IT IS more than 20 years since Grace Davie coined the phrase “believing without belonging” to describe the discrepancy between relatively robust figures for religious belief and the dramatic decline in attendance at organised religious services.
The other side of the coin is that that decline has left many people lacking a sense of belonging which might previously have been filled by church, even if they are hazy or antagonistic towards ideological belief, religious or otherwise. We should remember that church attendance is by no means the only declining corporate activity in post-war Britain.
Into that vacuum very often comes sport. A recent article in The Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty highlighted one particular modern-day phenomenon: Parkrun, a charity that organises more than 500 park running events in the UK every week (and an increasing number overseas).
This filling of the vacuum is self-conscious. “It is the new church,” Karen Weir, who started the Richmond Parkrun, told The Guardian. “The idea of the community has broken down. People don’t go to church any more. But here you come together with a load of people.” The article relates the almost biblical and touching miracle of the 41-year-old partially sighted man who, depressed and overweight, started running. Seven years later, 60 kilos lighter, having gained a wife and overcome his depression, he is about to enter his third marathon.
KEY to Parkrun’s success is its markedly non-profit non-corporate volunteer ethos. Its initiator, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, started Parkrun in the same year as Facebook, but, despite its now global reach, it has only 23 employees. This is because volunteers worked for more than a million hours last year organising the runs.
In a post-Green-report Church of England, which some have criticised for its corporate style mini-MBA approach to senior leadership training, Parkrun reminds us of the vitality and innovative potential of the non-corporate, volunteer-based sector, of which the Church was once the largest national example. Innovation is often thought to be a high-budget, private-enterprise activity, though, as has been pointed out, often much of the budget goes into the marketing department, educating the consumer into wanting the new things that are on offer on this year’s mobile-handset release.
Consider, though, that the fifth most-visited website in the world, where people go for information, is volunteer contributor-led Wikipedia — which employs 300 people — and that in sixth place is its corporate rival Yahoo, which employs 8600. This should lead to a reassessment of the potential for truly creative innovation outside of the large corporates. Or consider Freecycle, operating in 110 countries, with 5000 groups, and 9.4 million members with a payroll of two. Here, we see also the huge economic benefits of the non-profit volunteer-based sector.
These benefits do not show up in GDP figures because no money changes hands; and, indeed, maybe to the detriment of GDP, because people will be happy with a perfectly serviceable secondhand sofa rather than a new one out of the factory.
Parkrun also reminds the Church of qualities that perhaps it ought to embody but has become rather lazy about — such as not worrying too much about hierarchy, and allowing local groups largely to self-organise.
OF COURSE, there needs also to be a word of warning. Any group can offer some of the benefits that are offered by a church or a park run, regardless of ideology. Hitler Youth no doubt offered a sense of camaraderie and plenty of invigorating outdoor activity. Religious cults offer the former, if not so much of the latter.
Parkrun is laudable, but it is not church. Perhaps that is one reason that the Evangelical wing of the Church is successful. Alongside the sense of community and belonging, it offers a clear set of beliefs that determine its purpose and function. In my experience, people like to form community as a collateral benefit of a group which none the less has a purpose: sporting, religious, knitting, or collecting.
It is that sense of something in common which allows community to happen. Coming together just for the sake of coming together is rarely as effective. The Church does not need to soft-pedal its purpose as a distinctively worshipping and serving community to attract people to it.
Parkrun is not a religious organisation. It is there to foster well-being in its widest sense. What it has in common with religion is a concern for human flourishing. In its innovative, vigorous, volunteer-based non-corporate approach, it exemplifies many of the strengths of church at its best — strengths that, sometimes, the Church itself seems only too willing to forget.
The Revd Dr David Munchin is Team Rector in the Welwyn Team Ministry, in the diocese of St Albans.
The founder of Parkrun, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, will deliver the 369th Lion Sermon during a service at St Katharine Cree, Leadenhall Street, in London, on Thursday 18 October, at 1 p.m. All are welcome. More information here.