As the Anglican Communion suspends the United States’ Episcopal Church for a trial separation of three years over the issue of same sex marriage it is high time that we within the wider Church think about the future of Christianity. Globally the Christian faith is growing, but in Europe for the past several decades it has been in fast retreat and this trend is accelerating. The end of Christianity in Europe is a very real possibility, and we might be alive to witness its final days. We may already be past the point of life support, and perhaps now is an opportune time to begin the post-mortem. It is certain that social shifts have diverted the courses of culture and faith in Europe, but the churches too have played no small part in their own social and cultural ostracisation.
In Britain and Ireland it has become increasingly apparent that mainstream Christianity – the legally established and otherwise respectable churches – has become the preserve of the better off. The so-called underclass has long since been abandoned by the churches, and attendance at Sunday services in the most deprived areas spells out quite clearly the fact that Christianity has become irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of these people. It is scarcely better in areas populated by what used to be the traditional industrial working class. Some older people go to church services religiously on Sunday, but, for the most part, this is a thing of the past for the young.
As a teenage convert to Catholicism I began attending Mass in my working class neighbourhood and was immediately struck by the number of professional people who came to the church. By no means was this a professional area, but it was one of only three Roman Catholic parishes in the town. Very few working class people – as I would have recognised them – came. Most Mass goers travelled from private housing areas and belonged to the professional occupations – lawyers, teachers, and that sort of thing. Not to suggest for a moment that these people were not sincere Christian folk, but it was evident that notions of respectability and being seen at church were important to them. Cars, fashion, and respectability vis-à-vis the law were also important to them, and this made the chapel an intimidating environment for the people from my part of town.
Having now grown up in the Church, and having had some degree of experience in ministry, I have learned that far too many clergy and laypeople to make for a healthy faith are what one might term pragmatic atheists. God is a once weekly feature, and the Credo is recited by rote, in the lives of people who live daily lives as though God’s not real. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that they’re going out coveting their neighbour’s ass or anything like that. It’s deeper and more subtle than that. Most Christian’s I know don’t pray. Not that they’re all wicked sinners. They’re certainly not. They just don’t pray, and God seldom enters into their daily lives. This is like attending weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings while not seeing that your coke habit’s a problem. There is only so long this can go on before the true nature of Christianity’s disease becomes obvious.