This morning I was speaking with a very elderly priest about the changes taking place within the Church and – more broadly – within religion itself.
He had noted the smaller sizes of congregations and said he thought the ‘size’ of the Church would continue to diminish. But he was – like me – certain that the Holy Spirit is as alive and active today as at Pentecost, that He is very much in charge and that He knows what He is doing.
I didn’t disagree.
Like this priest – and probably like every priest and almost all the congregations out there – I have seen the smaller numbers of people attending Church each week. While those numbers increased to a degree with the lifting of the restrictions associated with the pandemic, they have not returned to their pre-covid levels. And I do not believe they will do so. I suspect that is the general consensus.
So why might this be?
I don’t think the pandemic or the restrictions it placed upon us are “the reason” – rather, I think they exacerbated the underlying reason. There are, I think, various strands or groups of people and their responses were determined in some way by the group to which they belong.
The first group are those for whom religious practice was perhaps habit but not necessarily anything deeper than this. For these people, finding themselves unable to physically participate in Mass, many of them did not (for whatever reason) engage in the ‘online’ broadcasts of Mass which became so common while we were all stuck in our homes. And for these people, the ‘habit’ part of their religious practice was broken – perhaps forever. Sundays were no longer associated with Mass and other activities took it’s place. Thinking about this is in no way intended as any sort of judgement on these people or their motivations.
The second group were perhaps what might be called “the final straw” participants. For these, the loss of Mass attendance was something of a final step in their dissociation with the life of the Church. These people may, for example, have been disenfranchised by other events related to the Church. It is hard to continue to remain a part of a Church whose darkest secrets are being constantly unearthed after the decades of truly awful and on-going abuse scandals. It is equally hard to stay put when one considers the Church to be the living embodiment of hypocrisy – preaching one thing strenuously from the pulpit whilst doing the opposite in private. And so the break from regular attendance at Mass might actually have been in some sense ‘convenient’ – it provided an ostensible or ‘socially acceptable’ reason for the break to occur – it is easier to make such a break if you are one of many, rather than standing alone. Again, thinking about this is in no way intended to be a judgement on these people or their motivations.
A third group are those continuing to practice their faith. This group is not in any way ‘better’ than the preceding groups, in the same way those first two groups are not in any way ‘worse’ or ‘lesser’ than this third group. This third group continue their religious practice for a variety of reasons, probably best known to themselves. They may truly believe the faith they practice and actively want to continue to express it through their participation in the life of the Church. Or they may, like some of the others, be struggling – but not to the extent that they move into one of the other groups.
Whether or not there is any accuracy in my surmising about this, I do not know. I could be completely wrong and the reasons might be altogether different.
Earlier I had mentioned that the pandemic was not “the reason” for what is happening, that there was something deeper underlying the changes we are undoubtedly seeing.
I can’t help but think there is – rightly or wrongly – a broad view that the Church is in some way irrelevant to the life of the world in the 21st century. It can often seem that the Church is really out of step with the world in which it is situated, and the lives of the people living in that world. And further, that there is an irrevocable reluctance for the Church to even consider trying to bring these two realities – Church and World – any closer to one another. Placed in such a dichotomy, many have voted with their feet and walked out the Church doors for the final time.
This is almost certainly exacerbated by the perceived loss of the moral authority of the Church – which has, for so very long now, not only committed the most atrocious crimes against children and adults, but has then covered up such crimes, putting institutional reputation and financial liability far above those victims and the importance of an authentic morality. The sheer number of such atrocities has helped convince many that there are not rotten apples in the barrel – it seems that it is the barrel itself which is rotten. Coupled with this is the sense of hypocrisy noted above – of the Church saying one thing while doing something entirely different. The Church is different from other institutions – people expect it to have a deep morality and to show an existential authenticity. And so, when the people see some bishops and priests living in anything other than an authentic manner which reflects their public utterances, this causes a wound in the life of faith which – if not able to find a way to heal or to resolve – can quickly progress to a very real fracture between the individual and the Church.
People have all sorts of reasons for being part of the Church – and they have all sorts of reasons for choosing to be part of the Church no longer.
I have sometimes heard people speak about the individualistic nature of belief and worship – that the practice of any kind of faith or religion is between the individual person and the God in which they believe, Christian or otherwise. And yet, at least as far as the Christian faith is concerned, it is very much a communal practice – we are a community of individual believers. And an authentic practice of faith requires both personal belief and communal practice of it.
Although I can write about my views on all of this, I have no solutions to offer – I just don’t think it’s as easy as that. In fact, I think it is anything but easy. I wonder if the Church is in a time of enormous transition of some sort; that, out of the present crises of one kind and another, something ‘new’ will emerge.
Or, as I heard it put recently – “the Church will have a new face”.