But That’s My Pew!

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April 8, 2018 by Worship, Community, Formation

large chair

Where do you sit when you worship?

Same place every time?   Do you secretly have your ‘own pew’ or your ‘own seat’, even though you’d hate to admit it?

If the congregation where I worship is anything to go by, most people do.

And sometimes, as an occasional preacher, I have looked out over the flock and wanted to cry: ‘Sit somewhere different!’   Picking out familiar people in familiar places, week after week, I wonder how new relationships are ever sparked in our church.

I wonder, too, what it said about the adventurousness of the Christian spirit that we preferred the security of our ‘own pew’ to the risk of encounter or simply trying a different perspective, acoustic, or neighbour.

And I have wondered this: if worship is truly our approximation to the coming Kingdom, do the angels in heaven all line up the same place every day.   Do they file in to celestial realm, settling on their favourite cloud, next to their angel best-friends?  Or to put it another way, if we imagined Jesus’ shrewd eyes on us as we said ‘we are one body’, would we not feel we ought to mix it up at least a little bit?

Now I’m an ordinand – a trainee priest – this question has taken on a sharper edge.   Assuming they actually ordain me, soon there will be congregations to tyrannise.  The cry to shout ‘Sit somewhere different!‘ may become a responsibility, if I truly discern that some in a congreation are being excluded while others are getting too comfortable; that gathering to worship is about anything other than our response to God.

And now I know it’s not just church where Christians get cosy…

I’m two terms into a course at Queen’s Theological College that, wonderfully, brings together trainee ministers from Church of England, Pentecostal churches, and the Methodist Church.   As Christian denominations, we have quite different habits, experiences and connections to society.  The opportunity to explore each other’s traditions is one of the gifts of studying at Queen’s.

So I was pained to notice, some way into a recent residential week, that the members of my year group sat in the same seat in their classroom every session.

It was more than I could bear, and at the first opportunity, my challenge to my class was this: ‘The chances are, if you’re an Anglican, sitting between two Anglicans; if you’re a Methodist, you’re with other Methodists; if you’re a Pentecostal, you’re next to Pentecostal students’.   I figured if there wasn’t a way of sorting this in a theological college, there would be no way of working it out in a church.

I soon found I had given myself a role of accountability for the group.  Some students came up to me to explain why the place they sat was important to them.   Others accepted the challenge, and moved around from that point onwards; although as we neared the end of a gruelling week, one person said, ‘I’m sorry Simon, I simply have to sit in my normal seat today.  I don’t have the energy to sit anywhere else’.

But in this gentle act of disruption, I also observed something else.  In my personal vision of the class as a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom, anyone would sit next to anyone else.  But in a real class as it was actually configured, important relationships had developed.   If a student had to miss a session, it was those in adjacent seats who noticed, sent a concerned text and took an extra handout.   After my challenge, which stirred things up for a while,  we lost some of those connections, and didn’t always see clearly when someone was missing.   When I skipped a session, nobody collected handouts for me!

Social studies academics speak of bonding and bridging capital.  Bonding capital is the strength built up within groups as they settle together and look after each other.  Bridging capital is the strength built across groups by those who make themselves vulnerable by stepping out to build connections.  In doing so, those individuals often set themselves at the edge of their ‘home’ community which sees them as semi-detached or even unreliable.

Strong groups need bonders.  Strong communities need bridgers.   A congregation, a class, or a community of any sort will need both if it is to be strong and resilient.   I look forward to seeing how the angels work it in the Kingdom of God; in the meantime I will continue to find ways to challenge – but also to respect – those who bond as well as those who bridge.

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