Unity, conformity & Lent

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I was having a think the other day about where to draw the line between unity and conformity. To be honest, I don’t really know where to draw it. My ethos (and I think a lot of people’s) has as part of its make-up the general notion of unity=good, conformity=bad. But where does one drift into the other?

For example, let’s take political parties. It can be good that people come together believing in a common cause, and have the same aims for society. They will want to put aside their differences and work towards a common goal. If every disagreement resulted in a different political party, you’d end up in the Popular People’s Front of Judea.

On the other hand, party membership leads to the existence of the party whip, which I have written about before. You can end up sacrificing something which you passionately believe in simply for the sake of fitting in, or being able to have influence in a given arena. I know people who have joined political parties and have been aghast at seeing them turn their backs on their principles because they thought it was more important to toe the party line for now, hoping they will be in a position to change it in 10-20 years’ time.

I am often critical of those who, as I see it, suspend their better judgement in order to simply do what they are told. In social media platforms such as Twitter & Facebook I do exaggerate a little, mainly to get the point across, though antagonism is not my aim. One item in particular that I find to be anachronistic is a thing called the lectionary, which is timetable used by high churches (particularly Anglican) which dictates on a week-by-week basis what passages of the bible should be read and what the subject of a sunday sermon should be.

Having grown up predominantly in non-conformist churches, I have been used to having the church pastor decide (usually with the help of some elders) these things, so that they can actually cater for their particular church. So it will not be uncommon to have a series of sermons either working through a particular book of the bible, or looking at a particular theme. To me, this just seems more logical.

Some elements of the lectionary creep out into the wider world, and one of these is the idea of Lent. Normally, the only notice we get is an article BBC Breakfast on how to make pancakes on the morning of Shrove Tuesday. Usually, I don’t have the necessary ingredients to hand, so tend to miss out. This year, however, I was a given a heads-up by the Artsy Honker, who told me it was starting on the 22nd of February.

Lent is often seen as a time when you give something up for a while. My understanding is that it’s supposed to be ‘give something up’ and ‘take something else up’ in its place. Typically, it’s supposed to be giving up something that is bad for you and taking up something good. For example, you might give up smoking and take up jogging in its place.

Where I get a little jittery is the idea that this is a particularly ‘christian’ idea. It seems more of an add-on to christianity and anyone can take part in it without the least let or hindrance. I know the end of it is due to coincide with Easter and that the habits given up and taken up should stick, but it is simply not a command that one will ever find in any of the books of the bible. It is a tradition that has built up (I’m not sure of the origins; if you can enlighten me, please comment) and become entrenched in various christian and quasi-christian denominations. The Wikipedia article could be seen to demonstrate a wide variety of opinion on the matter, though I think it just looks a bit of a mess.

So why do lent? I can understand that there are some good reasons for doing so, but none of those reasons are particularly linked with my christian faith. I see it as an active and living relationship, not a ritualistic religion. So by doing Lent, what message are we sending out? I can’t escape the conclusion the overwhelming message is this: I follow this ritual because that it was what my church tells me to do.

Here is where I come full circle and come back to conformity. Of all the things that people do during Lent, I cannot see any good reason why it has to be done at the particular time of the year dictated by the lectionary. If you want to give up a bad habit, just do it. Don’t wait until late winter/early spring.

The idea of preparing oneself for Easter is one I find a bit odd. I do think that of the 2 main christian festivals, Easter is more reliably timed than Christmas, but I don’t see why it should be a once a year celebration. My entire faith is grounded on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I try to live in the light of those events every day.

So will I be partaking in Lent? I don’t know yet. I haven’t made up my mind. Jesus didn’t exactly conform to religious stereotypes and questioned the wisdom of his day. Shouldn’t I follow his example and do the same?

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5 responses to “Unity, conformity & Lent

  1. I’ve only scanned quickly but you have totally missed the point of the lectionary: the lectionary rumbles on (never dictating but always available) to help us mark the patterns and rhythms of the year that all humanity, faith based or not, needs.

    As someone who preaches every week I find the lectionary liberating: it doesn’t bend to my manipulation (how tempting it is for pastors to preach to their agenda rather than through the whole canon). When I am feeling crappy it doesn’t allow for melancholy but throws up Psalms that remind me that God is bigger and greater.

    It exists to remind us that the overarching story in which we live is bigger than our petty week on week whims and feelings..

    Its that ongoing and overarching rhythm that informs Lent too.. that we have moments of feasting and seasons of fasting- for that is how humanity thrives. Thats why giving something up for Lent goes beyond the church in all its breadth… we all need rhythms, so why not use ones that have worked for generations.

    [All that said, the lectionary can be a royal pain.. and I think in church use seasons of using it, plus special teaching seasons is probably more helpful]

  2. I’ve also come from a non-conformist background (childhood and adulthood) and have very recently put it behind me, joining my local parish church. These days it is very important to me to have the Eucharist, the liturgy, the lectionary. It is an essential and, to me, safe outer frame for my life as I do some serious reassessing and study.
    I agree with Jude that the lectionary is liberating. For me it does what a system of pastor and elders could not – provide an unbiased offering of what is supposed to be the whole of holy scriptures. When one, or a few, men start choosing the passages there is a greater danger of manipulation and misreading.
    On the issue of Lent – I am aware that historically the Lenten season leading up to the Passover happened to fall within the English lean times of winter to spring. The stores were almost used up and the early crops were not yet ripened. Hence eggs, butter and milk were the only other things available to (richer) people that needed using up, by making pancakes. So it was a fasting time whether you liked it or not.
    I am also highly resistant to doing what other people are doing, like you! I generally haven’t “observed” Lent as opposed to all my other times of contemplation and readings. But I still see the benefit of planned times and rituals.
    I remembered, in the church I grew up in, a time of fellowship every Good Friday, a meal together of bread, cheese and water, and a walk through the forest together in the afternoon. I told my new vicar how much I missed this time, having been in another church for so long that had thrown out almost all natural/traditional church and seasonal rhythms. The result was that the church was encouraged to do things as a whim or fashion, depending on what other non-conformist churches were doing, or the leaders felt like doing. I can see now that this disturbed me deeply and affected me for years. So I welcome a loose framework of ritual and preparation, with plenty of space for spiritual interpretation.

  3. Thanks. Some really good feedback there. I fully get the point about manipulation, but then you have to ask about who writes/wrote the lectionary and whether there may be something similar on their part. I think my key point is that it seems a bit “one size fits all” which can’t be right from a pastoral perspective.

    You mention seasonality, but is that really applicable in the modern age? Maybe for the most rural of places, but I can’t see how celebrating harvest in September/October is relevant to the inner city any more than it would be in April.

    My main worry is the message Lent sends out. I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes and be considered a “religious” person. I think the term has too many negative connotations now and ought to be dropped. The further we distance ourselves from ceremony for the sake of ceremony (and the perception thereof) the better.

  4. Relevance is not everything Si: I live in a seasonless place and its destroying to the soul.. humanity world better when we have natural seasons..

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