Leaving the comfortable pew


Scripture, Mark 10: 17-31 Nigel Bunce

The comfortable pew offers an explanation for both the present worldwide challenge to liberal democracy and the decline in church attendance in the West.  Both our societies and churches are comfortable.  But, to be comfortable is also to be stuck in a rut.  Active democracy and Christianity both require us (as an old hymn puts it) to “shake off dull sloth”. Otherwise, we may lose both of them. 

Challenge to liberal democracy

I read recently, (but can’t remember where!) that the urge towards democracy is strongest when people are least contented with the status quo. Today, there seems to be so much unhappiness with life – inequality, racism, gender issues …

But although people sometimes seem ready to protest at the drop of a hat, their protests rarely seem to bring about change. At the same time, despite all the concerns, peoples’ lives in the western world are better than ever before. On average, even if not for everyone.

We’ve lived through unprecedented improvements in education, health care, living standards.

Look around the world. Then think who else’s problems and who else’s choices you’d rather have.  In church language, we sit in a comfortable pew.

Views of Francis Fukuyama

In 1992, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote that even in a peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, people will still struggle against that peace and prosperity. Despite relative contentment with the general state of affairs, “a certain boredom” drives people to strike against the status quo. They tear at the fabric of the system they inhabit, until they ultimately turn against democracy itself.

The anger directed against liberal democratic institutions today is often (not always) not attached to specific objectives. Of course, anti-“system” movements have their bogeymen, their scapegoats, their symbols and myths. But alternative programs and policies are rarely the point. [end of quoted material]

Decline in Christian belief: parallel to the challenge to liberal democracy?

Let’s just accept Fukuyama’s argument for a moment. What about Christianity – and more broadly, religious behaviour – in rich Western countries?

St. Paul called for inclusion in his churches. No male vs female; Jew vs Gentile, slave vs freeborn.  When Paul wrote, the inequalities of his day were palpable. His words made people flock to his emerging Christian movement. Today, there’s also inequality.  And, we could easily rewrite Paul. No white vs Black or Indigenous; no straight vs gay; no mega-rich vs poor. So why aren’t people flocking to churches like St. George’s today?

I suggest two reasons. First, secular society now looks after the social safety net that was once the province of church outreach. Second, churches have been laggards for social change. Unlike in Paul’s day, today’s churchgoer sits in a comfortable pew. Conversely, religious adherence in Canada is strong mainly among recent immigrants. Those for whom life is not comfortable. 

Life in the Western comfortable pew

Most Christians haven’t been truly pushing for change. Many have accepted change only grudgingly.  Like other denominations, the Anglican Church of Canada almost tore itself apart over issues like ordination of women and inclusion of gays and lesbians. The Tradition of the Elders! And, all the while, most of society was well ahead of us.

Today’s Gospel can seem like a smack in the face. Coinciding with our National Thanksgiving, it reminds us that we in this parish, like most people in Canada, are amazingly blessed in terms of material goods and comforts. By Jesus’ standards, we are all extremely rich.

But, comfortable.

We have homes, warm clothes, and enough to eat. We have access to health care.  Yes, we sit in a comfortable pew.

A few miles north of Guelph an imposing stone building houses the Wellington County Archives. A century ago it was the poor house. The aged and indigent went there if they had nowhere else to go.

Worries at a different level than in the past

In the recent federal election, we had the luxury of worrying about whether there will be enough young workers to sustain our health care and social services as we grow old. Example, worrying about the quality of care in long term care facilities. It’s a different level of worry from the poor house.

In our Gospel Jesus told the rich man to give away everything he owned to reach God’s Kingdom. Some commentators argue that the rich man was excessively devoted to his possessions. Goods and money got in the way of his spiritual self. They’d become addictions, like alcohol or gambling.

Even though he kept the commandments, this man’s consumerism meant his heart was not really in them. Is Jesus making the same challenge to us today? Perhaps the rich man was like us. Maybe he also made his charitable donations comfortably. After he’d paid the rent or mortgage and bought his groceries.

What stands in the way of truly following Jesus?

At seminary, my instructors used passages like today’s Gospel as examples of Jesus preaching “radical poverty”. That intellectual approach didn’t help me come to grips with this passage when it seemed to smack me in the face this morning.

These issues make us (me, anyway) uncomfortable. Because, I ask myself, “What is standing in the way of me truly following Jesus?” Am I supposed to preach a sermon today to put the guilt trip on everyone? I think that you’d probably just tune me out.

Therefore, I take some solace in what Jesus said later in the Gospel passage. The disciples challenged Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” They’d become poor wandering preachers. Even if not completely destitute they had, as Peter said, left everything to go and follow Jesus.  Like the rich young man, the disciples also felt the guilt trip. 

Yet God makes possible what mortals cannot; leaving the comfortable pew

But Jesus replied, “For mortals it is not possible, but anything is possible for God.” I think – perhaps hope – that what this means is that God looks kindly on our efforts, even when they fall short of some concept of perfection.  Maybe I am just making excuses for myself – I hope not.

This Thanksgiving weekend, we’ll give family and friends, for food and shelter, and the freedoms of expression, speech, and religion that we Canadians enjoy. However, I think that we need to do more than just give thanks for blessings.

Let’s just try to remember that sitting in the comfortable pew leaves us stuck in a rut. Our democracy and our Christian way of life both require us (as an old hymn puts it) to “shake off dull sloth”. Otherwise, we may find that both disappear. Amen.