Why go to church?


'And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?'
Sir John Betjeman 1906 - 1984

I am not exactly a natural at wearing the hair shirt as I believe that life, in so far as it is possible to do so in this world, should be lived and enjoyed to the full. And so, in spite of having found God through my unexpected, unintended and at the time, hopefully one-off visit to church, I could see no good reason for persisting with trips to what I continued to envisage as a boring, pointless, time wasting purveyor of mumbo-jumbo.
Discovering God was, for me, a pretty exciting experience, but going to church - well that was an altogether different ball game that held all the attraction of watching grass grow. I was convinced I could be a perfectly good believer without the need to waste my Sunday mornings - my only day away from the daily grind - by going to church. But, of course, I had not yet found Christ. That particular discovery still eluded me.
Over the days and weeks that followed my finding God, many questions flooded into my mind regarding my new found faith; questions such as: What or who is God? How do I know it is God I have found? So what? and, am I going mad? In an attempt to find some answers I threw myself into the theology of others. First, I tried the Old Testament, which I quickly decided (but later changed my mind about) was irrelevant to all but religious historians. Then I read the New Testament, about ten times in all, from cover to cover. This was followed by the works of St Augustine, St John of the Cross, St Benedict, Cyprian, Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, Basil the Great, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Didache, plus many, many more.
But it was the four Gospels, which really gripped my attention, and in particular it was the central character that figured so prominently in those narratives that really began to come alive for me. The problem was, I could not easily unload a lifetime of questioning scepticism in order to unquestioningly embrace what I have since discovered to be, a simple, yet profound, faith. I felt a great empathy with St Thomas that other well-known doubter, who, I had read in a Gospel story, needed to put his fingers into the wounds of his master in order to believe. As that particular alternative was not open to me, I set about reading as much as I could about the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
This was far more difficult than I had at first imagined. There is very little in the way of really hard evidence about the man outside the books of the New Testament. Initially, and for obvious reasons, I was more interested in evidence about Jesus from non-Christian sources, and so I delved into books such as The Talmud and The Antiquities of the Jews, the latter written by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. I then discovered that a Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, also wrote briefly about Christ, around the year AD 115 and, in addition, there is mention of Him by Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and others. When put together, there was more than enough evidence from secular sources to fully convince me that a man called Jesus, who hailed from Nazareth, had actually walked the earth two thousand years ago and was condemned to a death by crucifixion by the Romans.
OK, so I was now convinced that Jesus the man actually lived some 2,000 years ago, but for me to accept that He was the Son of God and that He was raised from the dead - that was a completely different kettle of fish. I returned to the Gospels and read them over and over and also talked about it, in what today I would call prayer, to my newly discovered God. One day during my deliberations, and for no particular reason I could think of apart from that of idle curiosity, I entered a library, went to the section on religion and picked up a book at random from the top shelf. It was The Problem of Pain, by the classical scholar, C S Lewis. I opened it and read the following:
'There was a man born among Jews who claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be 'one with' the Something which at once is the awful haunter of nature and the giver of the moral law. The claim is so shocking - a paradox, and even a horror, which we may easily be lulled into taking too lightly that only two views of this man are possible. He was either a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second. And if you do that, all else that is claimed by Christians becomes credible.'
Suddenly, all my scepticism fell away; the universal truths of the Gospel message at last made sense to me and I knew then - no kidding - that Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and that He is alive and in the world today. The need for further visits to church then became of paramount importance to me. The reason, I suppose, might have had something to do with the fact that when I was younger I played a great deal of chess and I was aware that the only way I could continually improve my game was by joining a club, playing against more proficient players and gaining experience and encouragement from them. So with the church. I knew that the only way I could increase my spiritual understanding was by practising it with, and receiving encouragement from, like-minded individuals and that is exactly how it has worked. Also, Christ had now become very real to me and I wished to take part in The Eucharist and share in His memorial meal.
And so I became that which is popularly known as a 'churchgoer'. I belong to the Anglican tradition as its liturgy and general style of worship suits my personality and I feel comfortable with it. I go to church on a regular basis and try to dine with Our Lord at His Table and remember His Sacrifice at least once each week. I had however realised right from the beginning that to become more Christ-like requires much more of me than that. Church is the place where I go to take part in a formalised style of worship, but it is the way in which I behave towards others, in my daily life, out in the world and away from church, where I really bear witness to the Good News of Christ and to my belief in the eventual life with Him, in His Kingdom.
It is through the reading of the Gospels that I have come to realise that Christ's distillation of the Ten Commandments contains within it everything that really matters in a person's life. He had little or no interest in telling people what they should not do. Instead He told all those who would listen what they should do and that the two greatest Commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and to love your neighbour as yourself. It is the task of every Christian to seriously take on board those two Commandments, for there is no other reality in life. On those occasions (many in my case, I'm afraid) that we fail, we must then seek through Christ, in penitence and faith, our Father's pardon and peace and it will be given to us.
My reasons for going to church are quite simple, they are to bring a discipline and learning to my spiritual life by regularly joining with others who are trying to do the same, and to give thanks and praise to God. The church, it has to be said, is where I best do that as left to my own devices I would sadly, and almost certainly, permanently lapse into a state of ennui and indifference.
Am I a better person for going to church? I am certain that many who know me well would say not, but I can vouchsafe with total and absolute confidence the fact that if, in spite of all its acknowledged imperfections, I did not go to church, I would be considerably worse for the omission.

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