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.