Having lived for ten years in the North-East of England, I returned to Dublin (which I had left in 1990) just over three years ago. The Dublin I had left was really still a provincial town, and its inhabitants lacked the self-assured arrogance of those of some capital cities. But its community was also still far from being at ease in the modern world: the 1980s were marked in many ways by very public struggles in which the Roman Catholic church fought, and generally vanquished, what people elsewhere took for granted: contraception, divorce, homosexuality.
When I returned I encountered a very different city, and a very different country. The demure city whose pulse was hardly in evidence has become an in-your-face, secular, materialistic community. Churches in urban parishes which had attracted 90 per cent of the population to their Masses are now lucky if the get 10 per cent. A new RC archbishop feels the obvious need to begin his prelature by offering apologies to all and sundry on behalf of his church.
Anglicans have been beneficiaries, to some extent. For the first time in over a century or so the Church of Ireland is growing, and in some parishes it is growing fast. Young affluent-looking families (who will often still be declaring they are ‘Catholic’ on the census form) make the Anglican cathedral or parish church their spiritual home. And why? Because, as one said recently in a TV interview, ‘here is a denomination which understands the new millennium and can combine the spirit of the new age with the best of the old tradition’. And another said that ‘Anglicans manage to be religious without being obviously unreasonable’.
Maybe that’s too rosy a picture, and maybe the more familiar pattern of decline will return. But I don’t believe that a born-again dogmatism — whatever its direction — is a likely agent of continuing growth. Fundamentalists comfort those who cannot quite face the world as it is; but most people whose main instinct these days is to give religion a miss will run a mile if they sense a dogma around the corner. We need to speak a different language — still capable of being expressed in thees and thous, by the way — which engages the mind, refreshes the senses and shows the way forward.