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Is Christian language to blame for falling church attendance?

18 January 2019

Perhaps it’s time to change the script, write Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe


Tracey Emin’s For You, in Liverpool Cathedral

Tracey Emin’s For You, in Liverpool Cathedral

CHRISTIANS talk in code. They are not alone: the same is true of chemists, chiropractors, and cricket commentators. Code is a handy shorthand for those who can decrypt it. It can even be reassuring. Dot, dash, dot-dot-dash. If someone replies in the same code, we know we are being understood.

But, simultaneously, the code excludes those who cannot read the secret language. Perhaps that is the intention, or perhaps we simply cannot admit that, while we think we are speaking with clarity, in fact we’re talking gibberish.

And code also quickly descends into cliché: a language we automatically tune out of. When the cricketing pundit Geoffrey Boycott first used the term “the corridor of uncertainty” to describe the passage of a fast ball whistling close to the off stump, it was refreshing, even poetic. Now it’s a dreary Test Match Special mantra.

In 2017, Anglican clergy received a letter signed by the two Archbishops and, presumably, written by someone on their behalf, promoting the ten-day prayer initiative Thy Kingdom Come. The letter began: “Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world. He brings us hope. Christian disciples are made alive by his saving grace in the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to this living hope.”

And so it continued; addressing people who are theoretically proficient in churchspeak, its message encased in a lead-lined coffin of cliché, purporting to say something important, but reading like something cut and pasted from a Common Worship phrasebook. “Thy Kingdom Came and Went”.

WE NEED to mind our language. Especially when trying to talk about the big questions of life and love, faith and doubt. In 2018, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 52 per cent of people said that they had no religion. Of those aged between 18 and 24, the figure was 70 per cent (News, 14 September 2018).

Consider these striking statistics, and then the experience of a 50-something Christian couple last December, who took their 20-something offspring, home for Christmas, to an Anglican church service.

“That’s the last time I’ll ever take anyone there,” one of the parents reported. “There was no attempt to enliven the story; no interest in engaging our attention. The liturgy was lifeless, and the language flat. I was embarrassed that I’d asked everyone along.”

Sometimes, the gatekeepers of the Church display a counter-productive sense of entitlement about their place in the grand scheme of things: an assumption that, because the venerable vocabulary could not be at fault, the problem must be with those who refuse to take time to engage with it, those who refuse to learn to speak the received pronunciation of God.

Beyond the falling numbers of those who might still read the code, words such as “sin”, “salvation”, “discipleship”, “repentance”, “righteousness”, and “judgement” were never more in need of deciphering. Or recasting.

AS SELF-SUPPORTING Anglican priests, earning our keep from writing and broadcasting, we spend much of our time with people for whom institutional religion is rarely on the radar. This includes many close relatives. We tend to think that the problem is ours, not theirs. It is worth reflecting on the reasons why the grown-up children of so many churchgoing people no longer find a home in church as they once did.

Our experience is that most of the people who do not do, or get, religion have not closed the door on life’s big questions. Recent research by the Pew Center found that most American “nones” (people who said they had no religion) said that the most important reasons they were unaffiliated were “I question a lot of religious teachings,” and “I don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues”. A minority (37 per cent of agnostics and 21 per cent of “nothing in particulars”) cited a lack of belief in God.

These will include people who explore mindfulness, practise yoga, or immerse themselves in the natural word; people who devote themselves to volunteering, or vocations focused on making the world a slightly more welcoming home.

But they find themselves adrift from the traditions, rituals, and tribal stories that may once have provided the trellis upon which their spiritual longings could climb. And many find that the religious vocabulary that they can understand is freighted with an implausible sense of dogmatic certainty.

In Lifelines: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt, we tried to join others in looking for a vernacular that might chime with people’s ordinary experiences and instincts, their anxiety and their hope (Books for Christmas, 30 November).

For instance, the release that comes when we confess that we fail each other, that we fail ourselves, and, on a good day, we can both see it and state it. That is not the same as tarring all humanity with the smear that “There is no health in us . . . miserable offenders.”

Perhaps our words could make it clearer that God is not male, a member of the Church of England, or even a Christian. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, our language and liturgy should “in humility and joyfulness acknowledge that the supernatural and divine reality we all worship in some form or other transcends all our particular categories of thought and imagining”.

Has our calling to love our neighbour as ourselves been better put than by the novelist Alice Walker, who said: “Activism is our rent for living on this planet”?

Has the surprising and unpredictable nature of our religious pilgrimage been more wisely put than by Professor Brené Brown, who said: “Faith is not an epidural, but a midwife.”

WRITING in the New York Times, the American author and pastor Jonathan Merritt noted that, even in a country where 70 per cent of people called themselves Christian, more and more people were reluctant to talk about faith, because it created arguments or sounded weird or extremist.

In his book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why sacred words are vanishing — and how we can revive them (Convergent), Merritt suggests cultivating a new kind of language. “Speaking God from scratch means planting the vocabulary of faith in the fertile soil of the present moment so it can come back to life and even grow into something more beautiful than we can imagine.”

Sometimes, that means speaking less to communicate more. What would it be like if churches dropped the sermon one Sunday a month in favour of ten minutes of communal silence? Or offered routes into practising the ways of faith rather than simply reciting them? Or ways to collaborate in doing justice without joining Sunday worship?

In researching our book, we discovered that younger people, in particular, were less interested in belief and more interested in practice. And, as the community theologian Ann Morisy has pointed out, Jesus did not say “I speak the way,” or “I believe the way.” He said “I am the way.”

PERHAPS we need to stop trying to say so much, asking people to believe so much. Faith is “a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy”, Karen Armstrong says. It is “not about accepting 20 impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you”.

This calls for a language that sings to us from now, not just from then. And asks those who hold power in the Church in telling the old, old story to give some of the power away, and invite others to tell it in a new way. Although our Lifelines often feature sacred text from different religious traditions, it is songwriters, poets, and novelists who provide some of the most resonant wisdom.

It is not about dumbing down the story, or keeping it simple; but, for people wary of religion, it is about cadence, allusion, and mystery. . .

. . . And about sparking recognition. As one reader, who calls herself an atheist, wrote, “I have found myself saying ‘Oh, yeah, I get that.’”

Lifelines: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt by Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe is published by Unbound at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop).

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