David Quinn: Packed Mass shows what the church must do: turn believers into belongers
Published 27/12/2013 | 02:30
The church I rock up to for Mass each week is the same one I've been going to since childhood, bar an eight-year hiatus mostly spent out of the country.
As a child, the church was pretty much packed for Mass almost every Sunday. If you were a bit late you had to squeeze into one of the pews to get a seat or stand at the back.
Then the numbers started to dwindle, especially from the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s. Notably, the decline was well under way even before we knew a thing about the scandals.
Once the 2000s came around, the decline tapered off and for most weeks, apart from the summer months, the church was still half to two-thirds full for 12.30 Mass. It seems to have been that way for a few years now, although the average age of Mass-goers is, oh I don't know, probably around the average age of members of political parties: that is to say, north of 60.
But there are two days in the year when it's the 1970s all over again. The church fills up, the average age of Mass-goers plunges and families and children are everywhere. Those days are Easter Sunday, and of course Christmas Day.
This Christmas, as usual, the seats were filled well before the start of Mass, the back of the church was full, the side-aisles were packed and there were even people up the main aisle.
What brings people to Mass on Christmas Day above all days that doesn't bring them in for the rest of the year? Why do they bother and why don't the numbers who come on Christmas Day seem to diminish even though we are becoming more secular all the time?
It's because there remains a very big category of people who full under the heading 'Believing Without Belonging'.
These are the people who rarely come to church anymore. On Sunday mornings, they might be having a lie-on in bed after a busy week. Or they are bringing their children to sports. Or they're going shopping later, or they simply want to stay in and read the papers.
Many of those who 'Believe Without Belonging' (the BWBs) aren't even sure quite what they believe. Certainly there are plenty of the moral teachings of the church they don't believe in, especially the ones having to do with sex and relationships. A fair number of those who both believe and belong don't believe in them either, to a greater or less extent.
The BWBs probably also wonder exactly how much of the Gospel story is true. They like Jesus, that's for sure. But was he really God Incarnate? Was his mother a virgin?
The BWBs are also angry at the church, or more accurately its leadership, over its past authoritarianism, its heavy-handedness, and of course because of the scandals.
But those who believe and belong are also angry at the church over these things and keep turning up every Sunday in any case. In fact, it would be very interesting to survey these people and find out why they never stopped going despite everything.
Is it out of pure habit, or is it because they can distinguish between their faith and the institution? Is it because they believe that Christianity is also a community and they want to worship God as part of a community?
The BWBs obviously have a much more individualistic approach to matters than this. The communal aspects of religion don't matter so much to them, or maybe they get their need to belong to a community fulfilled elsewhere, by belonging to a sports club for example.
The BWBs, in fact, are a bit like floating voters, or those who buy a newspaper now and then or have no settled title that they buy.
Faced with the BWBs, the problem the church has to solve is the same one that political parties and newspapers have to solve: that is, how do they turn an occasional voter, newspaper buyer or Mass-goer into a regular one?
If you asked a BWB why they come to Mass on Christmas Day, they would probably say it seems the kind of thing you should do at that time of year.
They would probably say they like to hear Christmas carols well sung. They would probably say they like the atmosphere, and it's true that Mass at Christmas time, especially the Midnight Mass, does have a special atmosphere.
They would probably say that even if they don't know exactly how much of it is true, they love the Christmas story. The Christmas story does seem to go to a very deep part of our psyche, like all the best myths do, although that word is extremely misleading because a myth isn't necessarily false. A myth by one definition is a meaning-laden story that might well be true.
CS Lewis, most famous as the author of 'The Chronicles of Narnia', believed Christianity was a myth that happened to be true. This is what helped lead him to Christianity from his previous atheism.
The power of the Christmas story is ultimately what fills up the churches on Christmas Day every year, and more than any other day of the year it presents parishes with a chance to turn a few of those 'believers not belongers' into believers who belong and might even come back next Sunday as well.