I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot over the past few years. I’m talking about Christian spirituality here, not what is generally considered as spirituality, which is an amalgam of personality, belief, consciousness, experience and a desire to get in touch with something ‘beyond’ (I think). I’m realising that we don’t take nearly enough account of people’s different spiritualities in church life and in our Christian life generally, both separately and together. Perhaps we spend too long arguing over theology which doesn’t make a lot of sense to most people in the pew, while neglecting their different kinds of spirituality which I suspect may be at the bottom of all sorts of discussions and events, but neither noticed nor addressed.
Spirituality, as well as theology, may be one of the biggest factors for the difference between denominations. A Baptist dislikes written liturgy and may suspect it of introducing spiritual laziness and over-familiarity into a church congregation. On the other hand, they have a well-organised running order of service – but don’t call it ‘liturgy’ if you value your Baptist friends! Pentecostals, the fastest-growing of all the church denominations, value spiritual freedom in worship, strong choir-led singing and preaching that pulls no punches.
Compare this with the Orthodox Church, with the priests and the altar shielded from the congregation by a screen painted with icons. Ritual, incense, the unaccompanied singing of a hidden choir, the frequent use of the sign of the cross, and the fundamental importance of icons to their spirituality, could not be further from the churches that swing from the lights.
Catholics and Anglicans are different again, although I’m always surprised by our similarities when I attend a Catholic service. Even so, it would seem that each church tends to cater for the majority spirituality – although the Anglicans are famous (infamous?) for our ability to cater for a very wide range of people. So we find Anglican churches which have statues and icons, incense, vestments and processions: and we find those like the one I presently attend, where there is no written liturgy at all, music is led by a band, and there is a great deal of activity and fun, along with some very down-to-earth preaching.
If that’s our context, where do our personal spiritualities fit in? There are those who feel closest to God if they have space, and quiet, with familiar words. To subject these people to the sort of worship I’ve just described above, is to do a great deal of violence to them and their spiritual needs. On the other hand, many other people would find such a service spiritually stifling.
Our personal spirituality is very much part of our personalities. An extravert will love the swing-from-the-lights scene and feel closest to God when he or she is singing the same chorus of a hymn over and over again. Introverts will not connect with noisy worship and need periods of quiet and time for reflection in order to create the space they need to draw closer to God.
In fact you can now go on retreats where it’s possible to assess one’s personality-type, and understand from that more about the sort of spirituality that one’s likely to find helpful. This may sound as if this is all rather post-modern and ‘me’-centred … but many people find it liberating.
If there are several different congregations meeting in the same church, it is usually the hapless vicar who has to come to terms with the fact that the different congregations express different spiritualities and find it difficult to come together. Personally, I don’t think there’s any use in deploring this, wringing our hands and saying ‘if only people would worship together – what can I do to encourage them?’ Yes, they may (reluctantly) come together for special services – but at other times it’s like trying to make a bonsai into a hydrangea.
This becomes poisonous if one congregation thinks of themselves as ‘superior’ to the other – at which point spirituality loses the ‘spiritual’ and all we are left with is unpleasant ‘ity’ … We once had two such congregations, one of whom – the more modern one – considered itself superior to the other, who loved the Book of Common Prayer and singing the Psalms. It is an abiding memory of mine, the church council where I tackled this problem head-on. Our solution was to make the most of our Anglicanism – we can offer a huge range of worship – let’s have both, and enjoy it all!
I suspect that our spiritualities change as we change, mature and age. When I was a young mum I wanted, enjoyed and needed very lively services with my lively youngsters. Now I’m getting on a bit … I find myself reverting more to type, and appreciating silent retreats, and services with space and quiet to draw closer to God.
Am I on my own with this, I wonder?