Comments: Back to Church?

Speaking of Jesus.

You dont really think that Jesus, or any other radiant saint, would be welcome or even recognized at St Pauls Cathedral. Or at Westminster, or the Vatican, or even at your local church, or at the various "divinity" schools attached to the universities.

After all Jesus of Galilee was executed with the connivance and approval of the then religious/ecclesiastical establishment, because he was a threat to their worldly power and privilege.

Take th recent installation/coronation of the current pope. All of the our benighted "leaders" were in attendance (some very fresh from making war), As were all the generals with their blood-soaked hands, as were all the captains of industry and the MONEY-LENDERS.

Do you Jesus would have been welcome at that display of worldly IMPERIAL power---or even found within ten thousand miles of that abomination.

Speaking of the celebration of imperial power some influential members of the religious right, especially in the USA, celebrated this occasion as just such an event. The "triumph" of the West and right-wing religiosity over all the secularists and religious liberals.

Posted by Sue at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 12:27am BST

I thought he and his mate got a new job at Aldi.

Posted by Pluralist at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 2:22am BST

Sue: the current Pope wasn't crowned. Indeed, since Pope Paul VI, none of them has been, precisely because the Vatican wanted to make a break with the aesthetics of its monarchical past. For the same reaon, Pope Benedict uses a mitre rather than the traditional tiara on his arms. Unfortunately, however, what now obtains in the RC Church is an organisation deprived of the aesthetics of monarchy, yet retaining the exercise of absolutism.

Personally, I'd much prefer it the other way round, as we have with the British (or indeed, where I live, the Danish) monarchy: what's wrong with keeping the gorgeous aesthetics (they are an important part of the tradition - the commnity's story of continuity - and no harm in themselves, in fact a major attraction to plenty of us), while radically transferring power to the faithful? Awareness of the difference between appearances and realities is surely a part of what makes up the subtle complexity of our religious and cultural traditions?

Posted by Fr Mark at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 10:07am BST

on Bishop Stephen's point: "Church: it’s definitely not about how you look, what you do, how you sound, how well you sing. Just come as you are. Come with a friend. All are welcome. Churches are still where best friends are made. And where people can be just as they are"

... much as one agrees with his sentiments here, unfortunately the truth is that we all know the C of E is screaming out a very loud "you are NOT welcome!" message in its handling of the gay issue at the moment. It is saying loud and clear to British society that all are definitely not welcome. I know that Bishop Stephen is very right-thinking on this issue, but it isn't good enough for Church of England bishops to be individually nice and welcoming while colluding in, and running, a system which is clearly the opposite, and never challenging those who currently prevent it from becoming the "come as you are" church that Jesus would want.

Posted by Fr Mark at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 10:21am BST

"Marks and Spencer ... Asda or Aldi?"

Clarification for Yanks?

I know Marks and Spencer from visits to England a [long] while back and reading murder mysteries. I have a M&S wool sweater that is in lovely shape after 30+ years [wish I could say the same for me].

But Asda or Aldi?

Whatever they are, we don't have them here in the wilds of the Shenandoah Valley.

Posted by Cynthia Gilliatt at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 5:56pm BST

I shop at ASDA and it is exceptional value..what a generalisation.

The real poverty in this mation is the breakdown of the family and spiritual values.

Posted by Robert Ian williams at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 8:43pm BST

Ya wonder how we got this complete inversion in the US: a politically conservative, highly religious working class and a secular elite.

Posted by H. E. Baber at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 8:43pm BST

ASDA is now a subsidiary of Wal-Mart. It's a major supermarket chain here, which emphasises low prices.

There are over 1,000 ALDI stores in 29 states of the USA, but it's originally a German supermarket chain, which although huge internationally is relatively small in the UK. It also emphasises low prices.

It's main direct competitor in the no-frills supermarket segment is Lidl, which curiously didn't get a mention from the bishop. Perhaps they don't have any stores in Reading.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento at Saturday, 26 September 2009 at 9:12pm BST

What do you mean "where would Jesus shop?", In addition to M&S, I should hope Nordstrom's, Bergdorf-Goodman, Brooks Brothers and Talbot's. The bread from Westpoint Market in Akron or Whole Foods. And he'd get his music from Brian Jordan's in Cambridge. Scarves from A.E. Clothiers. All made in either USA or EEC at living wages.

Nothing but the best for the Best.

Posted by choirboyfromhell at Sunday, 27 September 2009 at 1:52am BST

It's very difficult for the church to be as accessible as Jesus. Jesus walked around. He didn't have large stone walls, and a giant oak door with a Biblically proportioned key to keep people out. As long as the church is defined by its buildlings and meeting times, and not as a community of people, we will continue to look forbidding.

That's why Back to Church Sunday is only part of the solution. It clearly does work for a few people, but for the majority, the church's challenge is to equip Christians to live life day to day in such a way as to make Jesus accessible again.

Posted by David Keen at Sunday, 27 September 2009 at 9:29pm BST

"The real poverty in this nation is the breakdown of the family and spiritual values." R.I.Williams

You wouldn't be an advocate of the Religious Right would you Robert? The same one that, in the US, doesn't want the poor to be given free health care because they might want free abortion when they have an unwanted pregnancy - because of poverty and the lack of proper sex education?

Families might just suffer more breakdown when they have more children than they can afford to nourish and educate. And what 'good' does that do spiritually - for them or for their nation?

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 27 September 2009 at 10:20pm BST

David, I don't think it's the buildings that keep people away. Here in the States, I sometimes go to Mass at the local RC cathedral when I can't make it to my parish church on a feast day. There is always a better socio-economic mix there than at most Episcopal churches I have been to. I'll bet the same is true in the UK.

Posted by BillyD at Sunday, 27 September 2009 at 11:54pm BST

BillyD our building is surrounded by dead people, which is off-putting enough in itself!

For most folk, going into a strange building/place where you don't know the 'rules' (pub, betting shop, weighwatchers meeting) is pretty intimidating. I've heard of people who literally had to be forced through the door because they were afraid to go inside a church.

Posted by David Keen at Monday, 28 September 2009 at 9:46am BST

Then why, David, does the RCC do such a good job at attracting all sorts and conditions while we do not, I wonder? Is it that they hold onto their members better than we do? Are we too concerned about attracting the sort of person who is "properly" sophisticated - sort of an intellectual snobbery combined with class consciousness?

Posted by BillyD at Monday, 28 September 2009 at 1:06pm BST

In response to BillyD's comment about the socio-economic mix in RC churches, I've always bewailed the lack of sociological awareness in the Church. The nearest I came to it was rabbiting on about industrial society (just before mrs T destroyed it).

But sociology presumably would ask questions about culture and such things. What are the cultural presuppositions of the RC set-up? I mean, does it, for example, serve as a place of group identity reinforcement (as it did with Irish arrivals in the UK). It's a fascinating question which isn't necessarily just about CofE plc being tres snob.

Posted by mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) at Monday, 28 September 2009 at 3:46pm BST

I do nearly all my shopping at Asda. I pretty much always wear a collar and tie to church.

I'm confused as to whether this makes me a good Christian or a bad Christian.

Posted by Gerry Lynch at Monday, 28 September 2009 at 3:48pm BST

I think BillyD raises a serious question. The C of E (also) is far too middle-class. I think it's something to do with our churches having been 'establishment' churches (in England, Scotland to a degree, Ireland certainly, the US in some sense) and never having much bothered to expand 'downwards'. But we jolly well have to!

Posted by john at Monday, 28 September 2009 at 10:01pm BST

My heart sinks when I see a post that says 'our building is surrounded by dead people, which is off-putting enough in itself!'. For a start, it isn't true. The building isn't surrounded by dead people. It, presumably, has a graveyard, which is a cultural resource, a witness to the faith of past generations, a link with the community that used to be in that place, a sign of the continuity of the church and society. To say it is 'surrounded by dead people' is to simplify it beyond truth. Most people understand this, at some level. It's only apologetic clergy who don't.
Then there is the question of going somewhere where you 'don't know the rules'. We all do that all of the time. We learn by it, we develop by it. To some extent, not knowing the rules is the attraction. People like to explore, to push the boundaries of their experience, to grow and learn.
I fear that in many churches the experience is so accessible that there's nothing new there at all, nothing beyond the experience the new worshipper already brings. If we go to worship to encounter God it will be challenging and beyond what we know already, and we'll do it in the company of those who have done it before us, and, if we're lucky, the remains of some of them will surround us in the ground as we do it.

Posted by toby forward at Tuesday, 29 September 2009 at 8:53am BST

Toby - I take your point, but it's still the fact that some people find a) the graveyard and b) the strangeness of the church off-putting.

I agree that worship should be challenging, but we need to take care that people are challenged by the right things, and not by things that stop them coming through the door in the first place.

Posted by David Keen at Tuesday, 29 September 2009 at 12:35pm BST

toby forward, thank you, thank you, thank you. Also, the "graveyard in the Churchyard" is a strong reminder of the communion of saints, that death is not the end and doesn't divide us from each other. To see it as a church "surrounded by dead people" is to miss the symbolism entirely, and to miss something that is one of the great ideas of the faith: we are not, ever, cut off from each other. It also misses the opportunity for a bit of catechesis when someone from outside comments on it.

I have gone to Orthodox churches where I didn't know the rules. I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was kind of uncomfortable, so I stood in the back where no-one would see me. So? Why should I expect to feel comfortable in a place where they do things corporately that I have never experienced before? It would be unnatural to feel at home in that situation. Why is it such a bad thing to feel out of place in an unfamiliar environment? I would have thought it the most natural thing in the world. I figure a bit of discomfort is the price you pay for the sublime experience of an Orthodox Liturgy. Why in the name of God would I feel at home? I'd much rather that than the false smiles you meet in most parishes these days where they seem to want every stranger that comes in through the door to think that they have been preparing for weeks for this Most Significant of Arrivals and that everyone there came for no other reason than to "welcome" and "include" me. It is all nauseating and insincere and when I'm met at the door with a perfect stranger behaving as though he has been so eagerly expecting me he hasn't been able to do anything else, it makes me nauseous. It has little to do with welcoming me, and a lot to do with how they think about themselves. And the people who really ARE warm and friendly get lost in the mad rush to prove one'sself appropriately "inclusive". Bah, humbug.

Posted by Ford Elms at Tuesday, 29 September 2009 at 1:46pm BST

"we need to take care that people are challenged by the right things"

So, someone comes up to you and says something on the lines of "Your church is right in the middle of a graveyard, and that creeps me out." You have a couple of options. You COULD take the opportunity to explain the symbolism and teach a bit about what we believe about things like eternal life, the Communion of Saints, about how NOTHING separates us from God and by extension from each other, etc. You could explain the real health concerns that forced us to stop the practice of burying people in close proximity to the living. You could talk about the overwhelming feeling of community that comes from walking with someone to his final resting place rather than going in some car procession through traffic. That would help to dispel the myths out there about us, it would teach someone, and possibly yourself as well, something about the faith. Or, you could decide that because someone who knows little to nothing about Chrisitanity is put off by one of our traditional practices, that practice must be old fashioned, silly, counterproductive, and ought to be jettisoned. My question is, why is it better to capitulate to people's lack of knowledge than it is to educate them?

Posted by Ford Elms at Tuesday, 29 September 2009 at 7:26pm BST

It's certainly easy to overdo the welcome, I think. When I was looking for what back in Texas we call a "church home," I visited several area Episcopal churches, including a parish in a nearby community. It was warm and friendly, and I thought about returning, but I started getting so many phone calls from them inviting me back that I almost felt that I was being stalked.

Posted by BillyD at Tuesday, 29 September 2009 at 8:13pm BST

We sophisticated liberals are turned off by 'excessive' welcome and we expect people to be prepared to 'work at' what is alien to them. All the same: (a) too often in the past, and sometimes even still, there's a deficiency of welcome; (b) we have to recognise how radically alien our stuff now is to most people, and do things about it; (c) our churches generally aren't doing well. (b) can hardly be exaggerated: only a tiny minority of my students (certainly not more than 5%) know ANYTHING about the Bible. So Alpha, Emmaus, etc. (much as I dislike them personally) are the way to go. Or one way. The other way is to keep making public defences of the reasonableness of Christian belief: obviously, we have some who do that (Ward, McGrath, Polkinghorne, Harries [SP?]), but not nearly enough, and horribly vocal people such as Tom Wright are absolutely hopeless at this (and don't even recognise the need). Rowan Williams is somewhere in the middle - but his 'reasonableness' in this context is too often weakened by 'unreasonableness' in other contexts and, of course, by diffuse and undisciplined syntax.

Posted by john at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 6:42am BST

Ford - I didn't say the practice should be jettisoned. Of course if people asked what it was all about I'd try to explain it, but there are some people who think the church is so alien they wouldn't even want to ask about it.

In the UK, roughly 40% of the population and rising have no church background. They are very unlikely to come to church, and they can't come back to church as they were never there in the first place. The challenge of reaching them with the gospel can focus us again on the nature of the church as a body, as people, rather than as a historic building. I personally think that's a good thing. It doesn't mean we demolish the building, but we do have to recognise that only a 'mixed economy' will enable us to connect with everybody, one size doesn't fit all.

Posted by David Keen at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 12:58pm BST

I think another thing we need to do is embrace the alienness of our worship to the wider world. This is an overwhelmingly Christian culture, but even here, where religion is not something one chooses, but an attribute of who one is, like hair colour, we have a generation in their early 20s whose parents rejected the Church and who therefor have no contact at all with even the stereotypes that my generation laughed at, let alone all the traditional religio-political baggage that goes with being a Newfoundlander. I was speaking to a group of 20 somethings a few years ago, and the topic of Gospel radicality came up. They were scornful and dismissive of the very idea. Which is when I brought up the Magnificat. They didn't even know John the Baptist was Jesus's cousin. And the radical ideas of the Magnificat fascinated them. That we Anglicans sing it every day was a complete bafflement to them.

Instead of being ashamed of our traditions and seeking to do away with them, we should be proudly expounding them. It will serve to re-educate us for starters. But a rich symbolic tradition that extends back 2000 years but still seeks fresh expression, a Tradition that is lived and gives connectedness, not just something preserved as a museum piece, is a very attractive thing to people who have been cut off from their roots in such a subtle fashion they have no idea why they feel rootless.

Posted by Ford Elms at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 1:48pm BST

"The challenge of reaching them with the gospel can focus us again on the nature of the church as a body, as people, rather than as a historic building."

Of course the Church is a body, not a building. All the trendier clergy since Vatican 2 have been telling us that. It's been done to death. We've spent the last 40 years loudly proclaiming the Church is people, not buildings. Isn't it time we turned our attention to who those people ARE?

One of the attributes of the body is that we have received a 2000 year old Tradition. That Tradition is full of symbols, "cultural" references, and most importantly, connects us with those who have also in times gone by done the same things. Our Tradition is tailor made to give people back the roots the never knew they lost. The Tradition is NOT a museum piece. At its best, it impacts all aspects of our lives. It is not "traditions" specifically, though it finds expression in those traditions, tatters of which remain. Whether or not we lost something valuable in the specific traditions we have lost is debatable, but we HAVE lost something valuable in the underlying ideas they expressed. We need to invent others to take their place. Starting your Christmas pudding on Stir Up Sunday is not silly and old fashioned, it is a practical example of making your faith something more than two hours on a Sundy. All that standing and sitting and kneeling aren't about being sheep, but about allowing one's body to worship as well as one's mind, because, unlike what most think of us, we Christians believe the body is a good thing, redeemed with the rest of Creation, and ought to worship the God who redeemed it. Teaching the traditions teaches the faith. It is important to recognize that the body are human beings expected to minister to human beings all of whom have human needs. For many human beings, a sense of belonging is important. We can give them a sense of belonging by giving them living communities living a vibrant rich Tradition. We long ago forgot that religion can be a part of our day to day lives because we scorned the rituals that made that happen. And our world changed. No-one makes bread any more, let alone signing it with the Cross before putting it rise. Maybe we could start signing the bread machine instead, or draw a caim around ourselves before boarding the subway. Bring rituals like that back to our everyday lives, make up new ones if we need to. That will bring the faith out of the buildings and into people's lives a lot faster than giving them a fake smile when they come into the building and making things as "accessible" and "welcoming" as possible.

Posted by Ford Elms at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 3:07pm BST

David Keen: "In the UK, roughly 40% of the population and rising have no church background."

Do you think the figure is as low as 40%? If I think of my schooldays, I don't suppose as many as 10% of my classmates had a history of contact with any kind of church at all - and that was in suburban South East England in the 70s-80s.

Posted by Fr Mark at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 8:34pm BST

On this subject - of 'Coming Back to Church', especially when some may never have darkened the doors - I do think it is the unselfconscious way of welcoming both the churched and the unchurched that can have an almost subversive influence on other people. In a good way, of course!

Recently, after marrying our non-church-attending son, to our lovely non-church-attending R.C. daughter-in-law (to the joy of both families), we acknowledged that the R.C. part of our joint families ought to have a turn when it came to the Baptism of their first child. So, Little Father Ron (mentioned in the Bible, which says that Jesus went 'a little farther on': get it?) was present at the Baptism in a local R.C. Church, (the church of her parents) and was invited to preach the Homily.

The homily I preached told everyone there (mostly young non-practising church people) that Baby Zoe was not being baptized in a denominational Church but rather, into Christ, himself. This seemngly so impressed another young couple, that they have now asked me to baptize their child in my own parish church. That's a win, don't you think? - Because it will involve a talk to god-parents and parents (all themselves baptized) about what and Whom this child is being given to in his baptism.

In a way, it is saying "Come in, the Water's fine" - rather than keeping them at a distance. That's my theory anyway. And I think Jesus won't object to the inclusiveness implied.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 11:37pm BST

Fr Mark - the 40% figure comes from Richter and Francis 'Gone but not Forgotten' who break it down as follows:
Regulars (monthly or more at church) 10%
Fringe 10%
Dechurched (once members/attended as children, but left) 40%
Of these half would be open to coming back, the other half had such a bad experience of church that they wouldn't return.
Unchurched (no church background) 40%

Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army puts the 'unchurched' figure much higher, at 65% see chart on page 5. So maybe that 40% is optimistic, and it's increasing every year.

TEAR fund did a survey a couple of years back on attitudes to churchgoing. This confirmed the 40% 'unchurched' figure, but found that only 5% of the population would consider coming to church with the right kind of invitation. That's still 2.3 million people, but it's also still only 5%!! See there's a chart on p13 which summarises the findings.

Posted by David Keen at Thursday, 1 October 2009 at 1:49pm BST

David K: 65% unchurched, 5% attenders in England sounds a bit more realistic, in my experience, and I would imagine the figures are very much weighted generation-wise.

Posted by Fr Mark at Thursday, 1 October 2009 at 7:56pm BST
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