Finding a new role for churches
The opinions expressed are his own.
There is a poem, written in 1955, by the English poet Philip Larkin, called Church Going. It tells of the poet’s solitary penchant for cycling about villages, visiting country churches, empty, sometimes ruined, each with a “tense, musty, unignorable silence.” In deft touches, he writes of taking off his bicycle clips in lieu of doffing a non-existent cap; of experiencing an inexplicable pleasure in standing in these “frowsty barns”; yet finishing his visit feeling “much at a loss.”
He ends with a reflection: that the church is “a serious house on serious earth,” and that
“… someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.”
This “hunger to be more serious” is acute now, in Christmas week, when, in the countries of long Christian tradition, the broadcast air is replete with carols, sacred music and invocations to rejoice in a miracle birth. It is a hunger which also contains something of a languorous sense of guilt – that something which should have been precious, or sacred, had been casually lost, dispensed with in the getting and spending of contemporary life. A stirring of regret that there is no solid faith beneath that yearning; and a nostalgia for a childhood acceptance of the message of Christmas, wrapped up in the pleasures of adult attention and the receiving of gifts (to be sure, reality can be quite opposite: but most of us sugar-coat such memories).
But mere keening over lost times – even when as beautifully done, as Larkin does – holds little value for us, or for the society. If we cannot have certainty of faith, we might create a space for the discussion of faithlessness. If the church is still remembered, however vestigially, as a place “proper to grow wise in,” then we should put it to that use.
Protestant churches in rich lands which have not gone over to evangelical Christianity can be sad places (the Catholics usually do a bit better: faith, or fear, is more strongly inculcated, though even these are fading). Outside of the high days of Easter and, especially, Christmas, the faithful huddle at the end of pews, or dot themselves about halls built for hundreds. The elderly predominate; occasionally, a family which has retained the faith comes with young children, mutinously conscious that this is time away from this or that screen. The pastor, steeling him- (or, now, her-) self against the disappointment of ministering to the few, keeps as resolute a cheerfulness as a troupe of actors playing to a largely empty theater. S/he may be wrestling with private doubts: a popular BBC TV comedy series, Rev, stars Tom Hollander as an inner city vicar, facing, in a vast Victorian temple, a congregation so tiny and so dysfunctional that he is thrown into existential despair, shouting defiance at a God whom, he decides in bad hours, has forsaken him.
Yet Rev, blackly comic as it can be, points to something unforsaken. It points to a ground which need not be that of a dour clinging to the remnants of institutions which stubbornly decline each year – or its opposite, the terrain charted in the past decade by such as the late Christopher Hitchens and by Richard Dawkins, as an equally unyielding contempt for all manifestations of religion.
In a piece in the Guardian some five years ago, Dawkins wrote that “many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense…September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense…dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism.”
For an Oxford don, who held a chair until 2008 in the public understanding of science, this is bad reasoning. The massacres of September 11 were carried out by men who held to a particular interpretation of Islam, regarded as heretical and indefensible by many of the religion’s authorities. They live worlds away from the gently declining vicars of moderate Protestantism–and it is in the latter’s melancholy, “frowsty barns” where some kind of rebirth is possible.
In one sense it would be a rebirth of the spirit: but not of the Holy Spirit. Too few, perhaps even too few vicars, are sure of that entity’s existence. Instead, it would serve the “hunger…to be more serious”.
Churches, mostly dating from the 19th century, when organized religion was at its flood tide of self-confidence, are what we in the early 21st century have as our most prominent public buildings – and often the finest. The spires strain upwards, the halls are large, the fittings down at heel but often still handsome. In these spaces, new kinds of temples of the spirit could be built: places where the urgent questions of the day and the timeless questions of eternity are set before people, and thrashed out. It would be a space for lectures; for debate and discussion at every level; for creativity and the staging of shows, performances and every kind of dramatic experiment.
They would be in part social or community centers – places whose mandate was to seek neighborhood involvement and amity. The pastors would moderate and guide and speak, but not dominate – except in the sense that s/he would be responsible for the place, and would need to set limits and have them respected. It would be a place where people, especially those who usually do not speak in public, could express their minds and ask the questions which puzzle them.
There would be recognition that for some, a faith still burns and needs to be served: and the pastors would need to do so. But otherwise, they would be liberated from the demands of ritual, free to express and argue their doubts, or their faith, able to make new connections.
Above all, the new “churches” would be an expression of a compromise between a fading faith and a bewildered secularism. They would be there to serve human curiosity and mental restlessness; to serve the need for answers, small and large.
What would be in it for the organized churches? Ask the more urgent question: what is in it for them to remain in the status quo? Living off patrimonies squirreled away in the fat years will be possible for many years yet: but to what end? They have staffs of intelligent, highly educated men and women who have renounced wealth and what the world now defines as success, for a life of service. But the nature of service has changed: when men and women shrug off faith, they do not dispense with questioning: and if they cannot accept a truth revealed once and for all, they still need to have the old, and the new, puzzles teased out, over and over again. And that the churches could do, if they would.
Larkin’s Church Going was written over half a century ago: the yearning for a serious ground on which to stand has not diminished in that time, nor the nostalgia for the role the church once played in granting that. For many – in much of the world, for most — it does not do that any longer. But amid the ruins of a faith, the human spirit for life in the mind can still be served.
Photo: A war-ravaged Catholic Cathedral that is being used as an informal settlement for internally displaced people is seen in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in this general view, August 31, 2011. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya