Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Church Times: Can we serve the cultural Christians who have left the Church? Christmas 2012

In a meeting I attended last week with women clergy from around the London area, it was marked how, after Synod voted against women Bishops, many Priests have been contacted by ‘cultural Christians’ who have hitherto attended weddings, christenings and funerals, possibly Midnight Mass with their families, but now either wish to be involved or simply felt they could make contact with the church. Many felt inspired that out of this difficult situation, we seem to have been given a rare chance to rebuild our ministry and become relevant to these people’s lives once again.
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A number of these people probably formed the 70% in the 2011 census done by YouGov to complement the ONS census, who described themselves as having been brought up as Christian, but have sought spiritual guidance and sustenance elsewhere or not at all. And though generations of work has been dedicated to this area of ministry, it seems clear that if we are to grasp this opportunity we need to re-examine why people have not been able to find what they are looking for in a tradition as rich and varied as our own.
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The most common reason people have given for not attending Church regularly is that they see religion as one of the main causes of destructive behaviour, both in history and around the world today. Religion is often in the news, if not the direct cause of conflict, then pervading or even appearing to condone unacceptable social or political situations. And somehow since 9/11 and then 7/11, the dark side of our Christian history is remembered more fully or religion in general and people on the street seem to have become even more concerned that in attending Church, they would align themselves with that record.
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Some people have therefore searched for a God which is ‘beyond organised religion’ so they can simplify their faith and begin to relate to a transpersonal divinity. When asked about their faith, many would reply ’ I am not religious but I am spiritual.’ They have searched through meditation, mindfulness, self-examination, alternative healing and westernised Eastern traditions, which appear to have left their own political histories aside.
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And yet, we have a long heritage of exploring spirituality vividly shown in the work of people such as the Desert Fathers and Monastic orders, who have developed meditation in different ways; generations of teaching on spiritual experience, mindfulness and a simple yet profound unity with the divine. We have works from from Gregory of Nazianzus to Ignatius of Loyola to Julian of Norwich to Bede Griffiths. So why is it that we struggle to minister to these people in this way?
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One person was asked if he would attend a meditation class in his lunch break at the church and he replied ‘No because they would force their prayers on me at the same time and I don’t trust them.’ And I wonder if we have underestimated the trust that needs to be rebuilt for people to be able receive what is inherently their tradition.
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It can be hard for us to receive attacks and be blamed for corruption and conflict. Every generation likes to feel that they are innocent of the acts done before. But tradition is timeless and has a life of its own which needs attending. It is a store for cultural input and needs to be reviewed with every generation. Kept alive. If we are frightened to enter the blame and conflict, if we feel accusations can be exaggerated, uninformed, unjust, digging up the past, associating us with other religions, ignoring the terrible things done to us or missing the positive and sometimes great contributions we have made, then we are afraid to truly meet those who are wounded. As those who stand in the voice of tradition, we are also only man and our fear is as strong as those who rebel. We too are in need of remembering a God who is beyond conflict and forgives. A remembering which supports us to step into ideas of betrayal and desecration of the sacred which will be painful for us, just as it is for those who feel it has been done to them. But if we can do this with the support of a loving God, we may find the encouragement to listen fully and to support change on both sides.
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The second most common reason given for not looking to the Church for spiritual guidance is the distance people feel from the Gospel and the life of Christ. One person who sought to reconnect with his church recently said ‘I just couldn’t sit and listen about Jesus who lived two thousand years ago with all the different people of that time and find it relevant to my life today. I found more meaning in spending time with my family.’ Another said ‘I was asked to be a god-mother and thought I would start going again with my niece but when I had to say the vows, especially talking about rejecting the devil, I couldn’t do it. The things we had to say were disturbing and we were told we had to completely believe in it all.’ Another still, said ‘I didn’t get why the Old Testament readings could be so cruel and why that was something they would want to read out and respect so much.’ And it is now a fact that many young people have never attended a Christian assembly or Sunday school but only have a distant cultural inheritance from their parents and grandparents.
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Our tradition has a vast body of teaching which talks about the steps before being able to encounter the life of Christ. An Ignatian Spiritual Director has to assess a person to see if they are ready to do their traditional 30 day silent retreat which goes through the life of Christ. In the assessment, they look for the prerequisite which is simply faith in a loving God, nothing more. However, it is widely known that many are sent away to prepare and the preparation can take years if not a lifetime of searching and waiting before they will be ready to begin their 30 day retreat. Doubt is not something to be afraid of. Neither is it something to have to overcome to be able to live with Christ, it is something to be companioned. Those who do go ahead with the retreat are asked to note their experiences and the director knows that grace and Christ will start appearing or working in unexpected ways. The truth is that spiritual companionship seeks to find two things: a language which those we are given to accompany can relate to, and the willingness to watch for God to be working in their lives in all manner of different and unexpected ways.
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Perhaps if we were to talk to people who express such difficult views of the Church and put aside our evangelical language to ask them what it is which inspires them, or where or when they have felt a connection with something greater. If we were willing to hear their experiences and find grace in the most unexpected answers, then we will be meeting them in the heart of where the Spirit is able to work in their lives and begin to support them towards finding a loving God.
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A further problem which is being discussed at the moment is the relevance of our Church community to the majority living in the local area. A group of teenagers in one city were found laying candles and cards in a street where a friend had fallen out of a window. They said that if the church could have done a memorial service in the way they would have believed in and ‘just spiritual’ they would have got all their friends to go, but they were told they had to have certain Christian prayers. They turned away from the church because of its insistence on particular forms. What is remarkable about this is that they still went ahead and found a place to lay candles, hold a vigil, write cards and be together in the tragedy. That in new generations, there is a growing sense of community values. Lampposts and street corners are laden with cards and flowers marking the place for someone who has died locally. Hundreds of locals were reported to help clear up after the 2011 riots, over 500 reported to be helping just outside Clapham Junction. The Olympics had 70,000 volunteers. People are truly inspired to rebuild and live a different life by respecting their local community; something which is at the centre of our message. The church has a strong record of charity work, but maybe we are being asked to step even further into what is happening on the street, and join in, so that we can serve them even more than we already are.
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The conversation about how we might build a bridge wide enough for this large percentage of the population to begin to find guidance for their spiritual life must be given more time. They have a right to what is their heritage, in a way they can truly engage with it. But how is a difficult question. Many feel that if the church services and outreach such as feeding the homeless or youth work does not involve discussing the Gospel or Christian prayers, then we will not have honoured our ministry. However as such a careful first step is clearly needed, perhaps we are in danger of underestimating Christ. Underestimating a spirit that is still at work ‘with thee when we know it not’ as Wordsworth wrote. Perhaps these people are asking us to find more confidence in the God of our faith. And what is more, perhaps they will show us a new way to see a beloved tradition, which seeks only to look for where grace is working within the world and serve.
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Clearly many of us have given years of dedication to working with people who have left the Church. Regrettably the greater public is saying that we are a long way from doing enough. But this voice is not one to be heard with disappointment as their interest and renewed questioning seems to be a very real opportunity to move forward. A message of hope. Some people look for a connection with our belief in hospitality and community. Others need to find support in conscience and integrity, while others need to find a loving God or God’s awe-inspiring mystery, while others still need to find a way to live with fear and doubt. They look to us to be listened to, truthfully included and companioned; nothing more and nothing less. And our rich tradition, filled with people exploring God in music, sculpture, painting, literature, poetry, nature, drama, architecture, hospitality, social action, community involvement, inner development, spiritual experience and so much more is there to be used in all the variety of languages it provides. If we could find the courage to step into conversation and not underestimate the trust which needs to be rebuilt; if we could have the faith to meet these people, as Luther says, ‘in their honest doubt’; if we could look for grace in their lives in new ways, we may find, with the grace of God, that we are able to serve them again.