t straightforward, and sorting them out is like herding weasels at a crossroads, and there’s usually some sort of rumbling going on somewhere in the internal workings of the church. As in our own dear Anglican communion at the moment, where a bunch of people wish to take the ball away and play their version of ecclesiastical football the way it should have been played in the Acts of the Apostles, to the original rules — as they see them.
So how can you make church better? In the last 25 years we have had a new lectionary, a new prayerbook and two new hymnbooks. But we are not knee deep in new parishioners. The opposite, in fact. Major changes have not actually produced major results — or any results. So what’s all that about?
Well let’s say you want to redesign your “church experience” to be deep and meaningful and also provide an entertaining but uplifting spiritual encounter cognisant of your own personal expectations and needs, but faithful to the original early church. As they might say in the business world. Well, you get lots of money, of course, and produce the best church in the world, with the best up to date music, lighting, seating, air conditioning and everything else, and a liturgy designed by theologians, poets, authors and experts. And a cleric who is entertaining, spontaneous, captivating, and also deep, and sincere. [Much like our own dear Dean.] But tastes and opinions differ. So the church with the perfect style might suit only us, no–one else. You will never please everybody. God love the poor divil that would try. Constant change is no answer, anyway. The Eastern Orthodox churches are actually worshipping in an almost identical fashion to the Byzantine Court of the 4th or 5th Century, and they seem to be doing OK, to be honest.
But then there’s the world we live in. Nobody, but nobody can compete with showbusiness and the Internet. They can provide short snatches of wonderful experiences, tailor made to tickle bits of your psyche. You’ll forgive me for not going into detail here — we are in a church. But that is now the yardstick our younger people compare everything else to. Gothic splendour, robed choirs and organs just don’t hit the spot anymore. Neither does religion, to be perfectly honest and realistic. We cannot compete, and it is ridiculous to try.
So to go back to basics, why are we here? Church, in the end of it, is about saying your prayers. To pray together, to worship together, to be together with others. Now tastes do vary. The temptation is to find something that suits you better, and you can do that online now too. But you’re fooling yourself. You’re missing the point. Whoever the cleric is up at the front, be they exciting or dreary, whatever new or different nonsense they’re up to with the decor and ambience, and even theology, however atmospheric the music is, we are here to say our prayers and worship God together. Whether we like each other or not, and whether we like each other’s opinions or not. Being with others requires patience, tolerance, compassion and love and frequently hard work. Before all else.
The liturgy we use is one way of protecting people from too much nonsense, too many pointless changes. We come here and agree to do this liturgy together. That’s why it’s called the Book of Common Prayer. It is a commonly agreed thing between us all, that this is what we do in church services, and that it is sufficient. With a bit of freedom to muck about thrown in to stop things getting too boring. The only thing you need to make this book work, is you. Your attention, your spirit, your work in prayer and worship, your willingness to put up with— sorry — love other people. This is true for other churches as well. Even if the text of the liturgy is Latin or 5th Century church Slavonic that nobody can speak anymore, it can still work. Because you bring yourself to the occasion and pray with and beside others.
Now, let’s face it, church is boring compared to TikTok and Facebook and the rest of the web. But only if you treat it like a spectator sport. It isn’t for watching, you have to be a player, be on the team. It’s only boring if you aren’t praying, aren’t involved, aren’t putting yourself into the words being said, either by you or on your behalf. If you’re actively involved in praying your way through the service there is no time to be bored, and if you take that way of praying home with you and do it there, then you will be changed, and so will our church as a result.
If you want to change church, change it for the better, have a deeper spiritual experience, the thing that has to change is you. You and I. The only thing we have absolute power over, the only thing in this life that we have any influence over, is ourselves. It’s worth saying that to yourself again and again. You cannot change anyone else. You can only change you. — And you won’t find that easy, either! By all means you can change the things we do and how we do them, music, atmosphere, clergy and all the rest, but those are mostly surface things. What really has to change is us. Change yourself, and you have changed the whole world, never mind the church.
But the gate of the sheepfold, as it says in the gospel, belongs to Christ, is Christ. Who gets to come in is his say–so, his business, not ours. And all, in Christ’s eyes, are welcome. Amen.