by Loren Seibold
Last week my brother and I attended morning mass at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Evangelist in Brecon, the seat of the bishop of Swansea and Brecon in the Church in Wales. For those of us with a taste for such things, the service was lovely, not to mention extravagant by the standards of most churches: choir, pipe organ, incense and three priests in posh frocks. It's hard to beat the grandeur (and the acoustics) of a cathedral built in 1538.
My observations probably won't surprise you if you know anything at all about Christianity in the UK. In this massive edifice were seated perhaps 30 worshipers, all of them elderly. From an announcement sheet in the missalette it appears the church has other ministries, such as a food distribution center. Yet that doesn't translate into participation in weekly worship. What the priests and musicians were doing was beautiful, historical, venerable, but apparently not especially winsome to the people of Brecon.
It's hard to measure religious faith, because what people say they believe differs from what they do about it, and notably from what they say they do about it. UK church attendance estimates ("regular attendance" is usually considered once a month) range between 6% and 10%, depending upon whether you're talking about Christians or C of E members. Earlier this year a C of E press release claimed that a mere .3% drop from 2012 translated into the guardedly good news that weekly attendance might have hit bottom. Just remember that that bottom is 1.1 million out of 56 million Britons—about 2%. As The Guardian's Andrew Brown says the graphs "look like the cool-down portion of a bicycle ride – the precipitous and frightening descent is over, and now there is just a gentle slightly downward path." He adds, "There isn't really a large portion of hope in the age profile and there is nothing in the figures to supply a cheerful story."
Though I appreciated the worship service, I admit I've never felt so keenly the out-of-touchness of organized religious worship as while watching three men in gold brocade dresses read 500-year-old prayers in Oxbridge accents to a mere handful of grayheads. Yet I'm reluctant to blame it on ritual. People in the UK still turn to churches in large numbers for some very ritualized services: weddings, christenings, funerals. Christmas and Easter attendance is up, too. It might even be that ritual is the best thing the Anglican church has going for it. Just don't expect people to sit through it more than a couple of times a year.
The preacher in the Brecon Cathedral that morning (who in person bore a passing resemblance to Martin Clunes) blamed a great deal on Richard Dawkins' and his ilk for their arrogant opposition of religion. What crossed my mind was one of one of the most famous ripostes in British history, by prostitute Mandy Rice-Davies when the prosecutor in the Profumo scandal told her Lord Astor denied having even met her: "He would, wouldn't he?" It may not have been a profound sermon, but it was an honestly defensive one: we would say it's someone else's fault, wouldn't we?
This is the cross that we Christians are currently crucifying ourselves on, throughout the cultures that brought Christianity to the world. The system we've capitalized for two millennia fewer and fewer people value. We've too many big buildings, offices, titles, rituals, books, doctrines and degrees to admit easily the irrelevance of what we're doing with them. We know we're losing our audience, yet are at a loss to know how to respond. Andrew Brown says that the question is "whether things are going to change, or whether the church will pootle along, like an exhausted cyclist, until it finally wobbles over and collapses."
American Christianity, freighted by less history and more experienced in business building, has tried to be relevant. Yet successful empire builders like Osteen, Hybels, Warren, and Jakes raise just as many questions of authenticity to the message of Jesus as do the old cathedral denominations. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead of a cassock and surplice, building an auditorium instead of a cathedral, having one rich and famous pastor instead of an entire curia, doesn't excuse one from questions of how wealth, power, heirarchy and recognition fit with the message of Jesus.
Or maybe relevance—that so, so American ideal—isn't even what we should be worrying about. All I know is that there's still spiritual interest out there. Are we in the the church able to help people make something good, truthful and life-affirming of that interest? Or are we too busy being the church?