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Houses of prayer need to reach out to the prayer-less

Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue wrote this piece for The Times which was published on 27 December 2014.

It is right for vicars or rabbis to tell their flock to make resolutions for the coming year, but is it time for religious leaders to look in the mirror and say the same to themselves?

It is so easy to coast along the religious calendar, going on auto-pilot from Christmas to Lent to Easter to Pentecost and back again, or to do the same in the Jewish and other religious cycles… without realising that while we had our heads down in the prayer book, the pews were emptying.

The last Census, in 2011, indicated a steep decline in those who considered themselves to have a faith, and that was within just one decade. Individual places of worship may be growing, but the overall trend for weekly attendance at services is downward, and within a low base that is already less than 10 per cent of the population.

Those who argue that it is time to tell the choir to turn off the church lights for good when they have finished their last Christmas carol are ignoring an underlying yearning for faith, as exemplified by the rise of Sunday Assemblies. These are groups of local people who are totally secular, yet who meet in rented halls on Sunday mornings to sing songs (but not hymns), read poetry (but not biblical verses), listen to talks (but not sermons) and share a meal afterwards (but with no grace before breaking bread).

What this new movement shrieks out is that, actually, many of the structures of faith are valuable, even if people no longer follow the theology that accompanies them. What they want is the best of religion — communal rituals, inter-personal camaraderie, a sense of purpose, an ethical framework, challenging moral debates — without the aspects that seem to them either fantastical or obnoxious.

In similar vein, there are many who reject the answers offered by religion, but who still ask the same big questions that religion tries to address: Who am I? What is the point of my life? How do I fit into this vast universe? What will happen when I die? Some ask alone, others search through New Age groups, meditation, yoga or various therapies.

The Sunday Assemblies and the secular seekers could both be viewed as an indictment on the failure of organised religion to speak to contemporary needs, or they could be seen as a wonderful chance for faith groups to reassess their approach. Normal services can continue, but space could be made — within them or separately — for those who are not believers but who do want a vehicle for meeting and searching, who wish to have the warmth of human contact and a chance to share intelligent debate.
In my own synagogue, for instance, we have many members who are atheists or agnostics — they do not attend services, but they religiously come to the book circle, poetry group or debating sessions. They are not being hypocritical, for there is no pretence their end, and we are happy to rebrand our building, transforming it from just a house of prayer into a community centre. We are content that it is still serving a religious function, even when it is prayer-less.

It means that religious communities still have a vital role in modern society even if they have to reorientate aspects of themselves to achieve it. This takes effort and vision, but has happened many times before, be it early Franciscan monks taking to the road or Christians today becoming Street Pastors. Further, Lionel Blue and other Reform rabbis have used the media to speak to those having breakfast at home who have never been to a synagogue.

It is clear that there are many people with a sense of integrity and otherness who are looking for ways of expressing it apart from standard forms of worship. If faith groups can muster the courage to think creatively, they have the ability and passion to reach out to them.

Religious buildings are ideally placed in towns and villages across the country to answer contemporary needs in ways different from last year. So let’s keep the lights on and open the doors wider.

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