It's been a long enough time that I haven't had a chance to attend an actual sermon and mass as a fully fledged, curious atheist. The few times I've gone, I was helping in the nursery and so did not attend the main service. My history of attending services is quite patchy - between switching demoniations from Anglican to Baptist when I was a teenager and simply not attending church at all since, I didn't get much experience with Anglican ceremonies. This year my boyfriend and I are visiting my mother and family so we went to an Anglican service, with a new reverend who I've never met before.
Oh my. Oh my oh my oh my, is it ever strange to see a church service through a more atheist lens.
The thing that got to me most was the eerie chanting. The emotionless recitation of memorized lines, be they ridiculously high praises or begging for forgiveness, was so cult-like that it gave me the jeebies. I cannot adequately put into words how strange it was to be standing in a room full of people dully repeating the same lines over and over, as if they were the most brainwashed zealots one could imagine. Many of then didn't even need to read from the books provided, they had done the ritual so many times.
To make up for that, I suppose, is the hymns. I have a soft spot for hymns. They're lovely to sing, of a wonderful pace and tone. My two favourites are Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Come, All Ye Faithful - I actually sing these to myself quite a bit. My dear boyfriend is less interested in singing these hymns, but had a fun time when I pointed out the Latin version of O Come, All Ye Faithful, and we sung along using badly pronounced Latin. Although perhaps the highlight of the night was reading the lyrics to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!Don't look now, your pagan is showing.
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings
[The versions I've seen online use "son", but our hymn book definitely used "sun"]
After I recovered from the creepy chanting and the fun singing bit was over, the pastor delivered a short sermon. This part was particularly enjoyable because it was delivered by a man with a thick Nigerian accent, who apparently was also a tribe leader before passing leadership to his brother in order to become a minister. It doesn't matter if you're atheist or not, you cannot resist the charm of a sermon delivered by a man who recounts the birth of Jesus in an accent that sounds strangely Jamaican. "Shepherds" becomes "She-AH-pards" and "heavenly hosts" becomes "HE-UH-eav-un-lee OHs" The reverend said something that was intriguing. He said something along the lines of, "Our religion is not telling you what to do... it is telling you what happened." While I don't necessarily agree with him, it is a fresh perspective.
After the sermon comes my least favourite part: communion. I refuse to take communion; I feel it is spiritually dishonest and, frankly, disrespectful to take it. Not that I desire to respect religion, but it just feels wrong to take part in an important and sacred ceremony of a faith I don't subscribe to. In the past my approach has been to sit in the pew and avoid eye contact with my fellow parishioners when everyone else get up to take their wine and wafers. I get pangs of guilt over embarrassing my mother in front of her church (many of whom knew me growing up), and I suspect this rather obvious display of my nonfaith is what made her stop guilt-tripping my boyfriend and I into attending church when we visit. But tonight, being the special family get-together and Christmas and all, I didn't want to do that. We tried to hide in the bathroom the whole time, but that didn't work out either, because we got nervous about suspiciously lurking in the church basement. In the end we popped back into the pew just as our family was going up for communion, so we (awkwardly) stayed behind. I don't want to upset my family or seem disrespectful by not just "going with it", but it feels even more "wrong" to take part in a ceremony I think is hogwash.
I soon forgot about that awkwardness, though, because we got to play with candles. By tradition in my church, at the end of Christmas Eve Mass we all light little candles and sing Joy to The World before going home, and I really, really like candles. Terrified of fire, but I love how pretty candles look.
Overall, though, I have to say that witnessing a normal and often beloved religious ceremony with new eyes was... strange. A little scary, even. I couldn't stop wondering, "What would someone from another culture think if they saw these people? Would they think they were part of a strange cult?" Even communion is a cult-like: eating symbolic (or literal, if you're Catholic) human body parts and drinking symbolic (or real) blood is quite a creepy (and pagan) thing to do. My final thought about the communion was "Kool-aid, anyone?" I cannot believe that I went my whole life thinking this was a normal tradition.