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Believing without belonging

by Anthony Egan SJ


The enforced absence of Christians from Sunday worship during these months of lockdown has been traumatic, despite online or televised services, including many Sunday Masses, as well as prayer services conducted within families, or simply the act of solitary prayer. In many respects, the whole Church finds itself, believers, without tangibly belonging to a parish or community of worship.

Some readers may be familiar with the term I’m using, coined by sociologist Grace Davie to describe people who though they believe in God have no sense of connection to a church, synagogue or temple. The picture is the same worldwide: the religious category of ‘nones’ – those unaffiliated to a religion – is growing.

The ‘nones’ are not atheists or agnostics, but feel no need to participate in “organised religion”.

Some have walked away over the child abuse crisis that has emerged across Christian denominations and other religions. Others have left because they feel no support from their religious communities. These include divorced and remarried people, people in ‘irregular’ relationships and many from the LGBTQI+ community, who feel ostracised from participation. A few feel that formal religion simply fails to engage properly and reasonably with the significant issues of our time. And still others – particularly youth – find worship ‘boring’. What are we as the Church – in this time of enforced separation and introspection – to do about this? Perhaps as we wait for the return to normality, we might ask ourselves a few questions.

First, are our communities really welcoming to everyone? There are two parts to this question. Many churches I know are most welcoming, go out of their way to make new members feel at home. Others, I’ve noticed, tend to be quite stand-offish, focusing on individuals’ opportunities to pray, receive sacraments and – all too rarely I fear – be nourished by the Word. The second part to this first question ‘to everyone’ is more complex. Does openness extend to people who, in various ways, don’t fit into the mould of ‘good Catholic’ or ‘good Christian’? At best they seem to adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy – the result being that some Christians feel obliged to ‘keep up appearances’.

My second question revolves around how we might create spaces for genuine, sincere and critical religious inquiry. Are parishes just spaces to deliver a kind of pre-packaged body of doctrine – to be accepted unquestioningly – or do we offer spaces for dialogue and reflection on what faith means in the 21st Century?

My final question: how do we worship? Does our liturgy speak to our lives the rest of the week – or do we just get it done and get home for Sunday lunch? I have no easy answers for this one. Many, including myself, like a more structured liturgy. Not everyone does, however. The problem is how to balance tradition with innovation, formality with spontaneity, piety with joy.

I have no answers for this. But noting the rise of the ‘nones’ everywhere, it is a problem we must all either address or ignore at our peril. May we use this time of ‘exile’ to reflect on how we can renew our Church.


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