In his novel The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the titular daemon recommend that a junior colleague encourage, in order to divert a potential Christian from the path of virtue, the habit of ‘church shopping’.
“The search for a ‘suitable’ church”, the elder devil advises “makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil”.
I suspect that Lewis has a point. I can certainly relate from anecdotal experience a tendency to become choosier about church the less frequently one attends. My own family only abandoned the local parish church for the smells-and-bells service in town when our churchgoing had attenuated to the status of yuletide ritual.
But whilst I can’t speak for those with faith, as a non-believer a degree of ‘church-shopping’ seems perfectly defensible. For those of us unconnected to the inner life of the service, it is precisely the outward form of it we’re there for.
Does this create a dilemma for church leaders? On the one hand, high days and holidays offer an opportunity to snare lost sheep. But doing so means shaping the service around the expectations of fleeting visitors, rather than the dwindling ranks of the regular faithful.
This tension was evident in the last few years we attended the midnight service at our local church. Lots of old faces would turn up. But the church was not as they had left it. Specifically, the musical director and choir had new songs.
Occasionally, these were great. Most of the time, they were fine. But they were known only to the regulars, not the guests. Thus instead of the uplifting experience of a room full of people joined in song, half the room were humming along to a melody they had never heard before. Eventually, more and more of them sought out alternatives; a church that played the favourites, a service where they knew the words.
I can’t blame my old church for their music. They go every week, I don’t. More to the point, they believe, and I don’t.
But I don’t feel like a trespasser at that other service. Even in an increasingly irreligious age, we live in a nation which has been profoundly shaped by Christianity. And that means that the church, and the Church of England in particular, is a depository of national ritual to which we all, believer or not, have a claim.
Those old songs, for example, are the ones my grandparents and great-grandparents sang. The words of the traditional marriage ceremony are the promises men and women have made to each other for centuries. They might not offer all of us communion with the Almighty, but that momentary sense of connection to our history is still precious. In a society gradually growing shorter on common experience and shared ritual these things are more important, not less.
So I’ll continue my idle, annual hunt for a service that suits my tastes. I don’t suppose I’ll ever become “a taster or connoisseur of churches”, but Wormwood will probably be contented with a job well done. Joyeux Noël, one and all!