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Cotswolds

An Atheist Goes to Church

The War Memorial in Northleach

By luck we were back in the Cotswolds last weekend for Remembrance Day, so we joined our village for the ceremony at the local war memorial followed by a service at our church.

While I’m an atheist for all intents and purposes, attending church in the Cotswolds has always been a non-issue for me. Perhaps because I was raised Presbyterian or perhaps because village churches are intricately woven into this Cotswold landscape I love, I’ve always found a sense of comfort in their drafty Anglican sanctuaries.

On this Remembrance Day I attended church out of respect and to sit for an hour in a still, sacred place.

If my use of the term “sacred” jars, allow it. I mean it in the dictionary sense of something that is both highly valued and important, and deserving of great respect. Of course we all know the reasons religion isn’t to be highly valued nor deserving of great respect. The list is as long as my arm, as old as the crusades, as recent as the ISIS massacre in Paris last night. But on this occasion church was sacred. It was also a reminder of how much work we have yet to do to create secular institutions that replace the sacred functions historically provided by the church.

These sacred functions were laid out in the major sections of the order of service: The Gathering, Listening for the Word from God, Praying Together, Remembering, and The Act of Commitment. With some secular adjustments—changing “Listening for the Word from God” to simply “Listening,” and “Praying Together” to something like “Sharing Hopes and Burdens”—it’s a blueprint for a secular approach to community.

During “Remembering,” the group of people bearing the poppy wreath moved to the church’s War Memorial by the south door and, as The Last Post sounded, we, the congregation, turned to face them. An elderly gentleman, the leader of the wreath party, kept silence for a long time. Long enough to feel the grief of those long-ago wars and the grief of the world today. Long enough for me to appreciate the rare opportunity to grieve with others.

And of course there were hymns. Speaking on behalf of the tone deaf of the world, one of the unparallelled benefits of church is the opportunity to sing with abandon. And for anyone who loves language, it’s hard to beat hymns. I don’t remember the name of the hymn in question, but I do remember marvelling at seeing such an elegant use of the underused word “concord.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the service was the last, “The Act of Commitment,” in which the congregation is asked to say out loud that “we will” seek to heal the wounds of war and work for a just future of all humanity. I know they’re just words, but there’s a simple power in asking that people speak them in front of other people, without the virtual veil of Twitter or Facebook. And I know of nowhere else that I’d be asked to say aloud such radical things.

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