I read in the Telegraph that one in six young people in the UK self-identify as Christian; of those a significant proportion say they made their decision following a visit to a church. Not to a service, just to the building.
This seems odd to me. Not that visiting churches is not, at least sometimes, a deeply moving experience for me (and so I can conceive that it might affect others that way, despite my gut feeling that the young tend to be drawn to the kind of noisy and chaotic worship which I find it difficult to relate to). We have a multitude of amazing church buildings in this country, and not just the Cathedrals (which, in another article, seem to be doing very well). My home town (Selby) has a particularly fine specimen
(Selby Abbey) which has often been a source of uplift to me, usually when nearly empty of visitors. Visitors often refer to it as a cathedral, though it is not and has never been one.
No, my confusion starts with the fact that regular attendance in Anglican churches is, it seems, only 1.4% of the population (and the Church of England remains the largest denomination, although the Catholics may be nipping at their heels). Total church attendance is only around the 5% mark, and in my experience tends strongly away from being youthful! Where are these young people going to, if they are actually, as the article suggests “practising” Christians? Are they staying at home and being “spiritual but not religious”? Should they actually be included if that is all they are doing? Are there a host of “home churches” among the young which are invisible to me? I hear nothing to indicate that there are.
It continues with the fact that what I see as a correct interpretation is that “church” designates a body of people, a community of worshippers, and not the pile of stone and mortar which decorates our town centre. In my view, the piles of stone are often a distraction from the business of being a Christian community, i.e. a church – often the maintenance of the structure soaks up an unreasonable amount of both church funds and the vicar’s time. That is certainly the case with the Abbey, whose maintenance costs are phenomenal (though significantly aided by tourist income). The early, pre-Constantinian church (which I’m fairly confident got Christianity more right than has since been the case) didn’t have imposing buildings, met in private houses and catacombs and grew like topsy; despite the fact that it was in general harmful to your health to be a Christian, people flocked to the new religion – and that fact alone tends to indicate to me that they were genuinely committed believers.
The same cannot be said for the period during which the great Churches of Britain were constructed; it was compulsory to be Christian (and thus there was no problem in funding the extravagant architecture. There’s no way of knowing what percentage actually were committed believers rather than reluctant funders of a building boom. There’s a falsity about that which I recoil from.
And yet the survey indicates that the buildings themselves are bringing people to some form of belief.
I was brought up Methodist, and know no Methodist churches which are uplifting in the same way as, for instance, the Abbey. That might have had a small influence on the fact that I am now Anglican (though a much larger one is the relative tolerance of Anglicanism for liberal and radical theology). But the impulse which led so many nonconformists to build boring buildings is one which I tend to agree with – the building should, surely, be secondary, a functional meeting place but not something on which to spend funds better applied to furthering the social gospel.
I’m torn. Perhaps I should reconsider whether the creation of beauty is something which might, just, sometimes trump caring for the poor and needy? I never agreed with the sentiment of the “Stripping of the Altars” which happened under Henry VIII and his successors, trying to reduce the magnificence of existing churches to Protestant functionality; maybe I can appreciate those churches we have, while I would argue very strongly against building any more (at least until world poverty is eliminated).