Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.
Q: Must I attend church in order to be a good Christian?
Many would answer this question with an unqualified “yes”, citing, perhaps, the commandment to “remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, Deuteronomy 5:12), or the New Testament exhortation against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Hebrews 10:25).
Speaking more broadly, every religion I know of – and most spiritual, ethical, or service communities – have some expectation of meeting for purposes of teaching, discussion, reflection and practice that tend to develop into liturgies. Human beings are social animals after all.
That said, most religions have adherents who hold to some manner of solitary, ascetic practice – hermits or teachers who prefer to live more or less in isolation.
As I’ve said more than once in this space, persons who are able to adhere to a spiritual discipline all by themselves are unusual, and are often considered to be particularly holy, or wise, or magical. There also are always folks who desire to be in community and are unable to do so on account of illness or enforced separation. And, of course, there are nominal adherents to every religion who find themselves feeling indifferent or alienated.
Rather than casting the expectations of religious or spiritual community in terms of rules, to which adherence is “good” and neglect is “bad”, I prefer to think of the ways in which intentional communal practices can help us.
In my estimation, it is always good to be a part of a community, or communities, that have outwardly directed goals and ideals, ethical principles for leadership, and reasonable expectations of participation, as well as ways of teaching values and traditions to newcomers and young people, of holding one another gently to account, and of caring for and helping one another, their fellow human beings, and creation. Of course, we must be cautious of exploitation, and we’re bound to hurt or disappoint one another from time to time; but a healthy community is a healing community, and this will usually be evident.
Religion and spirituality should be constructed on our highest values and our best practices, compassion and mercy especially included, and our communal practices can and should help reinforce them.
The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church