The Challenge of Downsizing

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.

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6 Responses to The Challenge of Downsizing

  1. Stephen K says:

    It isn’t about numbers, respectability and gentrification. It is about having some kind of understanding what Christianity is really about.

    Exactly. For centuries now, the Church (whichever you nominate) has been about building empires; counting up the beans (of compliant, fee-paying recruits). People drawn to monasteries have sensed something deeper and more personal. Most of the rest of us conformed to a model – parish church, filled with stock-standard candlesticks, tabernacles, statues or stained glass windows, priests and acolytes prancing round in robes, weekly sermonising etc – not in themselves evil but something of fool’s gold. Stained glass and polyphony are beautiful but they can be idols just like money or sex, in which case they defeat the purpose of the religion and obstruct the growth of spiritual life.

    It’s not right either to simply warn against emulating modern or pop fashions – traditionalist hoop-la can be just as shallow. The enemy is not tambourines or lacy surplices but building your church on either, and thinking it matters a hill of beans if your church has more participants than the one down the road. Christianity is not a corporation, not a church but a state of just and compassionate commitment……in ourselves.

    I think we should be grateful at the disintegration of the ecclesiastical empires. We might still be labouring under the delusions of grandeur we’ve been encouraged to harbour, even if only subconsciously. Just think – we now have no excuse not to go about worshipping by helping those we encounter in need and retiring to meditate and say the Hours, when we can or are moved to do so.

    • Probably the worst thing to happen to Christianity (in all forms) was the 19th century revival. Here in France, you had the Revolution and the old order carried off to the guillotine. Then it was that ridiculous parody of 18th century rationalism in the Napoleonic era. From the Romantic era and “gothick”, you had a gentrified version of the Church. The best seats in the naves of city churches and village churches were reserved for those who could pay. Eventually, only the women remained and the men became anticlerical. This happened in much of Europe including England. Anglo-Catholicism was an exception because it was Christian Socialist in its inspiration and served ordinary and poor folk, those to whom the other Anglican clergy stuck up their stuffy noses.

      Now the bill is due to be paid in full. I am sad to see the churches wasted, but they are presently locked out of service times and I don’t relate to them in any way. I am occasionally involved with choral concerts in them. I see our era as being in some way parallel with the Napoleonic era, but I hope we don’t get another revival like in the 19th century! There are plenty of monasteries and some are doing very well with either the old or new liturgy. Thanks to them, the best of western Catholicism won’t end up forgotten like the religion of the Aztecs or Mithra-ites.

      None of us will be spared from death or knowing that we will be forgotten within 50 years of dying. Anything we will have created will have no meaning to others. We have to have the humility to recognise that. If we have in our conscience done some good, that will be enough.

  2. Fr. David Marriott SSC says:

    Some years ago, I came to realize that the primary difference between the ‘mechanical’ process of the secular world of business and faith is that business is fundamentally separate from the ‘organic’ processes of our human lives: how human physiology works, with all of the complexities of biofeedback, and valves that open and close by subtle electrical impulses travelling along organic nerve fibres: these musings lead me to consider that the human emphasis on the mechanical process of the computer, of digitization, etc. whilst beneficial to many is not what is called for in the development of our faith: this from a homily which attempted to address the topic of organic unity:

    It is that we find in that city (the heavenly Jerusalem) the source of the maternal care which emanates from the centre of our faith: it is that centre to which we might turn for succour and support, for spiritual meat and drink: as it is the destination to which we seek to come, the wonder at the end of the rainbow which is life, earthly life: and it is in the very nature of us seeking the gentle care and maternal love in the arms of our natural mothers, as children, as adults, as those of us who have no mother in earthly life, but who conserve the very spirit of her love even when she has long gone to her reward in heaven – it is this same maternal succour and love that we seek in our faith in Jesus Christ, where the Holy mother church can provide us with the spiritual care that we so desperately seek.

    Just as we are united in the church, as children of a common father and mother are united in the bonds of family, so are we united in the church, we must also take note that this union, as with the union of a family, does not mean that we become numerically one: but that we are all our own people, we are individuals, part of an organic unity that we call in human life a family: where each comes with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and where each is charged as we go through life to make use of our talents in the same way that the three stewards were asked to do, even when the talents that they were allocated were units of currency.

    Organic unity means very simply that we can be united as in the family of man, united as a family with similar goals, but as in the human family, we might have several ways of achieving the same goal: as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, ‘And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:…’ (Eph. 4.11-12)

    And for what do we all strive, in each of our various ways, both as individual human beings, and as members of a variety of Christian faiths, with a whole range of different modes of worship, or expression of faith? St. Paul writes, ‘Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ:..’(Eph. 4.13) And it is then that we shall all be united in the care and love of the Holy City of Jerusalem, at which time the truth of the phrase, ‘But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.’

  3. J.D. says:

    It all comes down to what I mentioned in a comment on another of your reflections— just who is Jesus Christ and what, if anything, did He bring that other religious figures and philosophes throughout history have not? Did the Incarnation and the Redemption and Christ conquering death on the Cross really happen or not? There is no room for relativism or gimmickry with this. Jesus is not a CEO of a bloated and failing corporation, the head of a social justice NGO with a thin religious veneer or a politician, He is the Son of God. I wonder how many self professed Christians REALLY believe this, or how many just go through the motions. I think it’s abundantly clear that in ALL the mainstream churches there are many who go through the motions.

    What I love so much about scripture and traditional liturgical Christianity is that they clearly point out who we are, where we are going and who Jesus Christ is. Whether it’s the Traditional Prayer Book Collects,the Roman Mass and Breviary or my own well loved Slavic Orthodox Divine Services they all point to the very real mystery of our lives and of Christ. There is nothing gimmicky about them.

    The mainstream churches do not really believe anymore— at least through their leadership— so they resort to gimmicks and slick ad campaigns, many of which are so cheesy and out of touch that they are simply laughable.

    So what to do? As far as I’m concerned I just keep to myself, keep praying from my Old Rite Horologion and Old Orthodox Prayerbook, keep going to confession once a month or so, pray the Jesus Prayer,read scripture and try to do the best I can. Institutional Christianity of all stripes is tottering on the edge of extinction, and yet even so there are pockets of us who for whatever reason find a compass for our lives through it. I will uphold it till the day that I die, and I’ll continue to pray for all of you.

    • raitchi2 says:

      In regards of what to do, I’ve felt similar to you. Just keep up your prayers etc. The biggest issue I have with the solipsism faith is that I’m a layman, so I can not confect eucharist and I must therefore be subject to the weekly 1 hour whims of my local parishes to fulfill my obligations for holy days. I haven’t quite found a solution for this problem. The only options that seem open to me are: become ordained or to stop caring about the obligations to attend mass and just receive communion whenever well disposed. Any tips or suggestions for this issue on your end?

      • It is difficult to give any advice, because it depends on where you live and what access you might have to different RC, Orthodox, Anglican, etc. churches. It is not healthy to be ordained with the intention of it being for yourself. The answer must come from within yourself. There is always the possibility of moving to a more favourable place, to be balanced with family, work, etc. obligations. In my reckoning, no one is obliged to go to services, especially when they would be harmful to our spiritual / emotional life.

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