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Knit Together: Wendy Dackson


For you created my inmost parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

(Psalm 139:12)


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.

18 comments on this post:

Claire Maxim said...

Great post, speaks to me as a knitter and a Christian. We all want to belong to communities – and I love your idea about each of us having preferred yarns and techniques, but all loving the work of others (I’m an aran cabling kind of woman – I admire fine yarn work enormously!)

09 August 2012 16:55
UKViewer said...

I can see, understand the concept of knitting and excellence in it and the wide variety of skills, experience, patterns and levels of difficulty that are entailed in being a committed and skilled knitter.

So, we come to the church!

I like the recommendations that we should be open and enabling and to worship in a variety of ways, to my mind, there are just a few things we need to hold in common:

1. A belief in God.
2. A common creed stating our foundation of belief (whether Nicene or apostles, to me it doesn’t really matter.
3. A common understanding that our relationships are built on God’s love, which we are given to share among one another.
4. Respect for each others humanity and integrity, which leaves no room for discrimination in any form.
5. Honesty and truth at all times and all places.

In the end, Jesus Created our church and left it to us to build it – how we came to institutionalise it to become something unrecognisable from the Early Church I can’t imagine, but presume that it’s to do with the human need to hold power over others.

Back to the early church seems the way to go.

09 August 2012 16:59
Wendy Dackson said...

I would actually push it to something less demanding–a desire to explore the possibility of belief in God and deeper relationship with the holy–as the minimum basic requirement for inclusion in the church.

09 August 2012 19:28
Simon Martin said...

Really helpful reflection, Wendy – and something of a plunge into the deep end for a complete non-knitter.
Though I’ve little experience of knitting, I have considerable experience in a variety of cultures and church traditions on how people engage with faith and the Christian pilgrimage.
In work that has now been cobbled together into a training module that is gaining interest in rural churches across England ( we have attempted to deal with some of these issues in a practical & non-confrontational way. While I have much sympathy with your revised paradigm of belong-behave-believe, I believe it may still be too rigid or programmatic. We have suggested – from an entirely pragmatic perspective a five-fold description that takes into consideration the nature of the relationship that exists between the would-be believer and the church as a body. We add ‘befriending’ and ‘blessing’ to the 3 categories that you work with; and we suggest that effectively any of these can act as a point of entry.
I have done some research into the whole belonging-believing dichotomy, though not published, and feel that there is an often unspoken (but significant) element of vicarious faith/action/belonging in many smaller (read rural) communities. I wouldn’t wish to generalise too much – but the paths people travel on the way to a maturing faith are multiple.
Of course – and this is one place where you have disagreements with Bass – a considerable amount depends on the nature, welcome, flexibility, openness and make-up of the Christian community (which may be a ‘church’) that they encounter in this process.
P.S. I’ve not finished reasing Bass yet, but she really annoys me with the many unspoken assumptions she makes about (a) how community operates, and (b) how human interaction takes place … to say nothing of her general ‘downer’ on the church as a human institution!

Wendy Dackson said...

Simon, I also think belong-behave-believe-belong is a bit rigid. What do we have that might work better? No model is really going to be complete or comprehensive–the most we can hope for is something that is helpful, that might perhaps have a little less in the way of rigid steps, but show the fluidity?

How about an engage/enquire/embrace that is not a ‘forward march!’ progression, but more a bit of a back-and-forth dance, where all three happen at some level all the time, one of them being more prominent than the others throughout the duration?

I hope to have a moment a bot later where I can respond thoughtfully to some of the other comments as well!

10 August 2012 13:16
09 August 2012 19:51
Chris Fewings said...

I like the belong > behave > believe model. Since the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the West, too much emphasis has been placed on intellectual assent – something many humans, including infants and elders with dementia, are not capable of. We baptise infants, because grace cascades on all of us. We worship God made baby (the baby->adult transformation is an everyday miracle). In the East babies are given communion.

For some, it may be enough to belong. For those who believe, there may be a journey from ‘beliefs’ to ‘faith’, from intellectual understanding to faith in an elusive and all-pervasive Yeshua.

09 August 2012 19:55
Eric Funston said...

I like this knit-shop analogy – it will, as they say, preach! Especially it will do so in my congregation where we have two active knitting groups and a lot of people who understand the community and personal formation that goes on there.

Thank you for addressing the believe/behave/belong model; although it does express a 20th Century paradigm, it’s never felt fully accurate as a description of church or social history.

There is another sequence that Blaise Pascal (and to some extent Francis of Assisi) championed – behave/belong/believe. Pascal’s argument is that if one acts as if he or she believes and does the things that believers do, this will lead the individual to faith. St Francis advised us to act as if we believe something to be true and we will find that it is, in fact, true. Behave as if you know how to knit and, eventually, you will. (I keep hearing my mother say, “Practice makes perfect” . . . perhaps that old saw is a part of this, as well.)

In any event, this is a good piece, Wendy. Thanks.

Wendy Dackson said...

Eric, indeed–‘practice makes perfect’–but you need very little to start, either for knitting or faith.

Knitting involves exactly four operations: cast on, knit stitch, purl stitch (which is really just the knit stitch done in the reverse), and cast off. There are millions of variants (I personally have used about six different cast on techniques, and three or four cast off), but if you can do those four things, you can make anything you like.

I think we tend to get way too complicated about what is needed to get started with a journey to Christ–probably not more than about three or four things there, if that much.

Why do we make it harder than it has to be?

That said, I am still not a fan of ‘open communion’ (communion without baptism). I am, however, happy to set the bar for baptism quite low, at a simple desire to begin a journey towards Christ.

Chris Fewings said...

I think being born is a good qualification for baptism!

Wendy Dackson said...

Yes indeed, Chris (and I saw your beautiful poem)! However, I’d qualify it only slightly–parents bringing a child for baptism should be accommodated (and possibly baptised at the same time themselves), indicating a desire to bring that child on a journey.

I don’t think anyone has the right to baptize a child without the consent or knowledge of the parents–I was born in a hospital affiliated with a Catholic order, and there were a lot of nuns among the nursing staff. I was baptized in the delivery room 51 years ago–on the belief that every newborn was in mortal danger–in the process of being cleaned up and handed over to my Jewish mother. That is, at minimum, a bit out of bounds.

10 August 2012 14:00
10 August 2012 13:52
10 August 2012 13:29
09 August 2012 20:29
Joyce said...

How lovely that you compare the development of faith with knitting. I’ve often done so,plus a few other things in life such as taking exams and raising children, and now I feel vindicated.
I find the making up of a garment involves a very different attitude and emotion from doing the knitting or crochet. I find it more convenient not to use a pattern but to ‘make it out of my head’ as my mother used to say about not bothering with scales when cooking.Perhaps that says something about my faith.
I’m still friends with a lady who used to run a yarn shop. She’s one of the very few Roman Catholics I know.

09 August 2012 22:00
Ken Howard said...

Regarding the “basic requirements” for being Christian, Richard Hooker’s view on the subject was that there was ultimately only one: a relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything else — all dogma, doctrine, and teaching — while not unimportant, are secondary logical consequents (i.e., the “so whats” about how we live out our faith).

Thanks for your post…

Wendy Dackson said...

Absolutely! I am a big fan of the learned and judicious Mr. Hooker. I like that he admonished people of his own era that all who wanted that relationship with Jesus Christ were part of the church–even if they appeared to others to be ‘the very limbs and imps of Satan.’ He was pretty good about letting God sort out the deeper recesses of peoples’ hearts. We should take our clues from that!

10 August 2012 15:33
10 August 2012 14:03
Arthur Gans said...

Hi Wendy and all,
I really like the knit shop idea. First of all, it reminds me of my mother who was the first woman ordained in the Northern California Congregational Conference back in 1946. She used to take her knitting to every meeting she went to and it often drove the male observers a little crazy. She knit without ever looking at the project, and then she would say something that showed that she was right with the discussion. Multitracking long before that term was invented.
I like the analogy of the Yarn shop, indeed, I think it is one of the most fruitful ones I have heard, and I have a suspicion that it is far better as a metaphor than most of the classic ones.

Two other words also come to mind from my experience. “observe” and “question”. As a chaplain, both military and hospital, I often found my self in contact with people outside the church whose journey began with something like “I have a friend” or “I know someone who” and progressed through to “How do you do that?” Cheers, Art+

Wendy Dackson said...

Art (and all),
First, I’m really pleased that this little reflection seems to resonate with so many people as a useful metaphor for what the church might be.

My mother began to teach me knitting for the most practical of reasons–to give a fidgety five year old something to do on long car trips. It avoided the incessant ‘are we there yet?’ refrain. (Of course, my father, in his one metaphysical reflection, told us ‘We’ll never be there. We’re always gonna be here’.) I have never been able to read in the car without getting motion sick, but I can knit all day.

I’m now a fidgety adult. Knitting focuses my mind by busying my hands, which (like your mother, I suspect) makes it possible for me to attend more completely to what is happening around me.

And yes, observe and question. Those, too, are things that the church ought to welcome more as people participate in a journey of faith.

10 August 2012 16:21
10 August 2012 15:32
Bob Miller said...

I’ve always found it difficult to arrive at faith through the study of theology. Faith begins with an experience, in our case the experience of the Risen Christ in our midst. Theology is our attempt to describe that experience and to it with others. I learned about Christ through Confirmation instruction and listening to others, long before I experienced the Incarnate God. My fellow companions in the way were and still are my guides, and I depend on them to keep myself from going off in a direction that is distracting. Scripture serves the same purpose. I need others to ask me questions and to compel me to respond, lest I drift into fantasy or self-delusion. That’s why the church is important–not to give me the final answer, but to guide my questioning and searching. Many clergy have settled for the role of administrator and authority, when what we seek are men and women who lead a life of prayer and can articulate their understanding of the Christian tradition in a way that opens doors and windows rather than closes them. And equally important are those of other traditions who share their experience of God.

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