Lost Church: Why we must find it again
SPCK, January 2013
Why do people seek out the ministry of the Church of England? Do churches welcome people in times of joy or crisis, or tell them they have to pass a test or jump through our hoops to join in? What meanings do people ascribe to church attendance, that they cannot articulate if all we present is a test of whether they agree with our ‘correct’ belief system? Is the believing/ belonging description still current? Alan Billings argues that there should be a third descriptive category of ‘attending.’ The characteristics of all three kinds of people are sketched out, along with suggestions as to why they may not have the most positive experiences of Church – the Lost Church of the title.
The more I read and write about this book the more I realise I am hopelessly unqualified to offer an opinion on how the themes within might translate into shifting attitudes within the church. I found myself nodding along in agreement with some of the questions posed and propositions offered, and others I felt I had to leave unchallenged or un-thought through because I do not know enough to judge the universality and applicability of the ideas. The book is accessible – even the unqualified like me would find it an easy read. There are not unreferenced assumptions about grand theological ideas.
Alan Billings draws on contemporary writers’ opinions and touches on the Pray4Muamba phenomenon; how prayer or church attendance are still part of the public debate. One theme of the books is the acknowledgement that faith and belief do not fall into clear categories, but there are many hues of grey in between the black and white answers. We would be wrong if we thought we could assume we knew why someone was attending church, and therefore his emphasis is on reclaiming the C of E parish church as just that; reminding us that it is there for everyone.
In particular I liked the idea contrasting the ‘people’s calendar’ – remembrance, mothering Sunday, midnight mass – with the church calendar. This may not be a new idea to many, but was fresh to me. One interesting point made concerns the growth of churches outside of parish structures – are they sufficiently rooted, accountable and open to all?
The book is also an attempt to unravel the place of Christianity in a modern, pluralistic society and to understand why, despite the numerous attacks, the C of E is still culturally important to so many. It must perplex the militant atheists that their rational attacks on the irrational believers have not yet led to the capitulation of the church and removal of all religious presence from society…
I wonder if this book will make it onto the required reading list for ordination candidates? It certainly would be a good starting point for discussion about what the role of Church of England parish priest is about.