A Discourse Upon the Decline of Religious Observance in the British Isles


I am trying to find a church to go to.

I am, so far as I know, a Protestant. I was brought up Methodist, but the church I went to made my heart strangely cold. Although I am no flavour of fundamentalist, the last three Churches I have been to with any regularity have been Baptist. Baptists have their faults, but there is a better than average chance of any given Baptist clergyman preaching an informed sermon on some passage in the Bible, and one which he actually believes in. Furthermore, the baptising of grown-ups strikes me as a better way of going about things than the C of E approach. I have nothing against babies; it just seems to me that asking them to commit themselves to a position on total depravity, pre-destination and the Holy Trinity before they have mastered natural language and potty training is a bit ambitious. Besides, there is a romantic streak in me that has always wanted Christianity to be a Roman mystery religion, mystically sharing in the death of the Cosmic world-saviour. Thrusting the fully clothed convert through a rugby bath is the closest approximation I have come across. (I did see one in a Methodist Church Hall which involved blindfolds and charms and mirrors and oaths of allegiance to earth-spirits. But I'm too old to join the Brownies.)

The process of finding a church in a new area, is however, fraught with difficulties.

Morning or evening? Which ever service you decide to go to, it will be the wrong one. If you pull yourself out of bed at 10.30, you will find that this is the purely secular affair, with innocuous hymns aimed at the over 60s and under 7s. But if you wait until the evening, you will discover that the main service is in the morning, and the evening service is intended for advanced students only.

To make matters worse, I am a single man as opposed to a fully fledged human being. If I were an Orthodox Jew, I think there might be a point of theology involved. I understand that part of the Jew's job is to make little Jews. Catholics are rather confused on this point. St Paul said that it was better to marry than to burn, but then, St Paul had never been to a Family Service. Even so, it doesn't amount to a ringing endorsement of Family Values. But churches expect people to come in packs of four, with additional grandparents at Christmas and Harvest Festival. There are Mothers Day services and Family Services and Women's Institutes and Mother's Unions but no Adult Males With No Intention of Reproducing In the Forseeable Future But Who Nevertheless Happen to Believe in God Fellowships.

Since there was a time when Christians were thrown to the leopards for failing to sacrifice the requisite number of locusts to Norman Tebbit, I feel that this should not deter me, and resolve to plunge myself into a different church-like building each Sunday until I find one I feel comfortable with.

Attempt #1

Evening: Small Baptist church, slightly off main road. Normal design, brick rather than concrete. Airy interior, walls covered by that strange yellow plaster. 'Banners' hanging from ceiling at front.

To digress: Church banners are an idea that God had in 1985. He mentioned it to the Pope, and the Pope passed it on to all the local clergyman. An evangelical then wrote a book called 'Power Banner Embroidery' and ecclesiastical history was changed for ever. We are talking about three feet square pieces of coloured cloth, with coloured shapes—lambs, trumpets, crosses, angels and indistinguishable polygons are popular—sewn onto them. Slogans underneath, of the 'He reigns!' 'He lives!' 'He is rather worried about the low attendance we have been getting recently!' type on them. I think the idea was that they were carried reverently during Anglican 'processions' and defiantly during evangelical 'marches for Jesus'. In general, however, they just hang, apologetically, at the front.

The Good Book says that when two or three are gathered together, there will He be also. It was a good job I attended this particular service; otherwise God would not have had his quorate. The clergyman took the trouble to look me directly in the eye when he did his 'welcome to visitors' speech. The organist, who was also reading the lesson, read out a different lesson from the one that the preacher was preaching on, so he had to improvise. I can't remember the sermon, a bad sign.

Attempt # 2

Anglican. Carol service. The little girl who quivered appropriately on the high notes of verse one of 'Once in Royal David's City' and the cockney who made three attempts to parse 'Great with child' fitted the sentimentality of the season. I was initially concerned by the large numbers of paintings of the Virgin Mary: had I wandered into something Papist by mistake? And if so, will they burn me at the stake or try to convert me? I have never taken seriously the 34th article of the Church of England that states that the bishop of Rome and his minions are the antichrist: I was more concerned that I would be breaking into a secret society, crashing a party or spying on someone's family get-together. So I was relieved when the Vicar turned out to be a Vicress. I assume that high churches and ordained women do not go together. The choir kept drowning out the sound of the children screaming. I pondered deeply in my heart the mentality of a family who take one baby and two toddlers to a nine-lessons-and-carols service—particularly when, if this is at all like any other church in the UK, all the other Christmas services are pitched at the under fives.

Thirteen seconds into the first hymn, toddler #1 became hysterical, presumably due to the weakness of Cecil Alexander's theology. The baby awakes and an awful lot of crying he proceeds to make. The mother bumps him up and down in a friendly way. Toddler #2, irritated by the lack of attention, started running up and down the aisle. The mother eventually relented and took toddler #1 out of the service—a purely symbolic act since the vestibule was not sound-proofed. Toddler #2 reacted by screaming 'I want my mummy.'

A second extended family arrived during the singing of the penultimate hymn. No sermon. No-one talked to me. A fat black lady smiled.

Attempt #3

Large city church; I feel that this guarantees safe anonymity. Attending small services invites questions like 'what church do you normally go to?' and 'where have you moved here from?' I have never yet found a way of giving people accounts of my lifestyle and career which do not either sound evasive or as if I am some sort of dangerous criminal.

It was a large building, with British Museum style columns. An imposing flight of stone steps lead up to the entrance where a friendly and not at all invasive black man named Allen shook my hand and welcomed me, handing me a hymn book and, (unrecognisable curiosity) a copy of the Bible in the Authorised King James version. He passed me onto a young white man, also in suit. 'Hello, I'm Allen, the Gents is that way', he says 'That's the church, better to go upstairs, I don't think we have seen you before.' Passes me on to third man, a steward, also in suit, with no name badge, who directs me to a pew at the front. The children are also in suits and well behaved. (Is this because Baptists are brought up to treat church with reverence? Because the services are more interesting? Because Baptist families believe in Firm Discipline? Because of something in the tea?)

Since this is evidently the only church in England which does not run jumble sales or coffee mornings, the notices ran to thirty five seconds and consisted of next weeks service and the mid- week Bible study, to be about the letters from Christ to the Seven Churches in the book of Revelation. The hymns are all indistinguishable, tuneless and nineteenth century, with much cleansing, blood and lambs. The clergyman preached for forty minutes and kept saying 'my friends'. This was the sort of church where people not only take out notebooks during the sermon, but actually write things in them. The clergyman speaks on sin and rebellion. The argument that we ought to worship God because he is so powerful that we'd be mad not to is reassuringly straightforward, although admittedly a Satanist could have put forward a similar case. Another person called Allen asked me on the way out how I found the church. 'Because it is five stories high and situated opposite the nexus of all bus stops' or 'Because you stick posters of people with silly seventies hairstyles all over the London underground' did not seem to be appropriate answers. An elderly gentleman asked me to fill in a form and enquired about my wife/job/location/family. As a result, I was visited in the week by a member of the church named Allen, and received through the post a letter and a copy of the newsletter. They were certainly trying. However, the overwhelming sense of piety and holiness overwhelmed me.

Attempt # 4

Evening service, different local free church, withhout pews: a circle of ten or a dozen chairs in a circle around a piano, making it impossible to sit at the back. As a I walk through the door the pianist stops playing and all eyes turn to look on me.

One person takes the trouble to say 'Why have you come?' a question that that rather stumped me.

There is a small altar at the front, with a linen table cloth, fresh bread, and a chalice of grape juice. This hint of the traditional, the symbolic, the simply ritualistic was very much to my taste. The effect was, however, rather spoiled by the preacher's clipboard, biro, and index cards.

'Er hello. This one came together in twenty minutes. If only it was always like that. Same subject the pastor preached on this morning, actually. Is God trying to tell us something? There is not going to be any sermon in the normal sense. Or any sense. But there are going to be fourteen readings. On God. And his love. Which are quite short. And some of them are longer. I will ask people to read them. But if they don't, I will. And you can read twice. Or more. And stop me and pray. If you don't we'll go home early....'

He made a nice attempt at meditative service; closest I have come so far to finding something religious in a church. His idea was to read a large number of Biblical passages referring to Holy Communion (Passover, Christ's Baptism and Crucifixion, The Lord's Supper) and pausing to meditate about them. However his obsession with banal details removed any sense of reverence from the thing. ('Oh, by the way, I noticed a mis-spelling in the hymn sheet there. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. Not lead like a lump of heavy metal.') I felt an appalling sense of embarrassment all the way through, particularly when we came to the communion itself and he said 'come up at any time, when you feel ready'.

Someone speaks to me afterwards. Have I just moved into the area? No, as a matter of fact I have just got slightly out of the habit of regular church-going, and am trying various churches in the area to find one which suits me. Well, in that case I should come in the morning. They have a much larger congregation, with lots of children: a nice family service, in fact. What other churches in the area have I tried?

The pastor tried to conduct an exorcism as I burst into tears and start banging my head against the bookstall.