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Is Paris still worth a mass?

29 November 2019

France is casually dubbed the most secular country in Europe. But the picture is a little more complex, Pat Ashworth suggests


Young people praying with candles and banners during an evening of prayer and songs the day after the Notre Dame fire in April

Young people praying with candles and banners during an evening of prayer and songs the day after the Notre Dame fire in April

WHEN it comes to looking at the future of Christianity across the Channel, statistics on the decline of church attendance give little cause for optimism. France is casually dubbed the most secular country in Europe.

But two national events in recent months have reignited the conversation about the true depth of the country’s adherence to its Christian roots, and what laïcité really means, in a climate in which only a very small proportion of declared Roman Catholics are reported habitually to attend mass.

One was the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on 15 April (News, 15 April). The French President, Emmanuel Macron, declared the building to be “our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives.”

But it was the sight of hundreds of people in their teens, twenties, and thirties gathering on the Left Bank to sing hymns that they clearly knew by heart and certainly didn’t learn at school which was a puzzle to many. After all, France has been a secular state since 1905.

Then there was the funeral of the former President Jacques Chirac in September, where observers noted the honoured and undisputed place given to the Roman Catholic Church in the state arrangements. Before the formal state funeral at St-Sulpice, a requiem mass was held, attended by heads of state and the diplomatic and military corps, as well as the government and other political leaders.

The Archbishop of Paris, Mgr Michel Aupetit, took the opportunity to highlight the place of the Church in present-day France. M. Chirac, a devout Catholic, had “focused his 1995 campaign on the theme of the social divide, thus focusing on those who remain by the roadside. One of the roles of the Church is to build fraternity, the fraternity which is one of the three pillars of our Republic.”


LAICÏTÉ has been a governing force in French politics and society since the separation of political and religious institutions in 1905. By giving religious beliefs an equal footing before the law, the move was intended to bring religious peace, says Professor Frédéric Chavel, a leading Protestant theologian. “A hundred years on, the understanding of what laïcité means has changed completely,” he suggests.

“Our researches clearly show that most people, even politicians, understand it today as driving religions back to the area of private life, and denying the right of religions to take part in the public debate and the public space.

“It’s manifested in the fact that most people in France today are indifferent to religion, and don’t regard it as something important in their lives. And when they meet someone in society who wants to integrate something religious into a decision or situation, in a school or somewhere, the non-religious French people deny very aggressively their right to have anything significant to say. That was not what the laws intended.”

Laicité is not easy to translate into a UK context. Mistranslation as “secularism” can lead to unhelpful assumptions and caricatures, the Archdeacon of France, the Ven. Meurig Williams, suggests. “It doesn’t mean that France sees itself as an irreligious state. That signifies a lack of rooting in the cultural, linguistic, and historical fabric of France — not least the distinctive way in which Christianity has become embedded in French life,” he says.

“It’s more about recognising the presence of many different religious communities, and a desire to give them all the same status.”

The language, symbolism and devotional landscape of Roman Catholicism is far from being a focus for antagonism by the state, he says, citing, among other examples, President Hollande’s declaration after the murder of a priest in 2016 (News, 29 July 2016) that “an attack on the Catholic Church is an attack on France.”

The young people who gathered at Notre-Dame after the fire knew the hymns (and harmonies) by heart, he notes. “Significantly, this was a spontaneous gathering, not something laid on by the clergy.

“Not dissimilarly, the weekly televised mass at which the Archbishop of Paris presides [always from Notre Dame before the fire, now from L’Église St-Germain] draws a large congregation with significant numbers of young people in their twenties and thirties.”


THE Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, grew up in France. She reflected after the fire at Notre-Dame that the memory of people was “not simply held in history books” but “in the very land they inhabit, in its landscapes, in its buildings (Comment, 18 April).” France had a deeply ambiguous relationship to its religious past, she suggested. “It champions secularism, and religion is discussed with mild condescension, if not outright suspicion, in public life.

“It was therefore immensely moving to hear journalists groping for words they had almost forgotten: words that speak of faith and what faith had meant to the nation over the years. Many of them were trying to put into words that sense of connection they felt to the cathedral, how moved they were to hear hymns and prayers from Christians surrounding them, and to find words that would nurture hope.”

Professor Chavel emphasises the distinction to be made between Christianity as a religion and Christendom as a socio-cultural influence. “Only a minority of French people are religiously Christian, but Christian culture is still the root of French culture,” he suggests. “So when people see Notre-Dame burning, they’re affected. . . It’s a cultural loss for all people, believers and non-believers — not just for the Catholic community.”

The misunderstanding by public authorities of laïcité as discrimination against religious observance can lead to frustration. Professor Chavel, a Lutheran pastor, teaches at the Protestant Institute of Theology (Faculty of Paris). The faculty is allied to the Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, which means students have the right to benefit from public funds — but when they seek access to the help, they can be told they are not eligible. “We too often have to show those issuing funds what the law really is, and defend the rights of our students,” he says.

PAThe start of the requiem mass for Jacques Chirac, the former French President

Now laicité has a new target. The French parliament banned conspicuous religious symbols in state schools in 2004 — something that became known as “the Islamic headscarf law” — to preserve a collective “Frenchness”, it was said. The action was seen in some quarters as the State moving from neutrality and equity about religion to an active attempt to banish religion from the public square altogether.

In 2016, pictures of French police making a woman on a beach remove some of her clothing, after a local ban on the burkini was introduced, provoked outrage in many quarters. Another woman was fined for her clothing, and given a ticket that cited a failure to wear “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. The ban in Nice referred to clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”.

France has a rising Muslim population of 5.7 million, and many saw laïcité as being deployed against Islam. The journalist Karina Piser conducted interviews about their understanding of laïcité with middle-school and high-school pupils in the greater Paris region as well as in the poor suburb of Grigny. She found a tendency to reduce it to the 2004 headscarf law, and so to see it as a limitation and not a freedom.

“But those students largely defend the principle as a guarantee of the right to believe or not believe,” she concluded. “Equally significant, though, is the sense that laïcité has been weaponised against Muslims.”


THE lack of religious education implicit in laïcité has also led to widespread ignorance. “Last century, when a group of French children went to the Louvre, they would know who the figure on the Cross was in the paintings. But now they don’t,” Professor Chavel observes. “And people who aren’t connected with religious ministry have [a false understanding] about religion. Many are understanding it through reading The Da Vinci Code. They’re not aware that it’s a novel, some fantasy of parallel history only partly based on fact. They don’t understand, and they don’t distinguish.”

Dr Stephen Bullivant, Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, has studied the decline in mass attendance (News, 23 March 2018). His study — using data from the European social survey of 2014-16 — showed only 1.8 per cent of the French population to be practising Catholics, leading him to conclude that the sense of being Christian by default was vanishing across Europe.

His survey also determined that, for many who did practise their faith, French Catholicism had become “a festive reality”, i.e. only for feast days and holidays. Just five per cent of Roman Catholics in France now attend mass regularly, and there has been a critical drop in vocations to the priesthood.

The picture is uneven, however. The pressure on sustaining church life is most visible in the rural heartlands. Archdeacon Williams and others have observed that the diocese of Paris trains about 50 seminarians in any one year, with a dozen new priests ordained every year.


THE Revd Simon Reynolds, a visiting research fellow at the University of Winchester, who has a home in France, concedes that outside Paris and other large conurbations, levels of church attendance are similar to the C of E’s. But he contends that the place of the Church, as well as the language and symbolism of faith, is far more embedded in the culture than in the UK.

“The fact that there is much less of a sacred-secular divide at popular Christian festivals is just one sign of this,” he says. “That a government committed to laïcité still makes provision for public holidays to move with the moveable feasts of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost is another.”

But more than this, and more than the growth coming from immigration, is “the much more dynamic and energising ecumenical scene in France”, he says. “Last year’s Forum Chrétien Francophone in Lyon was an impressively wide-ranging and inclusive gathering of thousands, that was able to achieve ‘differentiated consensus’ on some key areas relating to mission and cultural engagement . . . a world away from the Council of Churches model in the UK.”

Ecumenism, “vibrant and diverse”, is hard-wired into the French DNA, Archdeacon Williams suggests. “There is more to France than Roman Catholicism, even if it is the majority Church.” Locally and nationally, there is more engagement between the Churches, he says, citing also the Reformed, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Anglican, Salvation Army, and Evangelical Churches’ participation in the Forum.

“The emphasis was clearly on finding new ways of being confident about Christian identity, and also being able to converse with those who do not share our assumptions — discovering common ground, and sharing points of departure,” he says. “You are more likely in France to encounter the language of ‘Christians’ rather than denominational labels.”

Professor Chavel further observes that the young people sticking with the Roman Catholic Church are more pious and radical than those of previous generations. “The differences between this younger movement and some Pentecostal and Evangelical movements is not so great now,” he says. “People in the Catholic Church look more and more like them in wanting a strong engagement with making the country Christian again.”

How Anglicanism plugs into all this is significant, Archdeacon Williams says. “We are defined to a large degree by language, usually English. Our strategies for mission are more aligned with the cultural landscape, seeking to add our own distinctive accent to the native terroir. The Anglican instinct for being there for all people is a significant factor; and many of our congregations worship in Protestant and Catholic churches, another sign of the levels of co-operation and hospitality between us.

“We are growing, partly because the Church grows where there is migration. The diocese in Europe in France is less and less of an expat Church. Our congregations are culturally diverse and dug-in.” He points to Pas-de-Calais, where the diocese in Europe, the diocese of Canterbury, and USPG work together on both sides of the Channel supporting migrants and those vulnerable to trafficking (News, 13 April 2018). “Much is achieved with a very light ecclesial infrastructure, and on a financial shoestring. But we are in very good heart.”

Religion must be taken seriously in the public square, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, concludes. “Religion works at the level of people’s deepest motivations,” he says. “It can inspire people to the highest goals, or drive them to acts of violence. The Christian religion has shaped the development of European identity, contributes to social cohesion and gives people a sense of ‘something much bigger than me’.

“Far from religion dying out, the number of religious people in the world is increasing, and religion is becoming ever more important in world affairs.”

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