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Angela Tilby: Emptied-out belief leads to empty pews    

29 September 2023


THE writer A. N. Wilson went to an Anglo-Catholic church in London last month for the Exaltation of the Cross, and was wowed by the music, the incense, the processions — and the large numbers. “Christianity”, he reflected later in The Times, “is a very strange and a very difficult faith.” A more recent piece by Dan Hitchens, in The Spectator, describes the fastest-growing churches in the UK as Pentecostal, and says that the Orthodox are also doing well. Meanwhile, as we all know, mainstream churches are in serious decline.

Hitchens observes that the churches that are growing are those that offer what he calls “full-fat” Christianity and an unashamedly supernaturalist world-view. If he’s right, then perhaps the churches that are declining are those that have turned our “very strange and very difficult faith” into something less spiritually nutritious, something essentially this-worldly and moralistic, in which the bulk of the sermon time is given to social criticism, at the expense of God and the soul.

I have always hoped that encouraging people to tag along to church, whether through beautiful music or good pastoral care, would gradually bring them to the full-fat faith that I actually believe in; but it rarely does.

At my end of the C of E, everyone remains very polite, tolerant, and a bit disconnected. It is just slightly embarrassing to speak directly about God. But those who join growing churches take on an interventionist God, a Jesus who works miracles today, a Spirit who delivers revelation. Same-sex marriage and the exposure of covert misogyny do not appear to be priorities. While I often listen to well-meaning sermons about our duty to the poor and the marginalised, those who actually are poor and marginalised may be finding a more congenial spiritual home at the Elim church round the corner.

At least half of me thinks that the supernaturalists are right, and that, if we are serious about our faith, we need to question the secular habits of thought that took over our theology in the 1960s, and get to grips with the metaphysical aspects of Christian faith.

This means a readiness to recognise that this world and this life are not all that there is. This temporal world is full of unseen presences and powers, both good and evil, and the conflict between them runs through the human heart.

If our emptying churches are the result of an emptied-out belief, it would be wise to return to the sources. In scripture, the angels are represented as a divine hierarchy charged by God to warn, instruct, and encourage us in the only thing that really matters: the age-old cosmic struggle between good and evil. The feast of St Michael and All Angels, celebrated today, reminds us that there is more going on in this strange universe of ours than the mindless interplay of atoms and molecules.

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