As well as dispensing waffle and rubbish parsons listen to a great deal of it. One of the most common nuggets of nonsense they have to bear comes from those privileged enough to have been to a church school: "I was forced to go to church so much as a child, I can't bear to go now."
Throughout my youth I went to church twice at least on Sundays, and on weekdays, when at home, I said matins and evensong with my parents every day as well, sometimes encouraged into it, sometimes cajoled, occasionally forced. For all that I was often bored witless at worship I look back on those hours and hours of it in my youth with affection and nostalgia.
Cow dung church floors! Judiciously diluted with mud and then smoothed and dried, cow dung polishes up to a gold‑flecked, shiny, greenish‑brown floor that is less obdurately and cruelly resistant to a worshippers unkneelered knee than is harsh concrete. Many of the African mission out‑station churches of my youth had such floors.
There were termites in the rafters, occasional chunks of their dried spit‑and‑mud runnels dropped on to our heads during long prayers. There were lizards on the walls. There were crowds of people, acrid smells, shuffling and whispering bare feet, wailing babies. The liturgy was incomprehensible, the readings were incomprehensible, only the sermon was comprehensible because my father always preached in English and was translated.
The singing was magnificent, rich in harmony, stirring, thrilling and accompanied by drums and homemade gourd maracas. When the women became excited they began shrilly to descant and then ululate, sometimes shuffling into the aisle in little impromptu dances.
People came and went throughout the services. There was little pretended piety. Most of the members of the congregation gawped open‑mouthed at whatever happened to be going on. The arrival of the white priest and his family at an isolated mission out‑station was a fascinating and rare event and so we were always well gawped at throughout a service. This used to worry my brother who hated being stared at, even by our pet dog at meal times.
Worshippers scratched their heads, fiddled with their ears, eyes and noses, rarely closed their eyes, walked in late, very late and too late, suckled their bright‑eyed, shiny‑faced and lovely babies. There was no tut tutting, no censoriousness. It was all shamelessly off hand and casual. The services rambled on and on interminably.
As well as experiencing this African
worship, I experienced European worship, for my father took services in white
farming areas, in pretty little English‑type churches or in homes or
clubs. This provided an interesting
contrast. There seemed to be an
authenticity and naturalness to the African worship that was largely absent
from the European. The delicate little transplant from
This, I think, was because the African peasant still lived in a largely undemythologised world, a world in which God, spirits, angels, demons and ghosts had not yet been elbowed out to life's periphery. In their world spiritual beings were experienced realities, not merely unexperienced, theoretical possibilities. Worship to African peasants was an activity that came naturally. This is why people like me enjoyed it so much, found it so invigorating, heartening and authentic.
We live in a very different world from the African peasant. Where is your God? Where is mine? Where do we encounter him? We can only point to a few strange experiences, if any at all, and they are ambiguous and doubtful. There are a few blessed primitives among us who assure us of demons, angels, ghosts in their actual experience, but although sincere, primitives they are, retrogressives, clinging to a world that knowledge and learning have destroyed. Our world has been demythologised. This is why worship to so many of us seems unreal. We worship what we do not know or experience, and so we have to pretend, strike pious poses, look and act devout when only puzzled, mystified, bored. We cannot afford to be casual and natural at worship like the African, because it might give the game away.
This contrast between the African and the European worship of my youth is what more than anything else has driven me to sacramentalism.... God known and revealed, to those with the eyes to see, in the ordinary, in bread and wine.
For worship to be as authentic and vibrant as African worship, more than assent to propositions or to a moral force and code, more than nostalgia or an expression of community and belonging, there has to be a real God to experience even in a demythologised world. Elizabeth Barret Browning joins forces with the African peasants of my youth and helps:
Earth's crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Gerard Manley Hopkins joins forces with the African peasants of my youth to help:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
Henry Vaughan joins forces with the African peasants of my youth because he
...felt though all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
African peasants, poets, musicians, bread and wine all help me as a parish priest to encounter the reality of the Divine in my demythologised world, helping make genuine my genuflecting and authentic my worship. God bless them all.