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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Is Heaven going to help us?

One of the hardest aspects of moving to Barbados has been to deal with some important questions about religion. Simply put, I am an Anglican struggling to find a happy home with that congregation in Barbados. I was baptized, educated, worshipped, married, had my children christened, served in that branch of the Christian faith (or the US equivalent in the Episcopalian congregation). Finding an Anglican church in which to worship has been like a lot of other things in Barbados: a lot of promise on the surface but once one digs a little deeper there's a lot lacking. Maybe I should have tried every one of the Anglican churches, but I also like to feel that the physical location of a congregation near to where I live is also important, so I don't want to have to drive to St. James, or St. John or St. Lucy to worship. Having tried a good half dozen churches in St. Michael and Christ Church areas we felt that nothing much was different.

Many things explain why the Anglican church in Barbados does not appeal, one of them being the form of service that seems to remain popular here. Some funky racial issues seem to be played out in some of the churches, that make me feel uncomfortable. The services appear very stiff, very formal, less family-oriented than what I have experienced almost all of my life (from England and in the US, and occasionally in The Bahamas).

I am not so riven by the ability of the priest to preach a "good sermon". Sure, I like to feel that if you are going to talk to me from anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour you had better have something that will keep my attention. I feel intelligent enough to know rubbish when I hear it, and dressing it up with volume and grand gestures doesn't change it. What I like to hear is something that provokes me and other parishioners to ask how I can be a better person and help others to also be better people. I also like to feel that the church has some notion that it has a role to play in changing things from bad to good, from worse to better, from worst to best. I, personally, have not felt that the Anglican church in Barbados has been doing much in that change business. I have not seen or heard much from the priests and congregations that they have any sense that they need to really engage in change, not just by talking about how terrible the world has become and wish that more people would go to church or read The Bible. But hearing that from one-on-one or group contact with people in difficulty--youths, aged, criminals, drug abusers, physical abusers--or from some well-argued principles challenges is really engaging in the process of improving things. The most involved discussion I have heard was about the appallingly high cost of turkeys ahead of a possible Christmas dinner and pleas to any in the congregation who might be able to get turkeys at a reasonable price. I could put that down as "tackling cost of living issues". The major issue that a church congregation was asked to focus that I heard was on was the need to pray for the West Indies team ahead of some key games during the Cricket World Cup and to show our support by having a special service the day before the game in Barbados.

I don't want to see people treat me as a new entrant in a church as if I am an alien: welcoming me means more than singing a nice welcome ditty and getting me to stand up and say where I have come from. It means offering me a hynmal and helping me through the liturgy as practiced in that church--because it is different from church to church. It means recognizing me as a stranger and making strides to make me a friend. It means not lecturing me for not having my own hymnal. It means trying to get to know me and my family and to ask us if we are having problems with our move to Barbados; showing an interest in getting us engaged in whatever the congregation is doing--if anything. It means following up on promises to come and bless our home. The absence of these things does not offend me, personally; I have been through many instances of the sweet smile being the most that is offered. They do upset my wife extensively. She decided, after forays into various Anglican congregations reasonably close to where we were living, that they had nothing to offer her. She found a Catholic church that has many good points in terms of what it offers in a broad social sense, not least, a solid place for children in the service. She likes the priest too, who is himself a converted Anglican, and his willingness to put out challenging arguments.

My wife is spoilt in a sense, coming from one of the most welcoming parishes I have ever met. Her family worship in an Anglican church in Nassau that her family helped found. It's a church whose services are joyous--singing praise and worship, having a special blessing for the children, celebrating every birthday, anniversary, scholastic achievement, with dynamic priests who have challenging views on many issues. The church is full to the brim every week. I am not one for long services but after three hours at this church I am not thinking about the time I spent, but about the challenges that have been set in front of me, occasionally the painful testimonies that I had heard--though these are not regular or needed, but are representative that people feel that they are ready to expose themselves and fall into the arms of their fellow worshippers. They are not an especially liberal-thinking congregation, such as we had in Washington, DC: I could say their views are typically Caribbean.

We were spoilt in the US by a church whose congregation really cared about a lot of issues and engaged actively in trying to help people overcome problems. Whether it was a feeding mission; or it was other forms of community outreach. Whether it was a long and bruising process of changing the physical structure of the church and transforming the mission of the congregation. Whether it was mounting annual phone calling drives to get each parishioner to renew a financial pledge. Whether it was a retreat for the congregation; or it was a thinking weekend for the Vestry members.

But while a place of worship for me is important, if I cannot find one that sits within my fundamental faith, I don't think I can change the faith and be comfortable, so it's harder for me to feel that my answer is to move to a branch of religion with which I have fundamental differences. In the same way that I do not feel that my spiritual or religious guidance and answers lie in Islam, or in Buddhism, or in Hinduism, or in one of several evangelical branches of Christianity. Like many Caribbean persons I have friends and family who worship across the spectrum of Christian faiths--Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Moravians, Church of God, Jehovah's Witness, etc., and in other religions. But, like being raised a vegetarian, one does not just swap over to being a meat eater because your local market has a poor selection of vegetables. One has followed a life style, maybe forgetting or not even knowing the real reasons, but it's been a part of life. Your physical and mental state have reflected that life style. While I would never criticize anyone for, or try to convert anyone from, the religion they follow, I do not feel the urge to follow another branch of religion. Maybe that's my personal mistake. (One view held by some is to abandon organized religions--see link. The world is big enough to encompass many views.)

More broadly, when I listen to the "voices" of the Anglican faith in Barbados--which are in fact rarely heard here--I hear nothing much that tells me that they are engaging many people, or are much in touch with the current realities of Barbados. The average Anglican congregation I have seen is made up of middle-aged women. It's like on a Greek island, where all the men were killed in the war. Where are the men? Where are the teenage youths? True, this is not just an Anglican problem, but I think it has become a greater problem for Anglicans. When I go past The People's Cathedral on any day that they have services the church is full and the congregation is in full voice, and a broad cross-section of the (admittedly black) population is in evidence.

Some of the Anglicans' problem may be that there has not been enough attention paid to communication and what that needs to be in the present times. I find appalling that the Anglican Church's website has its most recent edition of "Anglican News" as Easter 2007! That the article that grabs my attention is entitled "The heading power of Jesus"... Barbados may need to enlist him this afternoon against the the US to qualify for soccer World Cup 2010: many of us have heard the old joke "Jesus saves, but Pele puts in the rebound...". These things show a total lack of care about what message is being sent out or taken notice of. When I look on the site under "Youth" all I see is a picture and the words "Anglican youth arise! Proclaim a new dawn". That's it? That's how my child is going to navigate through the minefield of modern life? I look for the "Thought for the day", I get:

Seek the Lord, while He may be found,
call upon Him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and evil men their thoughts:

Let them return to the Lord, who will have pity on them
return to our God, for he will freely forgive
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
and your ways are not my ways. This is the very word of the Lord.


Good thoughts for the converted and intitiated perhaps--if they can understand some or all of it--but nothing to draw in anyone new. But it was from January 10, 2008! The world has stood still since then?

A quick search indicated that the Anglican church was the first official religion in Barbados. Today it accounts for 33 percent of church going members, dramatically down from 90 percent reported in the late 19th century. There is a competition going on for faith and the Anglican Church has been losing badly--poorly enough to be relegated and certainly badly enough for teh management to have been dismissed many years ago. Sure, there is no reason why its position should have remained so high over more than a hundred years. But is it really trying hard to hold onto or even grow a flock or following? Is it really at a loss to know why people are streaming to other places? Does it care? I don't have the answers but in my gut I sense that it has lost its way and cannot find it with the current team and management. Are there dynamic persons in the faith waiting to burst onto the scene? I hope so. If any of them are reading this, please tell me that I have reason to have hope.

4 comments:

KNRX said...

I was christened at St. Peter's Parish Church back in the days when Anglicanism was still the state religion. It is my humble opinion that one of the main problems of Anglicanism in Barbados is the burden of its history on the island - a history wrapped in colonialism, racism and classism. It has never recovered financially since it was disestablished in the '70s and it shows not only in the building condition of some churches and cemeteries (re: St. Peter's) but also in the life of the church itself. It is heard to be a relevant voice while still suffering from an identity crisis.

Anglican convert said...

Dennis, I am Anglican. Someone who actually converted to Anglicanism. Simply explained I like the Anglican way.
Of course your observations are right, but I am afraid the B'dian Anglican Church is a special entity. The church reflects the B'dian society; ultra-conservative for the most part. It is slowly dying and I have seen the Census stats. Regardless, you are invited to Holy Trinity in Ruby St. Philip.
You are not alone in your challenges with the church but I am sure you know that Anglicanism holds no dogmas. If you want to talk about it you can let me know.

Spanish Anglican said...

I am not Anglican but Methodist and have to admit that I agree with you on the formality of the services in B'dos. And my one pet peeve.....the length of the service.

A 9.00am service can last to 11.00am or longer.........like you they have long lost my attention. It's not the length of the service per se just make it more interesting !! I have had this conversation years ago with someone ‘in’ the church and of course I was looked down upon for even mentioning that I was even aware of the time while at church. Like if one doesn't have any other events in your life on Sundays. I for one was working on Sunday afternoons so my time was limited anyway.

I now don't live in B'dos but in a Spanish country and have to admit that I now go to an Anglican church which I totally enjoy. The service lasts 1 hour, the sermon is interesting and the Priest is very down to earth and with-it. It is an English service as I find that the Catholic services (in Spanish) here are also formal. But more to the point I think that the Anglicans are closer in their thinking to Methodists. (in my opinion anyway!) I think because my grandparents were Anglican that I had more of an affiliation with it anwyay.....

But congregation numbers are declining everywhere; young people are just not attending. In my church plenty 'old' people, and children going to Sunday school which takes place at the same time. But very few young people....probably still sleeping from the night before.

But it is also parents that initiate church going. I certainly went to Sunday school every Sunday at 3.00pm. And I find myself as I get older going to church more often than in my younger days but we also did it as a family when I was younger so it's not so foreign to me.

Parents who don't know anything about going to church can hardly teach their children and so the cycle continues.

Where are all those family values from days gone by ? Where is the family unit ?

Patricia Harte said...

Dear Mr Jones
!3 years ago when I was relocating to Barbados I had similar feelings after belonging to several different Anglican churches across the world from "death warmed up" to most vibrant and alive. But my sister who did not have my experience encouraged me to stick to our Church and I am glad I did.
Agreed one of our services may be long,at times but when one examines the reasons for this often it is purely due to the example of pure patience that is being exibited by the minister in charge,what a fine exapmle of Christian behaviour.
Then one questions seriously, is preaching and leaping about singing and having a good time all that worship is about?
People want to participate, be involved and be recognised and it is in this process, at my church anyway,that may take time.
But again we must not only look at Sunday worship. There is the community involvement and ministries and organisations because that is where many Anglican Churches are working hard without blowing their trumpets!!!
I should also like to draw your attention to the teaching and by so doing the quiet revolution that is going on. I heard The Rev. Peter Haynes preach at an ordination service at which he challenged the newly ordained to dare to do things differently. Then I heard The Rev. Canon Henderson Guy explain to the congregation at a funeral why the casket is censed. All this helps us understand Anglicanism.
Then there is the Rev.Michael Maxwell who is to my mind is very evangelical in hisn approach. Now these are only my few experiences which I hope you will find encouraging,but I do appreciate what you may have experienced, and I hope you will not give up but come and be a part of it and offer your services.
You are welcome to St Leonard's Church