Thursday, 19 February 2009

Regency Villas and Empty Churches.

Shrewsbury is as intact a Georgian/Regency town as exists in the country. The usual rules apply, on the (happily small) central shopping area, you have to look up at the buildings, not at street level for all you can see there are plastic shop fronts. Looking up in towns is a revelation and a happy time can be spent on the top deck of a London bus seeing the passing architecture which is usually denied to those on street level. Admittedly there are often other things in life to do, but a keen sense of observation is a useful thing to have, I sometimes sit with my policeman friend seeing who has noticed the most potential crimes recently through changes in buildings and patterns of movement and am pleased that I once, inadvertently, gave a lead they had been looking for over many weeks concerning human trafficking, thanks to my choice of a very odd way home now and again. Shrewsbury gives a clear message though, in its new apartments and shops, that Religion is not very popular. The grand Methodist Church has closed and merged with Saint Chad's, holding two services on a Sunday, one for each denomination. The Primitive Chapel is flats and the congregationalist Church is a shopping complex. Saint Alkmund's is near derelict and Saint Julian's is a craft centre. Saint Mary's, as we saw yesterday, is closed and the Unitarian Church is for sale, as is the rather attractive Presbyterian Church. The Roman Catholic Cathedral is tiny, no bigger than Saint Hilda's and shares Mass times with another two Churches in the vague vicinity. Admittedly, a small town had many Churches, particularly Anglican Churches, with three within fifty yards of each other, and these things are more noticeable when put together in a small town, but the decline in attendance is evident.

The Californians, of course, have an answer which lies in the setting up of thousands of little personal religions under gurus which attract people with a Gospel of doing whatever you want, be it capitalism, nudism or looking at pyramids in a meaningful wayism, but I do not think these last two at least would catch on in this small town, maybe not even the first, I have never spent time over the last few years in a town so laid back as to be virtually horizontal. I suppose that the decline in Church attendance is closely related to the decline in Churches defining who and what one is. Are you Chapel or Church? Non conformist or Anglican? People, on the whole, do not really care and certainly the sectarian divides which separated these people in the past have broken down along with Regency wigs full of rats and the rigid social structure which is so evident on walking around a town like this. Now the stable blocks are desirable properties and the old temperance temple is a wine bar and flats. Egalitarianism has made buildings, for the first time, simply functional rather than being accessible according to class.

One building which is very accessible is the Loggerheads Tavern, where I spent the evening with, among others, a few more ex players of Rugby League, so we could all pretend to play far more than we ever did in a mutually supportive group which allowed for tries which would have been disallowed when originally played. This most precious public house, as fiercely guarded against change as the SSPX have guarded the Old Mass is one of the happiest places I know of in England. By the way, Bishop Williamson has, I am told, been given until the end of March to leave La Reja and the SSPX. Who will follow him? This is the beginning of the split and will make interesting following. Who will be the new La Reja Rector? It has been suggested that, as an Englishman who went to public school and holds odd views, I should throw my hat in the ring, but maybe not this time. (Note to pedants, that was a joke).

The decline in Church attendance is a symptom of modern society, which is where God has placed us since before the beginning of time, so I am not queuing up to complain. It is time though to look outside, in our group, of old certainties, to plant Churches and have faith that they will take off, to open houses in city centres offering accommodation to students, daily Mass, talks and social groups for the young, to encourage an apostolic life in the midst of modern life, to sanctify the mundane and make holy the potential for development.

This, at least, is what was decided in the snug bar of the Loggerheads Inn on Tuesday night, by a group of, on the whole, non Church going types. 'It's all for old ladies and people with thwarted ambitions in their daily life trying to gain position in the voluntary sector', was the general assumption and the hunger for power and position in Church does sometimes let us down if allowed to run unchecked through the place. Knowing tax loopholes or the faculty law is not the way to the Kingdom of God.

But, of course, we were in the Men's bar, like the old silly chauvinists that we are. But appearances, as in the sign above, can be deceptive. Just take a closer look.