Let us give thanks for the kindness of Christians and find practical ways of making our national church more relevant
There are two Christmases. One is gaudy and loud, drunk and tinsel-bedecked, belting out Slade at the office party. The other is still and introspective, silent nights and stars, carols and the quiet kindness of others. It is for this more elusive Christmas that thousands of us will head to church tonight for Midnight Mass. For many it will be their only brush with the Church of England all year.
For one night we long for what Philip Larkin called “a whiff of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh”. As for the other 364 days? The C of E is an irrelevance, a joke, a waste of time, the epitome of musty decline. How short-sighted of us, and how careless of what matters.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a sermon. I am the type that writes “C of E” on forms and prays in hospitals but who rarely goes to church. I know the verses that soothe (Matthew 6:34) but do not ask before each decision, “what would Jesus do?” And yet, knowing that the church exists, that it is open for all on a Sunday, that the land is dotted with refuges of cool stone and worn oak pews, brings a deep comfort.
So the prevailing attitude to the Church of England and to Christianity in general saddens me. Christians are reluctant to “come out” in company for fear that they will be dismissed as backward at best and bigoted at worst. While American politicians end every address with “God bless”, ours have to dance around questions of faith.
It is de rigueur to sneer, as the Today presenter John Humphrys did when he described Thought For the Day thus: “We are now going to hear someone tell us that Jesus was really nice.” (Would he condescend in this way to the Muslim faith, I wonder?) The church is damned if it rejects the way we live now and damned if it embraces it. Awkwardness about gay marriage is criticised; recently announced plans for transgender naming ceremonies are mocked. It’s either stuck in the past or trying too hard.
Secularisation preaches tolerance but has only contempt for the C of E, which it regards as wishy-washy. Many are those who think the answer to our nation’s problems is to boot the bishops out of the House of Lords. And, of course, on every university campus and at every chin-stroking dinner party there are the acolytes of Richard Dawkins who think they are rendered interesting by the opinion that religion is the root of all evil.
Well, come with me, Dawkins-ites, to the schools, hospices and care homes where thousands of Christians do good work every day. Seek out the grittiest, grimiest edges of British life and they are there. They are helping addicts limp to liberty from drugs with infinite patience. They are supporting families who are mired in debt. They are caring for those in prison cells whom no one else cares about any more. They are giving shelter and warm meals to the homeless. At one church I attended, a man who had slept rough for years was the clean-shaven collection plate bearer, his set of shiny new teeth bought for him by fellow members of the congregation.
Beneath the dramatic saving of souls there are the thousands of small acts of kindness that stitch communities together (especially in the countryside). Those parish activities of flower arranging, fêtes and Bible groups may be easily lampooned but they punctuate the day for the elderly and isolated. If a dying person wishes a vicar to be there to hold their hand, the hand will be held. If the lonely desperately need a warm welcome, the welcome can be found in a church.
These are all practical reasons to appreciate the Church of England, but its value goes deeper. In its spirit it reflects the best of Englishness. Yes, some Christians’ views on homosexuality or women priests may sit ill with the way we live now, but overall this is a gentle and moderate church; qualities which (when not Brexit-convulsed) we might associate with our nation. However diminished it may be, the church stands as an important counterpoint to the gaudiness, loudness, crassness and commercialism of modern life.
We should be cherishing this institution and yet stories of the church’s decline are met with a shrug of the shoulders. Only 2 per cent of young people now identify as Anglican. Last year church attendance on Sundays fell again, to 722,000. Every now and then we hear reports of churches where a scattering of octogenarians occupy the pews. Do I imagine it, or is the tone of these reports rather “I told you so”? The Church of England has come to be seen as an anachronism that should be left to die quietly.
In truth, there are no easy solutions for halting this decline. Every so often we hear the suggestion that nearly empty churches should be sold off, with resources concentrated in towns and cities (or perhaps ploughed into an app). Accompanying this is the belief that it might be the oldness and dustiness of the churches themselves that is repelling the crowds. Archbishop Justin Welby hinted at this earlier in the year when he declared: “God is incredibly exciting until we try to bottle [Him] up in a building and take all the excitement out.”
I understand the impulse to return the faith to its roots; to get out and evangelise in shopping centres and pubs as Jesus would have done. But this approach misses the great magic that is held in these buildings. What is needed is a plan to inject more life into them.
Already some double up as sub-post offices or community centres; couldn’t town and parish councils help to run (and fund) these churches and use them even more imaginatively, as coffee shops, GPs’ surgeries, crèches, career advice centres, youth clubs, libraries, day centres for the elderly? Alongside Christian worship, these new purposes would create places of congregation and community, the kind of places that in our anxious and atomised age we are crying out for.
Alongside this change of use for churches we need a change of tone, too: less cynical about our national church, more thankful for the work it does, more tolerant of its attempts to reconcile its beliefs with the modern world.
In a world of wearying politics, rancorous debate, a divided population, obsession with difference and diversity, let us give thanks for these quiet, musty, magical places that welcome Britons of all faiths and none.