People praying in chapel

This is the fourth in a series of posts looking for new directions for the institutional churches. I am hoping we can move on from what I have called the post-1970s dominant Evangelicalism of church leaders, to find better answers to the problems that face us.

Here I question the way the churches’ contribution has been so reduced that services have become almost the only thing on offer. Once Christian churches, like other spiritual traditions, offered a worldview – an account of why we exist, how to live well and how to express and celebrate it. Now, it is easy to imagine that it offers just one more leisure activity to rival the gym and the television.

It seems that an ‘active Christian’ is a person who attends services, regardless of whether they nurse the dying or give talks about the Bible.

Surprising though it may seem, the concept of the church service is a comparative newcomer to Christianity. I think of it as a product of secularism.

Before then, in ancient and medieval times, people thought that, whatever they did, they did in the company of the gods they believed in. Ancient pagans performed a range of activities in their honour: processions, sacrifices, private prayers, donations to shrines and much else. Gods were with them at other times too. When they ploughed and harvested they did so in the company of their fertility gods. When they went sailing they did so in the company of the sea gods.

Medieval Christianity generated equivalents: receiving Mass, attending Benedictions, going on pilgrimages, performing the appropriate rites on saints’ days. As before, there was no dividing line between religious and non-religious activities. Saying grace at meals was another way of relating to God, even if the main purpose was to fill the stomach. Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales doesn’t give us moderns the impression that the pilgrimage was a particularly pious event.

It was secularism that insisted on drawing lines. For the benefit of people who wanted to opt out of ‘religion’, every activity had to be either ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’. Churches adapted by classifying their central activities as religious events.

Today we take this for granted, but it carries a price. Our medieval ancestors performed those acts for a variety of reasons. Today we are reduced to one reason. We have a one-size-fits-all ‘church service’ or ‘act of worship’ whose only justification is that it is a religious event. For believers it is all the more important because God has been banished from everywhere else.

We have ended up with a kind of fetish. The British Standard Church Service has become the one thing that characterises Christians. Common Worship illustrates the point by flattening liturgy: weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, eucharists, morning and evening prayer have all become much the same as each other with a collect, a confession, two bible readings, intercessions, a blessing and optional sermon and hymns. There is now a cultural expectation of what religious people do, and that’s what we provide.

There is much discussion of ‘fresh expressions’ and new ways of doing things, but most of it is modelled on the British Standard Church Service: new, more attractive ways of doing basically the same kinds of things, fresh expressions of the same old activities.

For the anxious parish priest, feeling the pressure from above to produce signs of ‘growth’, attendances at services become the supreme measure of success. The Register of Services becomes the ecclesiastical equivalent of those forms countless employees have to fill in to convince their line managers that they are doing their job.

But if we’re encouraging ‘fresh expressions’, what gets recorded in the Register of Services? Communion Services, Mattins and Evensong obviously do. What about Messy Church? The youth club? If they get recorded, is that because they count as a church service? In that case, why not the concert in aid of Christian Aid? Or the food bank? Oh, don’t be silly. Of course the food bank doesn’t count!

If this is the way we think, what are we playing at? Where should the line be drawn? Why are we drawing a line at all? What new direction might we take?

In the long run I think we need to recreate that older sense that our understanding of the divine provides a framework for the whole of life. Everything we do is in the context of the whatever god we believe in. We need to re-establish that spectrum, all the way from thanking God for iron while hammering nails, to a range of activities specifically designed for attending to God.

This would be a major challenge to the default atheism of secular society, with its assumption that beliefs about the divine add nothing to society’s understanding of reality. The challenge would need to come from the leading public voices of the churches. At present they show no interest in it, because the dominant post-1970s Evangelicalism directs itself to converting individuals rather than engaging in public debate.

Perhaps a first step would be more freedom for local communities to develop their spirituality in ways that work for them, without worrying about whether it counts as a church service or a Christian act.

All over the world, people find ways to relate to the divine. In every society different people find different ways: individual and communal prayer, intellectual understanding, meditation, music, movement, art, feeling, relationships. Everything in the world has the potential to become a community’s sacramental means of entering the presence of the divine. Even a crumb of bread and a sip of wine can do it.

To celebrate the variety would of course make it impossible to maintain any targets or church growth statistics, but I don’t see that as a problem.

We cannot box our spirituality into a limited number of approved activities. As we open ourselves to the power of the divine, we recognise that it transcends all our boxes and approvals.