In our parish we recently had a discussion between some parishioners and clergy on the decline in church attendance and the growing “Gap” between churchgoers and non-churchgoers, between the faithful and those who are lost, strayed, or simply disillusioned. Regrettably, it seemed to be largely a discussion about where to place the deck chairs on the already sinking Titanic, with some of the clergy and most of the laity acting out the part of the band, playing heroically the same old tunes as the ship went down.
We failed to examine the Gap, its causes, and its remedies.Indeed, I wonder whether the churches in general have any sense of what this Gap is, who are part of it, and what their problems are? And do they really care?
Despite my age (70), I see myself as very much one of the Gap people, though I have remained a regular churchgoer and communicant all my life. The conventional church (in its worship and its teaching) has ceased to speak to me and seems to provide no ministry for me, or the friends with whom I correspond on such matters. My own vicar is immensely patient and understanding, but in my worship I find no solace in the dreary banalities and over-busy-ness of modern services, whose language and imagery are largely meaningless to the modern mind.
My children (ages 35-37) are similarly Gap people, benevolent towards the church, confirmed, but non-churchgoers. With young children and busy lives, they feel no pressing need of the church and it is hard to see what the church can offer them. They are genuinely puzzled about what to teach their children in this modern age about the Bible and Jesus, but are not attracted to Sunday School, which offers little beyond a fast track to fundamentalism.
But I would argue that though such indifference is in some ways a regrettable phenomenon, it is also an extremely healthy sign of a general rejection of the outdated modes of theology, thought and worship which too many of the churches continue to purvey. It is an essential precursor to renewal, though I suspect neither I, nor my children, will live to see it.
In our parish discussion, we shied away from any suggestion that the theology we offer is seriously flawed and that the fundamental “narrative” of the faith now lacks credibility for thinking people. But where thinking people are today, the generality will be the day after tomorrow – and sooner if the clergy fail to educate their people in the new insights born of modern science and biblical scholarship.
Someone at our meeting asked a deceptively simple but critical question: what are the needs of the people whom the church would like to attract or win back?The moment such an uncomfortable question was asked, an understandable defensiveness crept in and we were regaled with lists of all the different things our church was doing, the different services, the groups and circles, the church schools, which in our parish are primary schools – so no one even mentioned teenagers. Yet it is among teenagers, I suspect, that the church loses its following for ever.
Of course the church needs to be seen to be with people where they are, not where they ought to be. But in the end, a plethora of small initiatives among the already committed resembles nothing so much as the activity of a headless chicken, which rushes in every direction but (alas!) has no idea where it is going. That I am sure is the weakness of the current churches. In seeking to be all things to all men, they are in danger of being nothing to anyone.
They must decide …..What is the core mission? What is the core narrative?Get that right and the rest will follow.
One problem is that Jesus got it wrong too! He thought that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It turned out that it wasn’t (at least in the form that a first century Jew would have conceived it) and that has posed a problem to the Christian church ever after.Jesus never formed a church – he sent his disciples out to preach the good news. And then the good news did not happen; the Second Coming, the End of the Age, and the Last Judgement failed to materialise. As for the church, it was really only formed, or at least firmly crystallised, round an agreed faith, in the 4th century under Constantine, who probably cared less about what people believed than that they should all agree to believe the same thing.
But at least turning the signs of the coming Kingdom into a reality has given the churches a sense of purpose down the ages, and to some degree that will remain a task for the foreseeable future: helping the blind to see, the lame to walk, seeking liberty for the captives etc. etc. But here too there is a problem. That battle is won. Christian values have, broadly, triumphed and civilised societies in the Christianised West at least all seek (however inadequately) to care for the weak, the oppressed and the underprivileged. With the disgraceful exception of its attitude to women, Christianity can claim credit for that, whatever its other failings. There always will be residual tasks in this area: to fill the gaps in the welfare state and to keep the state and society up to the mark. But, like Britain, the Christian churches have “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”
The second part of the mission (relationship with God) might be expressed in the words of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Here Jesus came up with a pretty good answer and example. Retreat to silence and inwardness; seek purity of heart (they are the ones that shall see God); obey the two great commandments; the Lord’s prayer – a model of simplicity and lack of verbosity; and follow as best you can the model of life set out in his teaching and example. I don’t think he ever suggested that “blessed are the churchgoers,” though I concede that he was probably a regular at synagogue.
But two millennia of theology and church obscurantism have made such relative simplicity of life and worship almost impossible. Modern civilisation has, in addition, so complicated the situation that Jesus’ model is probably only possible in a monastery. But let’s at least get rid of the theological clutter, the mumbo jumbo, the pre-Darwinian ideas. Let’s really re-design (not just re-brand) the product- the theology, the narrative, and the language of worship (though this is at best a peripheral issue)- and perhaps the customers will return to the stores.
A speaker at a recent parish conference pointed out to us that at least two generations are lost to the church: the 20-35’s and the 35’s -50’s. I think he underestimated. To judge by the comments of my own friends, the 50- 70’s have been pretty well lost as well. Yet everywhere there is, I suspect,
·a yearning for spirituality
·a residual belief in God (or at least open-mindedness towards the idea of a Divinity)
·a perception that Christianity’s record is pretty poor and its resistance to all forms of modern ideas little short of deplorable
·a certainty that Christianity is not the only answer and that all faiths are expressions of humanity’s search for God and meaning.
·a general scepticism (which I share) about the literal truth of Christianity’s foundation stories and the claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God
·a distrust (partly born of incomprehension) of religious language (I am afraid I would put the language and imagery of the Eucharist high on that list)
·A broad indifference to the church’s obsession with sinfulness and sexual mores (wait for next year’s Lambeth to see it in action)
Many of our problems derive primarily from two outdated ideas: the Bible as the literal and inerrant Word of God, and the divinity of Jesus.If we could accept that both these ideas are no longer helpful, many of the theological problems of our faith would be resolved.An improvement in our relations with other faiths would also become possible.
Few, if any, reputable scholars would now suggest that every word of the Bible is literally true. The most sceptical of critics will generally concede that Jesus was an inspired moral teacher and a great prophet, the source of profound insights into the nature of God and man’s relationship with Him. The ancient world accorded divine status to many of mankind’s real or legendary heroes and benefactors, so it was entirely natural that Jesus received a similar accolade.But in this modern era, it is outmoded and inappropriate.
We may have lost our inheritance of true religion, but we still live in a strangely superstitious age, much of it born of ignorance. Fundamentalism thrives on such ignorance and superstition. However uncomfortable, it is time for the clergy to modernise worship and educate their congregations.If they do, in time fundamentalism will wither on the vine.