The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Replacing Religious Community

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 13, 2009 @ 08:35

Insert sickening and obligatory clichéd representation of "community" here

Insert sickening and obligatory clichéd representation of "community" here

As silly season is in full flow, this morning I’m turning my attention to an issue that has bugged me for a little while.

A few months ago, I attended the christening of some distant member of my family that I know nothing about and have never heard from since. The event took place, as they do, in a church.

But this wasn’t any ordinary church. It was one of the most interesting church services I’ve ever been to. As an atheist, and well known in my family, it is often quipped that “it’s a wonder the place doesn’t fall down when you go in”. Yes, there is little tolerance for “heathens” in my family.

Anyway, the thing that made the service interesting was the extraordinary amount of community spirit there. The church was packed to the rafters, not just with the old dears trying to earn some religious-capital with the Big Man before they shuffle off this mortal coil. No, it was filled with families and children.

This made the atmosphere very different. First of all, it was noisy and loud, even when the vicar was speaking. But it was when we finally reached the “homily” part of the service that I got an understanding of why.

It seems that this particular vicar was a big fan of treating his church as an integral part of the community. The welcome there was phenomenal: from asking if you’d like a cup of tea, coffee or orange juice (for the kids, but, being a big kid at heart, I had to have one…) on the way in, to an entire ethos of family friendliness. No one was bothered about the kids. Kids make noise. The vicar just spoke a bit louder. He was affable and lively. He didn’t preach or require. His sermon was all about openness and inclusiveness. He even made the point of saying that all religions were welcome in his church…

A bit odd, but I got the point he was making. This was no deeply religious service. It was, in a very old fashioned sort of way, a community gathering. And – even better – the faces there actually reflected the community it was in. We were in a part of town that has a significant ethnic minority population. They were there. It looked and felt like the kind of thing that brought people together during the war. Everyone seemed happy being there; they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Especially when the hymns came: projected in huge font on one of the walls, so that no one had to fiddle around with books to read tiny writing, and then sing downwards. The result was a very effective chorus of voices.

After the service was over, the vicar once more invited everyone for tea and coffee, and said people are free to leave when they wish. Sure enough, many people did. I stayed for another drink, and so did many others. The vicar moved from group to group discussing things with everyone, getting to know people and offering friendly advice. But so did other people. There was a lot of mingling going on. Everyone was actually interacting. They weren’t waiting for the vicar to come and see them. It was a proper little community.

The whole event got me thinking. I am of the opinion that community spirit is as poor now in this country as it has ever been. Religion does not have the monopoly on community, but there is no doubt that it is one of the few institutions left in the country that can gather people together once a week to interact with each other. If done properly, of course. I have been to many church services that are nothing but a bully pulpit for the vicar/priest/whatever in question.

There are non-religious community events, of course. But they tend to attract a certain sort. You know the type: they’re old, retired and have little better to do. They also tend to be the people who have a lot to moan about.

But how could we ever kindle the spirit I witnessed in that event in any other surrounding? If I contacted every house in my area and told them that we’re going to have a community gathering on Sunday at 11am, the first question they would ask (if they hadn’t already politely closed the door) would be, “What for?”.

And to that, I would have no answer. Religion has a reason for its gatherings. Ostensibly to keep in touch with God and their faith. But it has numerous secondary benefits in terms of socialising and community that flow from its first principles.

With no answer, and no reason or pretext to gather people together, community cannot form.

In the modern secular society, this is the issue that must be resolved. People will not gather purely for its own sake. There has to be an excuse to do so.

Until we can find one, community spirit in this country is going to keep dwindling.

In the end, we won’t even know if there are people living next to us…

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