A Free-Thinkers’ Church
Perched on an oaken pew, I listen to jazz, riff after gloriously improvised riff. Early evening sunshine streams through stained glass casting kaleidoscope colours on the piano. Outside, sparrows rest on weathered granite gravestones. Inside, people fan themselves with the Order of Service and tap their feet to secular standards. This time and place is… sacred. I want to make a joyful noise!
I am attending Jazz Vespers at St. James Anglican Church in Stratford, Ontario. It is said by old wags that to Anglicans, Sin is using the wrong fork. As with their coreligionists in the Church of England and the US Episcopal Church, the gray haired congregation of St James would be perfectly content if we were singing Abide with Me, the jellied salads made by the ladies “for after” kept their form, and legions of children sat in Sunday school, obediently well scrubbed. However, the congregation is dwindling death by faithful death. The feeling of loss is palpable in the plastered sanctuary walls. In contrast there is a beat of hope in the music.
I have no affiliation to St. James. I’m here because I love jazz. I welcome North America’s collective evolution toward post-Christianity. But along with the very elderly church elders, I mourn every time I see an old church demolished or sold off as a B&B or vacation home, pews reinstalled in a pub, fixtures auctioned off to the highest bidder. I think of the hard working bricklayers and carpenters who built St. James in a pre Health and Safety, work-booted era. When they dropped bricks on their toes, or hit their thumbs with hammers, they were injured for posterity.
As I am swept up in Oscar Peterson, I realize, other people feel this way. In common with the St. James congregation, free-thinkers and Pagans, meditators and philosophers, other non-Christians of all sorts, feel kind of bad when old churches fall on hard times. Thus we have Jazz Vespers instead of Sunday Evening Hymn Sing. The pianist is playing soul-grabbing, secular songs because the people of St. James want more people to gather in this sacred space, and the people have come. There is little mention of Jesus.
A very few churches have navigated through turbulent waters to post-Christianity. Universalist Unitarians remain trailblazers, torches in hands. The congregation of West Hill United Church in Toronto is thriving under the leadership of its atheist minister, Gretta Vosper. A few purse-lipped United Church stalwarts complain that the flamboyantly out-of-the-closet atheist should resign from Christian ministry but the rock of St. Peter still lies solidly under her feet. Turns out people want to gather in community for sacred ritual and potlucks With or Without God (incidentally the title of Vosper’s how-to manual on creating godless churches). And then there is yoga.
My mind wanders with the music. I know I’m being a tacky guest. It’s as if I am mentally turning a china plate to see the maker’s crest at a fancy supper. But I think to myself… What would Led Zeppelin’s Your Time is Gonna Come sound like on the St. James pipe organ? Is there enough space on the lawn for a community garden? Could philosophy nights or workshops on living the examined life replace scripture study? I wonder if there is a gym in the basement. Could we wrench out a couple of these tortuous pews to make space for meditation cushions or yoga? The pews would be effective customer movers in a fast food restaurant or cafe…
How under heaven has the Christian era has lasted approximately twenty centuries? The Christian manual for living (the Bible) offers questionable lifestyle advice. The leadership delivers doctrine in long-winded, high-handed lectures (sermons). Some of the rituals are exclusive and preposterous (Catholic communion). What has kept the sheep in the flocks for so long? My theory is that people want to gather with other people in beautiful buildings.
A version of this article originally appeared in Humanistic Paganism on 24 July 2016.