A few months ago, I visited St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. That sounds like a bit of a Christian brag – why yes, I make all of my holidays into pilgrimages – but we only really went for something to do. We had four days in Rome, we’d exhausted all the other main tourist attractions, and we only went into St. Peter’s because the queue was short.
I have no interest in places like that (I literally just had to google the name of it – originally I was calling it St. Paul’s Cathedral). There are people who love visiting big, grand churches and cathedrals – Christians and non-Christians alike – but those kind of places have always made me uncomfortable. There’s the grandness, which really doesn’t fit with the casual vibe I have going on. But more than that, I always end up thinking about the money that went into constructing and maintaining that opulent building (not to mention the labour which, I suspect, was not paid or voluntary) and I think, Really? You think this is what God wants from us?
And so I wandered around St. Peter’s like the raging liberal I am, admiring the architecture whilst also inwardly muttering, Think how many people they could have helped with this money. I looked over at a queue of people waiting for their blessing and special prayer from the priests, thinking, Why would a “St. Peter’s prayer” be any more effective than prayer from anyone else? I looked at all the tourists taking photos (even though I, too, was a tourist taking photos) and grumbled, This isn’t church, it’s theatre. Everywhere I looked I thought: This isn’t church. This isn’t prayer. This isn’t community. This isn’t worship. You’ve got it all wrong. You’re missing the point.
And then I wondered, Or am I missing something?
I looked again at the architecture and allowed myself to be filled with the awe and wonder of it, realising that it was all a creative expression and celebration of how awesome and wonderful God is. I looked again at the people who had travelled here just for prayer and an experience of God, and began to see something special in the intentionality of that pilgrimage. I looked again at the tourists taking photos, and thought, Well, at least people are turning up here. It was not my perfect way of doing church. I still had my reservations. But I looked again and chose to try and see God in it all.
I wonder how many people walk into my church and have reservations of their own. I wonder how often we hold back, we don’t engage, because that’s not the way we would do things. It’s so easy to treat church as if you’re a consumer, and critique the parts that don’t work for you. It’s almost impossible not to focus on and emphasise the parts of church that you enjoy the most, and disregard any aspect or tradition that you struggle to connect with. I can’t stand it when the congregation is asked to read something out in unison, but standing there sulking in silence is hardly getting me anywhere either. Wouldn’t it be better to at least give it a try and see what God does?
I don’t want to be in a church where everyone is exactly the same as me, because if I’m not being challenged then what’s the point? I don’t want to only engage with God in the set amount of ways I like, because I’m missing out on so many aspects of who He is. And I don’t want to grumpily criticise people who do church in a different way to me, because even if my way of doing church is way better (and I’m pretty sure it is) they still might have something to add, something to teach me. Even if it’s not the way you’d do things, even if their way is far from perfect, there’s always something to learn if we just open our minds enough to look again.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti