The church in the UK was bleeding to death.
I think I finally realised this at around 8.05pm on a sultry, sticky evening in July. I was sitting in a meeting in Oxford;a meeting called by a national organisation to discuss ‘the future of the church’. As I listened to the statistics and looked at the people around me, I began to doubt that the church actually had a future. It was a terminally ill patient, haemorrhaging people at a frightening rate. Children were leaving at the rate of a thousand a week. Families were staying away.The elderly were dying and not being replaced.
??And while the patient was fading fast, the doctors were bickering about the diagnosis. Instead of the solutions I had come to discuss, all I heard were excuses. One vicar stood up and disagreed with the way the figures were collected; another rose and told how he had no intention of changing his time-honoured ways, despite the fact that half his congregation had left. A young, excitable pastor rose to tell us how his church was growing rapidly; for a moment everyone was interested until it became apparent that his church was filling up with all those who had left the previous speaker’s congregation. ??In the end I left feeling more depressed than ever.
As the bus sped through the countryside, at a speed which would have made Michael Schumacher tremble, I thought of my daughters, back at home, asleep in their beds. Would there even be a church for them in 20 years’ time? What will happen to our country when nobody goes to church any more? ??
The evening was hot, oppressive.
The village lay silent all around me. I alighted from the bus, crossed the village square, and stood staring at the church, the building which had been a part of the village for many centuries, at the thick wooden door which had stood open every Sunday for 600 years, and which, I was now sure, would someday close forever. ??Overhead there was a rumble of thunder. The air was thick and greasy with heat. I turned away from the church.
“I wish I could know for sure,” I said to myself.
“I wish I knew what was going to happen.”
Then there was a light, brighter than a thousand suns, the air around me crackled, and roared. And everything went black. ??In the darkness there was a voice:
“Stay still, I’m scanning.” I opened my eyes and shut them again. It felt like the cast of Riverdance were tap dancing on my eyeballs. Everything hurt. My head, my arms, my legs... even my hair. There was a horrible taste in my mouth. I tried to lift my head and my brain started to do the conga out of my ears.
“Lie still,” said the voice. “You ’ve obviously had a nasty shock.”
I opened my eyes again. The light hurt my eyes,but at least the world had stopped moving.
The man addressing me was wearing mirrored sunglasses. For a moment it almost appeared as if the light in his glasses was making tiny letters and images. I shook my head.
“Well,I think I was struck by lightning,” I said.
“I’m not sure, but I heard the thunder and then everything went dark...” He looked at me curiously.
“We haven ’t had any thunder here,” he said...
??It was only then that I noticed.
“Wait a minute,” I said, trying to sit up. The square was lit by sunlight.
“It ’s daylight.”
“Stay still. You’ve obviously had a nasty shock.”
“No. I was hit by lightning... it was night time. Dark.” I rubbed my head.
“I must have lain here all night.” The man stood up.
“I don ’t think there ’s any harm been done,” he said.
“Nothing’s registering on the scans.”
“The diog-web of course,” he said.
“My Puterspecs say everything ’s OK.”
“Your what?” ??He looked at me as though I was mad.
“Puterspecs, of course.” He pointed at the sun glasses and this time I was sure. Small letters and numbers were flickering on the lenses.
“Surely you have a pair.”
“No... no I don ’t.” I looked around the square. Something was terribly wrong.
“Wait a minute...” I said, pointing past the man.
“What’s happened to the church?” He looked around.
“What do you mean?”
“Well it... it’s got more doors.Four.” He looked at me as though I were stupid.
“Of course. How else are the residents supposed to get in.”
“But it looks like it ’s been turned into houses.” ??
There was a pause. Then I saw the sign on the side of the Church:‘St. Jude ’s Sheltered Housing.Nos.1-4.’ “That is typical!” I shouted angrily.
“The Vicar never consults anyone. I thought it was bad enough when he launched his sermon series on ‘Brassware of the Old Testament’ but now he ’s sold the church.”
My companion looked at me and smiled. ??
“Friend,” he said quietly. “It was turned into houses 20 years ago.”
“Look, I’ve had enough of this,” I said.
“Thanks for your help, but since you’re obviously mad, I ’d better go and sort this for myself.”
I rose unsteadily to my feet and made my way to the nearest door, about halfway along the wall of the church. It was a sleek, steel panel, set neatly into the old stone. I looked for the bell, but there was none. ??
“Hello?” I shouted, knocking on the metal plate.
“Is there anyone at home? Hello?”
Suddenly,with an almost imperceptible hiss, the door slid open.
‘Do come in,’ said an elderly, slightly quavery voice.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
??I stepped across the threshold and into a brightly lit room. There was a sofa and chairs set against the far wall, and the opposite wall was a strange,silvery colour that seemed to move and dance before me. ??
“Hello, Nick. You ’re looking well.”
I looked around. There, emerging from a side passage was a woman. She had grey hair and blue eyes, and wore what appeared to be a pair of dungarees made of a silver, padded material. She was carrying a tray of tea.
“I imagine you could do with this,” she said.
“You must be thirsty.” I nodded.
“Now,” she said, “I seem to remember it was two sugars,wasn ’t it?”
This was all getting too much for me.
“Er... look,” I said... “I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but how do you know my name? Who are you? And what are you doing living in the church?” She set the tea tray down. ??
“To answer in reverse order. I’m living in the church because it’s been turned into housing. After all, no-one was using it for anything else. My name is Helen. And I know you because I used to sit in this church as a young woman and listen to you preach.” There was a pause.
“Exactly what have you got in those tea bags?” I asked... She laughed. ??
“Nick,” she said.
“Forty years ago I had a vision. I dreamed that one day I would be living here and you would come to visit me. I didn’t know then what that vision meant, but I’ve had it on the same day every year since. As regular as clockwork. Even after you died, the vision persisted. Forty times that picture has come to me. It came again last night. And today, at last, there you are.”
She handed me my tea...
“Punctuality was never your strong point.” ??I closed my eyes. There was a word there that was troubling me; a phrase she had used. A little tiny fact. Then it hit me.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘AFTER I DIED’?” I yelled...
“There ’s no need to get upset. No-one lives forever. You were 70,after all.” I shook my head.
“No I ’m not. I mean I wasn ’t. I mean... I ’m not dead.”
“Yes you are.Look.” ??
She drew back a curtain to reveal a window overlooking the church graveyard. It looked exactly the same as usual. Unless... unless, were there more graves, or was I imagining it? “Zoom,” she said, and suddenly the window blurred and then the graves at the far end of the graveyard came into focus.
“Wow!” I said. “How did you do that?”
“Window magnification,” she said.
“Old technology now. But look, there on the left.”
There in the corner of the window, I could see a small, white gravestone, more like a cube. On it were carved a few, short words. ??Nick Page. 1961-2031. Here lies all we could find. May he rest in pieces.
??“Nick,” said Helen softly.
“You ’re in the future.You died 10 years ago.”
“I see,” I lied. Then another thought struck me.
“What does it mean ‘all we could find’?” She shook her head.
“It ’s probably best not to know.”
“But that’s me out there!What happened?”
“Trust me. You ’d only get upset about it. And anyway, I ’m sure it was virtually painless.”
??“‘Virtually’ painless? ‘Virtually’? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I ’m sorry. I can ’t tell you.” I sat down.The world had gone mad. I sipped my tea.
“Nick,” she said gently, “you have to believe it. You are in the future. You are here for a purpose. Do you know what that is?” I shook my head.
“I was at a church meeting... a meeting about the future of the church...” She smiled. ??“There you go then,”she said.
“That ’s what you are here for. You’ ve come to find the future of the church.” And as I sat there, she started to tell me the story. ??
“There are no village churches left now,” she said.
“There was one left up in Yorkshire, but it went a few months ago. It ’s a kitchen salesroom. Or a sushi bar. I forget which. All the rest have been knocked down,or turned into bars, sports halls,museums.” She gestured around her.
“Or houses.” ?
“But what happens when people want to get married?” I asked.
“And what about christenings or funerals?” She smiled. “No-one gets married any more,” she said.
“No-one makes promises these days.” She sighed.
“I often think that that was one of the main things the church had to teach people: what it meant to keep promises.” ?
“What about burials?”
“The Government banned them several years ago, because of the shortage of land. Now everyone is biodynamically recycled.”
“Don ’t be daft.How can people be welcomed into a church that no longer exists?No,all the rituals have been lost.”
“You know when I was young I never understood that people need ritual. I always used to despise it rather. Now,there is no ritual any more. Or,rather,there are no rituals that involve God. Some people still have their children christened. Mr. Henderson down the other end has got the font in his living room, so people still pay him money to have their child dunked. They’ re trying to ‘rediscover’ traditional England. For them it ’s like taking up Morris Dancing or smoking a clay pipe.”
“For many people in our day it was more or less the same,” I said... ??“Perhaps. But at least there was always the hope that something would come out of that contact.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
“Where did it all go wrong?” She sighed.
“There are so many reasons,” she said.
“As you will no doubt find. But if you ask me, I think the primary reason was that we forgot how to be different.”
“What do you mean?”
“The church is here - was here,I should say - to show people what God is like. Didn’ t you used to say that yourself?” I nodded.
“I nicked it from someone more intelligent.”
??“Well anyway. Just as Israel was ‘invented’ by God to show other nations what he was like, so the church was intended to demonstrate God to those around it. We were supposed to ‘be’ God for these people; walking images of Jesus. I mean, those around us, they were never going to read the Bible, they were never going to read a tract or a booklet. The only way they were ever going to understand anything about God was through our example.”
She looked down.
“The problem was that somewhere along the way we stopped being walking images of God and became like walking images of the world.” ?
“But isn ’t Christianity concerned with the world?”
“Of course.But look at Jesus ’s life. People wanted to be with him;to be like him.”
“If you ask me the fundamental problem of the church in the last decades was quite simple:no-one wanted to be like us any more. And we were too busy trying to be like them to notice.”
??“So what do you want us to do?” I asked.
“Wear habits?Shave our heads? Walk around in sandals?” She looked at me sadly.
“If you ’re not going to take this seriously you might as well go back now.”
??“It ’s got nothing to do with clothing. And there ’s a difference between being distinctive and being weird.In fact you might say that was part of the problem. We thought that being distinctive was just a matter of wearing a dog-collar or putting a fish sticker on the bumper of the car.
From Monday to Friday we were just like the society around us. We lived in the same houses, drove the same cars, followed the same adverts, dressed in the same labels,joined the same clubs,held the same prejudices and opinions. The only difference was that on Sunday mornings we went to church and they went to a car boot sale.”
She stared out of the window.“We got sloppy.We were in the middle of a society that was desperate for someone to show them a better way of life and we let them down. We weren ’t different.” ??I looked through the window. The glass had reset itself now,and there before us lay the old graveyard.
“And when they did venture into church they didn ’t find the answers they were looking for. We wanted to give them things to believe in, but they wanted somewhere to belong. We told them what to think when they needed to be shown how to live. We made them feel guilty when they needed to feel loved.” She stopped and stared at me.
“They came to us for bread,”she said.
“And we handed them a stone.” ??She stared at me.
“You have to tell them,” she said. “You have to tell them that it ’s not enough to talk about the good news.We have to be the good news.’
For a moment,sitting there, sipping tea, on a sunny afternoon in an English village, it seemed like nothing had changed.
Then there was a buzzing sound and Helen said to me, “It is time for you to go.
Your cruiser is waiting outside.”And the door of the house slid open on its silent hinges and there outside was a large, egg-shaped container, hovering apparently, six inches above ground. ??And I realised that nothing was the same at all.
- Do I know what is happening in my church?Is it growing or declining?
- Helen said ‘that was one of the main things the church had to teach people:what it meant to keep promises.’ What does this mean for us??
- How are we supposed to be different?And how are we supposed to be walking images of God?
- Are there times when instead of making people feel welcome we make them feel guilty?How do we make sure we are giving bread and not stones?