On the Summer Solstice over 20,000 individuals went to Stonehenge to revel and watch the sun rise (alas it was too cloudy this year to actually see the sun, though that didn’t seem to dim the celebrations). While in the past these massive throngs of travelers, tourists, and true-believers were seen as a charming (or annoying depending on your views) facet of British life, recent demographic upheavals regarding religion in the island nation have some re-evaluating what these crowds represent.
“A new analysis of the 2011 census shows that a decade of mass immigration helped mask the scale of decline in Christian affiliation among the British-born population – while driving a dramatic increase in Islam, particularly among the young. It suggests that only a minority of people will describe themselves as Christians within the next decade, for first time.”
So I was not completely shocked to hear that the Anglican Church in England is working to create a “pagan church” in the name of reaching out the kind of folks who like to gather at megaliths for festivals.
“The church is training ministers to create “a pagan church where Christianity [is] very much in the centre” to attract spiritual believers. Ministers are being trained to create new forms of Anglicanism suitable for people of alternative beliefs as part of a Church of England drive to retain congregation numbers. Reverend Steve Hollinghurst, a researcher and adviser in new religious movements told the BBC: ‘I would be looking to formulate an exploration of the Christian faith that would be at home in their culture.’“
No doubt certain corners are already hunting “Episcopagans,” but I think this is more like the churches that hold “goth” services. It’s the same Christian theological center, but with trappings designed to make this growing demographic comfortable. Further, I don’t think this is really about Pagans at all. It’s about the millions of people with “no religion,” the folks who take an increasingly individualistic view of religion, and have no trouble attending a Pagan event on week, and (maybe) going to a Christian church the next.
“Compared with the 2001 Census the most significant trends were an increase in the population reporting no religion – from 14.8 per cent of the population in 2001 to 25.1 per cent in 2011, a drop in the population reporting to be Christian – from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, and an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent in 2001 to 4.8 per cent in 2011.”
Who knows, maybe a strategy embracing a more Pagan-friendly form of Christianity would win some new converts, but I think most people’s alienation comes from something deeper than aesthetics. On Thursday I spent four hours speaking to evangelical Christians who were studying to become clergy and full-time missionaries within their faith. At one point a young woman asked me what theological common ground modern Pagans and evangelical Christians shared. It was a question that stopped me short, and I had to finally admit that there was no theological common ground of note between us. That indeed, Christianity was in part formed in opposition to the then-dominant paganisms of the ancient world. Exclusivity, rigid monotheism, creator-steward dynamics, an infallible central text as ultimate authority, there are things are simply aren’t embraced by the bulk of the modern Pagan movement. I eventually said that instead of searching for theological common ground, we should focus on things that jointly concern us as human beings (human rights, the environment) and work on relationships instead of bridge-building through belief.
I suppose a “pagan” Christianity could emerge within festival culture like the Jesus People did within the 1960s hippie movement, but it’s not something that can be constructed from the top down. Training Pagan-friendly ministers might be nice for certain interfaith interactions, but I can’t see it convincing anyone to reclaim an Anglican Christian identity. What really needs to happen is more authentic relationships across faith lines, not training in how to conform to perceived subcultural norms. A relevant Christianity is one that re-focuses on its core radical message of love and embracing those outcast by society, not one that knows how to drum at Stonehenge during the solstice.
What do you think? Should Christians be more like Pagans, at least aesthetically? Would it matter to you?