29 May 2006
Roadside shrines, bouquets and teddies and the widening appeal of prayer stations, labyrinths and beads are all indications that images are the new words for people today, says the Church of England's chief statistician and researcher.
In Christian Roots, Contemporary Spirituality, a book published this week by Church House Publishing, the Revd Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Archbishops’ Council, says people have 'almost journeyed full circle' from the days when stained glass windows told the Christian story to the non-literate congregation. And churches are responding by making way for symbols again, such as providing prayer bracelets and commissioning new religious art.
The book’s publication marks one of the few times that such a wide range of research on the subject of Christian belief in Britain has been collected in one place. The book surveys the nature of religious belief in practice today and not only points to the continuing search for ‘spiritual nutrition’ but also ways that the Church is feeding that hunger.
Christian Roots, Contemporary Spirituality acknowledges that while public recognition of faith in Britain has declined over the last fifty years, the nation’s latent Christian culture emerges most strongly at times of national significance or crisis.
“Faith is bubbling under the surface of modern day Britain,” says Lynda Barley. “The twenty-first century has brought fresh reflection and outbreaks of faith when disasters have struck.” She argues that the biggest challenge for local churches is how they can develop a way of communicating their message with those who have little or no direct contact with the Christian faith, or who have rarely or never attended a church service. The ‘increased privatisation’ of religion in Britain means that churches need to find creative ways of reaching people who have a spiritual ‘itch’ – and are just waiting for the Church to ‘scratch’ it, she says.
“The importance of personal prayer in individual lives is one of the best kept secrets in modern Britain,” Lynda observes. “The Church needs to listen to the nation’s need for prayer.” She highlights the fact that parishes who have grappled with this by setting up prayer stations or organising prayer marathons have found that support for these initiatives exceeded their expectations.
While recognising that “the Church has foundations of faith that mean it cannot act as a spiritual supermarket where people make their own selections of belief,” Lynda has discovered how churches are building on those foundations and tapping in to the residual Christian faith expressed at key events throughout the year, especially Christmas. For instance, churches are responding what she calls the “modern-day mission challenge” by creating opportunities linked to The Children’s Society’s popular Christingle services or organising Christmas Tree festivals. Holy Trinity, Cuckfield, in Sussex, welcomed 1,500 visitors over just three days during their last festival, packing 48 decorated trees into the church including trees illustrating different aspects of the Church’s ministry.
Other churches have focused on the opportunities presented by ‘family specials’ – services that respond directly to the importance that people place on family bonds. These vary from wedding vow renewal services around Valentine’s Day, or annual services of memories, as in New Romney, Kent, where 300 people attended last year to light a candle for those who had died and to gain mutual support from other worshippers. Lynda comments: “Remembering is a key phenomenon in Britain today. We have become a nation for whom memories and the remembrance of them, particularly with the loss of loved ones, is very important.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in a foreword to the book supports the use of evidence-based research to encourage local churches: “The significant contributions churches make to individual lives, communities and wider society are often not fully understood either by those inside or by those outside the institution. Good research can help us properly reflect on the place we find ourselves. Evidence-based research is an accepted part of modern life and the dialogue it creates can powerfully help local churches consider before God their place in his mission to today’s world.”
Pulling together the strands of research and examples of ways that local churches are seeking to respond proved an eye-opening undertaking, even for the Church’s most experienced statistician. “Being open to the research evidence yields both encouragements and challenges for local churches as they move into the twenty-first century, says Lynda Barley. “Many find that the surprising sign of the times is that our Christian roots continue to be valued by many but in ways relevant for [modern-day Britain].”
Christian roots, contemporary spirituality, priced £6.99, is available from Christian bookshops at from 29th May or from Church House Bookshop, 31 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BN, tel. 020-7898 1300, e mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the web at: www.chbookshop.co.uk (mail order available).