Will It Be Different Today? A Sunday Morning Experience

These journal entries were written while Ivor, a priest in the Church of England, was studying as a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

7.00am: Maybe today will be different. I get up… shower… breakfast alone. Of course, alone… this is a student dorm… who gets up at 7.00am?

8.00am: Today will have been different at St. John’s and St. Andrew’s. I phone home. The morning services will be over. Anthea will be serving lunch. The Archdeacon and his wife will be there. He took the services today. We talk. It was good in Yeovil.

“The place was full,” he says … “Such a welcome,” he says … “And nice lunch,” he says … “wish you were here!”

I wish. How I wish … but today will be different..

9.00am: I wonder. I tidy the room. Prepare myself for the day. Select a tie… jacket and tie, not sweater and jeans. Not Harvard Merrill Fellow… myself. Yes, it is going to be different. I leave the dorm. I am going to church.

Sunday is different. Sunday is worship together, meeting together, journeying together, not strangers but pilgrims… family, fellowship, community, communion. I may be a long way from home but I am going to church my spiritual home whilst I’m away. I had a decision to make: should I church hop – a different experience each Sunday – or should I stay at one and become part of the family? I choose to stay.

Yes, today will be different. No longer new… six weeks in… I belong. I have recognised people in the street. I have waved. Now today someone may wave to me, speak, ask how I am.

9.30am: I open the door with trepidation.

“Hello,” I say.
“Back again,” I say.
“Lovely day,” very English, I say.

A smile, no words, and I am given the bulletin. I find a pew.

“Hello,” I say.
“Saw you last week,.” I say.
No reply.
“Good morning,” I say, as she moves in at the other end of the pew.

I don’t think she heard … she is studying the bulletin.

It is the church’s anniversary. The sermon traces the church’s history.

“What prayers these walls have heard?” says the Rector and he reminds us of the famous ones who have passed through… Lord Runcie from England, Archbishop of Canterbury!

Ivor, just Ivor from England, prays again for fellowship, friendship, a coming together, even for a brief moment, of mind, heart and spirit… communion. Help! I am alone. I am a stranger in your midst. Is there anyone there?

Maybe today will be different. The Rector preaches on the mission of the church.

11.30am: The service ends. I join the line at the door. Unseen, I shake hands with the row of clergy. No conversation. No meeting. No contact. The Rector smiles and says, “Good morning.”

What are they thinking? Judged – dismissed. ‘Not one of us … just passing through!’ Don’t they see the longing and the pain, sense the desire and the hurt? Not last week – the focus was on stewardship. Not this week – the focus is on mission. When looking out it is so easy to overlook the need within. Two weeks time the Bishop is coming… Confirmation…. A major church affair. Can I face rejection confirmed – I think not.

I take myself to coffee. I am one of the first. I help myself to cake. I stay standing by the coffee machine … can’t miss people there!

“Nice cake,” I say.
“Yes …” and he moves on.
“Good cake, this,” I say.
“Guess so …” she says, and moves on.
“I like this cake,” I say but I don’t think they caught my meaning.
I move on.
“Can I sit here?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says, “I’m just going.”
There is room for my cup on the empty chair.

I look round in desperation for Jim. We exchanged ‘The Peace’ back in week one… went out for lunch together… enjoyed conversation… despite different backgrounds and perspectives, brothers together… in communion over beer… happy time… will do it again. But it seems he’s away today.

Thank God for Laura. She appears in the room. Comes over. She has generously offered Anthea a room in her house for two weeks when she comes to visit – as did several others. I am grateful. A need recognised, a response made. So why this pain?

We talk. I ask about her weekend away. She asks about my studies. We chat about her aunt who lives near Yeovil. We discuss the furniture maker at Halstock. Personal contact… church with human face… happy moment.

The Rector calls us all to order. He is going to talk about the mission of the church.

I have my views about the mission of the church. Shall I share them now? Later? At all? But would they hear? Feeling speaks to feeling – no sense of feeling here.

I leave. I make my way downstairs. Smile and nod as we pass by, as I go down. I know that the question, “How are you?” needs no reply. I get no reply.

12.00 noon: Sunday. It was no different… just the same as previous weeks. Words of the liturgy haunt me: We are the Body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life. Hollow words as I stand where others have stood with aching hearts whilst clergy and congregations discuss their mission.

I stand outside the church door. Alone. Inside they discuss the church’s mission. Together. I am a traveller beyond their midst. Unseen. Tears fall for the memory of St. John’s and St. Andrew’s. Far away. At this moment I know rejection, isolation, desolation. Brothers and sisters in Christ, where are you? I am standing in a cold place. Outside. Reduced to tears. And it is Sunday! And I make a vow. Many a stranger – or one alone – so far ignored – stands in our midst too. It will be different when I get home. They must be the priority for pastoral mission. There will be no eating alone at Sunday lunch. May I – may we at St. John’s – be forgiven for our insensitivity.

What did I expect to learn as a Harvard Merrill Fellow? Not this. Descend, not ascend, … plunge, not soar. Is this the way of transformation? Proudly I came to reflect on models and roles for leadership within emerging and new visions of church. Such grand designs! Chastened by experience I have been taught a far deeper lesson than many a book or learned professor might impart. For this I am grateful to God. I think.

And next Sunday … what next, Lord? What next?

 

Next Sunday: I am here again. Greeted at the door. Answered prayer. Choir sings Psalm 121. And then the anthem, beautifully sung. I waited for the Lord, He inclined unto me, He heard my complaint. O bless’d are they that hope and trust in the Lord. Uplifted.

But it falls apart. What do I expect? Why should it be different? The problem is mine but yet I still hope it might be different.

‘The Body of Christ,’ she says, mechanically… looking over my shoulder. What an awesome privilege to offer those words. Grace bestowed through human hands A sinner dehumanised, unseen… a non-person.

The door routine concludes the business. The Rector kindly asks after Anthea.

“Fine,” I say, “all fixed.”
“Good,” we agree.
“And you?”
“In pain – hurting,” I say.
“Good,” the reply. “No, I’m in pain,” I repeat.
“Ah, yes!”

They are discussing mission again. I go to it. It’s all about relationships, we are told. Being there for others!

What’s it all about? Where has it all gone wrong? O Lord, hear my prayer. And let my cry come unto thee.

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