Opinion & Features

Priests must be seen to be believed

Christianity survives through people, not mission statements or gimmicks (CNS)

In Poland, where I often work as a correspondent, it is routine to see priests and nuns in their cassocks and habits in the shops, queuing at bus stops or hurrying between tasks. That everyday presence of real people remains crucially important in signalling Christianity’s openness and availability.

Yet here, even those in the public eye, while bemoaning the demise of church attendance, are likelier to be seen in jackets and ties, jeans and T-shirts, than in anything identifying them as clergy.

Oxford, a city of 150,000 people, is home to some 400 full-time priests and ministers, including chaplains and lecturers at its university and members of its religious houses. Its landmarks include St Giles, arguably the most religious street in Britain, where Balliol, St John’s and Somerville College, with their stately chapels, stand opposite two large parish churches, alongside Dominicans, Benedictines, High Anglicans, Quakers and Christian Scientists, as well as a whole theology faculty and Oratory – all in the space of 250 yards. Yet visitors are far likelier to see Muslim preachers in their Taqiyahs, talking to shoppers and handing out leaflets, than anyone in a clerical collar.

Those who question the comparison with Poland, Europe’s most avowedly Christian country, should think again. Poland is currently home to 31,500 mostly Catholic clergy. That is actually fewer than in Britain, which boasted 37,500 clergy of all denominations last year, according to UK Church Statistics. Poland’s priests, furthermore, are more thinly spread in relation to active church members, with a heavier workload and weaker parish infrastructure.

Not so long ago, it was normal to see clergy mixing and fraternising with their communities. Professional expectations have since clearly shifted, while pastoral commitments have declined. Clergy today spend less time visiting parishioners than in previous generations and few involve themselves deeply in life outside their churches, where a single Mass on weekdays and perhaps two or three on Sundays has become the norm.

Most Anglican dioceses have reduced the profile of clergy still further by allowing their private lives to take priority over their mission. And in 2015, a General Synod paper agreed that Anglican clergy should be allowed to dispense with vestments, apparently not realising this was already common practice. Some argue that public attitudes have hardened – against Catholic clergy because of abuse scandals, and Anglicans because of their internal feuding. Yet Pope Francis has proved popular in Britain, as has Archbishop Justin Welby.

Evidence from the Bible Society and other organisations suggests that, far from being seen as an imposition, the presence of a priest in a clerical collar evokes sympathetic curiosity and a sense of reassurance. “I rarely get from one end of the street to the other without someone asking for a blessing or prayer, and I cannot count the number who greet me with ‘Morning, Father’ or ‘All right, Farve?’,” one parish priest recalled when I raised the issue recently. “It is by our ‘uniform’ that we are recognised. It is our uniform that makes us accessible to the non-churchgoer.”

Data from around Europe has long demonstrated that religiousness is not so much declining as changing, and that mainstream churches need to understand the challenges in order to respond effectively.

In the 2011 census, two thirds of Britain’s 60 million inhabitants still identified themselves as Christians, while in 2015 British Social Attitudes suggested that the proportion declaring “no religion” levelled off at around half after rising since the 1980s, and has fallen again over the past six years.

Those abandoning Christianity today, especially among the young, are likelier to be doing so less through militant atheism or secularism than through lack of knowledge and understanding. Being able to see and talk to clergy could go a long way towards overcoming this, and transforming Britain’s image as a de-Christianised country.

It may be too much to require all salaried, able-bodied priests to spend an hour each day on the street. But they should certainly be expected to identify themselves as clergy, taking the trouble to engage with the people around them, explaining their calling and discussing the faith.

Can threats against priests and ministers really be said to countermand such duties and obligations? Earlier Christians suffered persecution for raising their heads, while Church members in many countries today are still hounded for their faith. So the possibility of the odd taunt is hardly an excuse for hiding away.

As for more serious dangers, National Churchwatch, whose recent guidance note on “Counter Terrorism Advice for Churches”, attracted much media interest, calls itself “a multi-faith organisation dedicated to reducing crime in places of worship”.

Its previous reports recommended taking down “vicarage” and “rectory” signs, and issuing only mobile phone numbers for clergy. This one advises priests to employ bouncers and never be alone in their churches, while avoiding knife attacks by staying at arm’s length from those they meet and running zig-zag when being shot at. But it also concedes that there is “no evidence of any attack planned against any church in the UK”.

If Christianity is to survive here, it will survive through people – not through buildings and institutions, mission statements and online gimmicks. Nor will it endure if we give in to a climate of fear and paranoia. Modern society will not respect those who lack the courage of their convictions, and who aren’t prepared to stand up and identify themselves.