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Why I won’t go to church here

I won’t go to church here. I’ve tried, and I just can’t.

The lowest point in my sojourn in Sydney thus far came one Sunday morning as I sat on the cold wooden pew of St Clement’s listening to the priest — sorry, minister — rushing through the third Eucharistic Prayer after a communion consisting of wine (grape juice optional), and what looked like bits of white bread torn up for the ducks on Zoo Lake.

I started weeping quietly because suddenly, and unexpectedly, I missed my church. Of all things. A church which, from a lot of the time, I have been really bad about attending, but all the same, the church where I was christened, where I went to Sunday School and sang in the junior choir for years. Where I studied for my confirmation in St Mary’s Cathedral. And the church where I got married, as my parents did before me, and where I have wept at funerals for the family I have lost.

In contrast, St Clement’s reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or death” skit. The awful droning singing, the cake after the service, which was served in the church itself — urns and teaspoons and slices of buttered madeira cake behind the pews. Afterwards, I chatted to a few sweet old dears. One of them introduced me to his ancient cousin Neville, who was visiting from Plettenberg Bay of all places. The minister-in-training, an etiolated young man with an expression of permanent and somewhat crazed ecstasy, presumably religious, informed me that he became a Christian three years before. In the background, the pianist and the drummer started rehearsing while someone set up the projector and the Powerpoint for the family service.

I fled, and I have not returned since. Such a different experience from the 10 0’clock service I attended at St Michael’s a couple of months ago. The marimbas and the African choir fitted quite naturally with the organ and the church bling, and when the choir prayed and sang to say thank you and goodbye to the organist who had been forced (by the resident priest) to retire to make way for a younger man, there were few dry eyes in the pews. Faced with the sight of all of those black choir members, many of them corporate movers and shakers, hugging an old white lady who was weeping because she was so touched by it all, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by a real sense of the kindness and goodness that is still possible in South Africa.

St Clement’s just couldn’t match that.

I know that religion should transcend style and taste. God doesn’t care how you pray to Him. The trouble is, I grew up strongly rooted in Anglo-Catholicism and despite my heathenish ways, I still want the bells and smells, the ritual with a little pageantry, the lush sense of a link to the past. The moral appeal, too, of an association with an institution that has been a strong voice for social justice, compassion and tolerance. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is still as much South Africa’s conscience as he ever was, one of the few public figures unafraid to speak out, regardless of who dislikes what he has to say.

South African Anglicanism could not be more different from its counterpart in Sydney. David Marr examines the issue of the coming schism of the Anglican church in this long but interesting piece. The issue is an interesting one because Sydney’s Anglican archbishop, Peter Jensen — who, notably, was strongly influenced by Billy Graham as a teenager — has aligned himself with the archbishops of Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda amongst others, who go beyond rejecting the ordination of an openly gay bishop in Masachusetts, to embracing outright homophobia.

This extract is enlightening:

My question: what exactly is the Sydney Anglican line on homosexuality? Woodhouse had much to say on the plus side about the forgiveness available through Jesus Christ, but his list of minuses was long. Homosexuals who persist in having sex are wicked sinners breaking God’s law; they are unfit to take Holy Communion; unfit for any post in the parish; unfit for employment by the church; unfit for ministry; unfit to be elected bishop of anywhere; and unless they refrain from sex with one another for their entire lives, destined for Judgement.

Read between the lines, and it’s hard not to conclude that the archbishop is a bigot. In Sydney, the Anglican church, routinely regarded elsewhere as tolerant to the point of supine, tries to help gays become straight:

The Sydney church funds an outfit called Liberty Christian Ministries to help gays turn straight. They concede it’s not for everyone, but those who can’t switch face lifelong abstinence in line with Christ’s ruling — rather hard to pin down in the Gospels — that sex can only ever be had inside heterosexual marriage. The formula is: “Chaste singleness and faithful marriage.”

Anglicanism meets Bible Belt fundamentalism, woohoo. Contrast this with the assistant parish priest in South Africa. A former nuclear engineer, his personal style tends towards the charismatic style that favours gesture (and makes more traditionally restrained Anglicans somewhat uncomfortable). A profoundly spiritual man, he knows the Bible intimately, and he told me that he would be happy to bless a committed and faithful gay union.

So there you have it. I had hoped that at least by going through the motions of going to church, in reciting the familiar passages from the Eucharist (we who are not fit so much as to gather the crumbs from under your table) I would find the comfort of ritual. But on those hard pews, in that big and oddly soulless brick building providing succour to bigotry and Biblical fundamentalism, I can find nothing.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.