A fascinating post on Time's site, entitled 'New Pope, Same Wandering Flock.' Funnily enough the writer is Mary Eberstadt, whom I quarrel with in Monday's post!! Pertinently she observes (with me emboldening key phrases for readers short of time),
"In reality, though, and despite the hopes in some precincts for a radically overhauled Church, these departures amount to mere atmospherics. That’s because the chief conundrum facing the new Pope is the same as it was for the exceedingly aware emeritus Pope before him. It is a problem as vexatious for Rome whether in the Global South or in the affluent West, and more than any other earthly force it will decide the fate of all the churches: namely, the secularization of large parts of the formerly Christian world.
Evidence abounds that creeping godlessness is not just some European thing. According to Baylor University’s Philip Jenkins, one of the foremost authorities on these numbers, across Latin America “signs of secularization appear that would have been unthinkable not long ago.” Nine percent of Brazilians now report themselves “nones,” for instance, as in “none of the religious above,” and as with the “nones” in America, the number is higher among the young. Forty percent of Uruguayans now profess no religious affiliation. Nor is the new Pope’s home country exempt from the trend – quite the contrary. Political dictatorship may be over, but the “dictatorship of relativism” deplored by emeritus Pope Benedict is alive and kicking in an increasingly secular Argentina.
Then there is state-of-the-art god-forsaking Western Europe. Across the Continent, elderly altar servers shuffle in empty, childless churches; monasteries and chapels are remade into spas, apartments, or mosques; protests, including violent protests, now regularly greet any Pope who leaves Rome. Yes, there are remarkable renewal movements here and there, for the sheer ferocity of aggressive secularism has inadvertently energized a Christian counter-culture. But the secular forest still grows faster than the religious trees. One recent British survey found that about 20 percent of respondents could not say what event was commemorated by Easter.
As for the United States, it remains true that Americans are more religiously inclined than Europeans. Even so, here too the trend is clear. To judge by statistics on items like attendance and affiliation and out-of-wedlock births, say, America’s religious tomorrow is just Denmark’s yesterday."
Then Mary astutely notes that trying to fathom the puzzles here is to dive into depths in which murkiness remains:
"So what’s a Pope to do? He can start by understanding one critical truth that has not been well understood so far: the puzzle of secularization is not only his to solve. Secular sociology has written the intellectual script about how godlessness happens but has gotten it wrong.
Secularization is not, for example, the inevitable result of affluence, as many have said; statistically, men and women who are better-off in the United States today, for example, are more likely to believe and practice faith than are those further down the economic ladder. The same was true of Victorian England, as the British historian Hugh McLeod has painstakingly shown. Mammon alone does not necessarily drive out God.
Is secularization then the inevitable result of increased rationality and enlightenment, as the new atheists and other theorists claim? Here again, the empirical fact that the well-educated Mormon, say, is more likely to be someone of faith would appear to confound that theory. Is secularization then the result of the world wars, as still others have supposed? If so, it is hard to see how countries with different experiences of those wars – neutral Switzerland, vanquished Germany, victorious Great Britain — should all lose their religions in tandem, let alone why countries untouched by the wars should follow suit.
And on it goes. Modern sociology can tell us many things, but about the elemental question of why people stop going to church — or for that matter, why they start — the going theories have all come up short. Contrary to what secular soothsayers have believed, evidence suggests that secularization is not inevitable, and neither is it a linear process according to which decline is an arrow pointing ever downward. Rather, and crucially, religion waxes and wanes in the world — strong one moment, weaker the next — for reasons that still demand to be understood."
I say 'Amen' to Mary Eberstadt.
Here in Christchurch, reflecting primarily out of an Anglican context, but keeping an eye on other churches, the situation is remarkably (or unremarkably) similar to the picture Mary paints of other parts of the world. Churches with elderly congregations in severe decline. Many people who will have filled in our recent census forms with the Kiwi equivalent of 'nones'. Lively and large congregations in areas associated with Mammon ... and in areas definitely not associated with Mammon. Generally Mary's brilliant imagery 'the secular forest still grows faster than the religious trees' applies here (as far as I can tell - happy to be proved wrong).
I like her point that there is a puzzle about church adherence and active attendance which is not yet fathomed by the sociologists. It is currently my privilege to be associated with two churches with growing, lively congregations (10 am at St Aidan's, 7 pm Antioch at Fendalton, since you are bound to ask). But why are they growing? I could proffer great music, relevant preaching, warm hospitality as reasons, but those reasons have applied through seasons when the same congregations have been numerically static. In other words, one can observe certain things about a church because visible things are observable. But the invisible features of church growth are the reasons (say) why a whole bunch of new people turn up at a church simultaneously or why newcomers make a decision to stay rather than keep looking around or why new converts are made today rather than yesterday (when the same gospel was being proclaimed). Taking a wider view of church life in Christchurch, why are Roman Catholic, 'biblical preaching' and Pentecostal churches all experiencing dynamic congregational life? Why does no single church 'style' have the monopoly on resisting creeping godlessness? Answers from sociologists on the back of a postcard please!
Nevertheless I think it worth persevering with investigations into what makes churches tick as far as we can take them. I guess one response to Eberstadt's article would be to continue doing what we have always been doing leaving the waxing of churches to the mysteries of God and sociology. Personally I prefer to try to learn from successful congregational life, to see whether transferable lessons can be applied to situations for which I have some responsibility.
Tonight the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Christchurch receives the report and recommendations of the Structural Review Group. I have no idea what is in the report and await its findings as anxiously and excitedly as everyone else. But I am hopeful that it will reflect careful consideration of the challenging times in which we live, the possibilities which lie before us for resisting creeping godlessness and for developing great congregations to the glory of God.