According to the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, 76% of Americans describe themselves as Christian. However, only 45 % are able to attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. A majority of Americans self identify as Christian, however, nearly half of that group don’t know what it is that they are identifying with – at least not according to the usual definitions. This raises the interesting question of what is Christianity “now”, and do we perhaps need to renew or reform our commonly understood academic markers of Christian identity. The inability to identify key markers of Christian teaching and culture is not an exclusively “American” problem. Similar studies have been done here in the UK and the results are not significantly different. This is an element “religious illiteracy” – and it is having a corrosive effect across religious interactions, as well as within British and American society.
“New Atheists” use religious illiteracy to promote their agenda. Dawkins and Hitchens are fully aware that they are being less than honest about the nature of religion and belief – but to do so serves their rhetorical purpose. Using religious illiteracy Christian fundamentalism here in the UK for example, can promote false ideas about the persecution of Christianity. Religious illiteracy allows televangelists in the US to amass vast fortunes on the backs of the poor and the lonely. The shameful decline in the understanding of the nature of science in the US and now the UK is firmly grounded in religious illiteracy. Religious illiteracy has a very tangible impact on our day to day lives. It effects how people view one another. It effects our praxis, as well as our own self understanding as people of faith.
But lets take a moment to talk about religious illiteracy in the our OC/IC context. And yes – it does exist for us – which is both sad and amusing when you consider that our history is grounded in the ideas and protests of the intellectual elite. A number of recent conversations brought this home to me in a way I never before considered. A friend attending an indie liturgy over the course of a few weeks, was asking people in the congregation about what brought them int to he OC/IC community. They could not answer the question because – they did not know that they were worshipping within the OC/IC umbrella! Indie websites are a hard thing to view sometimes – precisely because of the overwhelming amount of religious illiteracy published there. One example of religious illiteracy that pops up repeatedly on OC/IC websites is that on one hand the community prides itself in its Old Catholic credentials – the usual: apostolic succession, liberal thinking, and adherence to the Declaration of Utrecht, while on the other splashing pictures and homilies online showing the community’s celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception! These are simple, easy to see examples. They do however, demonstrate that the challenges we face in the Indie community are not that different from those of other Christian communities.
Why call it religious illiteracy, and not religious ignorance? I prefer religious illiteracy because it is active and not passive. Religious literacy is about participation in, and engagement with the ideas and praxis of faith communities – the religious literate has the skills to participate, and actively seeks to better place him- or herself in that context. To be a religious literate is more than “knowing” historical facts, and official teaching, and being able to reproduce them. Centuries ago people who could read would still call themselves “illiterate” – not because they did not have the ability to read the text on the page, but because they did not have the skills to participate in the literary culture of the day. These “illiterates” were not participating in the production and consumption of literature and its surrounding ideas and practices. Religious illiteracy functions in the same way. Thus, to be a religious literate is to participate in one’s religious culture – to be engaged with its ideas, and to contribute to those ideas through the life of the community.
People who have left their religious community seem to do so in part because they seek to become more literate. I read an article that detailed a project in a Roman Catholic diocese that conducted “exit interviews” with people who had left the church. One of the issues highlighted in these interviews was that when people sought to explore issues and questions, they were more often than not simply given the “rule” or “official teaching”. In essence these folk were shut out of becoming religiously literate – and it (rightly) made them angry enough to leave. I confess that this point in the project surprised me. First – I have observed over many years of OC/IC ministry that people generally expect our clergy to be religiously literate for them rather than with them – essentially handing over their baptismal rights to someone else to manage on their behalf. Is this conditioning due to the fact that so many OC/IC folk are “former” something else? I’m not always certain. The response to the exit interviews conducted in the Roman Catholic project were also counterintuitive. I have frequently been told by folks within the Indie community that people are simply not interested in the theology, that they don’t care about the background, or the foreground for that matter. People want to hear about their hot button issues (one reason why they join Indie communities in the first place), they want to receive communion, throw a few quid in the collection and get the hell out. Here again I find myself asking is this purely due to conditioning – having had that exact experience in their previous community setting – or is it an active choice on their part? Do we not owe it to our membership to offer something better? I think we do – but first it seems we must break through the barrier that produces or maintains this unsatisfactory situation – we need to challenge religious illiteracy within our own ranks.
One challenge to tackling Indie religious illiteracy is the simple fact that our clergy and lay leaders are not usually religious literates themselves. The impact of this fact is plain to see – we have no voice. Not only are the laity “conditioned” to hand over their baptismal authority to others, but our clergy rarely offer anything beyond the stock answers and official pronouncements of another institution. This is a conscious strategy in part – at least as I have observed it over the years. Regurgitating the doctrine and rule of another, “larger” “more authoritative” institution is safe, comfortable, non-threatening. It is, many believe, what the people wish to hear. Really? If so then why is it that they are worshipping in a tiny, marginalised independent sacramental community if they did not wish to hear a different voice a bolder voice, a different perspective? The leaders of our own movement are letting us down. These are the men and women who ought to be forward looking, engaged, zealous for the tradition. What we find instead is that they are consciously and unconsciously promoting religious illiteracy! We ought to all be asking – of ourselves, and of one another – where is our Indie Voice? How can we possibly tackle religious illiteracy if we are not willing to be bold enough to break away from the stock answers of another “Church”? Rather than slapping up pictures of bishops in liturgical drag, or producing websites dripping in fake medieval coats of arms, why not instead publish the transcript of the community exploring an interesting aspect of praxis or theology? This speaks to our voice – this expresses the willingness of the community to lead, rather than follow – and it develops the religious literacy of Indie folk by drawing them into the conversation. Our own leadership fails to pass on the history and ethos underpinning our Indie identity – is it any wonder then that we encounter “Indie folk” who don’t even know that they are Indie?
We ought to expect and demand better. The only way that we, all of us, are going to receive the fullest possible benefit from the experience of being baptised believers and belonging to our individual OC/IC community of choice is to be religious literates; to be, all of us, well informed participants in our OC/IC religious culture. Being able to perform a flawless liturgy, and barf up Bible bytes, to know who ordained whom, and when A schismed from Z, is not what I mean when I say that we ought to expect better – the net is actually a much wider one, one that is truly “catholic” in that it allows for everyone who desires to be a religious literate – to fully experience such literacy, and thereby to contribute to the religious literacy of others through art, research, hospitality, teaching and conversation. The net of religious literacy encompasses the grand arcs of history art and theology to be sure, but they also include our personal histories, and the story of our collective journey. These experiences informed by all the other elements from the story arc of “us” and create our understanding of being religious literates “now” while also laying the groundwork for what might come tomorrow. Being religiously literate is an active forward looking process one that demands investment from each individual, as well as from the collective. Without it, we condemn ourselves to be fossilised samples of “The Church” of the 19th century – a common affliction among Indie groups. With religious literacy we become icons of the Living Christ. Tackling religious illiteracy within our own ranks will I believe result in stronger, stable, engaged, creative Indie communities. It is an opportunity to see an old problem in a new light – and together to take action and do something positive about it.
Where would you begin? What tools would you use within your small Indie community? Finally can you envision ways in which you and your community can reach out to collaborate with other Indie folk – widening the net, and becoming just that little bit more engaged?
Tags: religious illiteracy