Hallo again to all.
Surely that is one of the most intriguing opening lines ever of a novel. Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond (1956) chronicles the adventures of travellers in Turkey a century ago. Macaulay knew that all of her readers would know what 'high mass' meant, because the context of religion was then part of everyday culture. No longer. What should we do? Give up? Return to the past? Mourn its passing and withdraw? We hope not.
We have all seen shrinking church attendance, the de-Christianisation of society, the church competing with football, hockey, sleep, and the Sunday newspaper. People wake up on Sunday morning, ask themselves 'Should I go to church today? Should I take the children?' Too often, the answer is 'No', and there is yet another Sunday in which most of the congregation has white hair.
It's easy for us within the church to want to hide, to take refuge in the known and the comfortable. We are preoccupied, as the saying goes, with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, worrying about whether cassocks are giving way improperly to albs, losing ourselves in canon law, customaries, or casuistry. We are avoiding the world Out There that wouldn't know a thurible from a drill bit and only knows the name of Jesus as an expletive. It can seem so hopeless.
Parents ask themselves if it is worth the fight, to wake, feed, and dress children, who complain all the while about going to church—simply to end up, if lucky, with the rite of confirmation being their graduation from the church, as the expression has it. Can church attendance, Sunday school, or confirmation classes matter, when so many polls and statistics document the high numbers of lapsed, disaffected, or non-practising Christians of every denomination? On a small scale, one can answer, 'Yes, it matters', finding anecdotal evidence in our own circles, from the rebellious agnostic university student who ran back to the church when his first child was born to the self-proclaimed atheist daughter who now serves on the PCC. But this week we happened upon a larger example, making us see that it does make a difference to teach our faith to the next generation. That faith changes as it persists, but yet at the end it manifests itself as clearly as a hymn:
We're of an age that no longer rushes out to buy or borrow the latest popular music; we feel safer with Schubert and Scarlatti than with Springsteen. We aren't sure just how we came to listen to the new release from American popular musician Bruce Springsteen. But when we heard that The Rising, his latest CD, debuted at number one on the charts in eleven different countries simultaneously, we thought we'd listen to what it was that tens of millions of people were buying. What we heard was deeply spiritual, enabled most likely by the 'deposit of faith' that Springsteen's parents gave him when he was young enough to be told to go to church and Sunday school. His churchgoing habits may have faded decades ago, but his faith is powerfully alive.
Faith is where you find it—or where it finds you—and these songs are as deeply Christian as most hymns. Is it a mark of spiritual hunger that this CD is so popular? We think so. The hunger for God is there, in the world. If we don't teach our faith to our children, when they finally realise they need it, what do they do? Will they invent a religion of their own? Lose themselves in crystal pyramids? Something even sillier? Or something even worse? How do we invite the next generation to follow Christ instead of Huitzilopochtli?
One of the best invitations we've heard comes from another English writer, Dorothy Sayers (who may well be the aunt Dot in our opening quote):
Bruce Springsteen, lapsed Roman Catholic boy from Asbury Park, New Jersey, is out there working for the church. One day, perhaps, he'll come in again, when he feels he can. It's the faith that counts, not which side of the door you're on.
See you next week.
updated: 1 September 2002