A few days ago, I said (I think in a comment) that most people are not interested in religion, and most of those who are interested are interested for the wrong reasons. We thus have a minority of whatever image you choose – gold in the dross, stars in the night, etc. – of a minority. This notion relates to my old posts on the Stages of Spiritual Life and Aristocracy of the Spirit. The real question is whether it is important to get people into churches or simply nurture the Christian way so that it may never die, but rather be as an invisible leaven in a dark world.
We dream of the old Christendom, because it meant money for churches, colleges, chapters of canons, foundations – a public presence of Christ in the world supported by ecclesiastical and state institutions. In our days, the monuments and buildings are still there, but mostly abandoned. If we don’t resort to marketing to get paying customers back, then the buildings will have to be closed for lack of money and use. For the churches with high stakes and expenses, it all comes down to marketing. The Christianity market is now very narrow, and cannot afford what the old market used to pay to keep the institutions going.
There is an article by Deborah Gyapong – What do we really have to offer? which links to an article, itself linking to another article by a Roman Catholic priest and “marketer”. I find the points full of meaning. The Church used to fulfil many social needs like entertainment, feeding the poor, nursing the sick, taking in orphans (yes, in those awful houses for “fallen women” in Ireland!), education and everything. Now, all that is over. All those needs are filled by state-funded agencies like social security, health services, education departments, schools and universities – and television. Every other need is covered by private enterprise. All of a sudden, there is no further need for churches, unless…
As we clutch for straws, we look for our “unique selling point”, the spiritual content of the Christian faith. If we go too deeply into that, we will find that what churches offer is not enough. Perhaps monasteries are nearer the mark – but most of us are not called to be monks. We start “marketing” that, and what will we get? I have said elsewhere that the notion of “marketing” is totally inappropriate. The cold simple fact is that the materialistic world has no use for us. Christendom, at least in the western world, is out of business.
We don’t have the right to give up, but I think this situation brings us to ask fundamental questions. We have no selling points because we are not on any market. What we are all about is essentially the message of Advent, anticipating the second coming of Christ. We live in the same spiritual darkness as did the world before Christ. We often forget that the world we live in and we ourselves are finite. The hope is the Mystery of Christ that is situated at another level of existence than the world of darkness in which we live. We have the liturgy to enable us to partake of this Mystery. Otherwise, it can only be an illusory figment of imagination. We not only participate in past events, but also in the event we face in the future, beyond our deaths – the Parousia or final Judgement.
The Church institution was geared for the attitude according to which the Parousia is inaccessible and so remote from our existence as to be pointless in our thought. Strangely, the secular world is conscious of its limitations, especially when considering threats from climate change (regardless of whatever causes it) and from space (meteorites and comets). Our little lives will not go on forever, because each one of us will die and the world’s days are numbered.
The history of the Church is marked by eschatalogical and institutional phases. The prayers of the liturgical books reflect both these states of mind, between asking God to maintain what is right and good and asking him to help us in our adversity. In the twentieth century, there were two world wars and periods when people enjoyed themselves like in the 1920’s and 1950’s. There are the periods of consolation and those times when we see the world as dark with only a few light, like the Gnostics of old.
Our world is now marked by anguish about our future. The writing on the wall seems to point to Orwellian or Islamic totalitarianism and slavery, to the end of our technological comforts and obliviousness. People are increasingly unhappy, aggressive and rude. Culture is a thing of the past, and everything that makes us human is disappearing. Those who govern us are men without moral conscience, empathy or principle – criminals. We seem to be going from a period of peace that began in the 1950’s, since the end of World War II, to one of bitterness and pain.
The Church must return to the eschatalogical view of the first centuries, and not to the illusion of the Pax Christiana. We are not foretelling when it will all end, because we don’t know. We are not fanatics carrying billboards saying The End is Nigh! All the same, we are aware that it is all collapsing around us. We can only go to Christ and his holy Mother. They are the only ones we can trust.
We are not going to get people back to church. Churches are marked with stigma and the sins of men. All we can do is what monks do: pray and work, go about life with Christ forever in our thoughts and deeds. Perhaps people will see us living differently from the general run of humanity and ask why. We can them tell them, because they are ready to receive the Mystery. Otherwise they would not have the curiosity to ask. Such an event is extremely rare, because most people don’t have that degree of curiosity. We can’t force them, and we can’t assume they are all going to hell. Perhaps they have an invisible spiritual life that is higher than ours. Who are we to judge?
Some day, the Parousia will happen, whether through our deaths or some event that involves the end of this world. Beyond that lies the dawn which we already anticipate in our liturgy and the life it inspires. Christmas is such a liturgical anticipation as well as an anamnesis of the past events of God’s incarnation in the person of Christ.
Even if we end up with Big Brother or public executions of “apostates” from the “religion of peace” in our town squares, the light will always be there to bring us hope in our darkness and adversity. Only recently, my Bishop told me that Canterbury Cathedral is crumbling, and there isn’t the money to do the necessary work. It seems inevitable that it will become a museum and “cultural centre” and cease to be used for worship. Many other churches are in worse condition and can only be demolished. That particular “end” has already arrived. The dayspring lies beyond our worries and inability to see the “big picture”. We are out of business as an institution. We have no “market” and therefore no money to compete in the world. The Church is more than bricks and mortar, more even than our little chapels.
I certainly sound pessimistic and like all of us who suffer from the lack of sunlight in these shortening days. At the same time, the hope and the glory lie beyond our materialism and worldliness, and can so easily escape us, even at that very moment of trying to persuade other people of “our truth”. I have nothing new to say, because history goes round in cycles and we have seen it all before.
Sometimes there are surprises…