Stephen McGinty: The ‘I wonder?’ of Christmas

Pope Benedict XVI's first tweet on Twitter. Picture: PA
Pope Benedict XVI's first tweet on Twitter. Picture: PA
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FIGURES show belief in Christianity fading – and the Churches are often not helping. But, especially at this time of the year, an elusive flickering of faith is still there, writes Stephen McGinty

The plight of Christianity in Britain and the promotion of a well-known brand of Scots lager rarely mix in the heads of most people but, to my mind, it can lead to a degree of interesting fermentation.

A few years ago, there was a television advert in which a band of young Japanese revellers leapt into a taxi and headed off through Tokyo in search of an exotic elixir. In bar after crowded bar they asked in Japanese for their desired drink, only to be greeted by the weary shake of a barman’s barnet. Then, when it seemed all hope was lost, in a chic subterranean establishment, where the bar top gleamed like a slab of carved neon, the barkeep recognised their collision of consonants and vowels and reaches under the bar to retrieve … cans of Tennent’s lager.

At a time when young people in Scotland were turning away from the lager quaffed by their dads and towards brands such as Asahi, the idea that by a simple change of geography Tennent’s could suddenly become exotic and covetous was a novel twist. Was it, I wondered, the same with religious belief? Were young people turned off by the traditional Christian faith of their parents, the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church or the Church of England with their worn wooden pews and snowy haired congregation thumbing hymn books bound by sticky tape, and drawn instead to the exotic scent of incense and the murmuring of chanting and silent mediation found in Buddhism?

I thought, as an argument, it had a certain validity. We can take for granted that among which we are raised – and doesn’t the grass always seem greener on the other side of the fence, or the promise of enlightenment a little brighter? Yet the latest census figures for England and Wales revealed this week that such an idea is fatally flawed, people aren’t abandoning Christianity for another faith, but opt for no faith at all.

At the current rate of decline, Britain could no longer be described as a Christian country in as little as a decade. Since 2001, four million people have abandoned what may have been a pretence of religious adherence and no longer describe themselves as Christian. In 2001, 71 per cent of the population were nominally Christian; now it has slumped to 59 per cent. By comparison, those who say they have no religion have risen from 15 per cent to 25 per cent.

So why is Christianity fading in Britain? There are a number of reasons. We live in a more open, vigorous, questioning age, when we no longer have to pay lip-service to the faith of our fathers to get on in life. The Church no longer has society in its grip with a lock on marriage. We have a far greater freedom of choice. We are able to experience a wider range of ideas and arguments. We are also a society that is, largely, no longer capable of making any form of lasting commitment.

Think about it: most people today are incapable of the civil act of punctuality. The idea of being somewhere they actually wish to go at a specific time is attractive in intent but largely impossible in practice.

So, if we are incapable of making a commitment to someone as personable as a friend, how do we stick by a faith or Church whose rules we may not even agree with?

These are elements which would lead an individual to walk away from a Christian faith, but there are ways in which those Christian faiths can repel followers.

If you were to look at the Church of England and its recent decision that women, although capable of being priests, are incapable of carrying out the duties and responsibilities of a bishop, you might, if you were a woman, feel outraged that once again, your sex has rendered you, in the Church’s eyes, as a second-class citizen. It might, however, encourage you to stay and fight for change. Over in the Catholic Church, at least they are consistent in their position that a woman is a second-class citizen, destined never to have any form of authority or governance in the Church as they are unable to become a priest, a bishop, archbishop, cardinal or Pope. But then again, the Catholic Church has never been one to hold out false hope.

If, however, you were born homosexual, a position that the Catholic Church doesn’t quite buy despite conclusive scientific proof, you might have found it hard to hang in over recent years as senior figures in the Church continue to make clear in strident tones their growing displeasure at the prospect of gay marriage.

Then there is the dark stain of child abuse, about which there is no more to say.

What is interesting is that Pope Benedict XVI would be content for the Catholic Church to shrink, for its numbers to drop dramatically, if, that is, those who remained were more devout and evangelical. The loss of hundreds of thousands, even millions of “canteen Catholics” who prefer to pick and choose from the Church’s teachings rather than adhere to them with an unswerving loyalty would, to his mind, be no great loss.

So it is important to see the launch of the Pope’s new Twitter account in this context. This isn’t a desperate attempt to engage with younger Catholics, but the Church coming to terms with another new form of social media and thinking, half-heartedly: “Well, we might as well”.

I think it is appropriate that the Pope isn’t following anyone on Twitter; it is just another electronic window from which he can declaim. It’s not a wall on which he will lean and engage in a conversation.

I sometimes wonder whether those who see themselves as the guardians of Christianity, the priests and ministers of the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland, Episcopal and Anglican etc, at times do more to ward people away from the concept of Christianity than towards it. It’s partly the media’s fault, as we are rarely interesting in reporting or covering genuine Christian conversations or a sermon of beauty and power. We’d rather report when Christians are behaving, well, rather un-Christianly, issuing criticisms of politicians or serving writs of eviction or committing criminal acts.

The question, then, is whether there is anything that can be done. Probably not, if your goal is to reclaim the heady heights when 80 or 90 per cent of the British population described themselves as Christians. But if it is to introduce someone to a potentially life-changing experience, I would say that there is, but it should be on the process of attraction, rather than promotion.

There is a strange wonder in Christianity that you cannot find in other faiths. At this time of year our thoughts turn to the baby in the crib, a figure of helpless innocence, while in four months’ time, at Easter we will ponder that child’s eventual violent execution.

A faith built around a man who preached love and peace and forgiveness, and who insisted that the lowest, poorest person was as precious as the richest most powerful king, was, at the time, and still continues to be, deeply strange.

I’ve said it before, but the concept of a benevolent being who exists outwith the world but who loves us so much that he sent his son as a messenger and guide to promise us eternal life is so utterly unbelievable it is a wonder there is anyone on their knees each Sunday – and yet it remains so deeply, deeply attractive.

In the past, they talked about the “God of the Gaps” – when man had a gap in his knowledge of the natural world, he inserted God. Yet those gaps have got smaller and narrower and, as a result, for many, God has been crushed and buckled and discarded as irrelevant. In the era of the Large Hadron Collider, where we know exactly what happened a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, can we really cling to a concept of Heaven?

Well, for a number of Britons, 25 per cent and rising, the answer is an emphatic No. And yet, like a light in the darkness, or a festive bauble cast out over a ink-black sea, I can’t help but try to keep my eye on it, on this elusive flickering concept of faith.

My intellect says No but, especially at this time of year, my heart says: “What if?”