Finding a new role for churches

December 21, 2011

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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Faiths have evolved as civilizations have risen and fallen. Ancient faiths are now long forgotten. Buddhism and Hinduism remain vibrant after a few millennia. Olympian worship gave way to Christendom. Today, we witness birth of Humanism and a recasting of Evangelism. It is not possible to predict what will be practiced in a millennium or so.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Mr Lloyd, a great article, probably a touch idealistic but that’s no criticism. Not sure how you would get the Catholic church to open its doors to allow a free range of ideas to be openly discussed. The Inquisitors would be rolling in their graves and you’d have to deal with the minor obstacle of infallibility. Just one question though, you don’t see the irony in feeling the need to point out that the 9/11 instigators held a ‘heretical and indefensible interpretation of Islam’? It is the deafening silence from these ‘religious authorities’ that has convinced people that the majority of Muslims agreed with the attacks. Despite the raving and cheering of the lobotomised, regarded with contempt by most Muslims, the truth is anything but.

Posted by mindlessthug | Report as abusive

“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…”. Dawkins’ reasoning is “spot on”.

It was the Nazi fanatics, always a vicious minority, who got the “sound bites” and “face time” on camera. But those relative few progressively and irresistably involved a majority of German people as soldiers at the fronts or workers manufacturing tanks planes, U-boats, ammunition and bombs. Individual resistance was futile.

I see that same absence of resistance by “mainstream muslims” to muslim extremists expert in extortion and intimidation. They abdicate their moral duty to loudly and publicly renounce the militants and extremists in their midst. Their very silence to the most despicable acts is taken by others as acceptance or even approval.

The recent assassination in Afghanistanan of a respected man attempting to negotiate with the Taliban is a lesson to one and all that those who consort with or break bread with one’s enemy cannot prudently be trusted or treated as friend. We must each stand willing and ready to be judged by the company we keep.

The willingness of radical evangelical Christians to murder doctors who perform legal abortions should give us all pause. No one who genuinely believes “their God” has assigned them a personal mission requiring violence illegal in civil society should be free on their own recognizance. Depending on the perspective and allegiance of the observer, much of what the Old Testament describes should not have occurred (if, in fact, it did).

“If we cannot have certainty of faith…” perhaps a purpose is served in discussing alternatives of potential inner strength and certainty? Indeed, but to discuss or moderate traditionally opposing philosophies in empty churches would NOT be on appropriately “neutral ground” and “pastors” would be inappropriate to lead or moderate such honest public discussion.

I fear these “…staffs of intelligent…men and women who have renounced wealth and what the world now defines as success, for a life of service” may prove much as horses with blinders from an excessively narrow “educational perspective”. They cannot serve two masters…their God and a secular public, each fairly and objectively. Better that appropriately educated people of more secular origin serve in such a role.

Credible leaders exude certainty. If they are not unshakable in their confidence they must appear so. Some find this in their faith. Others in their personal “Values/Honor”. Followers look to a “leader” or “prophet” to bring order from the chaos of their thoughts and lives. Others prefer a less personal collective hierarchy like a “Cult”.

Just as Faith is not “one size fits all”, there are many Truths. Since some fade or even disappear from some perspectives, I choose to identify as “Universal Truths those which do not.

Right and wrong are concepts obvious to well raised children long before baptism, etc. Those not mentally challenged know not to pull wings off of butterflies or torture pets.

I am fond of the story of the American Indian Medicine Man who instructs a young warrior thus: “In each of us dwells a good wolf and a bad wolf ever battling for control”. The young man, clearly disturbed, asks: “Which will win?”. The old man answers: “The one you feed”. Wisdom for the ages not from a book.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“Above all, the new “churches” would be an expression of a compromise between a fading faith and a bewildered secularism.”

I really cannot see how John Lloyd has used the adjective ‘bewildered’ while talking about securlarism. I have yet to come across a single secular person who is bewildered by his/her complete lack of faith.

The only bewildered people I have found are those religious people who are willing to discuss the merits of the whatever religious beliefs they have with a complete non believer and cannot find any defence when the absolute folly of what they believe in is laid forth before them.

Unfortunately the ones willing to even discuss the merits of their religious belief are very few and far between, the majority would like to cut your head off for even a very mild observation on the absurdity of any religious position.

Posted by Vidya3049 | Report as abusive

@The moralising humanists posting above:

I really cannot believe the hypocrisy of your argument. Somehow it is perfectly okay to murder an innocent child simply because he’s not born yet (and we’ll call him a “foetus” just to remove his humanity), while it’s evil to pull a wing off a butterfly!

I suspect that if it was fluffy dogs that were having their puppies ‘aborted’ in the way that we abort human babies, then there would be an outcry about the inhumane treatment of the animal. But it appears that our need to abdicate our responsibility for the child overrides his or her right to life.

Still, I cannot condone the killing of the doctor, and nor do I know of any Christians who would say that this was morally acceptable. The doctor’s life in my opinion is just as valuable as the lives of the children he was killing – and let’s face it they are children, alive, knowing emotions and knowing pain. What is totally wrong here is the system we’re in that expects a doctor to take away life as well as protect it!

Back to religion though: the problem of religion as I see it is not the religion itself, but the ease with which it can be used to justify all manner of atrocities. But let’s face it, if a person is full of hatred, religion can be a convenient excuse for committing all manner of evil. In most cases though, it is not the religion that is at fault.

You have also neglected a great deal of good that has come about through the actions of religious people. The abolition of the slave trade is one that comes to mind, through the commitment of a group of Quakers. Similarly the Quakers were heavily involved in the industrial revolution, and by most accounts looked after their workers very well. Also many of todays most effective charities were set up by Christians.

Posted by ActionDan | Report as abusive

The whole of the well argued article and the following comments turn on the basic posit “If we cannot have certainty of faith”.

That is a big “If”.

What if I assure you that we CAN have certainty of faith?

Posted by lenlivett | Report as abusive


I really cannot believe the hypocrisy of your argument. Somehow Christian radicals like you who take it upon yourselves to collectively oppose a procedure legal under federal law.

You unilaterally and arbitrarily decide that a few non-sentient cells are of greater potential value to society than the existing life or future quality of life of a free and independent female. You demand YOUR definition of “life” be accepted without question? Please.

Doctors scrape excess cells from the reproductive organs routinely in treating indometriosis, pre-cancerous or cancerous growths. There’s SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE here already with more on the way. Who’s steering this runaway train, and to where? How many unwanted babies you gonna let come live with you in your house at your expense?

If you and all who think as you do had your way, at some point in the future you would have every female report to a clinic to surrender their eggs (so they wouldn’t be at risk in a possible accident) to all eventually fertilized and brought to term so as to cover every square inch of open ground with humans? To what purpose? What part of UNSUSTAINABLE don’t you understand?

God will provide? Guess he hasn’t visited Somalia, etc. in a few human generations. Let’s not yet give religion “credit” for the “…abolition of the slave trade…” just yet.

Slavery still exists in the world, and even in the United States out of sight and the news. Organized crime has a well developed “system” whereby under age girls are systematically exploited as prostitutes. The “commitment” of Quakers is noteworthy, as is the “commitment” of motorcycle gangs collecting and distributing toys at Xmas.

What bothers me is the “commitment” of the Crusaders, the “commitment of those involved in the Inquisition, the “commitment of those involved in the Salem witch trials, the “commitment of those who forced Galelio to recant his planetary discoveries, and countless other physical and intellectual atrocities, known and unknown throughout recorded history and prehistory.

When any person or group takes it upon themselves absolute authority they had better be ready to accept concurrent absolute responsibility and accountability. Have you ever noticed in church that no one wants to sit in the front row?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@One of the sheep – surely the crusades were nothing more than empire-building. Religious in name only!

Federal law is no great standard of ethics (unfortunately). Nowadays it appears to be more representative of the financial interests of those who hold the most power. So I wouldn’t use it as a yardstick of morality.

Posted by ActionDan | Report as abusive

All of these comments assume that there is no real God out there. Based on theological testimony that being does not like to be disbelieved in. Note that Revelations, Ezekiel & Daniel all seem to describe the current political condition quite well. Israel is back after 200 years. the mark of the beast is available at your vet and the passage “The heavens were burned in the fire” can be literally translated as the Uranium was burned in the fire” etc. Ether or not God is a being preexisting the universe or just an alien supercomputer he is becoming angry as the Christian religion falls apart. We would be advised to avoid offending a being who can throw asteroids at us. See star Wormwood in the Bible. In addition are those former priests going to work for nothing when their contract calls for “pie in the sky” One assumes that Dawkins may be a secrete agent assigned to Earth by Satanic forces. He certainly acts like one!

Posted by wgbrand | Report as abusive

I hate to hear people observe Protestant churches to be sad places. While I’m sure any kind of organization has it’s positive and negative extremes, I’m glad to see vitality in some church-related movements like People of the Second Chance and Story Chicago

Posted by scun10 | Report as abusive