This week, I went to church. Well, I went to a church. This church.
It’s Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in my hometown, Newcastle.
I’ve been going to visit this church for a few months now, usually when I need some time to clear my head and sense Gods presence close by.
The cathedral has several smaller chapels within its space, and my favourite is the Warriors Chapel – dedicated to those who have fought for our country in military conflicts, and for the fallen. It’s a very evocative space to spend time in. I like to just sit in a pew and meditate.
This week while I sat quietly in contemplation, quite unexpectedly the cathedral organ began to play. Beautiful music flooded the space. I felt the deep vibrato of the bass notes resonate through my chest and spine, while the melody took my brain on a winding staircase up and down, around and around. All all I could think of was God. As His body and my body intertwined in a kind of dance, I was at the same time exhilarated and soothed. I was like a child rocked to sleep in it’s mothers arms.
I looked on with sleepy eyes as sunlight streamed through the lead-lighted windows, staining the sandstone the colour of the grass, and the sky, and of blood. I read the words of the Holy text upon the walls – all nations will serve Him – a gentle indictment against the pointlessness of all mens wars. I felt protected and safe and closeted behind the Cathedral walls, yet even though only the anonymous organist, the priest and myself were occupying the huge space, I did not feel alone. On the contrary, I felt positively joyous.
And as I looked at the bronze effigies, and at the iconicry, and at the intricately carved niches and the stained glass and the fonts and the cushions provided so worshippers could kneel at the appointed times, I felt comforted. I recognised all this as being the trappings of mens religion, but if was far from seeming cold and repellent. In fact, it felt solid, warm and familiar.
I recognised all of it as worship.
I heard the organ music, and when I closed my eyes I could see a composer straining over the keys, grappling with his pen to contain all of God’s glory within little black dots scratched onto little black lines. I admired the windows and the floors, imagined the craftsmen with their tools, each piece of glass and each block of stone that came through their hands so carefully chipped and shaped and carved, so that every observer of their art down through the ages might recognise perhaps a glimmer of God’s wonder and glory in their work. Each artist, each craftsman, each creative soul involved in making this house for God’s presence all worshippers just like me, except their worship was now plain for all to see.
As a charismatic Christian of many decades, I have been taught to disdain “religion” in all its forms. I’ve been told that the free, expressive, physically demonstrative worship we born-agains offer to God is the antithesis of religion, and thank God for that – because religion and everything associated with it is stuffy, staid, mouldy, legalistic and redundant. We’ve been told that Churches are not buildings, and we’ve sneered and rolled our eyes at buildings just like this one as we passed them in our cars on Sunday to meet in warehouses and movie theatres. But when I sit in the Cathedral, I no longer feel disdain. I do not feel trapped or stifled or suffocated. I feel like I feel when I go to my parents house at Christmas, or when I come back from a holiday.
It feels like home.
They’ve been saying for a few weeks now, and perhaps even for longer than that, that there is this dichotomy between Jesus and the gospel, and religion. But I don’t think they mean what they think they mean. I think they are confusing religion with legalism. I think they are trying to convince us that their way of doing church is good by presenting it as being in opposition to something they think is bad. But religion is not intrinsically bad. It’s only the legalism part of religion that binds people up, the part that says “this is how we do things here”, and any kind of faith practice – Christian, Muslim, Hinduism – can have elements of legalism.
Making everyone who isn’t doing or thinking like you into everything that’s wrong with Christianity is not going to make people less “religious”. In fact, it’s effectively working against the gospel. The gospel is inclusive – it’s about all, us and we. “All have sinned and fallen short.” The gospel presumes everyone is a sinner and needs Christ, and we all need what He is and what He has done for us equally. Anything else you add on top is legalism, including deciding your definition of religion. The gospel of Christ unites, while legalism separates. If your “gospel” elevates one group above others, makes you better than someone else, then what you’ve got isn’t the gospel. It’s at best good marketing, at worst, it’s just another form of legalism.
The church I visited the other day, and everything it represents, would have been for me just a few years ago the epitome of hateful, stale old religion. But I chatted with the priest as I left, and as he described the upcoming candle mass – a celebration for Mary (Jesus’ birth mother) to mark her ceremonial return from the traditional forty day Jewish exclusion from society because of her “uncleanness” due to childbirth – something inside me just sighed. It sounded simply beautiful to me. The way the priest described it, with such excitement and reverence, I could not imagine he thought he’d be going to hell if they all forgot to turn up. He talked about the candle mass the way I used to talk about Cafe Church.
Religion has become a dirty word, and I think that is a shame. Some it seems have mistaken religion for legalism and dismissed it wholesale, but I’m wondering if this “religion” they preach so ardently against is the evil they think it is. When you evict one form of legalism, I think you need to be careful you don’t simply instate a facsimile in it’s place. The fact is, many are finding that the supposed freedom more charismatic forms of worship offers to Christians has not always brought the vast, irrepressible libertarian delights it promised. Many of the faithful in fact are going out in search of not just the baby, but the bathwater too. Given a choice between the new legalism of anti-religion and religion, you can give give me religion any day.