Religion in Europe – a public utility

They may not turn up, but that’s not the full story

Just read a fascinating interview about faith in Europe. It’s a little old now (2005) but one of those pieces that makes lights go on in your head. It was with Grace Davie, an Exeter University professor, the sociologist who popularized the term ‘believing without belonging.’

July 23 - Prague - Cathedral & Castle (10)A few highlights:

European exceptionalism

‘The patterns of religion in Europe are not a global prototype. They are, in fact, an exceptional case. European self-understanding is premised on the idea that modernization implies secularization. Europeans think that what Europe does today, everyone else will do tomorrow; they don’t find it easy to grasp that the European case is, perhaps, sui generis.’

Contracting out your faith

Religion is contracted out. Regular church attendance is small and declining. But trying asking a wider question – who do I want to take care of my funeral? A much higher percentage expect something of the church. ‘The historic churches are public utilities, and you expect public utilities to be there when you need them.’

‘Religion [is] performed by an active minority — that’s the belongers — but on behalf of a much larger number — that’s the wider population, who implicitly, not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. In other words, there is a relationship between the nominal member and the active member.’

‘Church leaders and churchgoers not only perform ritual on behalf of others, they also believe on behalf of others.’

This explains why newspapers write so much about what bishops believe and what the Church of England synod is up to. They are doing exactly what they also do with sport or politics — telling the crowds of semi-committed non-payers what the committed minority are getting up to.

Among further evidence for contracted-out religion she notes what happens in tragedies (people expect the churches to be open); and the resentment people feel about a parish church being closed (people feel it belongs to them).

Two models of church

Statistics can be misleading because change is happening within denominations as well as in newer denominations. This can hide working models (it does so in the Church of England). The two working models are:

  1. The evangelical, often charismatic church. ‘In every small town and city you will find a relatively successful evangelical church.’ The most successful include a charismatic, experiential element.
  2. The cathedral or city-centre church. ‘You can just go there, you can sit behind your pillar, nobody bothers you, but while you’re there, you experience traditional liturgy — very predictable liturgy, which is clearly important (everybody knows what’s going to happen). You have world-class music, sublime architecture and very good preaching. It’s a very high standard. If you look at cathedrals, they are filling at every level. They are filling with regular members, less regular members, pilgrims and tourists.’

These lead to two models of Christian involvement among Europeans: the convert (the one who joins the evangelical church) and the pilgrim or seeker. ‘Old-fashioned Biblicism, as well as liberal Protestantism, is in trouble … The purely cognitive does not seem to appeal to today’s population. And although you have two completely different patterns, in fact they have a common element. It’s not so much what you learn when you get there; it’s the taking part that is important. It’s the fact that you’re lifted out of yourself that counts. And the big one-off occasions — candlelit carol service or evangelical conventions — are what do the trick’. It’s a mistake to ‘divide Europe into people who practice [the weekly attenders] and people who don’t, because most people are somewhere in the middle.’

They do things differently there
Share the gospel or preach good principles?

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