Sunday, 8 January 2017

The rise of the nones 2

Three further thoughts growing from puzzling away at Linda Woodhead’s article.

The first, and longest, is about what she writes.

The main thrust of her conclusion, not mentioned in my previous post, is ‘it is not just that Britain has become less religious but that religion has become more so; not just that people moved away from churches but that churches moved away from them’.

In her sociological terms she sees churches since the 1980s becoming less ‘societal’ (perhaps, inclusive places which express the spiritual aspirations and values of a majority) and more ‘sectarian’ (perhaps, exclusive places which express the religious commitment and values of a minority).

It is true that a significant shift has happened.  An example would be the virtual disappearance of Confirmation as an adolescent rite of passage (and I’m fascinated that she notes the rapid rise in school Proms as ‘in effect ritual celebrations of each child’) and is used mainly instead as an expression of individual adult religious commitment.

And it is true that a major gap now exists.  Her example is the way majority opinion on issues such as abortion, contraception, divorces, euthanasia and homosexuality (on some of which some churches have often even led on issues of liberalisation in the past) differ from the conservative public positions of many churches today.

But I just wonder how much ‘chicken and egg’ there is here.  My reading of everything from George Herbert’s instructions about ministry in the seventeenth century to Christian Youth Work manuals in the first half of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to indicate a Church of England which held its place in the past by agreeing with the (particularly sexual) moral norms around it.

The second is about my own simplistic mapping of some of this onto the trio of diversity and pluralism, democracy and individual choice, and establishment and shared tradition, and the difficulties of holding any two of these together with the third.

I simply notice that one of the things which is going on is that those who express a democratic rejection of diversity also express loyalty to (or at least nostalgia for) an imagined shared tradition.

This is there from the notorious British National Party’s claim that it was more genuinely Christian than the churches, to the key phrases ‘taking back control’ and ‘making America great again’ (separate out the words and you get a wish to be in control and to be part of a great nation alongside the dynamic of ‘taking back’ and ‘making again’).

Third, only the briefest of hints, what do we do now?

There is no going back.  Her article notes ‘the ‘self-reinforcing success’ of the new ‘norm’, for example, the tipping point we’ve noticed when the choice of a secular funeral becomes the option people simply assume is normal when a Funeral Director calls. 

Perhaps instead there can only be speaking and acting authentic possibilities: the way the series The Monastery a decade ago got under some people’s skin is something which showed the way; our picking up that many people think we are onto something when we explore forgiveness may be one hint; the chord struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s focus on Wonga may be another significant example.

The ‘becoming more religious’ needs to be ‘here are unexpected insights and depths in the tradition (which we are in danger losing contact)’ rather than ‘here is why you are wrong (about sex in particular)’; a project to clear up a local grot spot on Maundy Thursday rather than a 'walk of witness' on Good Friday.

The Christmas decorations at St George's, Bradley are actually the striking ones those from 2015 rather than the ones which have just been taken down.

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