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Service times carved in stoneHallo again to all.

If you share our ways of investigating an unknown landscape, one of your first points of contact with a church is likely to be its signboard. Despite the convenience of the web when looking for a church to attend on a Sunday or holyday away from home, signboards are still the mainstay of church information as we walk or drive through a town. They tell us the church name, and often the clergy and musicians who serve there. In most cases they tell us when services begin, occasionally even in stone as above. Now and then the choice of words hints at the parish's DNA: 'The Lord's Supper', for example, and 'Solemn Mass' are good giveaways for brands of churchmanship.

Of late, we've noticed a new trend on church signboards and websites; some now indicate the time at which a service begins and the time at which it ends. A few examples: 'Most of the time the service lasts about 57 minutes'. 'Our service lasts 75 minutes'; 'Our worship takes about 40 minutes'. Others have firm start and stop times.

It is understandable that people should like to know when they'll be able to breakfast after communion or join friends for brunch. Others are keen to use what remains of Sunday to get on with some form of recreation: walking in the park or on the beach, finishing or starting a livre du jour, helping children with an essay due soon, or taking part in one of that most hallowed Sunday custom, the early afternoon post-church-and-paper nap. A clue about when a service will finish, as well as when it will start, can be undeniably helpful.

And yet we prefer to see just the starting times of services on signboards and websites. The time we give to Divine Worship is too important to be circumscribed by calculations after the manner of railway departures and arrivals. In this all-too-human world, a sermon inevitably goes longer or shorter than planned; a hymn takes longer to sing than one thought; a baby wails to the point of delaying a baptism for several minutes. The variables in worship are at least as great as those in automobile traffic.

For our part, we're unable to treat time spent in bookshops, museums, churchyards, or fleamarkets as anything but open-ended. In what Kathleen Norris has called 'quotidian mysteries', we enter a kind of supra-chronological time that can't be measured — much less planned — on a clock. This richly textured, expanding, refreshing time is magnified in worship beyond even the loveliness of occasions outside church walls when we browse and meander without recourse to our watches.

Though we trust it is good for our souls as well as 'our bounden duty and service', it is true that time spent in church is lost time, lost to the clock of billable hours, lawn mowing, foodshopping and exercise. But as with so much in our earthly pilgrimage, this sort of loss can be counted as gain if we learn its true value. Call it kairos as opposed to chronos: God's transfigured, liturgical time as against the stultifying onward march of a second hand. In a rushed atmosphere driven by consumption and accomplishment, we do well to put our wristwatches away or at least refrain from glancing at them. As our weekly schedules become more and more rigid, robbing us of chance and rest (and also serendipity, wonder, and awe), it can be good to know just when something begins, but not necessarily to be sure that it will end 'about 57 minutes' later.

In truth, worship doesn't really have a fixed end-point on the clock, a terminus ad watch: it goes with God's blessing out into the world with us, where we continue it as best we can in our daily lives, with all their quotidian mysteries. This side of heaven, it's surely useful to know when to gather for common prayer from week to week, but we hope to see the, well, timely end of signboards and websites with fixed finishing lines other than divine growth and nourishment.

See you next week, same place, same time, with no promises about how long our letter will be.

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Last updated: 26 August 2007

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