What's going on? Suddenly everyone's finding religion and going to church on Sundays. By Lynne Wallis
I made a gaffe at a dinner recently. I described a part of Suffolk in which a fellow diner was contemplating holidaying as "okay, but really churchy", before pulling a face. I felt someone kick me under the table as an awkward silence descended. Out of five diners, the kicker later informed me, two were regular churchgoers.

I've since realised I can no longer assume most people I meet are atheists. Not even ultra-promiscuous friends of friends who swear, smoke and drink like fish. This church business is really catching on. A few years ago, churchy tendencies would have prompted sniggers, pity, even, for someone who leads such a sad empty life. Not so now. Church is positively trendy, and being taken up in the most unlikely circles. I'm as open-minded as the rest of them, but why, right now, are so many people sacrificing Sunday morning breakfasts in bed to kneel on pew cushions, have stinky smoke wafted over them and a papery biscuit deposited on their tongues?

Although overall church attendance figures are in decline, the Church of England says that the huge drops in attendance of the Sixties and Seventies have halted and that we are seeing a period of stabilisation. In the largest diocese in England, that of Oxford, which covers Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, church attendance increased in 1995, alongside Hereford, Portsmouth, Bristol, Canterbury, Carlisle and London, which had an even bigger increase last year. A spokesman from Church House said, "This means we are attracting new people to replace those who die. The `Me Decade' is firmly over, and lots of young people are looking for something to give meaning to their lives beyond materialism." Independent C of E "house" churches, which tend to be evangelical, are also growing in attendance. The Catholic Media Office says that although there is a general decline, perhaps because our growing ageing population tend to stop going to church as they get older, those who are going to church have a greater commitment.

I called a friend last weekend to see if she wanted to come to a summer carnival. No can do, she said. She had to go to church. I couldn't believe it. She'd always seemed so ... normal. I'm learning to be more tactful, but it's difficult after a lifetime of God-bashing. "Carole's born again," a friend tells me at a party "Oh ... right," I reply, smiling wanly and wondering what on earth went wrong with her life. Another friend recently split up with someone she was keen on because he had religion and she wouldn't, or couldn't, get excited about God. He's since got engaged to a very nice girl he met at bible classes. What happened to the days when people split up because men were unfaithful and women wanted commitment men weren't ready for? The advantage of God, I suppose, is that he's always available.

Yet another friend, a vehement atheist, is in a relationship with a serious New Testament type. I have to say, he is a perfectly nice bloke but now I dread the first indication that she, too, has found the true path to real meaning in her life. She's already pointing out that modem Christianity is just a form of socialism. It's only a matter of time.

What does this new churchiness say about our lives? Perhaps it has little to do with God. It is more likely that our social networks have broken down so that for many people church is a way to be part of the community. I mean, there are plenty of much more enjoyable ways to search for meaning. Go trekking, meditate in the Grand Canyon, help disadvantaged kids, do yoga. I grew up believing church was for people with no lives, and I still believe it. It's such a passive occupation.

People who aren't born into religious families, who discover God later on in their lives, usually have either a great yawning gap to fill, or a problem they imagine God will help them overcome, or a bereavement. A close member of my family, a heroin addict, found God when he was about 22, two years before he died. He had been in and out of rehabs, and for him church was the last resort. The family supported him and went to praise- be-type services. It lasted a few months, until he went back on drugs. When life gets really grim God is invited in, often through desperation. But, like any unsound relationship, it rarely lasts.

Who next, I'm wondering? Will it become something people casually slip into conversation, alongside "I've met this lovely new man... and by the way, I've discovered God?" Chances are, if you've just met a lovely new man, you wouldn't have time for anything else. A new passion for religion would more likely be announced along the lines of "I'm feeling much better now, I'm on Prozac and the depression has lifted. Hey, I've been meaning to tell you. I've started going to church."

Whether Jesus wants me for a sunbeam or not I have other plans for my Sundays. I'm lying in bed until 11, hopefully with the man of my dreams, going for a swim then a sumptuous lunch, followed by a doze and a stroll in the park. Beat that, God.

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