At some point in the next few months, roughly 50% of our Anglican churches will be vicarless. Out of the 8 parishes in the Deanery (Yeovil and surrounding villages), 1 vicar has retired, and 3 more are dunblessin' by Easter next year.
I helped out at one of these churches on Sunday. One of the pitfalls of leading worship at a church you don't know is that there can be a hundred little ways to get it wrong. Everything from wearing the wrong stuff, to standing in the wrong place, to sharing the Peace in the wrong way. And now of course, with swine flu', there's local variations on which bits of communion people will still imbibe. Thankfully East Chinnock were pretty relaxed about most of the above.
The passage was God's gift (literally) - Mark 7. Jesus has spent most of Mark 6 doing some amazing stuff - feeding the 5000, healing people, walking on water, stilling a storm etc. He's suddenly joined by a group of Pharisees up from Jerusalem to check him out.
If you had the chance to talk to Jesus, after all of that, what would you ask? The chances are that it wouldn't be "why don't you're followers wash their hands?" This is a point-missing event of Biblical proportions. Jesus has blown wide open God's channels of grace and power, but the Pharisees want to know why he doesn't use their brand of soap.
Before we feel too superior to the Pharisees, don't forget: THIS IS MOST PEOPLE'S EXPERIENCE OF THE CHURCH. If they don't come to church, they encounter us through rules about who can get married/baptised where, or the church coming out (as it were) with a moral line on gay clergy. When they do come along for the first time on a Sunday morning, what thoughts are uppermost: 'where should I sit?' 'are my children making too much noise?' 'if I don't know the songs will I look stupid?' 'why is everyone standing up and sitting down?' 'what am I supposed to do with this bit of paper?' Their first experience is of rules, codes of behaviour.
Isn't this tragic? Jesus came into the world so that we could encounter God through him, but often the first thing that people encounter when they come into contact with the church is the rules. I remember a schoolteacher of mine saying that, as a youth, he'd stood up at the wrong point in a church service and everyone had stared at him. He felt so embarassed he'd never gone back to church.
How many other people share that experience? How many folk have that experience, even if we're trying to be friendly and relaxed? Most of our churches don't want to give the impression that the petty 'rules' are the important things, but like it or not, they are one of the first things that visitors will come across.
and I wonder..... is this, again, one of the problems with church as 'event' rather than church as 'community'? Yes communities have rules, but because they're expressions of relationship, the rules come with soft edges, and not all in a cluster. They can also be discussed and explained when they're encountered, something which isn't really possible in a church service!
It would be an interesting experience to sit through a church service and count how many written and unwritten codes of behaviour are followed in the course of an hour, from the standard 'prayer position', to how loudly you sing, to whether it's permissible to laugh. Given that all of that is being processed by a newcomer, is it possible for them to encounter God at the same time?
But yes, I did wash my hands before doing the communion prayer. Some rules are quite helpful, though common sense would do just as well.