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Secular City?

London is more religious than the rest of the country’. This was the surprising conclusion of a survey conducted by Theos, a respected Christian think tank. Delayed by the pandemic and published only recently, Religious London: Faith in a global city found that 30% of Christian Londoners attend services and pray regularly compared to 13% in the rest of the country. The survey also discovered there are now more Catholics in London (35% of the total number of Christians) than Anglicans (33%), though the fastest-growing Christians are the Pentecostals/charismatics. ‘What we can say with confidence’ says the report, ‘is London is not currently a secular city, or if it is, its secularism is not popular but elite’. The survey challenges the assumption that cities are secularised and godless places.

Pope Francis has an interesting take on cities. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) we read: ‘We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares… This presence must not be contrived but found, uncovered (71)’ . In other words, God is out there, even where there is unbelief, dwelling in the hearts of people’s innate desire for ‘goodness, truth and justice’, as Francis says. Explicit religion often may not be invoked, but God is there in the truly human, and the role of the missionary Christian is to ‘uncover’ it. Not that Pope Francis is naive about the ills of the world and urban life: read Chapter One, Dark Clouds over a Closed World, in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, who mapped our progress in the western world from universal religious belief in 1500 to a secular age today in his monumental A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007), doesn’t fall into the trap of pitting secularity against religion. Rather, he charts a curious intertwining of the two, showing that even in a so-called secular age the question of God will not go away. Secularity is haunted by religion, and the agnostic may well be the one who is not sure of their unbelief in God. Taylor divides the world into ‘dwellers’ and ‘seekers’.

Dwellers are those who are uneasy with change, and there is a bit of the dweller in all of us. Seekers, however, are looking for something more, either within religion or from a position of unbelief. And Taylor reckons the seekers outnumber the dwellers in our secular age. If this is so, then the Church needs to be open and welcoming to the seekers, and it can’t do that if barriers are up and strict conditions laid down for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. This is why Pope Francis does not want the Church to become a ‘tollhouse’ where you have to pay to get in. Church doors need to be open, he says, literally and metaphorically. He wants a church that is in dialogue with the world and secularity, especially in our cities, a church that ‘goes forth’.

In fact, secularity may be more friendly towards religion than is acknowledged. Is it really the enemy of faith, or is there more to it than that? Many commentators have argued that the process of secularization, defined loosely as the withdrawal of institutional religion from society, politics and personal belief, is the child of Judaeo-Christianity and takes its starting point from a God who created an autonomous world. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob banished gods and spirits from the world. In fact, some would argue that Christianity is a radically secularizing religion. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks of the ‘secularity of the Cross’.

The Vatican document Dominus Jesus, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000 when Cardinal Ratzinger was its Prefect, and which was criticised for not being very ecumenical, at least had the theological acuteness to nail the issue down: in Christianity God comes down to the world, whereas the great world religions are human attempts to reach up to God. In other words, Christ relativizes all religion, including an inauthentic Christianity that is too ‘churchy’, what Pope Francis calls a ‘self-referential church’.

When I was a parish priest in Edinburgh, I was well aware that the two hundred or so who came to church in an area with a population of several thousand could not claim to be the only ones in whose lives God’s grace was at work. The challenge was in trying to reach out to the thousands in whose humanity God dwelt but who weren’t aware of it. And this is the challenge facing the Church everywhere. To be a Christian missionary, and that means all of us, is to somehow lead others to see that Christ is in our midst but unacknowledged, and that only a church that welcomes those who may be haunted by what is missing in their lives is a church that will speak to a secular age.

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