If God Is Suddenly So
Popular, Why Are The
Churches Empty?
By Martin Wroe
IT'S A low-budget animated film with none of the techno-wizardry of the recent hit Toy Story 2, and the story is 2,000 years old. But across the country the public are flocking to The Miracle Maker, a version of the life of Jesus based on the Gospel of St Luke and starring a collection of finger-high clay figures.
At Manchester's Showcase Cinema, advanced bookings have exceeded those for Titanic. It has sold out in Swindon, Sheffield and Streatham, South London, according to distributor Icon, which says interest is so great it has had to increase the number of prints nationwide from 100 to 170. Many multi-screen cinemas are moving it to their bigger auditoriums.
In London, haunting images of Jesus bear down on commuters, promoting the exhibition Seeing Salvation at the National Gallery. Director Neil MacGregor, who tonight begins a four-part BBC2 series on Images of Christ in Art, says he is astonished at the numbers visiting the exhibition, upwards of 5,000 a day, already past 100,000. Even the exhibition catalogue has entered the top 10 best-selling books.
Maybe it's the Lenten season, but just as the public are flocking to watch images of Jesus, a clutch of celebrities have announced that they, too, have seen the Light.
The Damascene conversion for Fay Weldon, author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, came as she was writing a literary preface to St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians where she encountered "timeless truths". In an unlikely case of the misogynist converting the feminist, Weldon has been baptised into the Church of England.
Jonathan Aitken, after his release from jail, has swapped the simple sword of truth for the breastplate of righteousness. As he explained to Jeremy Paxman last week, when he heard the voice of God, time stopped. Or at least his Rolex did.
Not to be outdone, the erotic novelist and journalist, AA Gill, rose from his pew to announce that he too was "on the Godsquad", and aware also of the damage this admission would do to his carefully cultivated image. "Sometimes the one thing that seems to unite every frothingly barmy simpleton on the planet is a belief in God, and I'm with them," he says. "How I wish I could be on the cool team."
So the Church which spent much of last year lamenting its lack of millennium prominence is suddenly getting coverage of biblical proportions. We may harbour doubts about God's omnipotence, but there is no doubting his omnipresence. And yet, with Easter three weeks away, while He can undoubtedly fill cinema seats and art galleries, His difficulty is still putting bums on pews. Church attendances continue to fall spectacularly. The most recent survey found that numbers at mainline Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches have declined from 4.7million in 1989 to 3.7million in 1998. Falling rolls inevitably prompt a cash crisis: things are so bad that last week the Bishop of Blackburn announced that he would have to axe 25 vicars unless churchgoers raised another million. An Express investigation a day later revealed that diocese have been selling off historic assets to fund clergy pensions.
The Church of England retains its establishment role but its interventions in the public arena appear ham-fisted and out of touch: witness the shambles over the repeal of Section 28 when, despite hammering out a deal with the Government, the compromise amendment was defeated because not enough bishops turned up at the House of Lords to vote.
A new MORI poll, Mapping Britain's Moral Values, finds the Church one of the least respected institutions in Britain - only the police are held in lower regard.
But the enigma of Britain's spiritual health is captured in the same poll, which reports that while less than a quarter of those questioned attended church, more than half thought religion important. We believe but we don't want to take it too far.
"The paradox of our time," says Robert Ashby, director of the British Humanist Association, "is the growing sense of religiosity without gods." When Weldon talks of her new-found love of "orderliness, pews and music", he notes, "she barely mentions anything theological". Likewise, Gill admits: "I believe in an awful lot of things my fellow Christians oppose."
Today's converts, says Ashby, do not buy into the traditional belief structure. "They are arrogant. They join the movement and then they pick and mix what they will or won't believe, they just invent their own faith."
The Internet is emblematic of the emerging DIY faith zone. Visit, for example, the website where surfers first choose their preferred religion from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Others. Once a god tickles their religious fancy, they can then delve deep into their souls via an interactive road map entitled "What's Your Spiritual Type?" For these web-surfers, religions must become more fluid and less doctrinaire. But it's not just wed-surfers who have the desire to mix and match their faith. The Prime Minister is a confirmed Anglican, married to a devout Roman Catholic, but last week he too revealed that he has taken to reading the Koran before bed.
Prince Charles, the next head of the Church of England, wants to be Defender of Faiths. "Our spiritual life has become fragmented," says Michael Buerk, presenter of the forthcoming BBC series Soul of Britain, which promises a national spiritual audit. "People have started to cherry-pick from faiths, be it New Age religions or the established orthodoxies, and construct their own view of life."
Yet as interest in eastern therapies, New Age books and spiritual tourism booms, the image of Jesus Christ himself remains potent. At the National Gallery, Mr MacGregor says it remains one of the most powerful in history. "In a secular society people still turn to the language of Christian art to think about the big questions like love and suffering, loss and hope," he explains. "You don't need to believe that this man was the Son of God to be very moved by these works of art. In the same way that Hamlet or King Lear treat universal themes through a central figure, they can be seen as examining the joy, suffering and hope of everyone in any age."
Even if traditionalists despise the idea of letting people sign up and then believing what they like, the broad-minded, look-the-other way tradition of modern Anglicanism ought to be well-positioned for such a "pick-and-mix" environment.
But the Church remains a bloated dinosaur weighed down by an accumulation of impractical buildings which it cannot afford to maintain and a hierarchical structure from another age. Perhaps some quarters have got the message. Last month St Paul's Cathedral loosened its vestments with a high-tech "labyrinth" installation in which worshippers were given headphones and a CD player and invited to listen to ambient music as they wandering through a series of post-modern "stations". One was a lap-top computer where you said a prayer and lit a virtual candle.
The Church, says Dr Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College in London, is slowly turning to address the needs of post-modern spiritual grazers. "We are having to adapt to new forms or association and create new kinds of service because simply offering the Prayer Book and Choral Matins on Sunday morning no longer matches people's evident spiritual hunger," he says.
So the third millennium message for the Church is that spiritual hunger keeps people open to the old, old story. But, just like the film company, the keepers of the faith need to rethink their means of distribution.
As Richard E Grant, who speaks the part of John the Baptist in The Miracle Maker, puts it: "If the story has been told thousands and thousands of times in different ways, this is certainly a way in which I've never seen it before. To be able to see that after 2,000 years is extraordinary."
The ten new Commandments
How the church could change if it wants to thrive in the future
1. Join with other denominations and dispose of half your buildings, diverting the proceeds to world's poor.
2. Introduce sex equality. Dump half the bishops, appoint women to replace them. Elect first Archbishop Georgina.
3. Abandon pretensions to grandeur. Jump from the House of Lords before you're pushed.
4. Have evening services. Drop the sermon when there is nothing to say.
5. Let other faiths and local community groups use your buildings. Bring back medieval-style markets into the sanctuary.
6. Launch spiritual sustenance online.
7. Offer spiritual exercises and techniques from other traditions.
8. Use TV and video, with recorded music when the choir have all died. Drop the anachronistic hymns, sack useless clergy, stand up and interrupt when they're talking cassocks.
9. Turn churches into walk-in spiritual clinics.
10. Stand for things, not against them. Host new political movements which promote the common good.
© Express Newspapers, 2000


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