I’ve joined Instagram. It’s the only way I can communicate with some of the guys at the gym. My IG page has a few photos of me from former lives and clearly some gym “bros” have found them. Last week one of them—I’ll call him Steve—came over and said “so you’re a priest”. “Indeed so” I intoned, “though now retired”. He said “I’m a Christian. Which churches were you at?” I told him.
I asked Steve if he had a home church. He told me he used to attend a big independent evangelical church in a nearby town and then for a while a smaller one nearer home, but no church at present. “So you’re looking for something that suits you?” I said. He nodded.
Steve is tall, good looking, in excellent shape, mid 30s, well-spoken, highly intelligent, literate, imaginative, thoughtful, enthusiastic and vigorous. He runs local businesses catering largely to people of his age group.
Can I suggest a local C of E church?
Not all local churches are the same: some are bigger in every sense and more active than others. Questions go through my mind, some relevant to this church, others to that.
What would Steve make of a huge church with at most twenty people? Where there’s nobody under the age of sixty-five? Where music is under-rehearsed and singing half-hearted? Where readings are inaudible and some readers barely literate? Where preaching lacks a clear message? Where proceedings are unseemly? Where there is no sense of the numinous? Where cringeworthy in-jokes abound? Where the heating is woeful?
What would Steve make of a congregation that says it’s welcoming, but that in truth welcomes only those who fit its preconceptions of appropriate appearance and behaviour? What would he make of people cowed by conventions that have resulted in joy and spontaneity being replaced by repressed timidity? What would he make of a church that’s become an arm of the Evergreen Club or the Women’s Institute?
Steve aside, for he was open about his faith, I wonder about most of his generation.
Does anyone who had their formative experiences after the late 1960s have any need for God at all? Ruined castles and abbeys have more meaning for them than cathedrals and churches which are, like homes and gardens featured in Country Life, merely showpieces in the landscape.
Post-WW2 generations have no need of church for religious and numinous experiences, for these are provided by hobby groups and other associations. Football is an example. It has its own cathedrals, bishops, priests, wardens, acolytes, rituals, chants, denominations, rivalries, and public displays. And football clubs do astonishing work in schools and the local community—far more than churches do. People of Steve’s age are at least as altruistic and active in community welfare as are churchgoers. But fund raising in church is about paying the bills and propping up the diocese—there’s nothing left for altruism. Anyway, what decent person of any age would support an organisation that has shielded abusers and whose hierarchs try to wriggle out of responsibility when victims seek truth and justice? And yet the C of E thinks in its entitled arrogance that a few gimmicks will lead to people like him flocking to church.
I met Steve in a gym, so let’s consider gyms. Church and gyms have things in common: community, rituals, teachers. Both focus on ideals: spiritual and physical. Let no-one suggest that the pursuit of physical health is solipsistic or self-obsessive: care of the flesh is at least as important as care of the inner kingdom. Churches, in contrast, seem deliberately to foster ill-health with their farinaceous fare and, in some, gossip that murders the spirit.
Churches claim to care for the mental well-being of members. I fail to see how the emphasis on being unworthy and miserable sinners achieves that end. Gyms do better: disciplined physical activity is well known to aid mental health. Many of us are there for precisely that reason.
I’m amazed at how many gym members confide in me—far more than in churches where it seemed people were terrified that they might reveal something of themselves. What have we priests done to wound people so? There is not a great deal of discussion of ethical issues in the gym, but then neither was there in churches, and the urban churches from which I retired were so exhausted trying to survive that there was no energy for other matters.
Gyms encourage discipline and a sense of achievement as we aim for and reach goals. There is no fat-shaming or any other kind of shaming. There is no behind-the-hand whispering. Is this true of churches? Gyms include all sorts and conditions—women, men, young, old (at nearly 73 I’m not quite the oldest), fat, thin, muscly, skinny, tall, short, 4-limbed, 3-limbed, deaf, partially sighted. There is no criticism or judgment, just support.
Does church offer anything that the gym does not?