A beginner's guide to church
Hilary Brand (words) and Dave Walker (cartoons)
Some books defy classification, so I invented a new one for this: Christian Basics. I'm sure that as time goes by more reviews will be added to that category, but for the moment What am I doing here? is in a class of its own.
And that's not inappropriate: as Ian Hislop comments on the back cover, "Most books nowadays explain why people don't go to church any more. It is good to find one that explains why people still do." A hearty 'Amen' to that — whatever that's supposed to mean. But perhaps that's too elementary for even a book like this? The word 'amen' doesn't get mentioned in the chapter on prayer (6. Problems and Petitions), nor even in the otherwise very helpful, if somewhat brief, glossary at the back. So, for anyone in this postmodern world of instant chat and email who may be wondering, I like the tale of the little girl who always ended her prayers with, "Click, press send." Seems to sum it up pretty well to me.
Now apart from the fact that that particular explanation isn't in the book, I think it does more or less sum up the book's approach: it's accessible and it makes few assumptions about how much a reader may know about church and Christian theology. A short preface explains where the book is coming from: Church House Publishing is the publishing division of the Church of England, so "as you might expect, it focuses on C of E style worship" (Preface, p.v), then narrows down specifically to the contemporary Common Worship service of Holy Communion, standard fare for most Anglican churches.
An opening chapter — "What are you doing here?" — explains what the book is and isn't: it isn't a handbook to Christian beliefs or in-service rituals, although neither question is completely ignored; it is "about how church services, as you go through them step by step, deal with some of the deepest things about what it means to be human" (p.2). A snapshot of various reasons for going to church is superbly accompanied by one of Dave Walker's cartoons, which keep popping up periodically to lighten things up.
Subsequent chapters (full contents list below) then take a look at different parts or aspects of the service, explaining concisely why they're there and what they're about. Personally I found plenty to disagree with, but that, I think, is an essential part of being Anglican: the freedom to differ; and that, I also think, is what so many of us find so difficult when headbanging bishops like Akinola rant and rave, narrowing things down to an exclusivist club mentality. That emphatically is not what church is about, a point the book picks up on briefly:
One would hope that this should never need to be spelt out — but church is not a secret society for the socially acceptable. Should, God forbid, you find yourself in a church like that, walk away with speed!
To that list I'd add "of whatever gender or orientation" — because whilst a little book like this may not have the capacity to go into a lengthy discussion about inclusivity, issues of human sexuality ought not to be ignored. The tendency to try to hide things, effectively sweeping them under the carpet by remaining silent, is undoubtedly a major contributing factor to the present crises within Anglicanism (for more on this topic, see my review of A Church at War).
Another thing that church is not about, in my view, is telling people what to believe; but that's evidently not a view shared by many churchgoers, who often seem to project an image that that's precisely what it's all about. Again, this is an area the book picks up on, in chapter 5, "Bottom line and benchmark: the need for a basic belief system", which focuses on saying — or not saying — the creed. Brand says, essentially, don't worry about it: the creed "is not something to beat yourself up about if you're not sure" (p.34). I'm with her there. But then she says it is "something to aspire to believe fully" (p.35). No way, Hosea! To me, the creeds are anachronisms, but they're also anchor points: part of the church's history, part of our roots, yardsticks for orthodoxy in the age of the metre. For me, saying them is part of a community exercise: I only say them when they're in the 'We' form — "We believe..." — and that, I suggest, is perhaps a more honest approach than pretending that they're somehing I "aspire to believe".
I could say more but then we'd run the risk of a review almost as long as the book itself: far better that you read it for yourself; even better, if you're a settled churchgoer, buy a few copies and give them to your friends. Because what we have here — for all my personal disagreements — is a real gem of a book: an introduction to church that starts where we are rather than where the church is, and which bids us welcome even when the church itself seems to delight in building obstacle courses.
Phil Groom, July 2008
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Church House Publishing | Comments? Feedback? | Order from www.christianbookshops.org