Jane Austen, Balance, and Worship

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Jane Austen is popular. The English novelist lived from 1775-1817, and is best known for her second published novel, Pride and Prejudice. This year alone, five movies have been released that are based directly or indirectly on her work. True, one of them involves zombies, which probably would have surprised Miss Austen a little, but affection for her six finished novels and some of her youthful writing has continued for over two centuries.

A frequent theme in Austen’s work is balance. In Sense and Sensibility, for example, Marianne Dashwood’s enthusiasm for Romance – intense emotion, a glorification of nature and a preoccupation with a dramatic, idealized past – creates in her a blindness to real love, causes her to ignore or even scorn the wise advice of her sister, and leads to heartache and eventually to life-threatening depression.

Marianne’s sister, Elinor, is a counterbalance to Marianne’s impetuous temperament. When her family encounters hardship, Elinor’s rational, measured response and action sustains her mother and sisters, both emotionally and financially. She feels deeply, but suppresses her feelings out of a need for stability and peace in her family. Marianne loves her sister, but rails against her seeming lack of feeling.

In the end, the sisters learn from each other; Marianne learns the danger of living only in emotion, and Elinor is enabled to display more of the feelings she has been covering up with sense and reason. Extremes are given up, and both sisters achieve balance – a place of wisdom, contentment, and a way forward.

Given the popularity of Jane Austen’s novels, of retro and vintage clothing and furniture, and of series like Downton Abbey (set in the 1910s and ‘20s), Call the Midwife (1950s and ‘60s), or the many other period dramas recently offered to the public, I wonder if we as a church, with our focus on keeping up-to-date, are lacking balance.

There seems to be an idea that in order to stay relevant and socially accessible, to draw or keep our young adults, we need to make sure we have chairs, not pews; screens, not hymnals; messages, not sermons; worship songs, not hymns; praise teams, not organs; ‘you’, not ‘Thee’.

For some people – many people, maybe – modern worship styles and spaces are a major draw. They worship most fully in an unconventional space, repeating new and soulful worship songs led by a praise team, hearing messages of story and life-application.

But are we missing the retro crowd? What do we offer to people who long for a different type of story – a feeling of continuity and connection with the past? What about those who sing hymns with full hearts, relishing the rich poetry and meaning of the words as well as the consciousness that these words and melodies have been sung by our brothers and sisters in centuries past? Is it possible that some are drawn to the pews and stained glass and pipe organs as a place of safety and comfort?

Can we find balance as individual churches and as a family of churches? Some churches can best reach and serve their communities in unconventional ways, spaces, and worship styles. Others can bless their neighbours by creating a blend of old and new in terms of outreach projects, worship styles, church space, and ways of doing things. And I think there is a place even for those vintage and retro churches that some say are ‘failing to progress’. They may be the ones to reach the Jane Austen enthusiasts at the movie theatre or at the festival down the road.

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I've been visiting other churches recently, many with modern worship styles and spaces, quite different from the traditional setting I'm accustomed to. I appreciated the church I was at recently that announced at the beginning of the service that they had "stripped down" their Praise Band to a single soloist and guitar for a couple of weeks so that the focus was not the musicians or their talent. They said they do this periodically to be sure that the music allows for participation of everyone there rather than people watching and being "entertained". No matter what the worship style this self examination seems like a very good thing.

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I love this idea, Esther. I've always had a soft spot for this style of worship as well as the occasional acoustic (or vocals only) sing along. For me, it sometimes quiets my heart and mind so I can focus.