How do you unpick the extent to which religious observance is faithful or social? The question is, of course, as silly as attempting to unbake a cake. But I keep returning to it since any strategy which thinks it relates purely to faith motivation stumbles around when it encounters sociological realities, and any strategy which is tuned to sociological habits can fall short of prompting or nurturing faith possibilities.
English people have never developed customs around welcoming or naming a child simply because there was no need to do so when universally Christian England provided Baptism. An English person today who wishes to respond significantly to the arrival of a child thus faces a choice. Either take part in some invented ritual with no heritage and without much substance, or approach a church for a Baptism. Those who then approach us for a Baptism come with greater or lesser ingredients of faith and of need for some ceremony. At one end of the continuum we’ve recently had a family who couldn’t really understand why they couldn’t nominate a Hindu as a godparent, yet others near this end have a strong sense of seeking something of God. At the other end we’ve recently had a family whose particular request was for Baptism at the Easter morning Eucharist, yet others near this end want us to adapt what we do and when we do it to suit their other cultural assumptions about the day.
Equally, the behaviour of a substantial numbers of regular church goers sometimes appears most convincingly explained by their support for their own club rather than their devotion to God. Why else would they prefer to stay away from worship altogether on those rare Sundays when we ask them to do so in a different place? Why else would some of them put great effort into the maintenance of their building and cultural events within it and resist strongly invitations to respond to the need of the community in which it is set? Yet most of these same people cannot be caricatured as club members in other clear specific faithful and prayerful ways.
There is a kind of one eyed evangelical solution which has little truck with sociological phenomena: insist on the Gospel perspective in season and out of season come what may. There is a kind of one eyed liberal solution which meets sociological phenomena where it is: understand, affirm and allow. Somehow I find that I can even manage myself the double vision of offering a Gospel perspective where it seems most intrusive and the open welcome where it seems most vapid.
The Spring picture from St Michael's churchyard is now a few weeks out of date.