Faith in a controlled environment

Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times and an Easter 'blue-domer', sets out to answer the question of an 11-year-old: 'If God is everywhere, why do we go to church?'
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The Independent Online
In one of her letters, Rose Macaulay, novelist and High Church dame of the mid-20th century, admits to being a "blue-domer". It is a self-conscious, falsely apologetic phrase to describe somebody who skives off matins or evensong and worships, instead, under the blue dome of heaven. Apologies to any New Agers, but respectable Anglican ladies were out there first.

I have traced the phrase as far back as Shelley, who wrote:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the sky . . .

. . . the winds and sunbeams with their

complex gleams

Build up the blue dome of air.

Easter Sunday morning is the one occasion of the year when my family and I become blue-domers, getting up before dawn to watch the sun slip above the horizon on the east coast of England. This time, of course, we had to make do with being grey-domers, since nothing was going to penetrate the mist and cloud. We drew a sun in the sand, played hide-and-seek among the beach huts, and walked back home to eat Easter eggs.

Further up the beach, a "sunrise service" was just beginning, with a couple of songs, a reading and a sermonette. It was a typical case of Anglicans seeking compromise when no compromise is possible: you can't let people stay in bed till 7 o'clock and then have a sunrise service. The unruly sun rose at 6.25 and that was that.

Christian services, with only a very few, half-baked, exceptions, are held indoors. This is a serious point. The entire evangelistic effort of the Church is devoted to luring new people into its buildings. Out of doors, worshippers feel puny and exposed. Palm Sunday processions, the weekend before Easter, always generate great anxiety: "What if we're seen?"

It is an odd fear for Christians to have, given that they follow a religion born under the blue dome of the Palestinian sky. Although Jesus attended the temple, religiously one presumes, most of the Gospel accounts place him outside, in the hills, in the wilderness, by the beach. He takes a multitude of his followers so far away from shops and houses that they have to be fed by miraculous loaves and fishes. He climbs on a boat when the crowd on the beach becomes too large. When he goes into a house, followers break open the roof in order to lower a sick man down on a stretcher.

The Church, for some reason, takes as its starting-point the scene in the upper room, where Jesus gathered his disciples in private, just before he went to his death. An upper-room sort of faith celebrates the sacred mysteries in semi-secret, drawing the faithful together by emphasising the hostility of the world and the people outside the walls. The only elements allowed to be present are the consecrated ones of bread and wine.

It is a controlled environment, and this is the key. A flock which is hemmed in, surrounded by walls and covered by a roof, is bound to be more attentive to its shepherd. A crowd outside always has people on its edge, distracted by the birds in a hedge, the curl of the waves, a passing car.

More troublesome than that, a crowd outside doesn't often want to be a crowd. Things are fine if there is a charismatic speaker holding the gathering together: in general, though, people just drift apart. The outdoors is not a place for standing about, it is a place for doing things.

This was presumably what was in the mind of my 11-year-old son when he said a few days ago,"Well, if God is everywhere, why do we go to church?" This, as other parents will recognise, is argument number 12 in the Child's Manual for Avoiding Church. (There are hundreds more.) He just wanted to go and play football on the common. I, in my turn, employed parent's response number one (there is only one): "Because I say so."

I suppose the thing about blue-doming is that it is a bit of a skive. You don't contemplate nature - the fotherington-tomas "hullo clouds hullo sky" school of spirituality - with any degree of concentration. The vastness of God is not something you can hold in your mind for long. It really is a case of a short scrawl in the sand and then on with the hide-and- seek. The object is simply to recall that the earth is the Lord's and all that therein is.

The other object is to enjoy yourself. You see why the churches are so uncomfortable with the idea.