The View from the Vicarage.
Very recently I was asked to preach at a day of renewal in the City of Leicester, a very large and ethnically diverse City, almost a world apart from rural Lincolnshire. I took as a starting place a quote from a poem by the late Sir John Betjeman entitled “A Lincolnshire Church” it was in fact St Margaret’s Church in Huttoft just up the coast from here. Betjeman describes this amazing church then turns his attention to the village and community around it, and I quote, And around it, turning their backs, The usual sprinkle of villas; The usual woman in slacks, Cigarette in her mouth, Regretting Americans, stands As a wireless croons in the kitchen Manicuring her hands. Dear old, bloody old England Of telegraph poles and tin, Seemingly so indifferent And with so little soul to win.
Considering the poem was written in 1958, it tells me that England has always been a challenge for the Church. “Dear old, bloody old England of telegraph poles and tin, Seemingly so indifferent and with so little soul to win”. But I believe England does have a soul to win, and we are clearly not winning that soul at present with our Family services, Café Church, Messy Church and dumbing down that which lies at the heart of our faith. But lest we put all the blame on others, we all need to take responsibility for that failure.
The number of people belonging to the Church of England as well as the Church in Wales and The Episcopal Church in Scotland has halved in less than two decades, according to the National Centre for Social Research. The new British Social Attitudes survey found 15 per cent of people in Britain described themselves as Anglican last year, compared to 30 per cent in 2000. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said: "Of course it's always troubling for the institution of the church to see numbers declining and to hear how younger people are less and less engaged with the life of the church. " But we also need to remember that the church is not simply an institution. The church is that community of men and women whose lives are centred on Jesus Christ. We do care about numbers, but only because we care about people."
The word “church” tends to have a very specific image attached to it. But we need to think wider than this image, all the time I find myself in conversations with people who ask about the Church, and what happens inside on a Sunday morning, because they have moved so far out of the Church’s life and care. They are not all against the Church, they just don’t see how it has relevance in their lives today. But equally they have often never been really seriously informed either.
I believe we have replaced a rich and robust theology in the Church with poor quality emotional music and constant soppy reminders that “God is love and he loves you” These words are great at bringing outsiders through the doors, but poor at growing believers into mature witnesses with rich understanding of the deep things of God.
I’m so often saddened that atheists are so passionate about what they don’t believe that they will read book after book, in order to define their thoughts and beliefs, while we are happy to float along the surface with a Sunday School theology and mentality! And we wonder why people are leaving the Church in droves. A church that offers only emotional, feel-good theology is going to lose the long-term intellectual wrestling match to a well-read and convincing atheist nearly every time.
I am fascinated to learn that the Church was once the place where believers came to learn deep theology and robust doctrine – baptism preparation lasted three years! It’s not too late for Christians in our Churches to grow again in their understanding of the holy. It’s not too late to learn the meaning and value of our creeds, doctrines, and faith systems. There is merit in learning and understanding the deeper parts of our faith and I say we should start sooner rather than later. This is why I offer study courses and pilgrimages as education.
Just as a marriage cannot be sustained by the tumble of a short-lived romantic infatuation, so a life of real faith cannot be sustained simply by passionate emotion. Yes, it may be a wonderful (and necessary) entryway, but without depth of knowledge and understanding, it will only be superficial and far from satisfying.
Our modern culture has often ridiculed Christians for being totally irrational. Historically this is false, for many of the best scientific minds have actually been practicing Christians. But there is a very real sense of anti-intellectualism in the church nowadays. Having a rational and well thought out faith allows us to apply it to every area of our lives, such as politics, ethics, and even entertainment. This is how we love and worship God with all our minds. The difference between humans and other animals is the human mind and the ability to reason. This is how God made us different and more like him. We should, in fact, seek to worship and know him through this important aspect of our nature.