The Spirit bubbles up in new places

PUBLISHED: 08:00 05 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:57 22 October 2010

When David Beckham, whom I rather warm to as a person, was asked whether he wanted his child baptised, he is said to have replied: "Yes, but I'm not sure what religion".

When David Beckham, whom I rather warm to as a person, was asked whether he wanted his child baptised, he is said to have replied: "Yes, but I'm not sure what religion". This sincere, if rather naïve, response just about sums up the contemporary approach to religion.

The enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books and films is another manifestation of the same trend. JK Rowling brings together irresistibly magical and mystical spirituality in her stories of traditional morality, set amid the cosmic battle between good and evil. She is entirely in tune with the rather muddled "new age" thinking of today, which probably accounts for her huge success as a writer.

A new report by Church of England statistician the Rev Lynda Barley - Christian Roots, Contemporary Spirituality - quotes research by Populus showing two thirds of British adults pray, and a surprise finding by the RAC that three quarters of motorists occasionally do so.

People may pray, but they prefer not to do it in church.

Channel 4 ran a series on Spiritual Shopping, one programme following a person who tried a Quaker prayer meeting, pagan drumming and Islamic prayer, but decided to stick with t'ai chi. Most mainstream religions are known for rules and conformity, perceived in today's world as negative and repressive, the report says. Today people like to shop about among new age festivals, horoscopes, supernatural phenomena, and foretelling the future. Church worship is seen as too restrictive, a quenching of the (free) spirit.

According to Lynda Barley, an underlying willingness exists in contemporary society to reconnect with the spiritual values of the Church. People do not want pop music or platitudes from the church, but prayer, spirituality and remembrance.

The church needs to examine how to meet such needs, she says, rather than reducing services to mediocre entertainment. She cites the popularity in the Swedish Lutheran church of a rosary-style prayer bracelet, "Pearls of Life", consisting of 18 beads, each with its own meaning. The invention of a Swedish bishop, it has become a best-seller in Scandinavia, and has spread to Germany and Britain. There is a booklet with it showing users how to address contemporary concerns through prayer.

The Church has to adapt to changes in British culture, says the report. "For too long it has been one-sided, the Church imagining people as it would like them to be rather than listening to where they are." In Britain religion has become a "private affair", and almost taboo in social gatherings. "We fear being thought stupid or unbalanced if we talk about faith. Yet more than half the population believes in heaven, and more than two-thirds believe in a soul."

"The demise of public faith is of concern because public faith informs private faith. Britain is moving away from institutions and formal religion. It is losing the inherited language and symbols of Christianity." Spirituality without religion is in danger of becoming a private "pick and mix" collection, without shape, with no sense of community.

The report draws together papers by some radical bishops who suggest the Church should be ready to celebrate "festivals of commerce" as well as Easter, if it wants to remain relevant to ordinary people.

Why not a festival to celebrate Fathers' Day, as well as the traditional Mothering Sunday (one of the few successes in the church calendar, and, heaven knows, the image of fatherhood today certainly needs a boost)? Don't just send father a card, bring him to church!

There could be a "celebration of love" to mark St Valentine's Day, re-christianising the now commercial festival.

What about services to mark starting school, or returning to school? Services marking the New Year, and hopes and resolutions, could be restored. (In my childhood in the North of England, Watch Night services were well attended.)

Pet services and even the blessing of teddy-bears, which used to be rather despised by the church, could be brought back. "I want our services, our liturgy, to relate to where people really are," writes the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones.

Professor Grace Davie, an expert on the sociology of the Christian religion in contemporary Europe, has often pointed out that one of the main growth points in the Church today is the special service, the one-off spiritual event, the pilgrimage.

People are drawn to these rather than to regular Sunday worship. Three thousand people pouring into Walsingham last Monday for the annual Pilgrimage Procession and service prove the point.

Yesterday we celebrated Whitsun (Pentecost) when God's Holy Spirit was poured out on the early church. We are a "spirit-filled" community of people "set on fire" with love for God and for all his people. The Spirit was promised to the church, but is never constrained by the church or its structures. He keeps breaking out and bubbling up anew in unexpected places. He will surprise us yet again.

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