Anvil journal of theology and mission
Life-learning of faith: “… life is wrapped around it somehow.”
Reflections from a conversation with “Liz” – a participant in a rural churches focus group
by Clare Watkins
Clare: One of the things that struck us in the research was the way in which people talked not about how they learned faith in formal places, but in the more kind of everyday things. There’s a lovely bit where you say, “Over the years, as you get older, there’s lots of bits you pick up all over the place. It’s nothing big. It’s just small things.” There is a strong sense that it’s not like you’ve studied a big course, but that there’s something in the everyday that helps us to grow in faith.
Liz: Yes, I remember that. My world has changed in terms of formal religion, in the sense that during lockdown things stopped and there aren’t any evening services anymore. I do miss it, but getting to daytime ones is more difficult. So, I’m having now to make do with the morning service on the radio on Sunday, and Songs of Praise. I’ve dropped out in terms of formal church services, but in terms of what I said about learning through life, I’ve reflected on that quite a bit. There’s people you meet, events that happen, and things that change in your life. I remember talking to my aunt… She said, if you have a strong faith that’s imbued as a child, it keeps you going through life; you’ve got that solid faith that was there from a child and it keeps you going in rocky times. And somehow, you learn from everything as you go along.
Clare: It’s that “learning from everything as you go along” that interests me. This grounding in faith – it’s a rock, a foundation; but it’s clear it doesn’t stay the same all though life. So, what happens, do you think?
Liz: You go through life and you – you know; I got married, had children, and your perspective on life changes. My parents died, and my husband is developing memory problems and things, and I’m following through, really. I think your vision of the world changes as you go through life, and I’m thinking end-of-life type stuff now. It’s there all the time. I like dog walking and walking with nature, and I think about my mother’s favourite hymn, which is “Yes, God is Good”. And I tootle along, having my dog walk, having a little hum of “Yes, God is Good”.
Clare: The context for our research around faith learning was the recognition that all our churches are in institutional decline, even though within those churches there are very often people of fervent faith. Chapels are closing, and I think there is a view, particularly from the “church management” and clergy people, that somehow because of that, faith is disappearing. And actually, I think one of the things that strikes me in what you say, like many of our respondents, was that, although it is sad when places close, nonetheless faith is still alive.
Liz: Yes, I think so, it’s quietly there. Whereas in the nineteenth century, and early last century, it was very fashionable to be going to church and to have a faith in everything, now it’s wildly unfashionable and it’s very hard to have sensible conversations. I mean, there’s one or two people I talk with, such as the farmer’s wife who lives up the road. We have a little chat quietly sometimes, and not particularly about faith, but just what’s happening and what’s going off. But you can’t speak the words these days, somehow, in the way you used to do. Which is why I’ve got the hymn “Yes, God is Good”,because that’s quite neutral. And I like my old hymns!
Clare: “Not being able to speak the words” – that’s really striking.
In the focus group you described your walks in relation to growing in faith. You say: “I remember different people and have little thoughts for people who are ill, because they don’t come to church, but that’s my sort of outdoor church.” Given what we’re describing – chapels closing, generations of people who just would never enter a church – what are your reflections on that kind being at prayer, or being with God, in this “outdoor church”?
Liz: I think that’s probably my church these days, and I go for my walk every day. I was out this morning; you go through the shopping list and what you are doing, and then you think. You get reflecting about people, and think about events happening, and what would my mother have said, and that type of thing. Then you sometimes sing a little hymn or something like that. It’s about half an hour a day. It’s my quiet reflection time where nothing else is happening. It’s time for the brain to float through, really, and think about things.
Clare: And would you see that as a time of prayer? Or is that not quite what you’d call it?
Liz: Yes, it is. It is the time when I’m on my own when I can do things like that and pray for people that I’m worried about. It’s not a formalised prayer, but it is – I suppose it comes to that in the end. It’s just thinking of people and hoping for them, really.
Clare: When you spoke about these walks in the focus group, you also described learning from your friend –about living, and goodness, and faith, although you never discussed faith explicitly. Do you think that’s happening with people who don’t know the church? Do you think there are ways in which people who don’t know the church can encounter that faith?
Liz: Yes, I think they possibly could. It’s like you are walking with people. You don’t stand back and tell them what to do. You walk in their shoes, and you understand what their life is, so you understand why they’re reacting like that. That’s my thoughts: “Why did that happen?” “That was odd.” “I wonder where that’s coming from.” You need people alongside. Our minister’s very good because she’ll walk with you and ask you questions and be interested in what everybody was doing. I think that’s really good, but you have to give a lot of yourself for that; it’s not easy. But living alongside and walking alongside, I think that’s how it works somehow. It’s lots of little things – but I suppose that’s possibly what the early church was like, when people went and lived and walked together and worked together, before it became organised… That’s how Christ started, I think, and that’s how it developed over the years for me. We’ve got very busy doing the “up here stuff” in your head, organising things and having buildings to keep. I mean, I was church council secretary for a couple of years and we spoke most of the time about buildings and money. And you know, it’s fine, it keeps it going, but we’re not about buildings; we are about people. I don’t know what you do. People get anxious about managing things. It’s a huge responsibility; after 100 years, are you going to be the one who closes it? That is hard. We, the people who used to belong to the church, we meet and have little chats, and we’re quite good friends when I see them, but they’re all getting elderly, so a lot of them aren’t out that much. But you’ve got each other through the church, I do like that. But it’s about having facility for people to meet up. I don’t know. It’s sort of incidental somehow.
Clare: I like that – “incidental of church gatherings”. Do you think you and the people that you talk to from the church have a sense of doing the kind of accompanying you talked about, just being alongside people and getting to know them?
Liz: I mean, I certainly do it through [the] Women’s Institute. It’s interesting; both my sons are volunteers in different things – one’s a school governor, and the other one is secretary of the fencing club – and I think they’ve learned it’s people doing things together. The church used to be doing things together. It’s like doing meals, and that sort of thing is good, because you all chat in the kitchen. The best stuff happens in the kitchen! Then you have to go and do something formal, and it’s nice to have a sing, but it’s a bit more formal. It’s people working together for a common cause, which you hope will be for the church and Christ, and God things. But life is wrapped around it somehow.
So I don’t know. It’s about how do you put things on, so that people can get together and support each other? And you hope then that the religion, the other things, will come in through that; but it’s very complex, it’s very difficult.
These reflections led Liz to think about the ways in which the churches’ organisational development through history hasn’t always helped this sense of grass-roots care and mutual support. She reflects on learning from her reading of the history of the Salvation Army and its founder, William Booth.
Liz: While Booth was working and doing and drawing people in and helping people, he could walk alongside people – people with alcohol abuse, that type of thing, and bring them off the streets, feed them. You were there. And then it became very big, and it became a world thing, the Salvation Army. And it’s still there, and it’s still going, but I don’t know, I’d sort of read to about the early twentieth century, about the time he died, and it seemed to have become more of an organisation. The passion wasn’t there anymore, and it became an organisational thing rather than a spirit and a burning to do it. It’s an interesting one.
Clare: Do you think that’s what’s happened to our churches?
Liz: I think the C of E is sort of an institutional thing, because it was a power base. In the nineteenth century, everybody was in it – everybody had to have access to a church, so they built lots of churches. They built a lot of really interesting, nice churches and then we were slightly overdone with church. As time went on, and I think you spend so much time worrying about bricks and mortar that you forget about the people who are going there, really. I don’t know where the churches are these days.
Clare: The online journal that we’re publishing this in, ANVIL, has a mission focus, and we have a real concern about how faith is being handed on. I’ve been very conscious that – and I’m alongside you on this! – you’ve said a few times: “Well, I just don’t know.” And – without expecting any clear plan of “this is what we have to do” – I just want to ask: in your own context, what do you think that you feel prompted to do or called into doing that somehow responds to that sense of mission?
Liz: I think life’s a journey, and you take the journey. I would say to a friend: you never know what’s around the corner, life’s a journey, enjoy it while you can, and do what you feel you need to do. And I feel that sometimes, you don’t want to do something, and you think, well, I’ve jolly well got to do it, because it’s important. I think it’s like this. Nothing is static, nothing is ever the same. And you only learn that, I think, as you get older…
I’ve got to 71 now, and actually do know quite a lot. And I’ve learned quite a lot and it will be lovely to pass it on. But people think you’re boring. So what do you do? And I kept thinking, “One day, I’ll write it down.” I’d love to really just hand on what it was like, and little things I’ve learned, really. I had started a couple of times, and life just takes over and you’re just so busy that it doesn’t happen.
I love the idea of nurseries and old people’s homes together, and intergenerational things. We’ve split the generations off – the children used to be in communities where everybody was together, of all ages, and you learned, incidentally. We’ve actually sectioned society now so that we don’t interrelate very much. Is that one of the things that’s going wrong at the moment? That we’ve we put people into chunks, and they don’t get to mix with other people.