Why are jokes about religion or sex funny? It is possibly because they are serious subjects that touch upon the deepest parts of our being. Both have the power for ennobling human life and relationships. Both have the power to –if you will excuse the expression – screw us up good and proper. Sexual expression can enrich a loving relationship; where it becomes a tool for exploitation in can scar and ruin a life. Religion can build orphanages, serve the poor, produce marvellous art, express the pinnacle of the human spirit’s quest for transcendence; it can also bomb abortion clinics, send suicide bombers into crowds of innocent people, produce neurosis and fly aircraft into buildings.
The recent statistics about the rise and fall of formal religious affiliation in England and Wales were interesting. Speaking only to the data regarding Christianity, there were approximately 4 million fewer people identifying themselves as ‘Christian’ than there were in 2001. Also the numbers of those claiming no religion has increased from 15% in 2001 to 25% in 2011. One reading of this may be that people are a bit more authentic and less likely to identify a religious affiliation that is not meaningful. E.g. being baptised in the Church of England may not mean a lot to an individual for whom church attendance ended on the day of their christening. In the past they may well have ticked ‘Christian’ on the census form but it may feel far more genuine to say ‘no religion’ in this case.
More authentic or not, the statistics still give pause for the wider Church to ask itself why they are failing to connect with and increasing number of people outside the Church. Again, it is not the mission of the Church to increase its numbers so much as to be faithful to its calling to be an extension of Christ’s presence in the world. But still one must wonder to what extent the parochial pre-occupations, addictions to patterns that have long proved dysfunctional, and – in the Church of England’s case – a cultural alliance with state power and the class system have to do with ‘being Christ for the world’.
One of the positive emphases in the document ‘Transforming Presence’, now under consideration among churches in my own Diocese of Chelmsford, is the cultivation of spirituality. This is different than the cultivation of religion, narrowly understood. Spiritual practice aims deeper and focuses on enlarging personal engagement with faith’s underlying values. Practices like meditation and other disciplines aim to connect us one another, the world and ultimate reality, Holy Mystery, God or whatever term one prefers as a reference to a larger meaning-giving framework. They help to reify the core values of love, compassion and wisdom which, by the way, resonate across many religious traditions.
Love, compassion, authenticity: these characteristics, when vital realities in the Church’s life, may also make it a more attractive option for people seeking to explore life more deeply.