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Higher attendances: is something happening?

11 January 2012

Alan Billings draws a tentative conclusion from the increased numbers of worshippers this Christmas

Many clerics reported an increase in numbers attending Christmas ser­vices last month (News, 30 Decem­ber). Given the appalling weather of 2010, this may not be surprising, but it is not the first year that numbers seem to have increased. It may, therefore, mark the beginning of something significant.

We need to proceed with caution in analysing this. A year or two of rising numbers at one big festival may not be sustained in future years, and we are in the realm of impres­sions as much as hard evidence. But let me make three observations and then draw a tentative conclusion.

First, in the churches where I either ministered or attended, as well as increased numbers there seems to have been an inflow of younger worshippers — people in their 20s and 30s. Perhaps this is not surprising at a Christingle, when parents are bringing their children; but it seems remarkable at a more traditional carol service or a Christ­mas eucharist. These people were there for their own sakes.

Having children is clearly an important moment for some adults who might previously have dismissed organised religion. Now they have to make choices for their children as well — and sometimes they hesitate. This is not just around the time of birth, but at other moments, too. Here I am more reliant on what those non-believers who are also journal­ists and commentators have said in recent weeks.

Alain de Botton, for example, told us on Christmas Eve in the Guardian Weekend that he was brought up in a “devoutly atheistic household”, where the family did not keep Christmas at all, but rather exchanged presents in an anti-Christmas spirit in August.

Yet he has been undergoing a “crisis of faithlessness”, which started one Christmas. He and his wife have gradually celebrated it — with a tree and a traditional dinner — and now he has no problem with his children singing of the love of Jesus with gusto. As he says, having children “brings atheists into line like nothing else”.

This brings me to the second observation. I suspect that the article that de Botton wrote, and the tone in which he wrote it, would not have been possible even three years ago. The wrath of Richard Dawkins was surely so feared at that time that no unbeliever could have said, as de Botton has now done, that a carol service brought him close to conversion. What may be happen­ing is a falling back from the high-water mark of strident atheism.

Another non-believing journalist, Janice Turner, writing in The Times, said that she felt a distaste for aggres­sive forms of secularism be­cause it offended her secular toler­ance. She even declared that the late Chris­topher Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great (News, 23 Decem­ber; Books, 6 July 2007) was “a monotone, un­readable harangue”. This is a sig­nificant breaking of ranks.

De Botton is no less an unbeliever, but he is now one who is prepared to reflect more positively on religion. Indeed, he is publishing a book later this month, Religion for Atheists, which seeks to explain the impor­tance of aspects of religion for nour­ishing the human spirit, and how atheists can appropriate these for themselves.

None of this, however, fully explains why this has begun to happen only recently, which brings me to a third observation. Many atheists are becoming concerned at the speed with which much community life is beginning to disappear as a result of the worsening financial situation. In many places, rural and urban, churches, especially parish churches, are proving to be among the few resilient local groups — although they do struggle.

Simon Jenkins, a religious sceptic, writing two days before Christmas, declared that “the parish church is thus the one building in any neigh­bourhood that is worth saving.” He even went as far as to say that he would have no difficulty with some equivalent of the European “church tax” in order to maintain it.

His reasons for doing so were both aesthetic (it is often the most beautiful building in its area), and for its “emotional centrality” in com­mun­­ities. It continues to be used at sig­ni­ficant moments of life and death, for mourning and celebration. This is of growing importance when other groups fade, “as government continues to enervate communal life”.

Jenkins recognises that a church building is more than a historic shell: it is a living place, and one that re­quires a group of people to maintain it and make it available for those occasions that bring individuals and communities together.

What all this amounts to is a distancing from the strident atheism associated with Dawkins and Hit­chens, and a growing feeling that this has been destructive. This has been an uncomfortable period for believers, even if there does now seem to be growing evidence that a tide has turned. We can expect to hear less now about how “religion poisons everything” (as Hitchens believed), and more about how, if organised religion were to be lost, something of human value would be lost along with it.

Something is indeed happening, although the evidence so far does not allow us to say too much. We do need, however, to prepare ourselves for the unexpected. There may not be any big surge in Sunday attendances, but there may be more occasional visits and explorations.

There will almost certainly be an increased appreciation of the parish church and its place in contributing to community cohesion, as well as the social value of the clergy as people who can be turned to when the emotions of families and com­munities need to be managed.

Without denying the seri­ous­ness of general church decline, it still remains true that, as another atheist writer, John Canter, confessed last year: “We are not a religiously observant nation — except when it counts.”

Canon Alan Billings’s latest book, Making God Possible, is pub­lished by SPCK.

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