For you created my inmost parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
After having ‘unfriended’ me on FaceBook for having a few words of disagreement about Christianity after Religion, I’m sure Diana Butler Bass would prefer that I would stop talking about her book. But, she touches on an area near and dear to my heart, on which I have had some ecclesiological reflection for long before I read her book. That is knitting.
On page 203, Bass begins an exploration of how one goes about becoming a knitter. In essence, it ‘works’ for me:
Imagine joining a knitting group. Does anyone go to a knitting group and ask if the knitters believe in knitting or what they hold to be true about knitting? Do people ask for a knitting doctrinal statement? Indeed, if you start knitting by reading a book about knitting or a history of knitting or a theory of knitting, you will very likely never knit.
If you want to knit, you find someone who knits to teach you. Go to the local yarn shop and find out when there is a knitting class. Sit in a circle where others will talk to you, show you how to hold the needles, guide your hands, and share their patterns with you. The first step in becoming a knitter is forming a relationship with knitters. The next step is to learn by doing and practice . . . .You develop your own way of knitting, your own theory of the craft . . . .
Certainly, I began to knit by learning from my mother, starting at age five. I made some really dreadful stuff at first, but through my mother, and other people. Eventually, I turned to books on techniques and new stitches, found my own preferences, and now, after over four decades, do some reasonably complicated stuff:
(and the white hat in my picture).
I have my definite ideas about knitting. When I need to think through a problem or I’m stuck in my writing, I knit a few rows. I’ve taken what I call my ‘idiot knitting’ to potentially contentious meetings, silently repeating to myself ‘work five stitches before responding to that’.
I am convinced that knitting is a good counterbalance to a culture of fast-fashion and instant gratification. I have my definite preferences—I prefer working with fine-gauge yarn and needles, and textures such as cables and lace. I enjoy occasionally reading and talking with others about knitting, but I largely prefer to spend the time to make things, to practise the craft.
And it all works for me, up until where she says
In knitting, the process is exactly the reverse of that in church: belonging to a knitting group leads to behaving like a knitter, which leads to believing things about knitting. (emphasis mine).
Between about 313 CE and the middle of the 20th century, in the Western world, the vast majority of people became Christians (in the most generic sense) through having relationships with other Christians first—mainly, through the family who attended church. You were born into an existing group of people who, as a result of their own belief and membership, first expected you to behave in particular ways consistent with being a part of the group. As you got better at the behaving, you learned why those behaviors (and not others) were inconsistent with fuller participation in the life of the family and the church. Eventually, through bringing habitual action and theory together, you moved toward being a fully grown-up member of both family and church (although you always ‘belonged’). At that point of adult proficiency—religious and familial—you had some kind of rite of passage that marked you as a full adult member. In the church, we usually call it confirmation. At least here in the United States, it’s getting your driving license.
It’s only in the last century, at the very most, that Bass’s ‘believe-behave-belong’ model (which is not unique to her writing) has taken hold. It is only in the last 350 years of Western civilization that it was intellectually fashionable to doubt the existence of God, and far less than that since it has been socially acceptable to have no religious affiliation at all. But for a number of reasons, people who have never previously wanted to begin a spiritual journey, are finding themselves drawn to questions of ultimate meaning, connection to higher forces in the universe. Bass is right that the ‘believe-behave-belong’ sequence isn’t going to work—but this is a very new model, not the way the church has always done it.
‘Belong-believe-behave’ is the old model, and it worked for a long time. ‘Believe-behave-belong’ is a much newer model, and it clearly isn’t working, now that the organic familial relationships where you are born into the community of faith and practice called ‘church’ has been interrupted by a few decades of church decline. I don’t think, however, that scrapping the institutions of the church will help us serve those experiencing spiritual longings better. ‘Belong-behave-believe—and belong more fully’ is , I think, the way forward. And for that reason, I think we need to look at the way a local yarn shop functions as we re-imagine church for the next few decades.
My four and a half years in England indicate that there are few really great local yarn shops up and down the country, so let me show you one I really like:
It’s small, it’s been there for decades, and from what I can tell, it hasn’t changed its appearance or way of doing business tremendously for a long time. It’s probably been in a steady-state of business for a while, neither growth nor decline. If you explore the website, you’ll see a number of things:
It looks like you’re going to have a good experience of the kind you expect.
You know when they’re open–and that someone knowledgeable and competent will be there to help you.
There is everything you need for a lifetime of this particular activity.
There’s a good chance you’ll find other people at various stages of proficiency hanging around, to chat, help, encourage.
There are special events to learn more about the activity.
The people will help you access what is right for you, at a particular time in your life, given the stage of skill and commitment you have achieved, and which will help you achieve your aims.
There are, literally, thousands of ways of knitting. No one way is ‘right’. I have my preferences, as does every other knitter. But all of them can produce beautiful, useful, interesting results.
The local yarn shop is an institution. Even in the face of many other ways of getting supplies and learning to knit, nobody is suggesting that the local yarn shop’s time has passed, and knitters should move on. Big craft retailers such as Michael’s (US) or HobbyCraft (UK) do not have the expertise or the atmosphere to learn to knit well. Internet shopping doesn’t allow the knitter to touch the materials he or she will be working with. You Tube videos don’t have the interactive quality that is so important from learning from a live person. Aspiring knitters need to be know there is a place, and times, when they can find more experienced people to teach, correct, and encourage them as they journey in their craft.
As well, it is frequently not the owner or staff of the local yarn shop who knows the most about the craft. I’ve frequently gone into a yarn shop at their busiest time (usually on a Saturday afternoon, between about 2 pm and close of business, around 5). You will see people admiring the knitted garments other customers are wearing, asking questions about difficulty levels, yarn substitutions, tips and traps encountered in the process of making a cardigan, scarf, or hat. Classes for a particular project or technique are often led by guest instructors rather than the people who work in the shop on a regular basis. There is little jealousy or territorialism about who is ‘in charge’ when it comes to sharing expertise.
The church, also, is an institution. What do I think the church could learn from the local yarn shop? For those who are seeking connection with God, the surest way to start the journey of faith is to know there is a place where they can find others who are a little further along their journey who can help them. The church, like the local yarn shop, is the visible place for that. Thomas Arnold, in his Principles of Church Reform, said that
the sight of a church tower, wherever it is met with, is an assurance that every thing has not been bought up for private convenience or enjoyment;–that there is some provision made for public purposes, and for the welfare of the poorest and most destitute human being who lives within the hearing of its bells.
Like the yarn shop, the church is a visible place where people will come for help and guidance on spiritual matters. It needs to be available at predictable times, with people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. That need not always be the clergy (although they need to be in evidence), but there needs to be regular times that aspiring and inquiring Christians can expect to find assistance, instruction, and resources to help them grow in the craft of faith.
The church has a rich treasury of insightful and reflective writings that have stood the test of time as helpful to people at various stages of a spiritual journey, and a variety of techniques in prayer and devotion. Like the yarn shop, the church needs to have people who are familiar with these materials and techniques, who have experienced them and can help others learn to use and apply them in enriching ways. It is a lot to expect one individual ordained minister to have the kind of extensive knowledge of all the available materials—just as the owner of a yarn shop might not be proficient in all knitting techniques. Inviting someone in to do a workshop or class in an unfamiliar way of prayer, just as a yarn shop proprietor might invite a designer or master of a technique, is something clergy could embrace rather than fear.
As well, the local yarn shop has materials for a wide variety of knitting preferences—lace, cables, intarsia, entrelac, and so many more. None are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, none are ‘the way we do it at this shop’ (not if they want to stay in business, anyway), and no particular preference means ‘you’re not really a knitter’. What if the church had this kind of openness—not about core concepts, but about the often bitter differences over inessentials? What if we could say that it is equally Christian to worship in a catholic tradition or an evangelical one, or that received modes of church are as life-giving as emerging ones?
Institutions are necessary, but they need new life breathed into them. I pray for a time when we will not only affirm that God has knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs, but would really like all of us to learn to knit together. If we can’t, we will surely unravel.