Every year at about this time, Easter, the media strike up the band with some old favourites: the church is dying, it’s irrelevant to people’s lives and concerns, churches are empty, clergy mouth platitudes or are too wet. It’s a seductive old tune. But is it true?
Casting my mind back 20 – 30 years, I recall a time when the following things were true for the church in England: cold and empty churches; the services still held in 1662 language, with silly Victorian hymns; Anglican participants in an ecumenical gathering being told that they could not share in the Catholic’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; all priests were male and the idea of there ever being a non-white bishop, let alone archbishop, preposterous; the Dean of Winchester – one of the last to be seen dressed in gaiters – saying that there was a Christian case for nuclear weapons; narrow-minded interpretations of salvation and threats of damnation; an air of hopelessness and decay.
Now we have increasing numbers: standing room only in Catholic churches in West London as Polish residents flock to mass; a galaxy of Afro-Caribbean churches seemingly in every town; the present Archbishop of York from Uganda; the next Archbishop of Canterbury being chosen by the church, not the government; a canon of St Pauls Cathedral warning the police not to break up the protestors camping on its steps; the other archbishop cutting up his dog-collar on TV; church schools oversubscribed; services in contemporary language; women priests, though not yet bishops; Thought for the Day regularly explaining Hinduism; the spread of purpose-built mosques; the television series Rev; the crucifixion re-enacted in cities in the UK; to my certain knowledge, at least one gay bishop in England and a gay Dean (what of it?); the New Atheism failing to find traction in our community so far.
Tonight we go and share the Easter Mass with our fellow congregants in a country church (pictured), and see that there are more of them than 20 years ago, and of all ages. Our mass will be participatory, and moving.
No, I don’t think the church is fading. It’s actually being reborn. That’s a good feeling to have at Easter, when we celebrate renewal and resurrection into new life. God bless us all.