I have mulling over the article Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby Face Enormous Hurdles in a Post-Christian World by David Virtue for a little while.
First of all, what is a millennial? Broadly speaking, it is the generation of people born in the 1980’s, the time when I was in my twenties. I could be their father had I married young enough. Putting it another way, it is the generation of the children of my brother and two sisters, all in their twenties to mid thirties.
The big problem is generalising and trying to fit everyone into a common stereotype. We all have our own cultural references depending on family, education and then the initiatives we took in life to “be different”. Many of the things attributed to the “millennials” are also a part of the feelings on the “baby boomer” who lived through the 1960’s and early 70’s. We “boomers” were a part of post-war post-modernity and began to strike out on our own and see life differently from the pre-war generation. It is essentially the confidence (or lack thereof) in the Establishment and those in authority. At the same time, I wonder whether the youngsters are not more “establishment” than those of us who questioned everything in the sixties and early seventies before the economic recession kicked in.
I don’t think there is that much difference between many who were born in the late fifties and the generation of our children. I have no children of my own, but I notice there is less friction between my nephews and nieces and my brother and sisters who brought them up. They have all been successful in their education, occupational training and jobs. Some are married and are doing well. I suppose the stereotype “millennial” is someone permanently plugged into an electronic device and with a nihilistic outlook on life. Some people are like that, but not all by a long chalk.
Institutional Churches love to lay their own failings at the feet of our society and people who are just not interested in religion, or what they perceive to be religion. The clergy and evangelical enthusiasts are all too eager to talk of a lost generation, as if we boomers were any “better”! My own attitudes about religion were no different when I was 12, but organs and church buildings got the better of me. I was attracted by aesthetics, not by conformity to the Establishment or someone’s else’s moralism.
Going by Dr Virtue’s article, we boomers seem to have seen through the same shenanigans as the millennials. The religion of the sixties and seventies was not invented by us, but by men of the Establishment who thought they know what was good for us. We got sappy liturgies, a kind of informal language we never expected to hear in church, music that lacked the quality of the pop and rock bands who made it to the Charts, a kind of moralism than turned us right off. One of my sisters went to the Evangelical church in our town, and became a Baptist when she married. The ideology seemed impressive to me as a seventeen year old youth, but it didn’t stick for long, especially when it trashed all I loved – the aesthetic dimension and the little of the High Church I had discovered here and there. You said a certain prayer, and you were “saved” – and then you had to go and hard-sell your newly-found faith and fervour. I think that without what initially attracted me to churches, I would have been a “none”, or simply a lapsed Church of England boy. I recognise my own feelings and thoughts in the way the next generation is described.
Perhaps we boomers were more pronounced in our atheism and scepticism than people nowadays for whom it just isn’t an issue. I’m not qualified to talk about American youngsters, but Europeans are more deeply alienated from churches. So millennials can’t commit themselves? Were the boomers any better? I don’t see that much differences, except that the cultural references are different, and what we middle-aged folk rejected, the youngsters never knew in the first place. Whose fault is it?
The article makes the point that Evangelical marketing makes no impression on the youngsters. With us boomers, its effect didn’t last long, because we saw through it. It was just an ideology to grow out of, something that seemed little different from what made people go along with Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930’s. They go on trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, but their churches are dying, or their “turnover” of people coming and going is staggering. On the other hand, Dr Virtue accepts the blame on the church institutions by admitting that they are inadequate for their “market”.
Are our “ritualist” churches doing any better? Obviously not. I very rarely have anyone at Sunday Mass, and most English ACC places of worship are in the single figures in terms of numbers of men and women in the pews. I have always thought in terms of “availability” than aggressive marketing and getting the pews filled to justify our existence. That fact would seem to take the blame off the Evangelical marketing. Is it so essential to bring them in, or is it not better to seek renewal for ourselves as Christians and live our life and the Gospel in a contemplative and discreet way?
The raw naked truth is that virtually nobody has a handle on reaching a generation of men and women who have no denominational loyalty, no sense of sin, no apparent fear of God, and no apparent real need of God or a savior.
That observation would seem to be something we Catholics and Evangelicals have in common. I would go further – the sense of transcendence, wonder and beauty, the thirst for discovery and newness. The Catholic liturgy is only a small part of it, and it alone cannot fulfil this thirst some of us experience.
Of course, this article is about the role of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and the new Pope. From where I am in life, they don’t attract me to anything. Pope Francis doesn’t make me inclined to leave the ACC and become a Roman Catholic layman, dismantle my chapel and start driving to Rouen or Paris for Mass. I don’t feel the slightest inclination to go back back to the Church of England either. Archbishop Welby strikes me as a sincere fellow, but someone who runs on big money and high social status. Does my bank manager make me want to do that kind of work and fit into the business mould, as is assumed of well-to-do urban young people?
One thing that puts most of us off churches (I am only connected with something very small and marginal) is the clericalism of many of the clergy and “committed lay people” in the “mainstream”. Many aspects of life today, in the Church and in secular life, remind us or George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian world in 1984 (he wrote the book in 1948 and swapped the last two figures around): new-speak, double-think and political correctness. What alienates us from churches is this very invasion of our personalities, our freedom as children of God and inner lives with crude moralism. I’m a priest, and inside feel no differently. I relate to very little, and can only thank my Bishop and brother priests in the ACC to whom I can relate.
David Virtue makes the point of what he thinks will draw people back, or not “back” but somewhere else. “Storefront” churches. That is exactly what our churches in Canterbury and Manchester are, though Canterbury is a real church with a shop front built onto it. Perhaps we are looking for something that resembles a family more than an impersonal institution. We want to know if people are telling us yet more lies like the politicians, or whether their message rings true.
Pastors of these churches I talk to have to work through layers and layers of fundamentalism, fear, abuse, and rejection before they get to first base with the faith. The few they reach are drops in the bucket, but they are drops.
What an indictment? Fundamentalism, fear, abuse and rejection. We are looking at man’s sinfulness and the way the lack of empathy overshadows the Gospel message, no matter how true it is. We tolerate and make allowances for human weakness in others, but we just cannot cope with evil. We find the same lack of empathy in the militant gay lobby and the other various “politically correct” agendas of our brave new clericalism. These things are absolute barriers, even for priests, many of whom have fallen away from their vocation or retreated into contemplative life.
The natural reaction is to ask ourselves how it will all end. A chastisement from God involving the death of millions of sinners? Does God want our death or our conversion? Are we going to convert under the coercion of Big Brother’s Thought Police, or upon experiencing something that fills our soul with wonder and joy? I think it is likely to be the latter. I have to admit yearning to see the collapse of today’s corrupt structures so that something new can emerge from the ashes. Who is to be the judge? Who decides who lives and who dies? Where is our notion of self-sacrifice instead of mors tua vita mea? This is something we each have to address in our self-righteous arrogance.
I don’t know about the future of institutional Churches, but we ordinary guys have to think of our own spiritual health. This is why many of us turn to sport and exploration, to seeking expressions of spirituality that are less (or at least seemingly so) corrupted by human sin and lack of empathy. We need to rediscover our innocence and our own “new world”. These are the things that concern us as persons and our quest to transcend materialism and determinism. Inclusiveness is often highly selective!
True, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, as of humility and modesty faced with any force stronger than ourselves. There is the old quote:
A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned, for he’ll be going out on a day when he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.
from The Aran Islands by J. M. Synge. How appropriate!