As churches fill up with unfamiliar faces in strangely swollen congregations, what should we do about the business of God, asks Hugh Reilly
At a wedding reception I attended recently, the attention-seeking behaviour of the precocious page boy was driving his mother to drink even though, to judge by her state, this was a destination she seemed more than capable of reaching unaided. I offered to amuse her cherub to afford her some quality time with a bottle of Prosecco. When the centrepiece of my close-up magic show – a disappearing coin behind the ears trick – failed to impress my hard audience of one, I tried out some edgy material. Intertwining my fingers, I contorted them into ecclesiastical shapes and said: “There’s the church, there’s the steeple and there, inside, not many people because reason has triumphed over superstition.” He loved it and that’s when things started to go wrong.
Darting from table to table, he exhibited his acquired dexterity with his digits and roared out the atheistic rhyme. When asked who’d taught him the ditty, his traitorous finger of fate pointed in my direction. While some guests laughed, others, such as the priest who had been given a seat at the top table, were somewhat less than impressed.
As someone who abruptly dismounted from his Catholic donkey 40 odd years ago, I feel uneasy on entering a church. Childhood memories of confessional box sentences being capriciously handed down for the terrible sin of forgetting morning prayers or, Jesus Christ, taking the Lord’s name in vain, come rushing back to resurrect a guilt-laden conscience. Staring at a pulpit, I can still hear my parish priest damning for eternity those who don’t believe in the loving deity.
However, there are times of the year when dressing up and trooping off to a church service is considered de rigueur. Christmas is one such occasion, a mystical jamboree when prodigal Protestants and Catholics flock to midnight services to savour the God-feel factor. Christmas Christians excitedly descend upon churches like Anstruther seagulls on a discarded fish and chip poke, but with less decorum. Seats normally unburdened by the weight of a hefty backside are suddenly at a premium – an enterprising Kirk elder could make a killing out of setting up Lastminutepew.com.
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Many full-time followers of The Saviour disapprove of the sudden influx of one-night-only worshippers, often tossing decidedly unChristian looks. To these Pharisees, I say read Luke 15: 1-7. In the parable of the lost sheep, Luke tells believers that The Good Shepherd gets a greater buzz from someone rediscovering their adoration of him than from the assiduous idolisation given by uncritical adherents.
Previously, the Rt Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, pilloried the public who turned up for an annual interface with the Almighty. In yesterday’s Scotsman, he stated that the Christmas Eve turnout proves the power of the Christmas message and of faith. In a folksy address to his largely grey army of followers, he said: “I believe that those who pack our churches on Christmas Eve do so because the power of Christmas still draws them in to hear the story of God, in the life of a tiny baby, breaking through the darkness to bring light into the world.” I think his sanctity clause is a tad misplaced.
These days, sandstone edifices dedicated to Intelligent Design serve only as impressive, faux-medieval backdrops to social pageants. For example, no bride dreams of being married in a registry office with its cold, bureaucratic ambience and a band of immigration officers on the premises to pounce upon sham ceremonies. In places of worship, wood-carvings displaying the Stations of the Cross are interesting conversation pieces in between the boring bits of the marriage rite.
Newlyweds wish to hear the pealing of chapel bells, not a Registrar shouting: “Next!” The inherent solemnity of a religious marriage ceremony reinforces the notion that the commitment to monogamy is for life; this helps explain why brides are often jilted at the altar.
Although I am a practising atheist, I opted to be married in a Catholic church, suspending my non-belief in order to make my wife’s wedding day wishes a reality. With each pious vow that passed my treacherous lips, I imagined Lucifer putting another log on the fire. I knew that the Church of Rome prohibited divorce and that I’d be denied taking communion wafer if I ever separated from my spouse, but sadly I became eligible to tick the “divorced” box on internet dating sites in 2003. Had I been wealthy, I could have sought an annulment; America’s opulent Kennedy family has enjoyed the good fortune of the Catholic Church acceding to not one but two annulment requests. Clearly, lightening oneself of a turbulent wife can strike twice.
Many agnostic people consider a church to be a good venue for a funeral. The bereaved listen to a minister declaring that the loved one inside the casket is in a happier place – if only the dead could talk, they would, I assure you, disagree. The congregation know in their heart of hearts that the deceased is not in some cosmic, after-life set-up and are bitter to have suffered such a grievous loss, but nonetheless they belt out How Great Thou Art. Where do we find such men and women? Perhaps, as some churchmen say, people go to religious services at Christmas looking for something to believe in. Unfortunately, statistics prove that the Christmas bounce in attendance doesn’t lead to a January upturn.
Given the parlous state of organised religion, it’s wise for the Kirk and others in the religion industry to give all-comers the red-carpet treatment. In our increasingly secular society, there is growing consumer resistance to concepts such as God and sin.
A few decades from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if we are able to count church-going Christians on the fingers of two hands.
• Hugh Reilly’s humorous book, The Wilderness Years: A Class Act, charting his 31-year teaching career, is available on Kindle, £4.95.
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