I’ve been to church twice in the last month. As someone who has spent the last 10 years sneaking in an out of churches like a spy, this is huge. Not just because in Britain you only have to go to church once a month to be considered a regular churchgoers, but because I really enjoyed it and it wasn’t even Christmas.
Coming from a line of fairly humble churchgoers (my mother always insists we sit in the back row in case our family’s giant height obscures everyone’s view), I find this church hilariously high in comparison. My parents’ parish has a grand tradition of awful organists and discretion. In my new church, all the bells and whistles of faith are shown off in an elaborate choreography of joy and pride.
The Bible is carried aloft, there’s a lot of processing in golden robes, and incense is wafted around like we’re in the Holy Land branch of Lush, but despite the fact I usually prefer the low-key stuff, it’s really enjoyable. I like the fact that parts of the Eucharist are said in Latin, and that the vicar bows so low at times I worry he’s going to somersault into the verger’s lap. For once I feel like I belong in the congregation. I know the clergy, I like the church. It’s not strange to me and I’ve chosen to be here.
Facing a 45 minute commute meant lazily plumping for the Family Service for my first visit. I needn’t have spent the 15 minutes I did worrying about what to wear: a woman in a jewelled minidress and four-inch Jimmy Choos was busy sparkling up the next set of pews along. The problem with going to a new church on your own is that you don’t know the ritual. You might know the overarching plot, but not the twiddly bits in between, which explains why during the march up to the altar for communion, I, alone in my pew, ended up standing for five minutes after everyone behind me had sat back down again. Embarrassing.
I was really shaken by my reaction to the blessing. People who aren’t confirmed (usually children) can go up to the altar during communion. In my parents’ church, you get a hand on the head and a mumbled “May the Lord…”. Here, you get hand on head, thumb marking the sign of the cross on the forehead and a lovely, fervent blessing. I’ve been hypnotised a few times and been amused at my suggestibility, but this time it felt like a huge wave of love was going into me from the vicar and I actually started to tear up. Tears! From a blessing! It all started to feel a bit True Blood-credit-sequence. All I really wanted to do was have a cry and think about it, but then I would have been the person sitting on her own in church, weeping, which would have been awful.
Church was very much on my mind for this week’s class, tackling Holy Communion and what it actually was. I love the fact that it’s about people coming together: my friend’s beautiful civil wedding last week really summed that up for me. There were so many family and friends there, and the room was so filled with happiness (and horrifically dripping candles – poor antique table) that it was really special.
The church’s deacon took this class. As she cheerily put it, “not knowing what Holy Communion is about is like driving a car and not knowing what’s under the bonnet.”
Further to my wondering about which translation of the Bible to go for, she’s fluent in Ancient Greek, as you are, and tackled that problem head on by going to Greece to discuss the New Testament. Despite the fact she’d read the original text in its original tongue, the very problem of analysing the Bible came when she said this to her course leader who replied, “Oh? Which version?”
We start off by talking about why we have Communion at all. The breaking of the bread, sharing of the wine – literally, you’re breaking bread with the people around you. And of course, it’s one of the sacraments. I’ve never been entirely sure what a sacrament was, and became even more confused when the rock band HIM sung about one seven years ago. It turns out that there are many different ways of reading what a sacrament is, but our church tends towards the “event at which God’s presence can be felt.”
Annointing the sick (last rites)
In Communion, we are also making a new covenant, or promise, with Jesus to love one another as he has loved us. And during the service, we “meet” Jesus at the bread and wine, the reading of the Word and exchanging the sign of the Peace.
I’d never really thought about it like that before, as you can probably tell by my rote-like retelling. I’d always just seen getting your little disc of bread and sip of wine as a Sunday tick in the box. I didn’t even know that Eucharist meant thanksgiving, or that Mass came from “missa”, meaning dismissal, or being sent out: you share the Lord’s supper and go out into the world to share His message. Did you? Well, now you do.
Not long to go now. It feels really good to be looking forward to it: when I signed up to these classes, I wanted to go, get confirmed, and then go back on my way to distrust, to solitary church visits outside of service hours.
For the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to being a part of a congregation – and not just for Christmas.
A version of this post was originally published on The Times’ Articles of Faith blog