Evensong 25 July 2010
Trinity 8 / St James the Apostle
Gen 42:1-25 1 Cor: 9;16-end
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As you know I came here just over two years ago now as the curate in this cluster and, as the curate, I am an apprentice vicar who is still learning my trade. Most of my training as a curate comes from Neville and, of course, from each of you as I learn something new each week as I seek to minister amongst you. I have now reached the half way point in my curacy, in fact I passed the half way point about three weeks ago, and I wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the time I have spent amongst you so far and for the time still to come. So Thank you!
Although most of my training takes place here in the parish I am also doing some academic work with my fellow curates at Canterbury Christ Church University. The current project that my group is working on involves looking at some of the reasons why fewer men than women seem to come to church on a regular basis. We carried out a mini-survey across our parishes and we found that in each case the proportion of men to women was about 2 men to every 3 women across all of our churches. So men make up about two fifths or 40% of our congregations whereas women make up 60%.
That is just one reason why I regularly urge any single male friends to get themselves into church!
Now of course there are lots of reasons for that difference – where you have a slightly older congregation it is a sad but true fact of life that us weak men just don’t last as thing as you hardy women. And where you have younger congregations that Sunday morning is the only time that men have to take their children to sports clubs, or when families are separated it is often the case that men will have the children at the weekend.
But quite apart from these practical issues it is also the case that there are some significant differences in the way that men and women approach things that may make the church we have now more attractive to women than to men. And I am conscious that everything I am about to say involves huge generalisations and the thing about generalisations is that they are nearly always inaccurate when you get down to the individual.
Research shows that men like to join things which are difficult to get into: the Royal Marines and the SAS always has many more applicants than it has places because they are tough to join and, therefore, they are worthwhile and manly things to join. Similarly organisations such as the freemasons may be attractive because of the perceived difficulties of getting in and the exclusivity of being a member, or perhaps the desire to take part in difficult or dangerous sports presents a challenge that men can respect. Once a man has joined a challenging or elite group they often like to have further definable goals that, with a struggle, they can reach and demonstrate to others that they have advanced – again those additional challenges exist within the armed forces, in organisations like the freemasons and within sport. And finally men like to form friendships with groups of other men who are part of the same group and have been through the same tough challenges and I hardly need to labour point that you see that sort of male bonding within the types of organisation that I have mentioned.
How does that compare with the church in our day? Unfortunately the present day church scores very badly on all of those fronts: it is easy to join – you simply walk through the door and sit down and you are in – there is no test, no membership fee and no struggle at all. Once you are in there are no easily discernable marks of progress other than perhaps joining the PCC but if that is a mark of spiritual progress than heaven help us, and the friendships formed with other men although hopefully polite and, in the long term meaningful, are not the same as you might form with men in your regiment or your rugby team for whom you might willingly die, or at least be trampled in a scrum.
Now of course, one answer is to say that the church should be different even radically different from other groups in the secular world – it should be open to all and without challenge and so on and so forth and that is undoubtedly true, but it is worth remembering that the church has not always been like it is now, and St Paul has a different view of the spiritual life that uses quite a different language.
In the first few hundred years of the church’s existence it was often an underground body that was always at risk of persecution and death. Potential converts to Christianity had to study the faith for up to three years before being baptised and once you were in then quite apart from the risk of death at the hands of the Romans it was intended to be a demanding spiritual journey. About half the year was spent observing strict fasts of one kind or another a practice which still exists within the Eastern Orthodox church today. From the third century on men often withdrew into the harsh environment of the desert, just like Jesus, in order to further their own inward journeys with God and from those early desert fathers with their demanding lifestyles we had the monasteries which were the powerhouses of Christianity throughout much of its history. One of the first rules of St Benedict was that men who aspired to be monks had to sit outside the monastery doors for three days to prove their commitment and their mettle.
In the reading from 1 Corinthians St Paul uses the language of competitiveness and challenge which tell us something about spiritual struggle:
“24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
St Paul is making the point that what we do here in Church has a point and a purpose way above the award of any sports cup or crown and, therefore, shouldn’t we be training ourselves hard to win the prize that endures, shouldn’t we be struggling manfully with the challenges of life and temptation to succeed in the spiritual life.
Of course I am not saying that we should make the church hard to join and nor am I saying that we ought to burden those looking for rest and recuperation with the guilt or the challenge of having to achieve anything. There is a place always for simply resting in the love of God and for that I am grateful. However I do wonder whether we have gone too far in the wrong direction, whether we have neutered our faith by taking out any sense that there is something worth aiming at let alone the concept that the spiritual life is a challenge worthy of the fight.
Let us close in prayer:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have called us as men and women here to worship you this evening. Renew us by your Spirit, inspire us with your love and help us always to strive for the prize of eternal union with you, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.