04 October 2010

When Faith feels like Work

Earlier this week, I attended Parish Council meeting. These are epic sessions that last at least two and a half hours. I’m honoured to have been elected to serve the church in this way; but I must confess, that I do walk away from these sorts of encounters often wondering how on earth churches have survived as long as they have!

That’s the funny thing about Christianity. It has evolved into so many different/differing permutations over time, that while the basic tenets are fairly consistent, the expressions of this faith as varied as the people who express them.

So, it can be difficult when diverse Christians find themselves lumped together (lumbered with each other?) in one place, trying to make it work. When we each have our own individual views of how and why things should be done.

For us, as in most places I presume, a key issue is attracting a wider cross-section of the community and new members. (And somehow, less liturgy and more contemporary music is always the answer?)

The minute that the conversation takes this turn, I feel my mind glazing over, as it all begins to sound like work.

My job with the National Trust at Charlecote Park is centred on audience development, i.e., attracting a more diverse audience for the National Trust. I find myself pondering, often on a daily basis, how—and maybe even why--this is best achieved.

For me it’s a philosophical question.

I think it’s almost a contradiction in terms to say, ‘Let’s make this more accessible.’ If something has to be made more accessible, are you not essentially altering it and changing it into something else? A ‘something else’ that, if we’re being completely honest, it is not fundamentally.

I have seen this is every line of work/activity I’ve been in, this drive to make something, whether it’s Shakespeare, church or whatever, more accessible, appealing to a wider populace.

And my point, if I have one, is that there are instances in life where this push to accessibility isn’t a mandate, and I think I might admire that.

My first thought is Math/Maths. No one seemed to give a toss, when I was in school, whether I understood math or not. It was there for me to learn. Either I did or I didn't. Period/full stop.

Sure, I remember Physics classes where we did fun things with music, flames and Bunsen burners, but! You still had to wade through the periodic table and all the standard stuff first.

For a more pertinent example, last week as part of my community outreach efforts for the National Trust, I arranged for a party of staff, volunteers, family and friends from Charlecote to have a tour of new Gurdwara Sahib (Sikh temple) in Leamington Spa.

Our group of 25 were hosted by three members of the Gurdwara Sahib community who served as our volunteer tour guides for the evening.

After a short introductory talk on the Sikh faith, our hosts gave us a tour of the building, and led us to one of Diwans (prayer halls). As we all sat on the beautifully carpeted floor, our hosts invited us into conversation: "We are here for you. This is your moment to ask any questions you would like to ask about Sikhism." - our hostess, Harjinder, said.

Harjinder, Suni, and Jaspal shared their personal experiences and beliefs with our group, and led us in a frank discussion about Sikhism. Members of our group politely asked numerous well-informed and engaging questions, and this section of our visit lasted a good while. The openness and the give-and-take of this discourse was quite amazing.

"This is so important. The chief source of strife in this world is ignorance. This kind of dialogue changes that." - Suni said.

"This group is fantastic, you've helped me learn a few new things tonight!" - our second leader, Jaspal commented with a broad smile.

Following the discussion, our tour continued, and we were allowed to listen and observe a group young music pupils learning and performing traditional instruments.

We were then offered the opportunity to join in the hearing of the reading of the sacred text in the main prayer hall.

That was a truly amazing experience. Of course, I had no idea what was being said, but the doleful, incessant intonations of the leader had a familiar hypnotic quality not unlike Gregorian chant.

My point: During our visit, there was an exploration, a welcome, an openness and a willingness to share; but there was no overstated attempt to make the surrounds, the environment , etc. “more accessible” to me our any of our party.

It was, what it was.

No translation of the sacred text was offered, so that I could understand what was being said. I was merely offered an opportunityto appreciate it for and as an experience. And of course, there was no proselytizing.

To be sure, there were several white/non-Asian Sikhs in the community, so it is a faith open to anyone, yet, during our visit no one felt compelled to “push” their ideas upon us.

As a result, I am wondering if one would probably be more likely to go back for a repeat visit because of this lack of promotion?

I have been plagued by this thought since the visit. Perhaps, I’m beginning to wonder, if the “recruiting” aspects of worlds I inhabit in my work life and faith life are somewhat misguided, however well-intentioned?

Our chat session at the Gurdwara Sahib

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