During the season of Lent, it is customary at St Peter’s for members of the congregation to share something of their faith journey in the sermon slot. This year the Lent programme Patterns of Worship explores what happens in worship – focusing on four ingredients: Music, Words, Space, Presence.
Thanks to Sheena Brown, Alison Wright and Sean Carnegie for sharing their reflections.
I am Sheena and I am a member of the congregation here at St Peter’s.
I was offered the chance by Julia to speak to you today about my experience of worship both here at St Peter’s and elsewhere.
Not being a natural public speaker, I was a bit daunted by the offer but I also recognised that it was giving me the opportunity to reflect on a personal and important part of my life and to share it with you, whatever that may be worth.
While reading the passages from the Book of Genesis and the gospel that we heard earlier, I was struck by the immense inner struggles that must have been endured – by Eve when being tempted by the Serpent and by Jesus by the devil to turn away from good; to turn away from God.
And I thought how it is probably true that many of us here will have turned to God and to the church, particularly in our later years after having struggled internally in some way. That was certainly my experience.
I went to a Catholic primary school having been raised catholic by my parents who were both baptised in India and were here as first generation immigrants.
At first I wasn’t aware of any real differences between me or anybody else in my class.
But there was definitely one – I wasn’t baptised.
And for various reasons, that stayed with me like a big gaping hole in the fabric of my being, I felt that I wasn’t worthy to worship at Church, to recite the prayers even though I so believed and meant every word. I felt like a fraud and it didn’t matter that I was incredibly God fearing and devoted to Christianity. I struggled with my identity but my faith in God didn’t falter. It was the worship side of things that suffered. After my time at the school ended, I wouldn’t attend service, I didn’t feel connected to any church. I still visited but only when it was quiet and I could be alone with my thoughts and prayers.
After university I took a gap year and struggled to work out what I wanted to do with my life. So I did what I always did and turned to God for guidance. But this time I spoke to a priest as well and was baptised.
But I didn’t suddenly feel like I belonged to any church. I was still afraid to attend service in case I did something wrong, like sing the wrong note too loudly in a hymn or recite a prayer incorrectly, or walk in the wrong direction, or sit in the wrong place. It had been so long since I had attended mass.
Then I moved to De Beauvoir and I met with Julia to discuss my getting married – I really wanted to do that in a church. I was struck by how open and relaxed she was and made me feel welcomed. I was also struck by the simple beauty of this church. I found the energy so inviting.
That prompted me to attend midnight mass which I enjoyed so very much. It was great to see people from all walks of life, different ages and ethnicities all coming together and worshipping together. Plenty of people I noticed seemed not to know the tune to the hymns or were struggling to follow but they would always catch up, always try.
From there I have felt more confident to attend service here at St peter’s and become more involved with the Church and been made to feel welcome by so many members.
I still struggle with some of the aspects of worship here. Sometimes I don’t fully understand the meaning of some of the readings and I still don’t understand the meaning or purpose behind all of the rituals but I am getting there. I hope that my relationship with the Church will continue to grow and I will continue to learn about the many ways there are to worship our Lord.
Just over a week ago I was lucky enough to be in Rome and I was entering S. Maria del Popolo – a church famous for its icon of Mary and for paintings by Caravaggio – when Mass started. I had come to peer into some dark chapels on the right for my research, but it was clear from the ‘polite notice’ that this wasn’t going to be possible just then. So I put myself in a pew ready to wait it out, until what is usually a very short service was over.
Catholic worship in Italy is not so very different from ours at St. Peter’s, but I have always felt resistant, and sometimes positively hostile, to it, and especially to what is termed Marian devotion. I have seen the Mass celebrated countless times, sometimes very routinely, and – inevitably – only ever by men. But on this occasion there was something intimate and meaningful that drew me in. The priest, who was wearing purple for Lent, sang the prayers very beautifully and spoke as though he meant what he was saying. Through the familiar liturgy and through the community it produced with complete strangers, I was enabled to feel God’s presence. There were, perhaps 8 or 10 locals, and a few more of us again from all over the world, but we were experiencing something together, at a profound level.
It is this that seems to me the most precious aspect of the institutional life of the church – this double sense of communion, with Christ and with one another. Strictly speaking, as a non-Catholic who does not believe in transubstantiation (the literal, ‘Real Presence’ of Christ’s body in the wafer and wine) I should not have gone up to the altar rail for communion at all. Indeed had the priest known that, when he took the reserved sacrament from the tabernacle the phrase ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ popped into my head, he would certainly not have offered me the wafer. But it is my understanding that the eucharist is a gift which cannot – or should not – be withheld from anyone who recognises meaning in the sacrifice of Christ, nor even perhaps from those who don’t. In any case, I went up and received with everyone else.
We are called this Lent to think about our experience of worship, and I would like to take a few more minutes now to reflect on something that has become increasingly important to me over the last ten years or so, that is, Communion. What is this ‘mystery of faith’ at the centre of our worship? In John’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked what he meant when he refers to himself as ‘living bread’ he elaborates the image saying ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me’. This must have been a quite baffling answer even within the Jewish tradition, and it has been food for theology for centuries to come; it is incomprehensible without reference to the idea of sacrificial death as an act of incorporation into Christ’s life, that is, a life with God as well as with one another.
As a younger person I was deeply sceptical about my father’s High Church belief that Christ was, as he explained it, ‘specially present’ in the eucharist. We were C. of E., protestants, and this idea of ‘special presence’ seemed to me at worst popish and at best a fudge. Either the bread and wine were Christ’s body and blood or they were not – and quite clearly they were not. I believed, and still do, that when, at the Last Supper Jesus broke the bread and passed the cup to his disciples saying ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’ he was speaking metaphorically – take this ‘as’ my body and blood. After all, he was sitting there in his body at the moment he spoke. I was intrigued to learn later, that Martin Luther himself continued to understand Jesus’ words literally. It was only Calvin and Zwingli who insisted, so radically, that bread and wine were commemorative symbols, not miraculous presences conjoured, so to speak, by the priest who alone had a hotline to the Holy Spirit. This non-literal meaning of the body of Christ was ultimately liberating, for it meant that receiving the gift need not depend on the priesthood. As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, ‘the wind blows where it chooses’.
[Since I gave this sermon Eckart has put me straight on Luther: his notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ allowed for the faithful to perform the sacrament of communion, not just the priest].
Before ‘marrying into’ the Church of England, my mother had been a Methodist and something of this low church sympathy was passed on when my brother joined a Methodist congregation and the small Sunday Night Group meetings for young people after the service. This drew me too as a teenager– rather more for the company of both sexes (I went to an all girls’ school) than anything else. I did, though, become accomplished at listening to very long sermons, enjoyed Charles Wesley’s hymns and I learned a lot. But the Communion was really the low point of the Methodist church service in as much as some weeks it didn’t happen at all, and when it did, you stayed in your pew waiting for a plate with small cubes of bread and individual thimbles of sweet non-alcoholic wine to be distributed. The congregation then all consumed these at the same moment. This sounds egalitarian and communal, but it had the effect of making me feel separated. And, without a celebrant and altar, the ‘charisma’ of the eucharist was entirely lost.
At St. Peter’s, by contrast, we are invited forward, together with others – all others – to receive in the same place, from the hands of Julia and those who minister to us from the congregation. This is both empowering and unifying: God feeds us as a community – symbolically and actually, freely making us part of his body on earth ‘as in heaven’. This is the original meaning of ‘charisma’ from the Greek – of a gift freely given. It has taken me a long time to become aware that this act of commemoration is also a great mystery, a sacrament by which we are ‘incorporated’. This means we are made part of a community all over the world and in heaven. In other words, Christ turns out – as my father put it – to be ‘specially present’ at Communion, after all.
When Julia asked me to share my thoughts on worship at first I thought ‘surely she meant to send this to another Sean in the congregation…a more Christian Sean?’ But then I remembered that there aren’t any other Seans in the congregation and that she must mean me…
Then I thought, oh it’s okay, I can just say I can’t do it because I’ve got too much on…she’ll understand…after all she knows how stressful the house move and renovations have been. But then I thought on it for a couple of days. What was I really running away from? Why was I reluctant to do it? It’s because I don’t see myself as a fully paid up member of Christianity. I feel a fraud. I lie. I curse. Sometimes I drink too much. I’m mean to my partner. Sometimes weeks go by without me praying. Weeks! How can I talk about worship when I haven’t been to church for ages. How can I stand up in church and talk about worship?
Do I even know what worship actually means anymore?!
And it was when I asked myself that question that it led me to think about my relationship with God. And how that’s changed during my life.
It’s fair to say I’ve had a very turbulent relationship with God. And therefore worship for me has been a bumpy ride. A bit of a roller coaster.
Defining worship in my youth is easy it was very closely linked to church going – between the ages of 5 and early teens me and my sister would go to the C of E church with mum in Hampstead. After church we would go to the sweet shop on the way home and mum would treat us. So worship back then was very much connected to cola bottles and rhubarb and custard sweets.
It was probably at the age of 14 I realised I didn’t have to sit through an hour of church to get my hands on sweets so between the 14-16 years old church going was patchy. I was more interested in hanging out with my friends on Saturday evenings which meant I wasn’t always up for going to church with mum on Sundays. I would stay in bed. And when mum would ask why I’m not coming to church I would annoyingly say “church is simply bricks and mortar and the real church in my heart…so I can stay in bed.”
That plan backfired when my mum said “if you’re not bringing your church heart to actual church you can take your church heart to work and find a job…” So for the next couple of years on Sundays I ended up worshipping at the altar of the checkout tills of the Finchley Road branch of Waitrose.
But even though I didn’t go to church regularly my faith was still strong. Because life was good.
Then mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and was only given a few months to live but her faith in Christ never waived but mine started to.
I found myself using my worship, through prayer, as a bargaining chip “God, if I pray to you every day, will you keep my mum alive?”. And has mum started to get better and she was still alive 3 years later. And I thought “this is working! God is wonderful! He’s sucking the cancer out of mum!”
I was so grateful to God. I enjoyed praising his name. But then a couple of years later, as often is the case with cancer, it ramped up its aggression. And the writing was on the wall for mum.
As mum’s illness got worse my dad, who for all of my childhood was a staunch non-believer, found hope in God’s love and worshipped him through prayer and services at the local AME church. We would as a whole family go to church and that was a spectacle! The pastors and deacons in brightly colour smocks at the front. With a live band playing the music. Worship in that church was a full on party!
As mum’s condition deteriorated, both her and my father’s faith in God grew. In fact, the year before she died, they got baptised together.
When she passed away I started to turn my back on God. I was so angry with him. My faith was basically non-existent. Dad’s faith got even stronger after mum died. He found comfort in God’s love and praised him every Sunday in church. For me there was no love for or from God. Then a couple of years later my Dad died in a swimming accident on holiday. And that was it for me. My faith in God more or less totally vanished. I couldn’t make sense of how God could treat two faithful servants so poorly. That was it. Me and God were done. No worship or prayer. Actually, the only time I tended to pray was when Spurs were playing Arsenal! And the only time I went to church was for weddings, christening and funerals. And that remained the case for the next 15 or so years. I was out in the wilderness.
Then about 3 years ago Jess and I came to St. Peter’s for a Carol Service which was simply magical. It took me back to my youth. I remembered what it’s like to feel the presence of God. Singing about Christ’s birth was the start of my journey back to faith. It was the first time in a very long while that I even acknowledged God…let alone felt connected to him.
A year later Jess fell pregnant with our daughter and I was on top of the world. And I felt a pull back to church. This church specifically.
Jess had a difficult pregnancy and that was at times worrying but whenever I came to St. Peter’s I felt God’s peace and a strong connection to my parents. At the time I didn’t realise what was going on but looking back I’m sure that was the start of me worshipping God once again and being open to receiving his love again. And with that came a willingness for me to forgive God. And I took another significant step on the journey back to the flock when along with Anna, Sheena and Demdi from this congregation, I was confirmed at St. Paul’s cathedral.
So, what does worship mean for me today?
It means forgiveness towards and from God.
It means St. Peter’s and the open arms with which it received me and family.
It means acknowledging and celebrating joy, love and peace…in whatever form that takes. That could be dancing around the kitchen to gospel music with my giggling daughter or when Jess pinches me in my neck after I’ve said something cheeky(!)
Or simply in moments of still reflection.
Because it’s in joy, love and peace that I find God. And it’s in celebrating this that I celebrate and worship God.
The challenge for me, is to find a way to worship God during life’s difficult moments…I haven’t managed to crack that one yet! I suppose as my love for God continues to grow I will find it easier to find his love in the dark times.