just wondering

I’ve had a few conversations this week that have left me wondering what sort of ‘teaching’ usually goes on in church.

So, this is by way of a survey for anyone willing to answer:

1. Where did you (/do you) learn about prayer? If it was not through the ‘normal’ life of your church, have you ever received teaching on prayer in your congregation?

2. What shapes your understanding of scripture? Does your experience of church lead you to believe that there is one way to read scripture or many ways?

3. Have you ever had a chance to talk with others in your church about your understanding of (and your potential difficulties with) central aspects of faith (e.g. — love, forgiveness, resurrection, redemption, judgment…)?  If so, how did the conversation come about?

If you know of people who might be willing to answer but who don’t usually read this blog, please invite them into the conversation. I’d really like to know what people from different backgrounds have experienced.

16 thoughts on “just wondering

  1. I am a Roman Catholic who has been in and out of regular parish life over the last 20 years or so. Much of what I learned about prayer came out of non-congregational experiences (volunteer service retreats, campus ministry, conferences for young/progressive Catholics). The earliest learnings I had about prayer were from my family, especially my father. A couple of pastors in congregations I have been part of make a little time for silent/contemplative prayer in the beginning of Sunday Mass, and some have occasionally preached on prayer (usually more the importance of it, not a how-to).

    Scripture–I was fortunate to spend over a decade in a small faith community where everyone was invited to talk about what Sunday readings meant to them, and where multiple views of what a text meant were encouraged. I think the structure of a traditional sermon/homily cannot help but encourage the notion there is one way to interpret Scripture–the way that person in the pulpit is so doing.

    I have talked more openly about central aspects of faith with fellow Christians I met through campus ministry or small faith sharing than with fellow congregants in large parishes.

  2. The swan (below) seems to have stolen one of the responses to this post, so I have copied it here as well.

    Rebekah writes:

    1. Where did you (/do you) learn about prayer? If it was not through the ‘normal’ life of your church, have you ever received teaching on prayer in your congregation?

    I have run into very little teaching of prayer at church. Granted, I have also been to very few retreats and small group gatherings and that seems to be the place where I hear most people running in to that sort of thing. Certainly, I have learned how to read a written prayer, say a blessing, and I know many ways to say grace before a meal. Not sure if that counts though. Mostly I absorbed my ideas on prayer through watching and listening.

    2. What shapes your understanding of scripture? Does your experience of church lead you to believe that there is one way to read scripture or many ways?

    Many. To be even more specific, different parts of the Bible call to me in different ways when I read them. Many times, I am able to read a passage and gain clarity on something I have been worrying about, even when I have come across the part before and thought something different. If that makes any sense.

    3. Have you ever had a chance to talk with others in your church about your understanding of (and your potential difficulties with) central aspects of faith (e.g. — love, forgiveness, resurrection, redemption, judgment…)? If so, how did the conversation come about?

    In general, I can speak about my understanding of faith but usually only in a scholarly or a general sort of way. When things get too personal or too specific, I tend to back off to a “people believe this” and “The Church states the other” sort of thing. Mostly I just share personal beliefs with my family. It might be that I feel like my deepest beliefs are too personal to share easily. Perhaps I feel a bit too worried about confrontation if (when) someone doesn’t agree with me. Difficult to tell. Anyhow, it comes up all the time at home, in quite random places in the conversation.
    (-:
    -Rebekah-

  3. Thank you both for such careful responses — especially appreciated since this is your ‘debut’ comment here.

    I logged back on because I realised I should offer my own answers. Old habits of teaching: never ask of others what you aren’t willing to do yourself. So, my response below. No doubt once it’s clear that everyone who wants to has had a chance to speak, some further reflections will find their way into a new blog post too.

    1. Where did you learn about prayer, etc.

    I’ve said before that I had a strange introduction to prayer in that I read The Cloud of Unknowing at the same time that I was first exploring faith. But my real starting point was an Ignatian Retreat in Daily life. This happened to run concurrently with a series of teaching sermons on prayer in the congregation, though it proved foolish to try to engage with both. I have two basic assumptions, therefore: (1) teaching on prayer is a normal part of congregational life, and (2) it can be helpful to have the support and guidance of someone who is outside one’s current situation.

    2. reading of scripture…

    I was well in the midst of an English degree before I began to pay any attention to the bible. That means I have always assumed there is more than one way to read a text, and that any understanding of Divine Inspiration has to be as much about what happens in the reading as the writing. Most of the rest of my assumptions were formed through academic study. I believe that scripture should be read, studied, and prayed (and preached) — but each task is different and shouldn’t be confused with the others.

    3. talking about key concepts…

    Again, I suspect I did this all backwards. My first year at university, breakfast each morning consisted of carefully rationed morning rolls, an abundance of tea, and endless theological debate. I say ‘debate’. A fair bit of it was ‘bait the conservative evangelical’ (an easy game for the players who had ‘outgrown’ that label themselves). I didn’t understand much of it and I didn’t always like the way people were treating each other, but it meant that serious conversation preceded any concrete sense of my own beliefs. I have been lucky to have people around me who were willing to talk about theology wherever I’ve been, but only a few of these relationship began in church. Of the church-based relationships, serious conversation usually came by accident, when someone else’s experience suddenly resonated with mine and we dared to take our conversation out the church hall and into a coffee shop.

  4. I had no idea that those breakfasts were still remembered by anyone. Indeed, I have largely forgotten them myself.

    However, I remember enough to know that it was not just a game of bait the conservative evangelical.

    Bait the C of S Candidate was another option.

    Did we play Bait the American? I cannot now remember.

    It must have been very odd to see theology being played out as a full contact sport at breakfast. It never occurred to me at the time that there might have been anyone listening and paying attention who was not involved.

    Then again, the claim that theology makes is that we are all involved. The sight of divines getting stuck into one another over morning rolls is a sign of passion, if nothing else.

  5. You are quite right, Kelvin, the baiting game was fully inclusive, though you usually saved bait the American for later in the evening.

  6. Much as I enjoy silent meals, I would love to be present for such breakfasts. Everyone at the convent is much too polite really to debate anything, even (or especially?) theology. Share reflections, maybe… I’d enjoy hearing you all argue out the pros and cons of various lines of theological thought.

  7. Theological breakfasts? Gosh, I wonder how many coffees it would take me to get there….I have, however, started to read Puritan literature of 1640s (particularly an exposition on the Song of Solomon by John Cotton) on the bus to work…it would make a great discussion read at breakfast, probably second breakfast rather than first though. And it can be interpreted in so many ways you could really get a good ‘bait’ going 🙂

  8. Maybe this is the way forward. Brunch at the rectory once a month: pancakes, coffee and raging battle. The more timid could practice debating the relative merits of thin vs thick pancakes till they summoned up courage for doctrinal matters.

    If it were real maple syrup would they come??

  9. I thought I would answer your survey, albeit with most of my experience being from Episcopal churches – lengthy spells at 4 different churches with a variety of priests.

    1. Where did you (/do you) learn about prayer? If it was not through the ‘normal’ life of your church, have you ever received teaching on prayer in your congregation?

    I think I learned most from a mission lasting 2 weeks we had in Stirling run by the Franciscans. Other sources have been a prayer group (arose out of the mission),2 or 3 parish awaydays/retreats, 2 or 3 diocesan awaydays, a workshop on intercessions, the Episcopal conferences and of course, our recent Lent Group. On reflection a pretty mixed bag, but mostly through small groups

    2. What shapes your understanding of scripture? Does your experience of church lead you to believe that there is one way to read scripture or many ways?

    I think my experience of church is that sermons can lead to an impression of only one slant, if care is not taken. Small bible study groups have helped widen my understanding as does reading with commentaries and different versions. My ‘questioning’ husband also helps!

    3. Have you ever had a chance to talk with others in your church about your understanding of (and your potential difficulties with) central aspects of faith (e.g. — love, forgiveness, resurrection, redemption, judgment…)? If so, how did the conversation come about?

    I guess I have felt I could ask most of the clergy I have known (that includes deacons, priests and bishops) on any issue I have struggled with – a long chat on the Incarnation springs to mind. However such questions are unlikely to arise on a Sunday, so it needs small group meetings (Lent Groups, etc) or parish retreats/awaydays or something similar. As far as discussions with other lay members, these have been best in small groups, sometimes doing bible study but often doing something other than study, such as making banners, walking or washing dishes after a coffee morning.

    I hope this helps, it has certainly made me think!!

  10. It is rather heartening to see just how much experience of discussing theological issues goes on, isn’t it.

    Brunch with real maple syrup sounds ideal for such discussions. Food and talk and theology…great mix.

  11. This IS an interesting conversation! I ended up thinking about it last night while I had a couldn’t sleep (a condition fortunately, that solved itself in due course), so, herewith my experiences!

    1. Where did you (/do you) learn about prayer? If it was not through the ‘normal’ life of your church, have you ever received teaching on prayer in your congregation?

    Hard question! I suppose initially through immersion in liturgy (okay, now we can play spot the cradle Episcopalian!). Most learning about prayer I’ve experienced in the context of young adult fellowship groups – in high school and college. Some teaching of technique (guided meditations, one memorable session at a retreat on lectio devina, encouragement and time given (on retreats or missions) to praying with scripture) and a lot of teaching about the importance of prayer – but as above – not exactly a how to! And lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of praying in a group – large or small (okay, this reflects the time I church hopped my way into more evangelical circles). And a fair amount of reading about it. Finally, most recently and importantly, for me, a number of Ignatian retreats, classes, what not where I’ve learnt (and experience) more about prayer than in all the previous combined. I guess this is all outside of ‘normal’ life of the church. Except the first bit about immersion in liturgy – that’s ongoing and possibly beats the Ignatian thingy for experience.

    2. What shapes your understanding of scripture? Does your experience of church lead you to believe that there is one way to read scripture or many ways?

    This is harder as it has changed a lot for me. I guess going back to the cradle Episcopal thing and my liberal childhood (and current) congregation – many ways. I’ve done a limited amount of academic study (fueled more by literary theory than by historical analysis, but both apply). I’ve been part of a number of different congregations where the way scripture was read and interpreted varied a great deal. Some places had a very clear way (and to me limited) of reading and attendant agenda. For me, what guides my understanding? Preaching that is convincing and I trust, congruence with what I believe to be true about God and the world, guidance of the Holy Spirit (I hope!), and models of literary criticism help too!

    3. Have you ever had a chance to talk with others in your church about your understanding of (and your potential difficulties with) central aspects of faith (e.g. — love, forgiveness, resurrection, redemption, judgment…)? If so, how did the conversation come about?

    Yes, as others have said, most often in small groups. This was a very big part of my experience in young adult groups – although some of those communities had pretty clear boundaries about what was and what wasn’t acceptable contents of discussion – something that eventually became a significant difficulty for me! The most meaningful discussion tended to be in twos or threes or so when they happened to venture off from more formal settings. I find these conversations very rarely possible in normal congregational settings (bible studies, sermon discussion, other small groups) etc, most conducive), but have managed to leap from coffee hour to coffee shop on occasion and the outcome has been very meaningful and helpful. But in general these conversations are pretty rare for me now.

    Maple syrup? Yes please! Vicky, I find that food goes with EVERYTHING but I agree, especially talk and theology.

    Btw, reason I couldn’t sleep was reading especially troubling part of Mists of Avalon – which I was inspired to re-read by your blog – it’s so much better than I remembered it, think I was too young (and too orthodox?) the first time around and it just disturbed me!

  12. I’m fascinated by these responses — but a bit too tired after a long day in Edinburgh to do much with them tonight.
    Elizabeth — part of what I love about Mists is that it shakes up lots of assumptions (at least for those of us who read it in the days of innocence). It would make such a good book group book if it weren’t so long.

  13. Every time I go on holiday, I come back to interesting conversations and feel I’ve missed out! Still, better late ….
    1. Where did you (/do you) learn about prayer? If it was not through the ‘normal’ life of your church, have you ever received teaching on prayer in your congregation?
    I began with my first exposure in my 20s to the liturgical prayer of the SEC 1928 prayerbook, which fascinated me. But I would also count my musical experiences as formative influences in my prayer life, and have received some more formal teaching through spiritual direction.

    2. What shapes your understanding of scripture? Does your experience of church lead you to believe that there is one way to read scripture or many ways?
    Like Kimberly, my training tends to influence my approach to scripture – a critical approach to a piece of literature. But sometimes I can find myself reading instinctively, without any attempt at analysis, and welcome this.

    3. Have you ever had a chance to talk with others in your church about your understanding of (and your potential difficulties with) central aspects of faith (e.g. — love, forgiveness, resurrection, redemption, judgment…)? If so, how did the conversation come about?

    Because I came to faith as an adult, this has always been a part of my life. But it is only recently that I have been able to talk about such concepts as love and forgiveness in such a way as to move beyond the intellectual to the experiential and actually mean what I was saying. Cursillo provided the environment on trust necessary, and Spiritual Direction the development of this.

    I cannot say that the church I attend has been a constant source of learning and nurture – there have been moments, but there have been lo-o-ong barren periods. Right now, I’m in learning mode again, which is A Good Thing!

  14. I’ve been very interested in the connections some of the contributors to this discussion have made between the study of literature and reading and reflecting on Scripture. I wasn’t very good at literary criticism as an undergraduate, and really only learned about approaches that worked once I started teaching. Similarly, I learned more about Scripture once I started preaching and teaching as a Lay Reader than I ever had before. (I should qualify that by adding that at a previous stage of my career I was privileged to be in touch with leading biblical and theological scholars who gave me a great deal of help and support.)
    In the RC Church in which I was brought up, prayer was something that was performed mechanically, as an obligation, and had little to do with prayerfulness in one’s daily life. Nor was one really encouraged to study Scripture (this was before Vatican II). What attracted me to Anglicanism in my mid-30s was the freedom to explore and reflect in the light of one’s own experience, and to discuss with others who were at a different stage of their journey. My prayer-life (such as it is) has developed through the riches of the liturgy, which I was fortunate to experience in a convent setting in the 1950s, at a time when the average parochial church offered little by way of inspiration. The transition to a mid-to-high Anglican style in Scotland was very easy, and the liturgy continues to be the main setting for prayer.
    So if anyone out there is hesitant about tackling these big questions, or feels that the teaching they receive is inadequate or non-existent, the good old principle of learning by doing has served me well. There are no set rules, and people of good will find their own way to God, with the help of the Spirit working through them in fellowship with others.

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