A private club or open to all? The Church is both

A woman is pictured in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in London in 2020. (CNS Photo/Isabel Infantes, PA Images via Reuters)


His ideal parish church seems to be one that still includes “a space for worship”, but also includes – inside the nave – a post office branch, a café, another shop and a large children’s play area composed of brightly colored tubes and platforms that appears to be about 12 feet high and 20 feet long. Judging by the photo of St. James’s Church in London’s West Hampstead area, the worship area is very small.

Writing in Britain’s Prospect magazine, Jane Shaw, a former cathedral dean now head of an Oxford college, notes that the Church of England is shrinking day by day. “According to recent polls,” she writes, “if the decline in attendance continues at the current rate, the Church will be largely dead by 2033.” But there is a lot of money and a lot of churches, most of them barely used or not used at all. Just a quarter of people in England believe in God or a higher power. A third believes in a higher spiritual power that is not God or does not know what it believes.

Shaw has an idea of ​​what to do about it. Which is basically making the Church of England a social institution with a spiritual side, which she calls “the most open model of church.” She invokes atheist Bertrand Russell’s assertion that even when people reject traditional religion, they still seek the “quality of infinity” that offers “a deeper insight than the fragmentary knowledge of our daily lives”.

The Church of England “has been able to serve these seekers, and those on the fringes of organized religion, locally through the parish – by arranging baptisms, weddings and funerals; compassion and pastoral care in times of crisis; distinctive contributions to the well-being of a community; civic rituals that cement the bond between the individual and society; and the beauty and peace of the parish church itself.

“The C of E was designed to be for everyone,” she writes, referring to its founding at the Reformation. She contrasts this with the “private club model”, pushed by the evangelical party, which argues that “to be a true Christian, one had to believe in a specific set of doctrines about salvation”.

The problem is that the men who founded this “for all” church broke with the Catholic Church because they believed that to be a good Christian, you had to believe in specific doctrines. The doctrines, in this case, on which evangelicals insist. The English Reformers’ idea of ​​a church for all was not Shaw’s inclusive one. It was a situation where everyone had to agree with them, or at least pretend they did.

Because they believed that Christianity offered more than a hazy “quality of infinity.” He offered the Word of God. The English example suggests that belief attracts people. Evangelical churches are the only churches in England to grow as churches.

Yet even that is complicated. In studying why people leave the Church in his book “Mass Exodus”, the English sociologist Stephen Bullivant showed the complicated, and only partly religious, reasons for Catholics who leave, and therefore the complicated, and only partly religious reasons , people who stay. (This is also useful: better to bet hated for the right reasons than ignored.) As I opposed a proposal similar to Shaw’s a few years ago, the mainline churches that have grown have almost always benefited from distinct advantages of religion, including being less religious.

Which is unexpected good news for the Catholic Church. Even if Shaw were right, the Church cannot do what it suggests, although turning every parish into a St. James, West Hampstead would reverse the dwindling numbers.

The Church believes itself to be the bearer of a revelation. A revelation whose many details matter. Accepting the teaching of the Church or rejecting it means choosing one of two ways of living. In this sense, it is an example of the private club model.

We might call Shaw’s “church for all” the model of the public house (or pub). You can still walk through the door, have whatever drink you want, have a meal if you want, talk with your friends, watch TV or look at your phone, whatever you want to do. You don’t have to accept anything beyond the normal rules of human society to enjoy the place. You can become a regular or leave and never come back. Up to you.

This has its attractions. The pub model proposes religion without religion. It makes no demands and therefore keeps people closer to the church than they otherwise would be. And in practice, the Catholic Church largely lives from this model. We do not check membership at the door before Mass.

But the Church will always live in the world as the kind of organization that Shaw dismisses as “a private club.” The Church can only do what it does. She can only do what she is. That is, the Body of Christ and the universal sacrament of salvation. A private club, of sorts, but a club to which everyone is invited.

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.

Martha J. Finley