" No! Not in a Church!" Anybody who has grown up in the Caribbean has heard this phrase yelled at them sometime during their childhood. It could be for running up and down the stairs with friends playing "catcher" after Sunday School; using some selected slang words as you hail up a colleague outside the window or for wearing a dress that is a bit too see-through or a jeans too holey to be holy. God forbid if you were at a meeting and in an absent minded moment leaned against the altar. Well, if you didn't die on the spot from the looks of utter disdain you would pray that the priest would bring you some water right away, not only to prevent you from fainting in shame but to baptise you anew to remove that repugnant stain of sin.
Yes, as a child you learnt that the house of the Lord was sacred. Not respecting that was worse than more trivial sins such as stealing a candy from a supermarket or scratching up somebody's vehicle in the parking lot. Transgressions against people were one thing, but transgressions against God could take you straight to hell. So, from early as five or six we learnt to fear God and everything in his house.
Well, it didn't stop in childhood. I remember an incident where I was a director for an adult chorale in a church. In the Caribbean, chorales are the groups in the church that push the musical envelope by using indigenous rhythms of reggae and calypso along with other contemporary stylings. It may seem paradoxical to some, but church culture in the Caribbean has in the past been one that has frowned on traditional island culture. Regarding much of our music as "banja" or devil music. Today this view is less prevalent, but " not in a church", for this music was not that long ago.
Anyway, during one chorale practice, I encouraged members to express themselves in their movements as they sang a song we had put to a calypso beat. Apparently, in the opinion of one of the chorale members, another singer had crossed the line with her gyrations. It seemed strange as the movements we were doing were quite conservative, some head, foot and upper body moves, certainly nothing in the waist area. I learnt later, the main concern of the protester, was that the offender's effervescent movements were made in front of the tabernacle.
The tabernacle is the little box kept just above the altar on the far left hand side that houses the communion wafers. A box that, according to tradition, God himself resides. It's like a hierarchical trinity of sacredness. General church on level one, altar on level two, tabernacle on level three. Each level more sacred than the previous and the admonishment for desecration more severe. So, the problem didn't seem to be the body motion it was just that it shouldn't have been done in front of the tabernacle. Supposedly, if the gyrations had been made, while standing in the middle of the group rather than being outermost on the left, it would not have been as bad. Amazing!
What ensued was an angry exchange between the offending and offended member and both left the chorale practice in disgust. In all this, the rest of the chorale were just shocked and speechless. No one knew quite what to say. It struck me at the time that this was an example of religion not knowing reason. It was impossible on the spot to reconcile the disagreement because there was no basis for the discussion. Without God himself in the midst to arbitrate; the discussion had no way of resolving, there was an inevitable standoff. In this case it led to two very angry and distraught individuals, both of whom were simply acting according to what they believed was the proper way to serve God. There is really simply no way to counteract in logic, this " not in a church" syndrome. It's either war or shake your head and give in. You can point to traditions, but they are not based on logic. It's just how it's been done in the past. They can build a sense of strength in community but can also hold back progress. Some people uphold traditions others move away, it is a natural tension, there is no right or wrong.
It is sad to see how religion can divide people even those who earnestly want to "sing from the same hymn sheet," but "not in a church" syndrome can do that. Eventually this syndrome makes its way up in Caribbean society and manifests itself at national level. It becomes, "not on a Sunday", "not during Lent" or "not on Good Friday" where it is not uncommon for government officials to voice their open disapproval for even private functions held at these times. There is even, "not in this country." A musical group was recently prevented from performing in Barbados, in part because aspects of their message were not considered to be inkeeping with the morals of a "Christian" society.
Just like the chorale scenario, there is no way to reason these things through, unless God speaks for himself, but he has kept silent as his followers have bloodied themselves in ideological battles. It is far worse when , "not in a church" is used to exclude not music, body movements or clothing, but people themselves. I can remember when the response to having women as preachers was , "not in a church." Today those four words are likely to confront gays or lesbians wishing to evangelise.
Well, history has shown us that , "not in a church", can be overcome.The church, like society around it has moved with the times. It is a pity that the book on which the faith is based reflects an understanding of the world that is so primitive. Melodies and rhythms may have moved with the times , but the lyrics, by and large, have remained the same. Someone needs to tell the churches that these must be updated too. We shouldn't be reading a book telling us how to treat our slaves, at least not in a church.