Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 28th October 2012

28 October 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

'We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.'

I wonder if you would join with me on a short, unscientific experiment. More of a social enquiry than a rigorous investigation into a state of fact, but nonetheless it will help, I hope, to establish the main point of my sermon this morning.

I would like you to picture in your mind what the word ‘Church’ means to you. Depending on your country of origin or your family heritage or your current affiliation, this will, of course, mean a whole variety of things. But nonetheless, there are likely to be some common denominators.

First of all, a building might well be significant, not that any of us just focus on the bricks and mortar. But having said that, a place set aside permanently for worship has featured in the Christian tradition for nearly all of its 2,000 years history.

And then there is the orderliness: whether that’s expressed through the beauty of liturgy, the quality of the choral tradition, or the depth of sermons. But it goes much deeper than that: the whole trajectory of Christian history and the formulation of Creeds and Declarations has been about systematising, rooting out heresy and defining what are the boundaries proper to the Body of Christ.

Books are important: in the Western European Reformed tradition of which this Abbey is a part, books are very important. It was in these very walls that the keystone of the English language, the version of the Bible authorised by King James I, was finally crafted. Prayer books are fashioned, Canons are regulated, Publick Prayer in the Church is to be ‘in a tongue understanded of the people’, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.

And authority is the key: in order to decide on any of the above, Bible, liturgy, doctrine, prayer book, discipline, absolution all require an authority which lays down what is included, and what is excluded, from the boundaries of orthodox belief.

And let’s add in one or two more dimensions. If you’re anything like me or millions of others, say ‘Church’ and what comes to mind is a medium-sized group of people, perhaps up to 100. They gather regularly, every week or at least a few times a month. They have rotas and responsibilities, there is a priest or minister or elder who has an authoritative role. It is a local organisation, hugely beneficial for the community, and is involved in the key areas where Government cannot reach. Coffee mornings, parents and toddlers, AA support groups, conservation, youth work.

And yet it is part of something much larger, a national or even global body, to which affiliation is owed but to whom accountability might be quite weak.

And that’s how many millions of us around the globe, in this country yes but most certainly almost everywhere else, have practised our religion. Authorised, organised, book-based, uniform, hierarchical, and local. The theology, when it appeared, has been about being ‘saved from’ our sins, our situation, ourselves.

This style of organisation has been mimicked in political parties and trades unions, and like them has been in almost continuous decline for some 150 years.

But this sermon series in October – the previous three of which you can find on the Abbey’s website – is not about decline. Far from it. It’s about newness, in fact, ‘new forms of public religion’, the subject of a major programme of research in the UK led by Professor Linda Woodhead at Lancaster University.

The narrative which I grew up with, that of a tide of secularism sweeping all religious belief away in a tide of modernity, doesn’t seem to have materialised. Nor has the reclamation of the land for Christendom as the Non-Conformist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic revivals had hoped.

Instead, something different is happening. And here, I might just re-phrase my opening question and ask you to picture what comes into your mind when we use words like ‘Faith’ or ‘Religion’.

Because the interesting thing is that while the medium-sized, organised expression of ‘Church’ is being abandoned in the UK and much of Western Europe, both the very small and the very large are thriving.

Whether it’s one-to-one counselling with a healer or faith counsellor, or a small group meeting in a house church, the micro level of religion seems to be doing very nicely. Informal, occasional, irregular – these are more akin to therapy or support. There might be a leader but they are unlikely to be ontologically different – unlike the sheep of the flock, who can never become a shepherd.

And at the other end of the spectrum, the large scale event is becoming increasingly popular. Churches of over 150 and up to the ‘mega churches’ of 20,000 seem to have a drawing power and economy of scale that is impressive. Cathedrals, even this Abbey, is part of that picture because the anonymity afforded by its size means that the worshipper can come and drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment. Pilgrimage, festival, celebration all feature in this new landscape.

But here are some interesting side-effects. Where the printed word was once supreme, the informal networks of social media are coming to the fore in these New Forms of Public Religion. To alert people to worship it’s no longer enough to put a poster outside the church.

With that is a fundamental shift, because you have to ask – who is in control? Who authorises, who gathers, who presides? And the answer is clearly: ‘no one’. In a new era where religion is seen as a reservoir to be drawn on, the place of religion as a regulatory body is in question like never before. Yes, a person might be part of a larger body – they might be Christian of the Western Tradition, they might be Anglican, even Church of England. But they are unlikely to be subsumed into that identity: they will find themselves, rather than lose themselves. They are looking for a purpose-driven life, in which rituals and symbols are exploited and used, rather than deferred to. Think just for a moment about the astonishing outpouring of public religiosity at times of national crisis, disaster, or celebration.

But I want to end this sermon series with two brief comments, in case we are lulled into a sense that the path for religion is clear for the next ten or twenty years, a supposed path of institutional decline, fighting off secularism and the rise of the informal network.

The first fly in the ointment is that our legislature in 2010 introduced a new equality law which for the first time protects religious identity. And because of the nature of how the law operates, it has reverted almost immediately to old-style questions: ‘Does Christianity require a believer to wear a cross?’ Just think of what lies behind the question: it presupposes that there is an authoritative body which has the power to give an answer: a bishop, a synod, a structure.

The second fly in the ointment is that Western Europe is now so out of kilter with the rest of the world in terms of religion as much as in economics, that much of the religious revival here is being driven by highly organised, institutional, and hierarchical forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in other parts of the world. Ironically, their strength and discipline is often derived from the very authority structures simultaneously being abandoned in Western Europe.

In fact, I am tempted to say, like Isaiah, that, were it not for the grace of God, 'we grope like the blind along a wall'.

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