Hard or soft?

Not, you may be relieved to know, Hard Brexit or Soft Brexit. Nor is this anything to do with Donald Trump. I thought we needed a rest from all that for a while.

No, it’s about Hard Church or Soft Church. So switch off now if church bores you. Or maybe read on to find out why it might do that.

Bishop Mervyn Stockwood, sometime of Southwark, was once asked if he was High Church or Low Church. His reply, typically, was neither: he had a low boredom threshold and was irritated by lengthy services, so he said ‘Short Church.’

The old categories of Low or High are becoming increasingly irrelevant. This isn’t to ignore theological differences which make the Church of England into a sort of ecclesiastical earthquake zone, and can erupt at any time. But on the surface it is often difficult to discern the theology from the outward expression of worship.

A few weeks ago a friend posted on Facebook a link to a recent decision affecting a rural parish church. The local Diocesan Chancellor (the Bishop’s chief legal officer) had resolved a dispute about church furnishings by allowing them to buy new chairs provided they did not have cushions.  It’s clear that the Chancellor expected ascetic austerity to prevail over personal comfort.

Personally, I find it much easier to concentrate and indeed to pray when I am comfortably seated (and warm – church heating systems having been the bane of much of my working life.)  I can understand objections to cushions in royal blue or bright scarlet, even to heathery green which is more suited to an old folks’ home. I have never seen the point of those multi-coloured tapestry kneelers. But simple padded seats in a discreet neutral shade seem to me just like common sense, especially if somebody is willing to pay for them.

The hidden agenda, though, is what I think the Chancellor suspected. The cosification of the Church of England. Upholstered chairs – then what? Carpets? Curtains? White leather sofas in the aisles; cappuccino machines and smoothies?

It’s easy to see the attraction of all this from some points of view. The caricature of ‘church’ that many people grow up with, is of a gloomy, dank Victorian building with serried ranks of hard pews. Like those reconstructions of 19th century schoolrooms that you find in many folk museums, it’s somewhere you are expected to be well-behaved. To listen and keep silence, not to speak unless you are spoken to, not to express any ideas of your own or challenge the authority in the pulpit or at the teacher’s desk. Boredom and discomfort are to be expected. That is Hard Church indeed.

So it’s not surprising that Soft Church is high up on the agenda of those determined to reverse the decline in church attendance and entice people into church – especially younger people –  by making the experience seem less threatening and more familiar. One of the earlier episodes of the sitcom Rev satirised this with the storyline of evangelical vicar Darren attempting a church plant, importing many young, beautiful people and their casual worship combined with hardline theology into Adam’s far from soft inner-city parish.

So Soft Church – cosy environment, vapid worship songs, casual clergy dress styles – might be a cover for a rigid, conservative, judgemental theology.  The cosiness lulls us into a false sense of security. I know that Rev isn’t a documentary but it seems pretty near to the truth sometimes.

Soft Church isn’t an exclusively evangelical phenomenon. Archbishop Michael Ramsey, as long ago as 1956, saw the danger of trivialising the liturgy: ‘the awe in the individual’s approach to holy communion, which characterized both the Tractarians and the Evangelicals of old, stands in contrast to the ease with which our congregations come tripping to the altar week by week.’*  Many Roman Catholics are also re-assessing the changed attitudes since Vatican II, and without – in most cases – wanting to go back to the old days, regret the loss of the hard edge. The Benedictine liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh writes, ‘That it never crosses our minds that a liturgy or an icon should cause us to shiver only shows how we have allowed ourselves to tame the Lion of Judah and put him into a suburban zoo to entertain children.’§

sam_9203Hard Church is uncompromisingly about the worship of God. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ [Hebrews 10.31] Worship is counter-cultural, it confronts us with a challenge. There is a hard edge to it.   Such a church might, typically, be housed in a neo-gothic structure of hard industrial brick, gaunt and barnlike. It will be embellished, but with symbolic aids to devotion rather than sybaritic comforts like sofas or coffee. The liturgy will not be a free-for-all, and extempore ramblings by the clergy and others will be discouraged. There will be a structure, and roles will be defined and expressed in some cases by distinctive vesture.

Yet, paradoxically, it will often be the vehicle for warm and fervent devotion, gentle and compassionate pastoral care, sensitive and intelligent preaching. The Living God before whom we tremble reveals him/herself as the God of Love. If we are encouraged  by the building and the liturgy to pray, we will soon discover the richness and warmth of God.

Because Soft Church tends to minimise the mystery. Jesus is our elder brother, our best mate, and while some  types of theology might have a rather frightening image of God the Father, he (and it is always he, or He) is often a remote lawgiver who speaks unambiguously in prose, rather than the Holy of Holies who draws us into the Mystery through poetry.

Hard Church confronts us with the challenge. But that challenge is to enter the Mystery and to be transformed. Older expressions of Hard Church perhaps tended to leave people at the threshold, quaking before the mystery, and discouraged them from venturing further. The liturgical changes of the last 50 and more years, and the growing self-confidence of the laity, have helped to break down that barrier. But a Soft Church that ignored the mystery would be much worse.

*’The Parish Communion’, in Durham Essays and Addresses, SPCK London 1956

§ On Liturgical Theology, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 1984/1992



2 thoughts on “Hard or soft?

  1. Well said David. Trouble is, I can sympathise with both. I suppose what it comes to is that you can’t do everything in one church service. The chatty, informal, it’s-all-about-you stuff is really important for some, especially the lonely and traumatised, and is perhaps the best background for constructive Christian learning. On the other hand, we also need to relate to the divine and experience the divine, and that means it’s not all about you. It’s positively about forgetting about you and attending to something better, holier. When you are catching a glimpse of heaven you are not distracted by your hard bum.

  2. Thanks for that response Jonathan. Well of course it’s not either/or. Just that in some quarters at least Soft Church appears to have totally eclipsed Hard Church. I think we need to assert the priority of worshipping God over learning about God: there are or should be other opportunities for the latter besides the hour on Sunday morning or whenever. And some of the most strictly liturgical, show-no-human-emotion-during-the-service sort of churches (which are too rigorous for me, there needs to be a bit of human warmth as we encounter the Mystery together) are the most welcoming and affirming of the ‘lonely and traumatised.’ Partly in the fellowship before and after (over coffee for example); but also because introverts or emotionally wounded people often appreciate a more formal liturgy. I wouldn’t have thought an HTB-style extrovert Praise service a very comfortable environment for such people either.

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