Let’s boil it down to the simplest expression: the business is going flat so the management has decided on an advertising campaign to bring in more customers, otherwise they go bust. That is what Monsignor Charles Pope has noticed about the Roman Catholic Church in America and the traditional liturgy communities. Apparently, he has just noticed that most people are not interested in religion, and those who are are attracted more by “entertainment” liturgy (they watch TV for several hours a day, perhaps more) than the old Latin rite.
The good Monsignor laments that numbers are not growing and are even declining. When schools are closed down, it is because there isn’t enough money coming in from the tithing faithful – so the responsibility is at parish level. If you want to keep the “business” going with schools and big expensive buildings, then numbers do matter and the money has to come from somewhere. As in business, you have to adapt the supply to the demand or use propaganda to “adapt” the demand to the supply. I have already written on this subject. I hate advertising and this whole world of being solicited by telephone or by door-to-door salesmen. I always tell them that I buy what I need, not what I am told I need – but few people are as “out-of-the-box” as I am. If religion is reduced to this level, then it really is a load of bunk!
It has all been so mediocre, and for so long, truly the salt that has lost its savour. All that remains is the big Victorian buildings with the antiquated and clapped-out heating systems. It is a pity, it is sad, but those buildings have no more justification for existing unless they can be turned into community centres, libraries, concert halls – at the most noble. Or they can be sold or given to other religions like Islam. Alternatively, they are demolished to free the land for other uses – residential, business or public services. The real crunch will come when it comes to dealing with buildings from earlier times than the nineteenth century, especially medieval buildings…
One thing in which we continuing Anglicans are experienced is downsizing. We rent cemetery chapels if there is something of a congregation. Otherwise our places of worship are rooms in houses or outbuildings on private property. However, these places of worship will only last as long as their owners. Then, the buildings are sold and the furnishings and “tat” find a good home or end up in profane hands and antique dealers. Some chapels fall on “good earth” and become something stable and abiding, just as long as there is a proportion between the tiny congregation and the “plant”.
I do so hate the word “evangelisation”, simply because it is little more than a euphemism for advertising campaigns and adapting the “product” to the “clientèle”. Most people are totally uncultured in classical terms and cannot be expected to understand the fineries of good liturgical taste. When I was a child, I was told that it is rude to look through windows into people’s homes, but if we do so discreetly, it will teach us a thing or two. It shows us what people’s priorities are. If we see what kind of music people like to listen to and their favourite TV programmes, then if they are religious, we will see what kind of liturgy they will like. The question we have to ask ourselves as priests is how far we are willing to go to meet them, and that is usually the point at which the priest “runs out of vocation”. Check mate.
The Church has always depending on the ambient culture to build something material and “incarnate”, and traditional liturgy in any form has no connection or “relevance” to our ambient culture, only to a few counter-cultural “fogies” like myself and many who read my blog because of its counter-cultural content. We have run up against a wall. Are we priests prepared to do to our churches what the “mainstream” did in the 1970’s and start fooling about as amateur entertainers? I am certainly not, but then I become irrelevant and of no interest.
I read a blog article some weeks ago about the progress of missionary work in China, Africa and South America. It is charismatic / evangelical, large gatherings of emotionally excited people, hands waving up in the air, modern music, choreography, management, big screens and all the rest – and someone to rake in all the money. It is the only thing that is growing. Surely, this is what we have to do – bite the bullet, get rid of the organs, vestments, choirs, old forms of languages. Is this what we should do? Clearly, there is no room for “introverted” Christianity, the quiet contemplative life, reflection and scholarship. Human culture built on what is the most sublime. If the praise band and the big screen are the future, I for one am not interested.
The Roman Catholic Church would do better to close its parishes and cathedrals and put its resources into monasteries, in places where they would be reasonably accessible to lay Catholics who wish to attend the liturgy. There can be room also for self-financing priests who open their homes to lay people wanting to go to Mass and Office. However, the reality is that most lay people count on being able to find everything in a “real church” – but lack conviction that motivates footing the bill. The stark reality is that if the Church carries on according to the “business” paradigm, it will go bust, bankrupt, call it what you want. Monasteries are self-financing, because they run a business and keep a subtle relationship with the world around them. They are viable for as long as they don’t forget what they are.
Monsignor Pope’s article is an admission that the game is up. Christianity has to have another meaning and appeal to man’s deepest desires and beliefs, for example the immortality of the soul and our fear of bodily death – also the basis of our empathy for other people and the natural environment. It has to mean more than getting bums on the pews and raking in just enough to have the building and its heating system maintained. Another admission – “Groups that seek respect, recognition, and promotion in the highest places need to remember that numbers do matter“. How sad, when we consider that Christ and many early Christians were despised and met their deaths as martyrs, being killed in much the same way as Deash kills its victims – slitting the throat with a knife and stamping on the still-living face. The first will indeed be the last, unless Christ’s words mean the opposite of what they say. This expression is one of the reasons why it’s all bunk for most people – and not only the uncultured materialists.
Fr Pope is not wrong in his deepest concerns that Christianity is about abnegation and self-sacrifice, a search for beauty and the deeper aspirations. If there is “evangelisation”, then it is about something in existence that can inspire and strike awe. The little makeshift chapel is hardly the ideal vehicle for this, and we can’t afford the big church buildings. The abbey two hundred miles away is the answer. People are just going to have to get used to a spiritual life that depends much less on going to church!
It is when I see this reality that affects us all, and we continuing Anglicans too, that we have to seek something higher and more interior. The words of Christ indicate rather a kingdom that is within us. The monastic life is Christianity lived in its radical plenitude, and it can be an inspiration for those of us who are not monks. Very little in the way of material resources is needed. A priest can set up a chapel to say Mass in a room or an outbuilding, and he can take his office book anywhere. The laity can also say the Office and nourish themselves spiritually with the Bible, other ancient and Patristic writings and a balanced life involving time spent alone in the natural environment for meditation.
It isn’t about numbers, respectability and gentrification. It is about having some kind of understanding what Christianity is really about. One kind of “Christianity” is closing down, and that death will open the way for something deeper and more in keeping with what the historical Christ probably meant.