Can the church cope with a world desperately seeking spirituality?

I recently went to a friend’s ordination. As an escaped Roman Catholic I am always more comfortable at the snake-belly low end of the church but I was interested to be part of a high church service. We did ancient robes, bells, candles, incense… I then remembered why I don’t like incense. I was seated two along from the server with the censer. He didn’t so much keep it burning as re-stoked it like a small furnace. As I struggled with waves of chemically-induced nausea I wondered why incense has to be acrid? Surely there must be something that emits a nice-smelling perfume when it burns? The stoker, though, managed to accidentally empty his censer onto the floor next to the altar and there followed some divine moments as the Archdeacon and various priests tried, as Mr Bean might have tried both frantically yet surreptitiously, to stop the altar carpet bursting into flames. The Bishop meanwhile continued solemnly to consecrate the host. Perhaps God doesn’t like the smell either? Does God share my irreverent sense of humour? The smiles in the congregation suggested they also enjoyed the church being for a moment more Rowan Atkinson than Rowan Williams.

The point of telling this story is not to poke fun at grown men (there were no women leaders) in frocks. What struck me most (along with the incense) was the significance of the physical divide between us ‘doers’ around the altar and the passive onlookers, the ‘dunnunto’, sitting in rows watching. A returning missionary once commented about going to church: “my problem…is not that I’ve lost my faith or feel like its hopeless … It’s more that I’m bored with it.” As a chaplain who works in the Navy I sit in church with the ‘dunnunto’ most Sundays. There I share that same sinking feeling. I’m usually the oldest person present in my ministry. On Sunday I’m often almost the youngest. What’s all this telling us?

In the West our churches tend to be aligned with the thought-world of the ancient Romans and Greeks. It was the thought-world in which Jesus grew up and also the intellectual home of the tyrannies that he challenged. It is the classical world of Socrates, Plato et al, the word of rational modernity. The Enlightenment’s roots are here and the church too seems to value the intellectual so much more than the physical. It is the thought-world of our great universities and that, of course, is where our clergy are trained, including me.

As I watch my friends in the High Church at play with bells and smells and my Evangelical friends preferring instead to worship the Bible, I see a common thread. Many of them think just like the secular rational modernists. They believe they have the knowledge and that their knowledge is good. They have the relationship with God and can keep other people straight about God. Our churches have places where the ‘doers’, led by the clergy, do ceremonial, lead appropriate singing, share the sacred texts and explain to us what it all means. If they think we’re suitable, we might be invited to join the ‘doers’. The irony is, though, that most secular rational modernists think religious people are deluded, including the religious rational modernists in the church.

Enlightenment rational modernity, incredibly useful though it is in discovering facts about the material world, reached its philosophical zenith with the Victorians. As a thought-world it started to die in the 20th century, which may explain why our churches tend to appeal to the over-60s. The ordination service was at night and only the front was properly lit, perhaps to emphasize the important bit at the front? As I peered into the gloom there were hundreds of empty seats. Where were the people who chose not to be there? As a Navy chaplain I work with (mainly) twenty-somethings. Given a fiver every time I hear “I’m spiritual but not religious” from those I serve with, I wouldn’t need a salary.

Many of them don’t feel they know much about God but they do feel they have permission to feel that there is something out there. I remember a generation back that we didn’t really feel we had such permission unless we became church-people. Then, of course we had to run the gauntlet of the secular rationalists who assured us that God wasn’t real and that our delusion would pass.

“Back to Church Sunday” next month is a response to empty pews. The youngsters I work with rarely believe in the church though. How many churches next month will be welcoming communities that value the spiritual search of those outside the church in any meaningful way? How many who are like that for Back to Church Sunday will be that way every Sunday? Or will they go back to asking the ‘dunnunto’ to be done unto by the same doers who still know what’s best?

The religious worthies of Jesus’ day disapproved of his partying with sinners. By sinners they tended to mean the pagan Romans and other gentiles who they thought weren’t God’s people anyway. They disapproved of improper lifestyles and impurity, which usually meant they rejected the sick and the dis-eased, the lonely, the broken, the poor and the disturbed. What really upset the religious worthies about Jesus was that he hung out with all those wrong sort of people. Worse, he seemed determined to fill God’s kingdom with them. How much of the church also can’t cope with a world desperately seeking spirituality?

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