After hearing about the massacre in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, I went to church, happily sang the word God and stuffed £20 in the collection plate. I’m a believer and am lucky to have a lovely church on the corner of the square where I live. I attend irregularly, but on my frequent walks to my volunteer job I always enjoy disapproving as I read the list of activities going on at the community centre which is in ‘the award-winning conversion’ (the sin of pride, for starters) of the nave of the church — bridge (gambling), astrology circle (false prophets), kung-fu (violence) and pilates (vanity), all in one week! Tutting happily, I go on my merry way.
It makes sense when we consider the strange and splendid fact that there are now more churches than pubs in our notoriously thirsty and libertine country, the temperance movement scoring a somewhat posthumous victory. There’s little chance of the building disappearing. Nevertheless, for more than a decade I have rarely walked past without thinking: ‘What will come after the churches have gone?’
This vague notion was made blazing flesh when Notre Dame went up in flames. Curiously, I noticed on social media that the people who were most upset about it were my atheist friends — I mean, I love gargoyles and it’s always a shame to see a building go up in smoke, but perhaps if you believe that the Lord is everywhere you don’t tend to pin him down to actual postcodes. And it’s one of those fancy Catholic churches anyway — I prefer the stark Protestant kind, with lots of plain stone and a cross, just in case anyone misses the point.
Due to my lifelong fascination with Judaism, I’ve struggled with the Christianity I adopted in my mid-twenties when after a predictably atheistic youth I had a textbook religious experience.
While alone in my London flat one day I suddenly felt that a jar of balm — I’ve never felt the need to use this word before, but it’s the only way to describe it — had been poured over my head. And no, I wasn’t drunk or taking drugs at the time. After moving to Brighton I went through a decade of ‘church-hopping’ like some crazy nymphomaniac in search of spiritual rather than sexual satiation; that one was too high, this one too low, the other one actually had a sign on the wall saying ‘Please keep hold of your handbags!’
At the church I now attend, I was put off for a long time after a child answered ‘a spaceship’ when asked the perfectly simple question of what the crucifix is — and the congregation laughed indulgently. I could still do without the Easter vuvuzelas the children toot, which makes a sombre service sound like a climate change protest. But the perfect church, like the perfect person, isn’t there; what we settle for is the thing that causes us the least grief.
People attend church for different reasons; some for comfort, some for continuity, some lucky ones because their faith is the greatest thing in their life.
I don’t believe in the Trinity; when they sing ‘three-in-one’ it invariably makes me think of a supermarket special offer, like buy-one-get-one-free. I go as a gesture of solidarity and defiance.
Christianity is now the most persecuted religion in the world, with Christians 140 times more likely to be murdered for their faith in Muslim countries than Muslims are in Western Christian countries. Some estimates claim that one Christian is killed every five minutes.
In Britain, Christianity is merely being disappeared — from the police arresting an elderly African street preacher for ‘breach of the peace’ in London this year (his cry of ‘Don’t take my Bible!’ as a pair of strapping plods handcuffed him was heartrending) to our refusal to give sanctuary to Asia Bibi lest it upset certain Christian-hating ‘communities’.
In France, already the usual suspects are suggesting that the new Notre Dame should have ‘multi-faith’ elements — minarets, to be specific — which I’ll be up for the day I see a new multi-faith mosque.
It would be a shame for all of us if we lost the values of the Reformation — ironically, it would be worst for those who are currently cheerleading for the rise of other more repressive religions.
At the service I went to on Easter Sunday, there was no mention by the vicar of the massacre in Sri Lanka, which made me dislike that turn-the-other-cheek thing even more. But I’ll keep going back, because the churches will go from us if we don’t go to them. And what comes after them will not be better.