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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.


  1. JLA JLA 17 June 2008

    Sarah, you may have had a lacklustre experience worsened by a bout of homesickness, but Sydney is a bit of a smorgasboard in many respects. Even those of us living here quite happily, concede that this city has its lacklustre elements (Morris Iemma, anyone?). So ya gotta look around. You will find a wide variety. You just have to be aware that the patterns are not identical in respect of where you find things here, and what you have looked for.

  2. Dave Dave 17 June 2008

    Sarah it might be time for you to go to Hillsong ( and get a feel of what Christianity is really about.

  3. SilverSabre SilverSabre 17 June 2008

    I second Dave.

    I WISH i was in the same city as Hillsong church.

    I hope to hear what you thought of it next week :)

  4. Andre Andre 17 June 2008

    I saw enough of Hillsong on the Australian TV show “Chaser’s War On Everything” to scare me off Christianity for good.

    What lunatics! Made the Big Mac, Ray MaCauly’s Rhema back in Joburg look tame! Prosperity gospel appears to be very popular of late if you consider the luxury exotic cars in the parking lots and the $80million Hillsong is set to spend on new building work.

    Jesus loves me this I know, I have an invoice that tells me so…

  5. Ziggy Kunene Ziggy Kunene 17 June 2008

    1. Have you really left South Africa? Or are you one of those bloggers lying in your dark but certainly not dingy South African lair…capturing the imaginations of those who want to leave and sending out subliminal messages. Said messages are designed to dissuade or, at the very least, disconcert, those whose minds are waivering and wilting before “the move?” Could you be a covert agent acting on behalf of the homecoming revolution in a quiet corner office block on the one of the many one way streets of Pretoria? Excuse me, Tshwane.

    2. If you aren’t – why don’t you come home? Other than your sense of displacement- we may still need people like yourselves. You may soon begin to lose hope or to retire from these nostalgic indulgences or ( Godwilling/ God forbid) start attending Hillsong and be filled with a new hope for the streets of Sydney. Whilst we are keen for that spiritual enlightenment – I suspect we’re keener to have you home. With the barbed wire walls, the alarm set, an ear always cocked for strange noises – but in a way – contented. Rested. Happy.

    That is our wish for you.

  6. Mike Mike 17 June 2008

    Are we being a bit pretentious?

  7. Debbie Debbie 17 June 2008

    Sarah, if you have ANY doubt that homosexual and lesbian sex are an abomination in God’s sight, please read the Bible – see Romans 1:18-32 (amongst other scriptures) – it is absolutely clear and there can be no doubt.There is no way that any Christ centred church can condone it or find any excuse.However it is no greater sin than any other, whether greed, envy, deceipt or malice.When you sin you need God’s forgiveness, no matter what the sin is.If you purport to be a Christian you can never condone ANY sin.There is no way that church leaders can openly live in sin and not only find an excuse for it, but say that it is perfectly acceptable in God’s sight.Just like no bishop can commit adultery and find an excuse for it, no bishop can openly live in a homosexual relationship and claim that it is OK.It is the sexual act which is the sin, not being homosexual or lesbian.Just the same as adultery and sexual immorality has ALWAYS been unacceptable and there is no way to go to God’s word and find a way to make it OK.

    It is not a hatred of homosexuals but this condonation of sin which is causing the schism in the Anglican church, and it is not only in Australia, but in South Africa and England too.

  8. OneFlew OneFlew 18 June 2008

    I won’t go to church anywhere. I’m sure I am a much better man for it.

  9. GA GA 18 June 2008

    Christianity is the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour, and we must therefore repent and believe in him. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about bells and smells. It’s not about the type of music. It’s not about the personalities who attend, awkward or outgoing. It’s not about living prosperously. It’s about faith in Jesus Christ. How much ritual, music, and warm feeling do you think Jesus was experiencing as he hung crucified on pieces of timber? How central do you think those issues really are to Christianity?

    Please do not confuse Christianity with either ritual, good music, or warm feelings. That’s not to say we can’t have any of those. But that’s not what Christianity actually is. If that’s what you’re after, you can surely go to a synagogue or mosque, a jazz bar, or a rock concert.

    To judge a church on whether it looks like the church that makes you feel nice is pretty subjective and, dare I say, just a little myopic and intolerant. It’s a bit like saying that some new piece of music is not really music because it’s just not your favourite song sung by your favourite band.

    Your piece, Sarah, was quite condescending and you ought to be a little embarrassed. You seem to imply that the people of St Clements are barely human because their style of church is different to yours. Was this view the result of a single visit? Do you know the people there? Doesn’t you think your view comes across as a little ‘phobic’?

    Also, John Woodhouse is not the Archbishop of Sydney. That’s Peter Jensen. And neither Jensen nor Woodhouse are homophobes. It’s time to stop playing the ‘homophobe’ card against Christians who believe that the Bible’s teaching on sexuality still holds today. Their belief is not based on fear, ignorance, or distant acquaintance of the issue, but on an understanding of how God has set up creation and humanity within it, as outlined in the Bible. Advocates of homosexuality rarely engage the biblical material with any depth. Most treatments I have seen are quite superficial.

    Finally, do understand where the journalist David Marr is coming from. He is himself gay, so bear that in mind as you read his article. Bear also in mind that he has selected and edited much of his material in order to gain a particular slant. There is a lot which he uncovered in his investigations which has not made it into the article — material which I suspect he found inconvenient for his pre-determined angle. It is not a neutral article — it takes a deliberate position. So don’t read it as neutral.

  10. Stuart Smith Stuart Smith 18 June 2008

    Sarah, as the ‘minister’ at St Clements I am sorry that you found us such a disappointment. I suppose we are. The lady who fixed up the communion bread did it out of kindness and generosity, the young minister in training has indeed the zeal of a young Christian. The ‘sweet old dears’ struggle with widowhood and ailments daily. We don’t get it right but what we hope to do is thank God for his gift to us in the Lord Jesus, however poorly we do that

  11. eezyduzzit eezyduzzit 18 June 2008

    “…I can find nothing.”

    Your predispositions, the intellectual “trinkets and knick knacks and goeters that clog one up” are impeding what could be an exciting journey, Sarah.

    You need to get rid of enough “stuff” so that not only will you be intellectually free, “to go wherever and whenever one chooses”, but also to visit some places you didn’t expect to go.

    Speaking as a well-seasoned traveler, those are often the most rewarding.

  12. Jo Jo 18 June 2008

    Is it too controversial to suggest that South African churches seem to have a long tradition of dealing quite liberally with fairly staightforward Biblical texts.

    Once, when Social Darwinism was all the rage, they managed to convince themselves that some races were superior to others. That’s hard to justify using the Bible.

    Now, we have other fashionable creeds. Apparently it’s fine for members of the same sex, to have sex. Is it OK of members of the same family, if consenting adults, to have sex as well ? The Bible seems clear about what is best for us. Maybe, going with the Bible rather than the latest societal trend, with a bit of dodgy science to back it up, would help us keep our moral compass true.

  13. japes japes 18 June 2008


    This is the reality of migration. Most who emigrate feel it. I think you have to do the plus and minus column thing. You know; the church isn’t as familiar and spiritually comfy as the one in SA = minus. I won’t get robbed / raped / mudered during the service = plus.

  14. Mark Mark 18 June 2008

    Oh how I wish I knew which St Clement’s you meant. If Mosman – then you would feel very much at home at St Luke’s Mosman. Or travel to the city and you would enjoy St Jame’s King St.
    Or, even our early service at St Andrew’s Roseville – though we are evangelical.
    Would love to help you find a church you would enjoy

    Mark Calder
    Parish Priest, St Andrew’s Roseville

  15. Andre Andre 18 June 2008

    The sad reality about living in a consumer biased society is that consumers make the rules. Places like Rhema and Hillsong pander to consumer whims and put out a MaC-Jesus version of Christianity.

    Somewhat paradoxically, the Christian right’s interpretation of the Bible has returned to literal readings of selected texts to prove or disprove a dumbed down understanding of the world. Intelligent design, homophobia…give me a break!

    I think the point Sarah is trying to make is that her Anglican Church in Johannesburg was more “old style Anglican” in approach, i.e. the church building is considered sacred and holy and it is therefore not acceptable to have a tea party in the actual building, while on the other hand, theologically speaking, the church is more relevant within a global context. Considering South Africa’s challenging political past and liberal constitution, it is hardly surprising. I did find Sydney like Johannesburg in the 1980’s, not necessarily in a bad way though.

    I get the feeling that the good people of St Clements in Sydney are perhaps just trying a little too hard to please everyone and it is just beyond me why one would need projectors and Powerpoint slides in a little old church building. For God sake, do modern cityslickers have such a short attention span that they need to be entertained in church? How on earth did people manage fifty years ago when it was built? Is the message not interesting enough or are they just trying desperately to compete with the new MaC-Jesus down the road?

    You can’t blame Sydneysiders for lacking depth Sarah. They haven’t had to put up with quite as many social and political challenges in their country, so it may seem as though they put too much emphasis on the small stuff. I dare say those observations are also measured against your own preconceptions.

    I for one will consume a hamburger and chips at Mackers if the mood takes me or if there is nothing else, but I do prefer a good French restaurant with a real chef every now and then. As a rule, dinner at home is what floats my boat!

    Comparisons are always dangerous for new immigrants. Just go with the flow I say and see where it takes you. You may be surprised in the long run.

  16. Joubert Joubert 18 June 2008

    Hillsong ??, Omygod..The church of prosperity and wealth acquisition How religious is THAT??
    And Jennsen??? Their obsessions with Gays and women must be truly repulsive to any religious person?

  17. vic vic 18 June 2008

    ” for one will consume a hamburger and chips at Mackers if the mood takes me or if there is nothing else,”

    How about noodles ?

  18. amandzing amandzing 19 June 2008

    Dear Debbie, and the other homophobes, homosexuality only a sin in your eyes. And this is where the problem with Christians is. You pontificate and bleat and spew your religious vomit, and kill and judge and deny and obliterate any thought of religious tolerance, or tolence of anyone who does not fit your particular idea of what the Highest Power has for each of us.

    I am lesbian, I am Pagan, and I chose my religeon because it allows space for everyone and everything.

    Do what you will, an it hurt none; something Christians could try harder to follow. Racial hate, religious hate, xenophobic hate, homophobic hate, its all one and the same, ignorance of your scriptures written by your god, love thy neighbour, judge not least ye be judged, take the log from thine own eye…. More?

    I really feel sorry for people like you, and pray to the Goddess your self-inflicted poison does not infect anyone else.

  19. Mike Atkins Mike Atkins 19 June 2008

    Sarah, would you truly like and respect a church that bent its opinions (or view of truth) to the preferences the watching world, or even of those who attended?

    You have every “right” to expect love, kindness and warmth from a church. And sadly, so many of us do make disapproval of others part of our approach to life.

    But you have to judge each on their merits, and not attack Christians on grounds of their adherence to Scripture alone. Attack God, attack the Bible, and attack those who part ways with the Bible. Don’t just attack those whose views you find unpalatable.

  20. Mike Atkins Mike Atkins 19 June 2008

    2 amandzing,

    Yes, many of us enjoy the “power” of being able to point fingers at others and condemn, on the basis of our creed. This is a sad reality, and one that is far removed from Jesus, who is supposed to be our inspiration and model.

    He loved, but He also held out an absolute standard of truth and righteousness. This is something we seem to find nearly impossible – both in the doing, and in the believing.

    The nearest I can come to it is that when He has grounds to judge, He provides a way of mercy as an alternative to both judgement and condonation of “sin”. And we are all somewhat prone to forget that he did this by taking the pain of judgement on himself.

  21. GA GA 20 June 2008

    Why do people think that Christianity is about tolerance? It’s not. Jesus never said “Tolerate thy neighbour.” What he actually said was “Love thy neighbour.”

    When my kids get sick, I don’t just tolerate the situation. I do something about it, because I love them and want what’s best for them. They might not like medicines and shots and all of that, and it might even be painful for them — a pain which I myself feel to some degree, too. But I know that’s what they need in the circumstance.

    True Christians are the same: they will proclaim and do things out of love. The trouble is that most people who are challenged by them don’t understand this motivation of love, and interpret it as hate. When Christians proclaim the Bible’s teaching on sexuality (for example), they do so out of love — not hate — and no one gives them credit for actually sharing a fraction of the pain felt by people for whom that message is very difficult to hear.

    Still, love bears with all, and so Christians will continue proclaiming the truth in love, even though their motives are constantly questioned.

  22. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 20 June 2008

    Hillsong! You’re joking, right? Thank you to the people from Sydney who commented – I honestly did not expect that Australians might read this (though Google alerts has changed one’s ability to whinge about things and not be noticed).

  23. Bernice Bernice 21 June 2008

    Hang in there Sarah I am sure you will find the place for you.
    Australians are such a decent bunch of people as a rule so I am sure you will find a nice church to attend.

  24. amandzing amandzing 21 June 2008

    @ Mike and GA

    thank you and you’re right. But in this modern world, love is perhaps a little too much to ask for. the true Christians I know, are the ones who do not force their beliefs on anyone else, do their work quietly and without expectation of fanfare and truly love their fellow, no matter the other’s beliefs or chosen way of life.
    Them i admire and love. For the rest, the atrocitites commited your Gods name, past, present and ongoing, Christianity and Islam and all those who believe there is only one God and make no space for anyone elses beliefs, is wrong.

    Thats not a judgement.

    Tell me your belief. Lets talk about it. No problem. Dont try and convert me and tell me that my belief or that my lifestyle is wrong.

    If your God has a place for me, He’ll come to me. I’ve been down the Christian road, and perhaps I’m like an ex-smoker, but right now, any attack on my choices is offensive, and I’ll defend it to the hilt.
    And I have to be accorded the respect of free thought, as contained in your scriptures.

  25. Bianca Bianca 24 June 2008


    When my husband and I moved to Sydney we had a challenge finding a church that we felt comfortable in. This was always going to be a challenge, me being raised as a Catholic and loving my rituals and my husband being Dutch Reformed, and used to practicing his faith in Afrikaans.

    After going to a few churches in Mosman, we found St Clements one night 6 ½ years ago. The music was joyful and praising, the preaching was biblical and challenging and the warmth of everyone comforting. The next Sunday we returned to be greeted by our names. It was heart warming to be embraced in this fashion and soon we become regulars.

    St Clements, like all churches has its challenges, limited resources and limited help. But as a parishioner, we all do our best to serve and help one another and the community where we can. As you mentioned, we all need something different from a church and as such, St Clements has different services, aiming to meet the different needs of the different age groups it serves in Mosman. They have an 8am service for the older, more traditional parishioners, 10am for the young families, 5pm for more matured families and 7pm for the youth. As such I find it quite disappointing that a journalist would judge in the manner which you did – without having all the facts, and covering all the angles.

    What I found particularly disappointing about your article was the lack of time you spent getting to know the people who have lived and loved in St Clements. Many of my friends there have been baptised, married and buried their parents at St Clements. They have experienced and try and share the love and welcoming you missed. It is difficult to get to know people by one visit, but I can leave everyone reassured that St Clements parishioners are the most loving and supportive people I know.

    When our son died 3 years ago, we were plummeted into despair without the support of our loved ones/ family members who still resided in South Africa. It was St Clements who supported us like a family unit, who prayed for us, loved us, cooked for us, arranged the funeral for us, provided tea at Aiden’s funeral and the list goes on. Weeks after the funeral when friends were moving on with their lives, I was still getting letters and calls from those old ladies from 8am letting us know they were thinking of us, praying for us and loving us.

    When we brought our daughter to church for the first time almost two years later, it was their prayers of thanksgiving that brought my mom and dad to tears, realising when they could not be near in our pain, it was the minister, Stuart, his wife and the rest of the parishioners that had been by our side, supporting us and loving us, and they were grateful for this.

    As you rightly stated, you miss the familiarity of your church back in South Africa, that familiarity that was built over years of being a part of it, experiencing life and death in it. So again I am deeply disappointed that such a harsh word can be uttered on such a fleeting experience, especially when you admitted that it takes a good part of a lifetime to establish something that makes you feel wonderful.

    We can only thank those at St Clements for their love and support and helping us feel welcome in this big beautiful city. In particular we would like to thank Stuart and the rest of the staff for their faithful preaching, and helping Jaques and I grow in our faith and understanding of Jesus and his love for us.


  26. Tracy Tracy 30 March 2009

    Those of you ‘condeming’ this lady’s article are doing exactly what you are accusing her of!

    She posted an article to share her story. You ‘kind, just, freedom lovers’ STONE HER! My God, where is YOUR tolerance of a differernt opinion?

    Sharing struggles so others might find something in it that speaks to them is all this lady is trying to do. Take what you want from it – or take nothing. But kicking her while she is down just for sharing her struggle in writing only shows your own shortcomings.

    And yes, I have my own too. But for God’s sake, for our own sake, lets learn from them.

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