Superficial Customs

Tuesday, January 7, 1997

Romans 14:19 – So then, we must always aim at those things that bring peace and help to strengthen one another.

It wasn't all that long ago that my parents, my sister and I went to church more or less regularly in a hamlet near our farm in east central Alberta. There were two churches in the hamlet – one, Catholic and one, Protestant. Our Protestant church was served as one of a multi-point charge from a nearby town. It was a simple wooden-frame building with windows down each side, the upper halves covered in glued-on stained paper. The pulpit was at the front, off to the left of centre. A piano occupied the corresponding corner on the other side. A wood/coal-fired heater was located on the centre-line of the church near the back, with a stove pipe rising to the chimney on the roof. Simple wooden chairs were set out on both sides of a central aisle – about 48 in all. Entrance to the church was gained through a cloakroom entry at the back of the building. These things were perfectly straightforward and understandable. A simple building with all the basics, well, most of the basics.

What still stands out in my memory of sixty or more years ago was that when we entered the sanctuary before worship, we split up. The men (and boys) bore to the left and the women (and girls) to the right. Accordingly, the men sat in the left half of the building, the women, in the right. Nobody was standing there every Sunday to see that this pattern was followed. Nobody was asked to relocate because he/she/they had wandered into the wrong section. In fact, nobody paid particular attention – attention, yes – but no particular attention, to the fact that one unknowing couple had unwittingly sat together on entering the church one day. It was a matter of some oblique but gentle comment in the days to come, but nobody was terribly upset.

How typically Christian! How typically Canadian!

Yes, the pattern – which had been put in place a long time before – maybe 20 years before – for reasons that were now totally obscure had been broken. A minor ripple of concern ensued but no action, subtle or otherwise, was ever taken. The misfit couple continued the practice of sitting together during the church service, and it was a few years later that still another couple adopted the same practice. Returning from university some years later, I noticed that even more people were ignoring the old practice. Again, though, nobody seemed bent out of shape as a result.

There were scripture readings and sermons every Sunday, and ordinary singing led by those very enthusiastic singer sisters from England who attended here, well, because the district was Protestant, except for the Catholics, who worshipped on the other side of the hamlet, in a similar building several hundred metres away.

So what is the point of it all? Superficial customs, rooted in tradition of no consequence guide our lives as though they were important, yet changes can occur in superficial custom, given time. Still, the large separations persist for generations. The terribly sad thing is that society as a whole can never, it seems, sit down and ask, "What is it that we are doing to separate and alienate one another? Why can't God's people use their collective intellect and decide that this particular thing is trivial and that other thing is very important, and then focus on the important things and not be held back by the trivial."

A note in ending: Located halfway between the two churches was a community hall. It was built in the late twenties, and according to local custom imported into the district was named the "Orange Hall". Some of us wondered why "orange"? Why not red or purple or white? It was only years later that we learned that there was this fellow William of Orange who obviously had nothing whatever to do with this community in east central Alberta or anywhere else in Canada – that it was for him (for some reason) that it was named the Orange Hall. Mercifully, many decades later, in the eighties, the community hall was replaced and the old orange hall became refurbished as the local museum. How fitting! A place to store imported trivia of the past…

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to open our minds and reject the trivial and focus on those things that lead to a fulfilment of your world of peace and goodwill. Amen.

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Gordon Hodgson

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