" I only go to church for weddings and funerals." How often I heard this phrase. In years gone by I would be in awe of such people wondering how they could possibly survive without at least an occasional dose of spiritual medicine on Sunday or Saturday morning. Alas, I am now one of the "WAF"ers and unfortunately this year it has been the latter rather than the former that I have been attending.
I went to a funeral on Saturday and perhaps the family of the deceased knew I was lacking a bit of Sunday morning spirituality. The memorial service was conducted in an Anglican church and the full liturgy was included. It was a strange yet nostalgic to go through this. I had been raised in the Anglican church in Barbados and many of the passages I still practically know by heart. As an Anglican I used to have to endure criticism from persons of other denominations who claimed our faith was dead since all we did was recite words from a book and utter outdated Latin responses. However I always felt the standardisation was a blessing as it meant you could walk in to an Anglican church anywhere in the world and immediately follow what was going on and feel a part of it.
Now things felt different even though the readings were so familiar. The words rather than sitting passively on the page, jumped out of the book and shook me by my collar. There seemed to be so much blood, every other word it felt like. Suddenly the passages seemed to be more something from a horror movie than a holy book. Were these words always in here ? Surely this was a later more X rated version of the more palatable liturgy I had grown up with. But no, no it was not. Another thing struck me, the words I was reading were so self deprecating. So many lines were mentioning how horrible we are as human beings, how undeserving we are of anything. Nothing makes it clearer than the words before the communion.
" Lord, we are not worthy even to gather together the crumbs which fall from your table."
That is a truly powerful statement, an analogy that really sums up our position in the world. When I used to say this years ago, I saw it as a reminder that I should be humble and I regarded this a virtue. Now, it felt like such a put down of myself, a real self esteem killer. It was so incongruous with the idea that we can take on the world and make life into what we want to. The above statement makes us lower than the stray dog that passes around after the picnic looking for the scraps. Yes, the message is that we humans should be grateful that we get anything from God at all. No wonder Christians can so easily brush off mass deaths and disasters as the will of God and rejoice at the one saved life in the midst of the rubble. The "miracle" is our tiny crumb of blessing and its far far more than we deserve.
The service went on and I recognised that there was another very strange thing that was happening. I was thinking, yes actually using my brain in church and it felt weird. Church before was a place I could go and sit back and relax a bit, free from the stresses of the outside world. I would often listen and evaluate the sermon carefully but the rest was just like an adult version of "Simon Says." Stand when the priest said "stand" and sit when the priest said "sit." Pray when I was told to do so and be silent when that was required. I knew how to bow my head, close my eyes, genuflect and make the sign of the cross right on cue.
Today it wasn't like that at all and in many ways that made things harder. At quite a few moments I had choices to make. Should I take part in all the rituals or should I refrain from some things? This was not an easy question to answer. I had not given this much thought before hand so I had to think on the spot. I felt a little awkward, I would sometimes start saying something and then realise I really didn't think I should say it and mumble off mid sentence. Other times I started with an uncertain utterance and then spoke more boldly when I realised that the sentiment being made was something I could endorse even if it wasn't that I strictly believed everything I expressed. So up to a certain point I felt happy to realise that even though I was an atheist, I could still "do church." I could sit in the pew and play along if I had to, that was good to know, I think.
Well, I spoke too soon, for then the real moment of truth was yet to come. It came when it was time to say the Apostle's Creed." I believe in Almighty God , maker of heaven and earth, He came down to earth and became man, was born of the Virgin Mary , resurrected in body on the 3rd day etc." No I could not in good conscience say any of this. The passage says I believe. Maybe if it was "our church believes", I could justify it. But no, I didn't see how I could rationalise that this passage as some grand analogy. Resurrection of the body must mean Resurrection of the body. Virgin Mary must mean Virgin Mary. I realised then and there that there is not a single word of this creed I could truly say that I believe today. Not even that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate and died" for as most scholars will admit, even Jesus' existence is questionable. It also hit me that it was rather presumptuous to have a funeral service where you are inviting everybody to pay their respects and then additionally ask them to proclaim that they believe all the things that you believe in. I have no problem with persons expressing their beliefs as much as they want to and as strongly as this wish, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect others to proclaim that your belief is theirs too. I suddenly wished I could apologise to all the guests that came to our church in Barbados that were expected to do the same. After all, I wonder what would happen if a Christian went to a secular humanist's funeral and was then asked to recite a creed that went,
" I believe there is no God, the universe is governed purely by laws of physics which are probabilistic in nature. I believe in the Big Bang, the evolution of the species, the method of scientific enquiry and the importance of evidence, logic and reason. I believe there are no supernatural entities, no ghosts, spirits or angels and that ultimately there is no purpose in my life other than that which I assign to it."
What would be the response then? I don't know, but I am betting it won't just be shrugged off as just being part of the ritual or considered an honourable thing to recite as a mark of respect for the beliefs of the deceased. I expect even the most liberal believer would be screaming.
So I stood absolutely silent as the creed was read by those around me. It is one of those moments I will never forget. For all of the countless discussions I have had about my loss of faith, the blogs and articles I have written, the many pieces on atheism I have read, watched or listened to this was the first time I on my own, had taken a stance on the "field of play" against the belief system that was once mine. I saw it as my loud silent statement. I am sure that no one there noticed, but it meant a lot to me. I had proved to myself that I could stand on my convictions and that it wasn't just all about philosophical musing.
My own special moment of atheism during the funeral could not take away the sadness that came with the loss of a life well lived. I realise also that in spite of my problems with parts of the service, it reflected the faith of my lost friend and that was what mattered the most. Still, in thinking about the whole experience I remember something I heard recently, " Some of the worst damage can be caused by people that have the best of intentions." This is so important to remember about religion. Most church people are there with the greatest intentions. They truly believe all they do is a benefit to humanity. There is no offence meant when they ask you to recite their creed as if it was yours or require that you believe that it is you who deserved to be tortured, hung and left to die on the cross. The challenge for atheists is to show how christian beliefs can cause offense without leaving the idea that we consider Christians to be offensive people. Indeed most Christians are very beautiful people just for having the desire to want to make the world a better place. My late friend can certainly be numbered as one of those most beautiful.
Well, as far as the funeral goes I am glad I had the chance to pay my last respects. Perhaps there were two funerals for me as I had the chance to confirm that my life of faith has also been lost. There was one chance for me at the end of the service to see if I could still resuscitate myself as a member of the "living body of Christ." I was invited to come and share communion. I willingly got up from my pew and stepped into the aisle, but only so that the lady sitting next to me could have a clear path to go up to the altar and receive her sacrament.