As part of the scary fringe of society that American liberals call “church-goers,” my family always checks out the local church before deciding to move to a new neighborhood.
We have some experience with this, having moved 11 times in 15 years. We’ve also changed churches without moving. If church shopping were a felony, I’d no longer be able to vote.
I am a ruthless church shopper, not because my family spends so much time in a sanctuary, but because we spend so little. I figure if we are going to spend only an hour or two each week in formal worship of the Almighty, it better be a quality hour, one with a challenging sermon, soaring music and no Game Boys in the next pew.
This is why we spent the better part of Lent shopping for a new church. The Game Boys did me in.
Here is how it began. A year ago, we had to move (again) and found a home we loved on two wooded acres in a charming New England town. As soon as we ditched the real-estate agent, we drove around, looking for confirmation that this was the right place for us. We found it: lots of runners and cyclists, smiling people walking Golden Retrievers, an old-fashioned town square, an occasional horse and rider, and — thanks be to God! — a gorgeous, grey-stone church just two miles from the house.
Now, I know there are many people who have meaningful religious experiences inside ugly churches, but I’m not one of them. I dislike modern structures that resemble gyms with crucifixes, with their rows of folding chairs. I want a church that looks like a church; the grander, the better. And this one looked the part. It was both majestic and simple, with stained glass befitting an anteroom of heaven. It was old. It was loved. Surely the people who worshiped within appreciated beauty and recognized its importance in the adoration of the Creator.
So, seduced by century-old stonework, I registered at the parish right away, skipping the month or two of church shopping that I usually put myself through. There was one Catholic church in this town — on Church Street, no less! — and we were going to be part of it. So, we moved, unpacked and, on the next Sunday, showed up for the 10 o’clock Mass and discovered we couldn’t all fit in the pew.
Now, as Catholic families go, with four kids, we’re hardly pushing the reproductive envelope. But, inexplicably, the pews at this church seat four adults comfortably, five snugly, and so somebody had to sit on a lap. Okay, we could deal with this, and even the kneelers designed by de Sade.
But, over the next few months, we discovered things we could not deal with, starting with the attire of our fellow worshipers.
Fleece and denim prevailed, with Spandex close behind. Washing appeared to be optional; ironing discouraged. Men collecting the offering wore T-shirts from their latest 5Ks. Whole families went to Communion in blue jeans with ragged edges that dragged on marble floor. Altar servers wore cowboy boots and Crocs.
For a while, some children were wearing Heelys in the fellowship hall, until the church posted a sign saying they were no longer allowed because they weren’t safe. WEREN’T SAFE? How about because they are disrespectful and inappropriate?
But we were new; I said nothing. These people may be dressed for a horse auction, but at least they were going to church. We would continue to dress up, believing that God (if not our neighbors) was deserving of our very best. More than once, someone would smile at my four-year-old, conspicuous in her smocked dress and polished shoes, and ask what was the special occasion was. “Uh….. Sunday?” I thought to myself, but kept quiet.
We kept going. The music, mediocre from the start, deteriorated. The church had a glorious organ, but the music was — how to put this kindly? — putrid. It was a bizarre mix of bad-old and bad-new, with too much synthesizing and background vocals that suspiciously sounded of recordings. The senior priest, frustrated, would wave his hands from the altar, trying to get mute people to sing.
But how could we? On a good day — say, Christmas — the music resembled “Up With People” without the people. Who wants to sing along with that?
We kept going, even as a sixth of the congregation would arrive after the Creed and a quarter would leave after Communion. We kept going, even though no one seemed to know when to kneel or to sit; the lector would hurry to the microphone to say “please stand.” We kept going, even though no one ever welcomed us to the parish or acknowledged the checks we wrote each month. We kept going, even as people carried on conversations, not only in the allegedly quiet time before the service starts, but even while the Mass was under way. We kept going, as the altar server read the prayer book while the priest delivered his homily, as cell phones rang during the Eucharistic prayer, when a teenager in front of us checked a text message during the offering.
But then two kids in the next pew played Game Boys while waiting for Mass to start.