Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 17 September 2023

... as Christian does

Much has been made of the recent Times survey of the clergy and its conclusion (built on the somewhat sandy foundation of a 25% response rate) that Britain is no longer a Christian country.

Our distant rural forebears charted the year by the Christian festivals - Lent, Easter, Lady Day, Lammastide and so on - and attended church services as a matter of course but, for the most part, religion as practised by the general population of England was, as Elizabeth I pithily expressed it, not a matter for ‘making windows into men’s souls’ as long as they observed the correct rituals and obeyed the law of the land.

This tolerance, however, will not do for today’s C of E, at least in the experience of one of the elders of Clan Macheath. She isn’t religious but believes strongly in the importance of the village church both as a vital part of the local heritage and a hub at the centre of a small community; for her, it’s always been a clear case of ‘use it or lose it’, supported by a keen appreciation of ecclesiastical architecture, choral music and the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.

For years, she attended Matins (but not Communion) most Sundays, helped with the various flower festivals, fetes and celebrations and placed her widow’s mite in the collection plate, but that’s all over now thanks to what she calls ‘the P45 sermon’, in which the vicar made it clear that those who do not actively profess sincerely-held Christian beliefs should not be attending services - non-Communicants especially should get confirmed or stay away.

Quite apart from the incongruity of a supposedly Christian church telling people they are not welcome, it seems more than a little short-sighted to alienate members of the already-sparse congregation. The original impetus seems to have come from the Diocese, but this particular vicar seems to be pinning his hopes on recruiting the young; toys litter the side aisles, even though there are only ever a tiny handful of small children in evidence, and the church has expensive new amplifiers for electric guitars.

When the church closed for lockdown - a massive error of judgement; aside from the obvious spiritual considerations, the high ceilings and under-floor heating meant it was probably the safest indoor space in the area - the vicar confined his ministry to Zoom calls and WhatsApp, ignoring the many elderly parishioners, including the bereaved, who weren’t online; my relative and her friends asked around but found no one who had received a phone call from him, let alone a socially-distanced visit in person.*

Faced with this desertion in a time of need, a mutual support network evolved within the churchgoing community and extended its sphere into the wider village; parishioners checked up on each other, ran errands and passed on news of where help was needed or where a phone chat might lift someone’s spirits. Several of the people who kept this going throughout lockdown and beyond are among those now cast out by the vicar for being insufficiently evangelical or for the sin of not having being confirmed in childhood.

In this question of faith or good works, who, I wonder, is actually living according to Christian principles?

*By way of a contrast, a recent newspaper article described a vicar who, for as long as the churches were closed, made himself available to all by sitting outside his church door for three hours every Sunday, rain or shine..

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