Faith & Doubt
Trinity VI Proper 11 19th July 2020 Year A
“Slipping into Evensong, like good quality chocolate biscuits and George II side tables, was one of the luxurious tastes Mummy has acquired in widowhood. She claimed she has simply been exploring the cathedral one afternoon during her first year in the city when the service was announced. She was making her way to one of the exits along with other flustered godless when the choir began singing an introit. The beauty of the music forced her to take a seat to listen, if only from a distance. She had come back several afternoons after that, always sitting well outside the quire so she could enjoy the music and words but not feel implicated in the act of worship.
‘But then I thought, this is silly. Who am I so scared of? I don’t care what people think; my faith or lack of it is entirely my affair.”
Writes the author Patrick Gale in his novel, ‘The whole day through’. He book charts a day in the life of four characters; an elderly mother and daughter and two brothers and how their lives cross and intertwine with each other. It is an excellent read but it was the paragraph I have just read that set me thinking.
How much should, we the church, worry about what people believe or not? Do you need to ‘sign up’ to a statement of faith in order to take part in the journey of faith? To have certainty of faith, to know, without question what you believe or know to be God must be comforting. Never having to question what you believe would make my life so much easier because the older I get the more questions and doubts I seem to have and I know from conversations with some of you that you feel similarly.
Gale writes later in the same chapter of his book:
“But you know all the words! Of course, I was a nicely-brought up girl. I attended confirmation classes at St.Swithan’s for a year when I was twelve and confirmed at thirteen, by the Bishop of Winchester in this very cathedral. ‘But you don’t believe it now? ‘I am not sure I believed it then. I was just being obedient. You get confirmed in the same spirit that you got married, in the fond hope that something solid would follow on the heels of faith.”
Like many teenagers I got confirmed and then promptly left the church, struggling as I was with puberty, teen-aged angst and the death at 52 of my grandmother. Apart from attending school chapel, when like Gale’s characters I went through the motions I did not darken the church’s door until I left school. Then with two solid years of studying Reformation History I returned and became totally convinced and assured of what I knew to be the ‘true faith’. I became a fundamentalist, conservative, catholic Anglican and like all fundamentalists looked down on any other poor soul who wasn’t aware of the truth about Christianity and its practice of worship as I was. My arrogance appals me now, but it was the starting point for my journey into an adult faith – a faith that includes doubt as well.
What I believed at 19 I do not believe now, except that the ways of the man Jesus, still offer an excellent template by which to live and lead one’s life. At 19 I liked the ‘thou shalt nots’ and wished that if everyone followed the 10 Commandments they and the world would be perfect. Perhaps it might, but the world does not think that way. In today’s 21st century society I believe that we need to find ways of helping each other make sense of life and the big questions it poses and to seek answers not proscribed by ‘shalt not’ but by ‘try this and see’. Like the sower, we have to be prepared to sow seeds, some which will come to harvest and others which will flounder or die.
The faith (or seed of faith) of Christ that I want to share is a one that is confident enough to allow doubt, questioning and exploratory thinking without fear. Not a faith that says – ‘I’ve got all the answers and this book will give them to you too.’
In Ariana Franklin’s novel; ‘The Mistress of the art of death’ the heroine Adelia says this of the church in the 12th century:
“It wasn’t that she had anything against the faith of the New Testament, left alone it would be a tender and compassionate religion ... no what Adelia objected to was the church’s interpretation of God as a petty, stupid, money-grabbing retrograde, antediluvian tyrant who having created a stupendously varied world, had forbidden any enquiry into complexity, leaving his people flailing in ignorance. P.221
As a description of the church in the late 1100’s it is apt but to many people out with the church today it would ring true. Someone once asked me if being a priest meant that I left my brain at the door of the church? That is what some people think and that is what we need to counter in life today.
We are not people of a book of rules. We are people or followers of the Word made flesh. For Christians our faith is expressed in the life of Jesus and in the ways that we witness to his way of being. He offers us guidance and direction but not a mapped out path that we all have to slavishly follow and I thank God that he does not.
To have it all mapped out would I believe exclude most of us. Once upon a time I did believe that there was only one prescribed way to God through Jesus. Now I believe that Jesus offers us a multitude of different ways to God. So many and so varied that there is a way for everyone to journey no matter how full of doubt or faith they may be. As seeds of faith we all germinate and grow in different ways. Sometimes our growth is strong and vigorous and at other times it is weak and fragile but if we try to nurture our seeds they will and do survive, even if at times those seeds of faith become dormant.
Doubt is nothing to be afraid of, it too paradoxically, is a healthy seed of faith! It is a healthy progression along the journey of life. What is scary is a church that does not allow this. I want to see and to try and build a church with Christ at its centre but one that is not confined by rigid walls of rules and regulations, of do’s and don’ts but one that says come along let’s journey together. Let’s explore what the way of Christ means for you, for me and for your fellow beings. A church that does not depend on rigid statements of faith but one that allows and encourages questions and the searching through doubt. And, to be a church that will support you while you do so.
This is the message I would like to share with those out with the church today, as well as to you who choose to be part of the church. I want the world to know that here is a place where you will not be expected to believe or know everything about faith, nor will you be expected to say things you don’t believe. Here is a place to think and be - a safe place to share your insights, a place where you will be respected and encouraged. A place where your tender shoots of faith will be lovingly nurtured and cared for.