Last night our congregation's book group met to discuss Jennifer Worth's excellent memoir, "Call the Midwife."
I had read the book last year, partly because of the tie-in with the popular BBC series. I was pleasantly surprised, as I read, to find out the the book not only was filled with compelling stories of birth, life, love and tragedy post World War II London, there was also this rich, subtle subtext involving Jennifer Worth's own life and faith.
Jennifer Worth comes to Nonnatus house an avowed agnostic. She isn't convinced about religion or faith; in fact, suspects that it is a lot of nonsense. But she is compelled by the opportunity to serve, and she becomes a part of the community of sisters, participating in their daily life, as well as learning the work. She tells stories about the women she meets on the East End, tragic figures like Mrs. Jenkins, or Mary, who flees her abusive step-father and has a baby at 15. She tells stories about the sisters, their idiosyncracies as well as their devotion.
At the end of the book, Jennifer Worth decides to begin reading the Gospels.
For the past couple of years, our congregation has been thinking about our past, our present, and our future. Born in the post-war era, we boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when it seemed that everyone just got up on Sunday morning and picked out a church to go to. We were a new suburb then as well, filled with young families who were looking for places to educate children in some kind of faith or another.
We know it is not like that now. We know that we have to do things differently. We have been talking about what that will look like: how we need to be more intentional and confident about sharing our faith now; how we need to learn or re-learn how to share our faith with others (although I assure people that we do not need to go around handing out tracts to strangers).
It occurs to me that a few aspects of Jennifer Worth's story from the 1950s may apply us, re-forming church in the 21st century. What do I want my church to look like? What do I want evangelism and discipleship to look like in my congregation?
1. We will be centered on service. Service to others, and particularly the service of nursing, was the mission of the sisters; it was not a sideline; it was the reason for their existence. It was this service that attracted Jennifer Worth. She wanted to be a nurse midwife, despite her skepticism about faith. The opportunity to serve attracts, especially when it is genuine and not just a tactic.
2. We will be communities of prayer. Worship and prayer shaped the daily lives of the sisters. They invited, but did not coerce participation. They didn't defend their practice or apologize for it They simply prayed and lived. And the sisters were by no means perfect. But their lives bore witness.
3. We will live in community. By this I don't mean that churches will be communes, although I recognize that the sisters did live in close community. But I mean that churches will be bound together in community by a commitment to service and to one another, that we will realize that we do actually belong to Christ and to one another.
4. We will take time. Faith is not instantaneous. It is a process taking place in each of us, and in all of us in community. I read an interview with Jennifer Worth recently. The last question was about her faith and abut whether she ever considered becoming a nun. Although she didn't answer the question directly, she indicated that her three books document a faith journey that is just beginning at the end of book one, when she decides to read the New Testament.
5. We will learn to be midwives. It is God who is bringing faith to birth in people. The church's job is not to convince, cajole or defend, but it is to attend: to attend birth, in all its variety. So Jennifer Worth tells stories -- of birth, of tragedy, of repentance and life. One in particular tells of a older man who whose wife gives birth to a child who is clearly not his. Everyone wondered what was wrong with this man; why he couldn't tell that he wasn't the father of the child. Jennifer says she thinks that he loved his wife, and when he saw the baby, he decided: he decided that he would be a Holy Fool, that he would pretend not to see what was clear to all, for the sake of love. Perhaps Jennifer tells this story because it is a part of hers as well: for the sake of faith, for the sake of love, she decides to become a Holy Fool. She decides not to see the things that don't make sense, and to love the faith that has been born in her.