Recently I was giving a series of Lent talks at Coventry cathedral. In many ways that particular cathedral has a unique place in the history of Christianity in the West. During the second world war the cathedral was almost completely destroyed during Hitler’s attempts to obliterate the City of Coventry in one terrible night of blitzkrieg. After the war the church faced a decision. Should they rebuild the old cathedral exactly as it had been in the way that many German cities decided to do, or should they build a new cathedral entirely?
The decision to both preserve the old ruins and build a completely new cathedral alongside them was courageous and bold. The new cathedral, whose startling 60’s architecture has more than stood the test of time, has been a leader in speaking for reconciliation and peace. The old and new are connected with an arch that seeks to make a physical and spiritual statement about change and continuity, the new emerging from the tragic ruins of the past. In that sense it stands as a literally concrete statement about mission emerging from the ruins of a fatally damaged Christendom.
As I stood in the ruins of the old and then gave a talk on mission in the new I wondered afresh about the claim of the sociologist Grace Davie that Europeans are not less religious than peoples in other parts of the world but are merely differently religious.
Her contention is that the history of Christendom with its towering and dominant symbols of faith – such as cathedrals – has produced a situation where Europeans believe but are content for a minority to do religion for them. In others words the majority assent to the pervasive faith of Christianity in society but feel no need to participate in the life of the worshipping community. In such a situation the majority participate vicariously in faith. The knowledge that some keep the traditions alive is sufficient. This, Davie maintains, is why 72% claim to be Christian in Britain but less than 10% actually attend on a regular basis.
She makes a convincing case, but it is possible that she describes the past and to some extent the present but that this situation cannot hold in the future. That which has sufficed for generations is gradually being eroded. It depended on the dominant narrative and imagination remaining as the Christian story and since the sixties that has no longer been the case. Variations of the secular story, science as the hope of a brave new world or the consumer story have dominated the scene since that time. The arrival of a confident Islam and a much more strident form of secularism are likely to destroy the ancient arrangement of vicarious faith. Europeans may soon have to choose between being actively engaged in faith communities or having no connection with faith at all. The vicarious option, that of being differently religious, may have a limited future.
If that is true, Christians will need to learn how to build resilient communities of faith, that are no longer content to act vicariously for the majority but will seek to invite the majority to join the faith community as active participants. This will be a challenging future and one that we are hardly familiar with. The controversial, confrontational, and even threatening tapestry of the risen Christ, which dominates the wall behind the altar in the new Coventry cathedral, may turn out to be a very prophetic statement indeed. As you enter the cathedral you may choose to reject the Christ but it is impossible to ignore him.