Brendan Hoban: Church is not immune to dying local loyalty

Church is not immune to dying local loyalty

Western People 25.5.2021


God be with the days when everything seemed so predictable. Apart from our notoriously changeable weather, life in Ireland almost invariably seemed to follow a tried and tested regimen even to the point of boredom.

Everything seemed to be in a groove – comforting to some, though tedious to others. And we looked to our seniors to excavate their long experience to counsel us, if and when new challenges appeared. That was pre-Covid.

Post-Covid is a different matter.

There’s general agreement now that nothing will ever be the same again, that whatever tectonic plates had secured our world have shifted irreversibly. The only normal we can now imagine is ‘the new normal’ – whatever that may turn out to be.

Covid has detonated a series of explosions that have collapsed the scaffolding of the worlds we live in and the presumptions that sustained them. Advocates of ‘no change’ in a multiplicity of worlds are having a hard time of it.

Of course, that rocking of the foundations is not new to religion. We’ve already watched and felt the tectonic plates shifting under our feet and we’ve experienced too how little we can do when the ground around us starts to give way.

Yet, what post-Covid will be is a pressing concern for religion too. On one level, concerns about maintaining the structure of parish and diocesan life. At a deeper level wondering whether a time of reflection may bring a new focus on whether we might have lost our way – and that a re-think on life’s priorities might be in order.

Religion has been around so long and churches so good at dogmatic pronouncements on ‘what always was and forever will be’ that we’re not used to coping with an ever-changing environment.

The danger now is that fragmentation will follow based on little more than personal preference and personality type. Religion may be re-cast in our own image.

Those who abhor change will retreat back into the remnants of their embattled faiths – deepening the moats and raising the drawbridges as they seek to keep a threatening world at bay.

Those who embrace change will revamp their one-time expectations and, open to whatever the winds of time will bring, open a new page on the future.

What was once regarded as extreme will become the norm and the erstwhile polar opposites will bed into what’s imagined to be a new golden age when the extreme of the extremes will serve to satisfy the most outlandish expectations of their adherents.

We got glimpses of this during the pandemic when the most traditional of traditional Catholics sought to establish their ‘right’ to receiving Communion on the tongue, even though by creating the optimum circumstances for the coronavirus to thrive, they were in effect endangering the ‘right to life’ of other Catholics.

On the other extreme, a case was being made – implicitly if not directly – for a webcam Mass that would shuffle to the side the inconveniences of community worship in a cold climate and for a focus on individual need rather than the supreme communal act of the Breaking of Bread.

The ’new normal’ in religious practice may be something like America where churches are invented to serve the particular needs of smaller, more specific communities geared towards very defined individual expectations. Whatever the need, say in music – folk, rock or Gregorian Chant or versions thereof – someone on the main street will have a menu to suit every possible religious need.

What the new religious landscape may mean is that, in inventing a new post-Covid religious landscape, the middle ground may be squeezed almost out of existence.

In such a circumstance, how will the Catholic parish survive? With great difficulty, it appears.

Trying to bring all sides of the road with us is running counter to our burgeoning culture of specificity. It isn’t just that we know exactly what’s wrong with what we have, we know exactly what we want and, if we don’t get it, we’ll be handing back the box of parish envelopes.

Once the culture and the experience were ‘a one-size fits all’. Local shops had every service anyone might possibly need – groceries, hardware, a petrol pump, a post office, a pub at the back, a bull in the yard and, often, even an undertaking service. Now shops just sell take-away paper cups of coffee or women’s bags. Niche is big.

Loyalty to the local is dying. The way we live now is different from the way we were. Local shops, no longer able to supply the dizzying variety of international foods (pastas, pizzas and lasagna or whatever) we now take for granted are disappearing.

Similarly, small parishes are under pressure. And local parishes, where often elderly priests cannot compete with the variety on offer on the webcam, with ambitious clergy keeping a wary eye on the number of hits their Lisnagoola is getting. (Not a lot, really, if the truth be told.)

The webcam has been the religious star of the pandemic. Now, instead of the doubtful pleasure of an often uncomfortable church, garnished with a rehashed version of a tried and tested sermon, and the enduring possibility of contracting the virus, how many will opt for dipping into the wide choice now on offer on the webcam?

But, my sense is that we may come to regret the ubiquitous webcam, once, for many, little more than a status symbol of modernity but which, I fear, may become the key driver of our diminishing congregations.





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