On Atheist Churchgoing; or, Why I Will Miss This Country

Almost three years ago today, give or take two or three weeks, I went to church for the second time in my life (the first was my grandmother’s funeral), to hear Philip Pullman preach. It was my first term in Oxford, and as the days got slightly longer I was just starting to love this place, and I went to hear Philip Pullman give the University Sermon at the University Church because I wanted to see what an atheist would say when given a literal pulpit. Because it was my first Sunday morning service, I hung on to every word of the liturgy with an intensity I can’t always muster anymore, and when Pullman talked about the common ground that atheists have with Anglicans, quoting Ruskin and Hopkins, I found my way in to the Church. I’ve been there ever since, nearly every week, in Princeton and in Oxford. I keep finding new ways of articulating that same common ground Pullman did: the history, the music, the prayers for peace and justice. One of the reasons I joined the choir at my college on my current posting to Oxford is so that I would have an excuse to go to chapel every week; and while when I first started attending college evensongs I used to visit New College and think that Symonds had praised the singing there, too, these days I think more broadly, all the time, about the generations of anonymous undergraduates who have sat in Corpus’s wooden choir stalls, and who likely have taken every possible theological position it is possible to take with respect to the Trinity and the established church—after all, mandatory daily chapel wasn’t abolished, I think, until after the War.

As I’ve sat in pews and choir stalls over these last few years, I’ve found that the liturgy has a very powerful effect: namely, that the more you repeat words week after week, year after year, the more you start to believe them. Not the extraterrestrial bits—for how does someone who was raised secularly conjure a Heaven and a Hell out of nothing?—but the attitude of prayer, of penitence and concentration and hopefulness; the practically-minded bits about loving one another; the sense of wonder at creation; and most importantly for me the cycle of the week, of the liturgical year, of the festivals and the story of Jesus’s life that is told every year from Advent to Pentecost (-ish), roughly following the academic calendar as well. This repetition keeps me rooted to a sense of a longue durée, and it’s the cyclical nature of it that always—every service—reminds me that people have been saying these same words since 1662, regardless of whether (unlike most of the congregations who make a great point of saying the same words that were said in 1662, or longer ago) they were high-born or had beautifully embroidered vestments or could say the words in Latin or knew what, exactly, the words signified. Because I imagine that for a great many people who attended services of the established church when doing so was prescribed by law, the words didn’t so much signify a particular theological position on the Trinity or transubstantiation (which if you listen closely to the C of E communion prayer, even in modern language, it definitely does!) as the right time to plant the crops and the times of year when the days would grow shorter or longer.

My mind wanders to such thoughts most weeks in Corpus chapel, but today our preacher particularly drew our attention to the modern Church’s origins in a long-ago time when different ways of life were practised. Today is Candlemas, a very Anglo-Saxon name for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and an occasion which (or so I was reliably informed by an observant evangelical member of the congregation) is most definitely not observed by the more modern, forward-looking, urban evangelical congregations these days. Our preacher (who was excellent) focused her attention very closely upon the varied significances of this festival: the really religious bit, in which the lines from the Gospel of Luke embedded in the Anglican choral tradition as the Nunc Dimittis give an early indication of what a marvel the infant Christ will become; but also the ye-olde-Englande traditional bit, when Candlemas marked the time when farmers began to plant their crops; and the takeaway message for our lives, the bit with the common ground for the cynical unbelievers, the miraculous sense of wonder experienced by anyone who (as the old man Simeon does in the Gospel reading) holds an infant in his arms and marvels at the sheer extent of the possibility contained within that one tiny body.

As I have sat in chapels and churches week after week, I have often, I think reasonably, had cause to interrogate myself about what I’m doing there. How far have I come away from being the atheist whose main draw to church was Philip Pullman, and what do I mean when I recite with the congregation the words printed on my service leaflet? I have often stopped just short of wondering whether I should learn more about how to become a Christian, whether I should look for the dotted line on which to sign, so that I might feel like a bit less of a charlatan when I twist myself into layers upon layers of metaphor so that I can say the Apostles’ Creed without lying. What was wonderful about today’s sermon, though, and about the old feasts like Candlemas (similarly Ascension Day, or the last Sunday of Advent, or any other liturgical day connected to a folk tradition), is that they demonstrate how belief can lie less in metaphysics and more in a sense of connection to the past, to the earth, and to fellowship with other people in the present. The Church of England doesn’t bother much about heaven and hell, but it has always made me feel welcome, has never asked what I am doing there or why I haven’t gone and gotten baptised already, and always reminds me to marvel at creation, from the connections I pursue with other people to the Shetland ponies in the field opposite Iffley village church and the first daffodil shoots that today I saw poking up on the lawn outside my house. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” Pullman quoted Hopkins as saying, three years ago, and I still think atheists might listen to Christians if in nothing else at least in guidance for how to marvel at and cherish the natural world around us, where time is not linear and progressive but cyclical.

I am starting to hear from Ph.D. programs, and it is starting to dawn on me that this will be my last spring in Oxford probably for some time. I will be moving to a city next year, and while this spring will bring with it news of a new life, greater opportunities, new connections to form and hopefully new routes to happiness, I don’t think that spring is quite the same in concrete jungles, where you have to look much harder to find a daffodil or a newborn lamb, and where the Christianity (or at least this has been my sense) shares a little less common ground with the secular experience.

3 thoughts on “On Atheist Churchgoing; or, Why I Will Miss This Country

  1. Interesting. As someone who was raised in the Episcopalian church and turned to atheism after high school I’ve gone through many different stages of participation in services.

    In middle school I was an acolyte; I was proud of the fact that I’d memorized the Lord’s Prayer and Nicene Creed, and I spoke them carefully and solemnly, with meaning in every word.

    As I grew older and more wary of Christianity my voice was more perfunctory – I didn’t think I believed in it, but I said it for my family and the others in the pews beside me, and because it was comforting and familiar.

    When I attend church now (which is very rarely) I no longer say the words, though I still know them by heart. I join in on the Peace, and occasionally Prayers of the People, and I sing all the songs no matter how devotional. I’ve also stopped taking communion, though I will go to the alter for a blessing.

    I sometimes wonder why, if I don’t believe in any of this, what I say or don’t say in church matters. The ritual is still comforting and resonates with my childhood, and I think a part of me would enjoy embracing it. But another part of me cringes to hear my voice say “I believe in one God, the father, the almighty. Maker of heaven and earth” because it’s just not true.

  2. Hi Sam! Thanks for this. They are disconcertingly definite words, aren’t they? I think it does matter that we don’t say things we don’t believe, because I’m not one for dismissing *other* people’s beliefs and the fact that the words still mean something to them.

    It’s weird: usually in my life, not to say something is a definite form of protest: when I was in school, I made a point of leaving out the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance when we recited it together every morning, and when the Iraq invasion happened stopped saying it altogether. I used to get my share of hassle for that, and it was definitely an oppositional stance. I think that’s why I’d rather twist the meaning of the words in my head so that they make enough sense that I can say them (I think the story of Jesus is really great, even though I don’t literally believe that he descended into hell and then ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father the Almighty): it seems discourteous to protest something when you’ve voluntarily chosen to be there essentially as a guest of the real Christians, and you’re not there out of any obligation to your childhood/family/heritage/culture. But then there’s also a part of me that feels it’s equally discourteous to appropriate these people’s words to my own ends.

    Though the one part I don’t say is the prayer after communion, since it seems clear that it doesn’t really apply to you if you didn’t take communion.

  3. I was in a Kingdom Hall yesterday.

    It’s a few years now since I left the Witnesses, and the third time I’ve been back. The previous two times, though, were for funerals large enough that they had a major overspill into the car park. Yesterday was the first time I went inside. It was the funeral of an older lady with a small non-Witness family (she’d converted at the age of 60).

    The place has barely changed. New seats.

    Of course, The Witnesses are a fairly new religion: there’s none of the long connection with the past you mention here. And none of the seasonal liturgical cycle either. And their worship services are often structured more like classroom lessons in theology than like any attempt to approach the mythic or the mystical. Nonetheless, there’s something there. There’s some power in any religion, I suppose.

    My dad gave the service, and I must say he did a good job of it. Recited some humorous anecdotes between the religious bits. Witness funerals are often a lot more personal than Roman Catholic ones, in my experience.

    Back when I was leaving the Witnesses, I thought I’d miss the structure of it. I contemplated attending a few UU services, trying to find somewhere to fit in. But I never got around to it, and now I probably never shall.


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