I THOUGHT it would be a largely American piece this week, partly
because I am in Fes, Morocco, where the world looks different.
Through the eyes of Google, nothing happened in the Church of
England this week. Some people will suppose that this is further
proof of Google's resemblance to God.
There were a few stories about English bishops. Among them the
Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Egan, who thinks that his
clergy must "improve their people skills". My fastiduous mind
quivers at this, since I had imagined that people rather than
"people skills" were the things on which a Christian needed to
concentrate. But what do I know?
I hadn't even realised that, as the Bishop went on to say,
"state-enforced relativism" was "victimising the weak, the elderly,
family life, moral values, Catholics, the unborn and the dying". As
evangelistic slogans go, there might be something catchier than
"Join us: we're being victimised."
PERHAPS you could look to Austin, Texas, whence the New York
Times carried a charming story about a formerly Chinese
Evangelical church that had joined a primarily Swedish Lutheran
group because both sides wanted to expand their horizons. The
result was a group of about 200 people meeting in a former
restaurant, which had had to close down owing to the prevalence of
gunfire in the neighbourhood. The volunteers cleaned it up and
turned it into a community centre.
The pastor fits right in: "Mr Tsang sports arm tattoos and the
modish, buzzed-on-the-sides, long-on-top haircut that many young
men who request it call 'the Hitler Youth'.
"Space 12 is one large room, with comfortable chairs scattered
about. Mr Tsang preaches from a stool, like a slam poet intimate
with his audience. The books for the prisoner project line one
wall. There are no crosses, although 'Resurrection' is spelled in
red thread strung between nails."
There is the obligatory story about how it was theology that
attracted new worshippers: "When Leena Pacak, now 33, was growing
up, her parents were non-observant Hindus. She said that before
becoming a Christian, she had to overcome negative impressions
about Evangelicals, who always seemed to be intertwined with the
But the real hook was right up high in the lead of the story.
"The volunteer baristas showed up an hour before worship services
to make locally sourced coffee in the vaunted Chemex system,
beloved of connoisseurs. To enhance the Java-snob appeal, no milk
or sugar was provided. 'It's a purist thing,' one barista
That is the kind of doctrinal exclusivity that stands a chance
of making converts.
The other notable thing about that story is that it shows up
just how very racially segregated American Protestantism remains,
when a church of 200 people becomes newsworthy because it is wholly
Meanwhile, in Boston, the Roman Catholic diocese is moving
towards the kind of reconstruction that will become increasingly
common across mainstream Churches in the next decades, unless
something can be done to enthuse worshippers. A long story in
Commonweal Magazine traces the problem back to
the sex-abuse scandals of the early '90s, which hit Boston
"Boston Catholics had built a parallel set of institutions -
schools, hospitals, retirement homes, social-welfare agencies - to
meet the spiritual, physical, and social needs of their people, and
of the poor among them.
"Today only one in six Boston Catholics attends mass regularly.
The network of Catholic hospitals across eastern Massachusetts is
gone - sold in 2010 to private equity giant Cerberus Capital
Management (recently in the news for owning the company that makes
the rifle used in the Newtown massacre)."
The reason for all this is terribly simple. The diocese, even in
its days of pomp, relied on a special collection for the central
administration. After the child-abuse scandal broke, the faithful
just stopped paying. "Angry priests signing letters and unhappy
laity issuing statements and holding demonstrations are one thing.
But the precipitous financial decline of the fourth largest diocese
in the United States is quite another. Bankruptcy appeared
imminent. By the end of the year, Cardinal Law was gone."
There is in this, perhaps, a relevance to England. I don't mean
that there are any comparable scandals here: simply that the Church
is, ultimately, a voluntary organisation, sustained by the
conviction that its members do more than get victimised. It's very
common to say that small vibrant churches are better than big
moribund ones. That's as may be. The difference that matters is
that small vibrant ones may survive.