Decrying the decline of “christianity” in Britain has come from various angles over the past year or so. Church attendance is diminishing, its membership ageing. “Unbelief” appears to be growing. Though I would argue that it was always there and only now is it getting better, perhaps more accurate, press. Fifty percent of people living in Britain today describe themselves as being of “no religion”. How many of those are believers (in a real or vague sense) is difficult to ascertain – only that they do not see themselves as a member of a particular church or denomination. Ninety percent of those who are raised not associated with a religious tradition, do not later join one, or identify with one. That last figure, is interesting, but not entirely unexpected. Religious practice is something that you need exposure to to get below the surface of watching a liturgy, reading a few patristic writers, or looking around a darkened medieval church. Christianity in Britain seems to find itself in a situation where it is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Politicians and social and public figures, according to Rowan Williams, see religion as a “problem”, an “eccentricity” practiced by fringe elements and ethnic minorities. This last point should come as no surprise. Consider for a moment what popular media covers when it reports on religious issues: radical fundamentalists, and other “fringe” groups. Sadly, we Indie folk get lumped in with the latter group. We are viewed as a novelty, even though we represent a 200 year old tradition within sacramental Christianity.
Are we getting an accurate picture? Thinking about the possible numbers of Indie OC/IC folk for a moment. I am unaware of any accurate figures detailing the number of OC/IC believers. The last such figure I know of is from the 1920 US census. When the surveys are conducted there is not a space for Indie folk. Many people in our “sub-group” will say that they are “catholic” simply to make things easier, or because there are no other options. By the way – I always pick “other” and then fill in the blank if one is provided. If we had an accurate statistic of our own numbers then we might not be asking – is Christianity declining – because we would be asking a different question: How is Christianity changing, such that we are observing people abandoning large parish buildings in favour of smaller more intimate groups? Why? For starters I think that the Indie movement is larger than we think. When you are only counting church membership in the big-tent denominations I think you’re not getting an accurate picture of the health of the faith.
Is it that Christianity is declining, or is it perhaps more accurate to say that the nature of Christian expression is changing? I have seen quite a few pieces over the past couple of years suggesting that people simply cannot identify “Christianity”. When you consider the statistic I mentioned earlier – that the majority of those not raised in a religious tradition will not then seek to participate in the life of one – it is no surprise that people are ill informed, or wholly ignorant of what “Christianity” is. Thus, if people are no longer seeing the church building as a part of their life, they are no longer learning about the faith and its praxis, we should not be surprised to see figures suggesting that Christianity is in decline in Europe. It is! I’m not being alarmist. This is only one feature, in a much larger picture. I actually think that there are more “believers” out there than the statisticians have found. I think that what we are seeing is that the nature and expression of Christian practice are changing. People are relying on their online interactions more and more. People are avoiding or abandoning the scandal and infighting of the “institutional” churches. What we are seeing is an absence of “brand loyalty”. That is to say that people are not committing themselves to a particular “christian” identity. A Pew study a year or so ago showed that in the US even those who openly identify themselves as Christian are picking and choosing elements of praxis and belief from a variety of religious traditions, and spiritualities. The nature and expression of Christianity is changing.
Where do we Indie folk fit in this picture? Because Indie communities are less likely to be your stereotypical parish, it is safe to say that we are a feature of this change. However, I wonder, are we in a leadership role giving shape to the change, or are we merely following the path of least resistance to gain a few followers here and there? Are we allowing old models of “church” to die out, while thoughtfully examining and testing new ones? I believe we should be – the shape and nature of Indie communities is such that we have the creative advantage that could strengthen existing communities, and bear witness to the life and faithfulness of the OC/IC tradition. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap that so many of us witnessed in the late 80s and early 90s of reform or change, simply for the sake of change and reform. Change is adapting to new circumstances, it has substance and meaning. Change is not successful, it does not build up the community, when it is done on a whim of an individual, or a community.
Below are some of my ideas. They are not novel in themselves, but in a context, in our context I think that they can bring something useful to the table.
- We live in a mobile society; people want to take it with them. I wonder if the decline in church membership is a product of our mobile society. Generally, we no longer live in the same geographic location for as long as we once did. You no sooner move to a place, settle into the life of a faith community and you move – again. I seem to recall once seeing a statistic that in the US people don’t stay in the same job for more than five years on average. Jobs being a main cause of people moving from one place to another. It is easy to see how this can be disruptive, it is no wonder that many people have turned to less stationary sources for spiritual growth and communion. Our increased ability to be, and remain interconnected, wherever we are through such things as social networking, the internet, mobile phones, video phones (e.g. SKYPE), allows us to participate in an active, engaged community scattered over a wide geographic region, that may only meet in a given place quarterly, or once a month. Outside of that physical meeting however, the conversation, and the relationships within the community continue wherever individual members might be in real time. This reality – and it is already a nebulous reality in the Indie community, may mean that we develop further adaptations consciously managing issues related to this new way of being in communion, being church. For example, we might find it necessary to continue the oft maligned practice of ordaining more people than is traditionally deemed necessary – if it means that an increasingly mobile membership can easily “take it with them”, sharing with others the OC/IC tradition, introducing them to our expression of sacramental Christianity. This would mean however, that we have a much needed conversation within the movement about ordination, what it means, how it works. It also means that we will need to take serious steps to reign in the abuse of the office, laying out broad principles of quality control, that heretofore have not existed in any real or consistent manner.
- Who are you? A lack of understanding or knowledge about the basic shape of Christianity is certainly a contributing factor to the notion that the faith is in decline. “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles. . .” Luke’s idealised image of the post-Ascension community in Jerusalem is not pure myth. Surveys have shown that a congregation that has a clear understanding of who they are and what they are about thrives. This is not to say that Indie communities ought to take on the Fundamentalist perspective of everything is a black and white choice. We are after all sacramental Christians and that means we are those who revel in the grey. We stand in the tension between black and white, and celebrate it. Can you put your finger on a few lines to give a total stranger an idea of what Indie Catholicism is? Indie communities tend to “assume” a knowledge of sacramental christianity, of the historical OC/IC ethos, and “Christian culture”. I think that this is a mistake – we are missing an opportunity here to not only empower and breathe new life into our existing communities, but to reach out to nones. We need to have the conversation about our core identity from one bishop to the next, one community to the next. More importantly however is the very real need to empower individuals within the community to own that identity and put it into action. Only then will we find our communities adapting well to new circumstances, weathering trials, and flourishing.
- Make resources, and make them accessible. Home grown Indie resources (such as this, this, this, this, and this) designed for individual and communal use are sorely lacking. Just as we “assume” an understanding of Christian ideas and culture, we tend to “borrow” (or continue to use) the resources of other churches without adapting them to a new situation, a new setting – an Indie OC/IC setting. If we are to see stronger communities within the movement, people need to have access to clear useful resources. Prayerbooks are one of the most popular Apps for phones and tablets. Books, blogs, and pamphlets covering a wide variety of topics of theology and praxis from an Indie perspective not only aide existing members in their participation in the community, but they can also be an effective way to reach out to new people. People may not necessarily participate in a specific community, but they are seeking moments of solitude, reflection, engagement, nourishment. I have on more than one occasion heard someone describe their path to conversion from one tradition to another. A common thread through them all is how reading one book, one essay, hearing a talk, or watching a video or documentary inaugurated the process. I have met many others who, while never setting foot in a church, regularly read or view resources from a particular set of writers, artists, creatives within a given tradition. These resources feed their hunger for spirituality and engagement with God. Who is my neighbour – the one I will never know.
- Its all about “attitude”. A group’s attitude colours everything they do. Indie communities have a number of historic attitude challenges, for example some communities are reactionary, others look to the idealised past, rather than the now, and the future, still others emphasise a particular issue almost to the exclusion of all others. I have discussed these and other elements of OC/IC communal life throughout the blog. A community’s attitude can have the effect of narrowing its ability to adapt to the changing landscape. Attitude can greatly strengthen the community’s ability to adapt, develop, and grow – not just in terms of numbers of members, but more importantly, in terms of its engagement with the active life of a sacramental believer. What is the overarching attitude of your local community? What is the tone, the approach to change, and issues of bishops, clergy, and laity in your community? Is the boundary set too close, or is there plenty of room to expand into the unknown, the unexpected?
- Be visible. There are no accurate numbers on the size of the Indie community. One reason for this is that it is difficult to create a clear “category” for OC/IC ISM and “other related, but not related” groups. The reasons are relatively unimportant, however, it does mean that we have no idea if the tradition is growing, declining, or static. Nor do we know more nuanced demographic data such as the age range, the continuity of Indie adherence within families etc. This lack of statistics says a great deal about the nature of Indie Catholicism, and how we are perceived by outsiders. It means that if we are to be, or continue to be leaders of adapting to the modern sacramental Christian landscape, we must actively seek to engage, befriend and learn from one another. Moreover, those conversations held in appropriate forums can expose nones and others to the living OC/IC tradition, challenging or dismantling historic stereotypes some have about OC/IC communities.
My list is not about “getting bums on seats”. It is about a much needed conversation about how Indie communities can and in some cases are already adapting to the changing expression of sacramental Christianity we see around us. I think it is better that we use the existing shape of OC/IC communities to be proactive, to lead, rather than to follow (or struggle to keep pace). I believe that any adaptation we undertake ought to focus solely on strengthening existing communities, and empowering Indie believers. Growth in any given community is perhaps a beneficial by-product, but faithfulness is the first objective.