"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

The Oddity of a Full Church

Spirituality in England knows no lack of contradictions. Churches exist everywhere. That’s part of the problem. There are seven Church of England parishes within a kilometre of my flat. While I live in a reasonable residential area, the population to support seven vibrant communities does not exist. It has never existed.

Some parishes serve historic communities. One of the churches, St Nicholas, has had a building on their present site since the 11th century. The majority of church buildings arrived in conjunction with a church building boom in the 18th century. If you had a lot of money, the fashionable thing to do was to erect a huge edifice in your honour (and to the glory of God, of course!). A couple of the parishes I have visited could easily house a congregation of 1000, perhaps 2000, people. But, if you walk around their designated parish boundary, perhaps 500 to 800 people live in the territory. There is simply no way to fill a church.

Unless of course, your parish has something that so distinguishes it people travel to come. Herein lies another contradiction of Anglican life. Some churches lean heavily towards low-church Evangelical styling. Other churches are so highly Catholic you almost expect Benedict to be saying the mass. [Okay, maybe that last point was a slight exaggeration.] Within the Anglican communion, you almost feel like you’re at Baskin-Robbins trying to declare your favourite flavour of the month.

Coupled with these observations, the English are very English. You wonder if there’s something in the English DNA that restricts people’s ability to smile and greet you with a handshake. [To this end, the people of Boston are also very English.] The general English persona does carry the benefit of knowing that when an English person is friendly to you, it does carry a matter of genuine sincerity. However, the English are a reserved people, very reserved.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into a church on Sunday, felt genuinely welcomed by someone who recognized me from work, encountered a full congregation, and witnessed adults singing songs that had hand motions to encourage their kids.

Who knew the English had it in them?


5 responses

  1. Do the English honor parish boundaries to any significant extent, or do they shop for the nearest Church of their preferred flavor, or do they hop the bus (or hop in the car) to go clean across town to their favorite?

    19 January 2011 at 12:01 pm

    • Typically the English who attend church cross parish “boundaries.” Without crossing boundaries, you couldn’t have a full church.

      19 January 2011 at 12:24 pm

  2. Toni

    Thank you,this is wonderfully insightful.

    20 January 2011 at 6:54 am

    • Toni

      One of the most striking differences between the COE and the ECUSA is that Evangelical style, which is not at all common here as far as I can see.


      20 January 2011 at 4:30 pm

      • ECUSA has a very different sense than the CoE. My experience here has been that there are some churches that regard themselves as “liturgical broad church.” These churches are not particularly Evangelical, but they do not pull any of the truly Catholic distinctives that you see in the Anglo-Catholic space. Some of them regard themselves as “Affirming Catholic” or “Welcoming Catholic” or “Liberal Catholic.”

        The “liturgical broad church” would never move towards Rome as it has a general openness to revising liturgical (and in some cases, theological) discipline. Within the liturgical broad church, you see people advocating for reforms such as women’s ordination and inclusive language. I would generally partner my knowledge of the ECUSA with the “liturgical broad church” of the CoE.

        21 January 2011 at 8:55 am

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