Last week I was at the American Cathedral in Paris for the Conference of the Convocation of the Episcopal Church in Europe. It was a mix of things – financial reports, reports of various committees…all the usual stuff you’d expect from an AGM of a big institution. But there were also reports of what churches were doing in the face of the refugee crisis, descriptions of howthe churches were offering help to others, and an excellent keynote speaker, Professor Grace Davie from the University of Exeter.
The American Cathedral in Paris
These are my notes from some (not all) of her talks. I’m not sure how coherent they are, but she certainly made me think more than I have for quite a while – & the “break out groups” that followed each session were also interesting, although I don’t think we really came up with any solutions!
UNDERSTANDING RELIGION IN MODERN EUROPE.
The factors to take into account:
- CUTLURAL HERITAGE: This affects our time keeping (calendar, seasons, festivals…) but also the physical & cultural environment. The skyline within our cities and country is of churches not mosques. The European tradition is based around parishes, even to the extent that these are in secular affairs too (e.g. the parish council deals with non-church matters but is still based around the church parish)
- VICARIOUS RELIGION: Christianity is a religion performed by an active minority on behalf of a larger group who tacitly approve/understand the minority action (C of E in the UK) Compares with an iceberg – the “visible church” is the tip; what is going on below the surface?
HOW IS THIS DEMONSTRATED?
- By performing rituals on behalf of others – the church is expected to serve the needs of the community (rites & rituals – wedding, funeral etc) even if you don’t take part.
- By believing on behalf of others
- By embodying moral codes – Child abuse is bad, but seen as so much worse if carried out by a member of a faith community. Trust is broken
- By offering space for debate on behalf of others – people still pay attention to what the Church is saying
- THE CHANGE IN CHURCH GOING: from obligation to consumption
There used to be an obligation to go to church/to be part of the church community. It was either inherited or imposed. Now it has become – for the most part – a matter of personal choice.
The church needs to become “worthwhile” – needs to persuade people that it is worth coming to.
Example: Infant baptism is no longer a sign of being “English” but a commitment to the faith community.
Interestingly the two denominations which are growing are not, as expected, the liberal middle-of-the-road church, but rather
- Charismatic evangelical churches
- Cathedral/city centre churches
Both of these are experiential demonstrations of faith, not just cerebral.
- NEW ARRIVALS: Examples of “waves”:
- 60s/70s – expanding economies
- 90s demographic changes (Ireland’s economy suddenly rising)
- 2004+ Economic migration from eastern Europe to western Europe
- 2015 Current refugee crisis
These have affected church as different denominations become more popular. Christians from global south have also changed perceptions of worship/faith.
The significance of Islam cannot be ignored, as the reopening of debate on religion means that the profile of the church & religion in general rises.
In Europe secularised populations (that is, those lacking a “religious literacy” or knowledge) are forced to debate issues such as the wearing of the burkha, minarets in Switzerland, cartoons which can be viewed as blasphemous…
Religion in public discussion is becoming more prominent, but the vocabulary/tools/concepts to do this effectively is being lost, and debate becomes ill-informed and ill-mannered. Religious literacy needs to be restored – but how?
- SECULAR ALTERNATIVES:
In Britain there has been a rise in “militant atheism” who claim that “religion is corrosive”. They are anti-religion; very fundamental. However Europe is an exceptional case, as large parts of the world are still as “furiously religious as ever
WELFARE & RELIGION IN EUROPE – How the church is/should be involved.
The church has always been involved in public welfare – be it on a parish or individual level. Now, a rise in the public profile of the welfare state, and on the demands made of it, + increasing secularization has led to instability, as more is asked of fewer people.
From 1945 onwards religion & welfare began to become divergent, although the separation is not as clear cut as one might imagine. As the welfare state struggles across Europe, so the Church picks up some of the slack.
The Welfare state is facing economic problems (not enough money), demographic problems (we are living too long!) and political pressures.
- Finland – went through a recession after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they lost a proportion of the Russian market. Many men, aged 50+, had no hope of work. The Church has been recognised for its work with those made redundant.
- UK – post Thatcher, the “Big Society” view of voluntary work means that a disproportionate number of those working in the voluntary sector are church goers, who have a more open view of “working for others for nothing”. Some highly responsible posts work like this – school governors, parish council workers etc.
- FRANCE – the idea of “laicity” as a political doctrine has meant that the Church has been marginalised, but now looks after the marginalised.
Within Europe there is the prevailing view that the state “should” look after the welfare state, but it is “a good thing” that the Church is there.
There is a dual role for the Church in modern life:
- As provider
- As a prophetic voice
But the question remains: is it possible to be both if the funding that allows you to provide comes from the state?
These are my notes, but, if you are interested, there is a much better summary of her thinking to be found here.
Taken from this report is an excellent summary of what this Conference was about:
Grace Davies’ message is both exciting and challenging for Christians in cities today. It means that we should expect increasing skepticism and perhaps greater opposition. Gone is that great “canopy” of nominal Christians who were not personally devout but who thought religion was a good thing and important for society — and who were not very difficult to draw into Christian churches. On the other hand, contemporary people have the same intuitions of God and sin and spiritual longings for love, meaning, and grace that their ancestors did. People will hear the same message and some say, “You are mad!” (Acts 26:24) while others will be cut to the heart and ask, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).