Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 7th October 2012
7 October 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
I will soon lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples; and they shall bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.
Where in the world might you find a country with a strong and burgeoning economy, unfettered by the millstone of unmanageable debt; a country full of youth, yet proud of its rich cultural diversity; but - most importantly for my purposes – a country with numerically the largest Pentecostal church in the world?
If you need any further clues about this magnificent country with 192 million inhabitants, then look no further than the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, because we’re going to be seeing a great deal more of Brazil in general and Rio de Janeiro in particular over the next four years.
Brazil will undoubtedly begin to feature more largely on the global stage as the World Cup approaches in 2014 and then the Rio Games 2016. This is all part of Brazil’s emergence as a more self-confident, creative, and assertive member of the BRIC emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – whose rise in wealth and influence has matched, and begun to eclipse, that of the old money of Western industrialised nations.
However, scratch beneath the surface and you will see something else quite remarkable is happening. But before I describe that, I want to explain why on earth I might be talking about Brazil here in the majestic surroundings of Westminster Abbey.
For any of you who spend time in the United Kingdom, or indeed any of the countries of western Europe, there is an almost continuous narrative of what we might call ‘the decline of the institution’. Whether it’s about the place of traditional authority structures, or even a perceived lack of deference, the past 150 years have certainly seen a radical change in our culture. Where political party membership once numbered in the millions, it is now in the 10s or 100s of thousands. Trade Union participation has similarly been decimated. And religious affiliation fits the same pattern.
Since the early censuses in 1851, subsequent research has found a steady decline in church attendance, but a stubbornly persistent range of religious beliefs being held. Sociologists have coined this ‘believing without belonging’ or ‘vicarious religion’. We want the Church; we want faith; we just don’t want to do it ourselves.
And on a broader scale, another interesting pattern is beginning to emerge. Having long been held up as the model for the emerging and developing nations, the economies, democracies, and institutional structures of western Europe have suddenly begun to look shaky, stuck in their ways and inflexible.
In religious terms this is often called ‘European Exceptionalism’: traditional churches might be struggling here, but the experience of Christian – and indeed other – faiths around the globe is of vibrancy, culture, engagement, and growth. Globally it is the dead hand of secularism which is being left behind.
So in this series of sermons on ‘New Forms of Public Religion’, I am drawing attention to a number of snapshots from around the world. Signs, signals that while religious people here might feel that their backs are against the wall, there is a great deal to be challenged and encouraged by elsewhere.
Which is what leads me to talk of Brazil, and to draw on the research of Proffessor Paul Freston of the Federal University of Sao Carlos.
Because the stunning statistic is that the largest number of Pentecostal Christians, characterised by vibrant worship, missionary zeal and social development, are to be found in Brazil. All 38 million of them. And in the past twenty years, this group of churches has grown from 4% - 9% - 22% of the population, almost exclusively at the expense of the established Roman Catholicism.
In fact, such has been the explosive growth of these churches that they are able to wield considerable political power, and have moved beyond the confines of their own communities. It is the only country in the world – so far – where this has happened to the Pentecostal Church. But others are moving that way: some 40% of the population of Mexico’s southern states have the same affiliation.
The rise of Pentecostal political power has been embodied in the likes of Marina Silva and Marcello Crivella, both themselves converts from Roman Catholicism. Marina Silva was the green party candidate in the presidential elections and won a creditable 20% of the votes. Crivella now serves as Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, as well as being a bishop in the Universal Church, a Pentecostal off-shoot.
Traditionally in Latin America, the Church’s social involvement has been with the poor, typified by the Liberation Theology movement of the 1970s. By contrast, Crivella says: 'I was told to go into politics by the church … I used to think that politics was for the poor, but now it is about being salt'.
Drawing on the ideal of Brazilian multiculturalism where black and white, yellow and brown all meld into a universal human identity, Crivella sees the emergence of Brazil’s burgeoning missionary movement as running alongside its economic growth and global political muscle. This is definitely not an off-shot of a North American older sibling. This is home grown, confident, and ready to take the task of Christian evangelism to the fours corners of the world.
So what does this tell us about our situation here in the United Kingdom: are there any lessons to be drawn?
Well, in a tentative way, I want to suggest that there are important things to hear on two fronts.
Firstly, the pervasive persistence of manifestations of faith – whether formal and institutionalised, or spontaneous and unfettered – within our own culture is well documented. The hundreds of people who turn up to Evensong day by day in the Abbey; the role of the Church in any national occasion; the place of the parish priest as a figure in the community. These have all long outlived their reported demise. But the picture is more complex: authority, deference, and conformity no longer attain in the way they were imagined to do so. Less people vote. Less people are members of Trades Unions. Less people attend church. But new forms of religion are all around us – from the feng shui peddled in smart shops to the rise of personal fulfilment or the outpouring of public sentiment at critical times.
It’s not simply that religion is dying and secularism is arriving. It’s more subtle and nuanced, and we won’t know until we get there.
In the meantime, what is clear is my second point: which is that faith in all its variety is alive and kicking in the global village. And we should look out – because it’s coming to a city, yes I do mean a city, near you. Whether it is the black-led churches which have heralded a resurgence of Christianity in London, or the immense vitality of mosques as places of worship and culture, these are echoes of a broader world, from which we are sheltered by a slightly smug sense of cultural superiority – the assumption that these things would die out once the West’s prescriptions were followed.
The problem is that religious people around the world didn’t buy into the Western vision, and found that God was speaking to them in a multitude of tongues, and speaking more loudly and clearly than ever.
And next week, on the festival of the Dedication of Westminster Abbey, I will be looking at the ‘Highway to Heaven’, an architectural phenomenon outside Vancouver.