Last Friday it was revealed that, in Scotland, the number of humanist weddings is now greater than the number of Catholic ones. There are also funerals and name-giving ceremonies conducted by humanist ministers. Generally speaking, these mark the most significant celebrations of life, for so long reserved to the Church. The main difference is the absence of any religious aspect to those ceremonies. Honestly speaking, I have noticed a similar trend within the Church: more and more people are interested in religious ceremonies for three occasions: baptisms, weddings, funerals. Apart of these, their links to organised religion and its regular celebrations are next to non-existent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – however it’s very tempting to do that – but I’m depicting the current state of things. And, believe me, this description is not unique to Scotland.
Sometimes religious ministers and leaders express their concern that the plummeting numbers of churchgoers signal a wider spiritual crisis in our society. I’m afraid it’s a bit of a risky assumption, that religion and spirituality are the same thing. Personally I think that spiritual needs have always been significant only to a relative minority of those going to church. For centuries religious association was an important element of the cultural and social identity of a local community and its members. The Church provided rituals to celebrate special occasions, responding to a seemingly natural need to mark significant life events. The Church was in many aspects the only place where ordinary people could afford to access culture, to experience music and art. The development of modern means of communication and mass production has changed that irreversibly. Gradually more and more people have got access to culture on a scale previously unimaginable. The Church ceased to be a culture provider for the masses, and its role was automatically reduced to ritual aspects.
The Church lost its exclusive rights to moral teaching too. Nowadays people have many different lifestyles at their fingertips, and quite often they don’t cling to just one of them. They pick up single elements from different models and they build their own DIY set of values. The authoritarian approach of religious ministers, effective a century ago, doesn’t do the job any more – thank God! Dialogue is a default way of dealing with problems, and people expect to be treated individually in their uniqueness. Otherwise they turn their backs and disappear.
It seems that in our modern society organised religions have very little to offer, as in many aspects secular equivalents do the jobs that were once reserved or linked to church communities. In many instances, those charities produce highly valuable and commendable results. Quite often people are involved in these without any religious motives. Somehow it makes the Church redundant. Unless we have something on offer that no one else can provide. But do we have anything unique to offer?
I believe that we do. It’s not rituals, as they can be provided by anyone with some appealing ideas. It’s not charitable work, as many charities are better prepared and better equipped than we are. It’s not our moral teaching, as there are other competitive systems. What is unique to Christianity is the Person of Jesus Christ. From the very beginning it was Jesus who was preached and presented by the Apostles and believers. It was the Person appealing to so many that brought together the first Christian communities. And Jesus is still the only reason for the Church to exist, and proclaiming Him is the only task we’ve got.