It is very clear to those of us in this corner of the world who have an active religious faith that the place of that faith in wider society is changing. Some speak in terms of decline, and others in terms of secularisation, but it strikes me that the picture is rather complex and the more neutral sense of a time of significant change seems most appropriate to me. The picture is by no means uniform across the continent, and there are parts of Europe where churches are growing and it is even clearer that the picture across the globe is very much more varied. I think it is certainly the case that the simple narrative of inevitable and constant decline predicted by theorists a few decades ago was very wide off the mark.
However, it is abundantly clear that for us here in Scotland, the changing patterns of religious affiliation and activity pose significant challenges to the churches. How should we respond? Firstly, I think it is important to remember that our assumptions about the significance of churches in society may be incorrect. Across the world and through history, the picture of a strong and visible church at the heart of society is the exception rather than the rule. More often, churches live a more hidden life and have a minority status, though this does not mean that they have been turned in on themselves. Indeed, churches have often had a significant impact on the world around them from a position of relative weakness and without an official status in their society.
Secondly, I would very much want to challenge the notion that the human race will ‘grow out of’ religion, notion guided more by ideology than insight. I don’t see any indication that people in our society are any less interested in questions of ultimate meaning and the living of a good life than they ever were. However, we don’t have a common language to ask these questions as we may have had some generations ago.
Finally, I think the best response to our challenges is very simple indeed – not necessarily easy, but certainly simple – and it is to carry on living a Christian life with equal measures of humility, confidence and faithfulness. Prayer and worship, service and healing, celebration and community, a life lived without predetermined notions of ‘success’, a life more interested in the quality of our relationships than the sophistication of our programmes, a constant commitment to turning our gaze upwards and outwards, open doors, hearts and hands; these are the simple if challenging characteristics of a Christian life. God is faithful and his call to us is simply to live such a life and know it to be abundant, full and free.
With my love and prayers,