Friday, 28 June 2013

I'm an atheist who goes to church...

The other title for this post could have been "Retreat!" but that made it sound a bit militaristic and futile.

So yes, I'm an atheist who goes to church. This proper Scottish Episcopalian Church -  St John's, Edinburgh. None of this atheist church nonsense. I was brought up an atheist, I've never been baptised as my grandmother on one side was excommunicated by the Catholic church for marrying a protestant (the bell tolled for her soul and the bible was slammed shut) and on the other side the view was "we're living in absolute destitution and all you offer is platitudes".

St John's is a fantastic church. I started attending because my partner sings in the choir and as I'm a lazy sod I only ever to make it for Evensong on a Sunday (followed by beer and chips with said choir). If you've never been to a traditional Anglican Evensong, go - although watch out because a lot of choirs take July or August off. The settings of the responses and canticles are always nice (I'm always stunned by the words to the Magnificat) and very meditative; you get to say the Apostles Creed, which is better than the Nicene creed, and with a lot of luck you won't have to sit through a sermon.

At St John's you will have to. Or a "reflection on the readings" at least. You can stare at the beautiful stained glass windows if you want during it; or note that the painting of Jesus on the altarpiece looks oddly like he's holding a bendy straw (he's now colloquially known as the "Blessed Christ of the Bendy Straw") or do what the choir do and read a book or play candy crush saga. Given I'm usually one of about ten members of the congregation, I feel it's rude not to look like I'm listening. And often I do listen. Those ten minutes of someone talking to you about the nature of humankind or asking big questions like "what is justice?", "what is truth?", "how do we know?" "how do we create a peaceful World?", "what would the terrified 14-year-old Mary have felt like when she found out she was pregnant?". In our busy lives it's not very often we take the time to think deep thoughts like this. Or if your mind isn't captured by the sermon, even ten minutes of contemplative thought staring at very beautiful things.

It's this aspect of militant atheism that really angers me - that somehow church attendance and faith is an easy cop-out - that it provides "simple" explanations for life. I can't say anything that's ever been said to me in church has been simple or easy to understand. In fact being deeply, intellectually challenged is why I keep going. Oh, and the music is very good too.

Anyway, this isn't the main focus of what I wanted to say on this post. Through this non-religious conversation I've become good friends with a number of clergy. A central part of clergy life is going on regular "retreats". Often these are in silence. Contemplative weekends away from the church and congregation that allow some deep thought and emotional sorting out to be done.

After the week I've had preparing for the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase and doing a lot of work on a very exciting new undergraduate programme, I really envy the idea of retreat. Although, that's the thing - retreats are definitely not holidays. When I talk to my friends about their retreats, they usually sound refreshed, but often the intellectual work of sitting, walking and thinking is hard work for them. And even with bracketing and controlling my time as much as I can I still don't feel I get that long time to think and really exercise my brain and extend thoughts to logical conclusions that are offering new insights. If I set time aside in big blocks it's usually writing time as this also requires big, long, uninterrupted stretches of focused time.

Most importantly, retreats are part of your working life as a cleric and improve your pastoral role and theology. Because of this, I think academia could do with instigating the retreat as a common practice. I know many academics set aside a week or so as a "writing retreat", but this is still different from the retreat concept as I've encountered among my clergy friends. Similarly, we have the research sabbatical, but the out-of-office emails along the lines of "I'm on sabbatical, so it may take me longer to reply to emails" really demonstrates how academia's working culture stops people tuning out completely and thinking more deeply.

One thing I find very odd, particularly in the UK, is that the retreat is so central a part of clergy life yet is not part of academia. I find this odd as the UK's universities, especially in England, were so intimately tied to church life. Before the reformation the ancient colleges and universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Saint Andrews) were essentially a cross between priories and seminaries. After the reformation they became sort of seminaries, preparing people for the priesthood or other professions, and it's striking that right up until the late nineteenth century a lot of Cambridge science profs were "The Reverend...". And we mustn't forget the University of Durham was created by the CofE in a panic to try and halt the rise of non-conformism. Some of the vestiges of this remain - we still wear medieval monks garb for graduation ceremonies. The fights over the cellular office and (quite right) opposition to open-plan offices demonstrates how academia still holds to a model of a monkish eremitic working life (as well as a concern about the privacy of distressed students). But we've lost, or perhaps never gained, the concept of the retreat. 

Like many academics I suspect, I use conference travel - particularly thinking time on trains - as a sort of retreat. It's not proper retreat though. It's not in a location designed for retreat, secluded from the World, quiet, with nourishment (intellectual and nutritious) provided at a low cost. I think adding a few sessions of retreat into the standard academic contract could really help. Although the problem is with that is we'd be adding to the absenteeism that is already a problem in universities.

A wee quick edit. Over on twitter I'm getting a couple of suggestions for reading for atheist church-goers. So, I thought on here I'd mention this book: Liberation Theology and Sexuality, by a former congregation member of St John's. It's an amazing book and well worth a read if you're interested in why religion can be challenging and revealing even if you are an atheist.


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