When I lived in Kuwait, I was avowedly nothing more than a visitor and over two years ago I wrote about ACP here. Now I live here, I’ve been wondering if my status has changed. The American Church in Paris is a wonderful building, overlooking the Seine on the Quai d’Orsay and has been their home since 1931. It is the first American Church established outside the USA and the fellowship has been in existence since 1814, the year Bonaparte abdicated and the British were marching on Paris and pulling out troops to fight in the Americas. The first sanctuary wasn’t built until the year of the Indian Mutiny, but I’m using the word ‘church’ in the sense of ‘ekklesia’ not exclusively ‘kuriakon’. There’s a multiplicity of services, events and organizations which cater to every shade of Anglophone Christian sensibility, with the Creed as the loose index of unification, together with Twelve Step programs, Kung Fu, guest lectures, bilingual nurseries and much more.
The ‘eleven o’clock’ is relatively formal, with robed choir and clergy and music more reminiscent of a low-church cathedral, both in style and ability. The ‘one-thirty’ is contemporary, which has a band leading the worship but threads of the same formality remain. Pastoral leadership for both is scholarly and, for the most part, uncontentious, exactly as one might expect from a polished, well-oiled operation which isn’t planning to offend anyone. As my father might have said: the ministry is ‘sound’. I’ve been to both, don’t really belong to either, and am no nearer making any kind of decision about whether or not to become more involved, or make it my home, much as the flying buttress in me would seek to stand outside and listen. There seems to be a transience, a wayfaring streak about many of the attendees and because I’m one of them, I have trouble hearing the heartbeat of the place. The coffee after church is for me a time for looking around, occasionally someone will strike up a conversation, but there isn’t a sense of shared purpose where all know each other well and feel comfortable including the sojourner like me. I have never felt that I was staying long enough to take off my backpack – at least – just yet.
I am, I think, both condemned and blessed to feel reasonably comfortable as an outsider. Condemned because I cannot experience the depth of fellowship plus attendant risk, that ‘belonging’ confers, and blessed because I have liberty to choose, to pick and mix from the smorgasbord on offer. Either is strangely unsatisfactory. I’m usually glad I went, even if I never get to speak to anyone, but having been part of much closer knit organizations in the past, I have to confess to missing it. Sometimes, I get the impression that parts of the Church are asleep or, perhaps, imitating those who are awake, warmly cocooned in a cultural security blanket. Not dead, exactly, not even having trouble breathing, just nodding along within a broad comfort zone, giving to good causes – even attendance being a good cause – without the emotional involvement in them. Expert renditions of Reuben Morgan, Saint-Saëns or Mozart are doubtless praiseworthy but unless the hearers can respond to the deep call of God in worship, which reaches out to and includes those who are less decorative or suitable, the effort expended is narcissistic and shallow.