Faith & Reason: The moral of the tale of the dead bird and the empty church

Constant talk about declining attendances masks a more significant issue about the future direction of Christianity in Britain
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The Independent Online

It was just 10 minutes before the service and the church was totally empty. We checked the noticeboard, as you do when you are on holiday and you assume that you must have come to the wrong place or at the wrong time. But it said this was right, so we went to back to the door and lingered.

It was just 10 minutes before the service and the church was totally empty. We checked the noticeboard, as you do when you are on holiday and you assume that you must have come to the wrong place or at the wrong time. But it said this was right, so we went to back to the door and lingered.

At five-to-eleven a woman arrived. "There aren't any birds inside are there?" she asked. "Some came in during the service last week and we could only get two out so we had to lock up with two inside, and I've a phobia about birds in confined spaces."

We went in and looked around. There were droppings on the pews. And then, on the bare boards in the back pew, we found the dead bird. It was a swallow, but the red feathers at its throat and the white of its chest looked drab; the blue of its back was dusty. Perhaps it had died from hunger or thirst. Perhaps it had killed itself by repeatedly flying at the clear glass of the rose window beneath which its little body lay. Of its companion there was no sign.

In Christianity the Holy Spirit is sometimes symbolised by a bird - a dove, say the gospel writers, or a wild goose in Celtic tradition - so it might be tempting to see in the lifeless creature a metaphor for the things the Church traps and kills by its institutional stones. But let us resist the temptation for the time being.

There were just eight people in the small rural chapel. It was a good turn-out, we were told afterwards. "Where two or three are gathered. . ." is a sentiment which has to be taken literally thereabouts. On one occasion it was just the preacher and the organist; she read the hymns to him and he gave the sermon to her. The Methodist church in the next village has closed. The four nearest Anglican ones take turns to have a service once a month. There are no Catholic ones within miles.

The text of the day was from John. "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but you do not know where it is coming from and where it is going. Everyone who has been born of the Spirit is like this." The service was led by a rugged looking chap in his sixties who turned out to be a farmer. Not only did he tell us the original word for "wind" and "spirit" were the same - ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek, with the same word carrying a third meaning for "breath" - but he also looked, almost wistfully, it seemed, out of the window at one point to tell us that wind and sun were what you needed for making hay and that today was just perfect for that.

The idea that the Spirit blows where people are not expecting is a central one in Christian tradition, and yet innate human conservatism means that Christians are constantly surprised by the reality of the insight. Whatever the outcome of the row over gay bishops it seems apparent that one side or the other will have difficulty in accepting where the Church is finally blown, if there can be said to be any finality about such debates. But we are on holiday, so let us set aside such workaday controversy.

After the service we sat around for coffee and the warmth of the welcome was as if we were in a family home rather than in a church hall. There was sympathy as well as tea for the farmer's wife faced that afternoon with the "worst task of the year" - separating the ewes from their lambs, with a night-long ordeal of plaintive pleating to endure. There was the offer of a meal for the couple whose kitchen was out of action. "Sorry there's too few of us to make a very interesting service," the bird woman said. "There's a more lively church six miles away but it would seem a little disloyal to abandon this place."

Neither she nor her fellow worshippers were in the first flush of youth. Where, you wondered, would this place be in a decade or two? The farmer was hopeful of another revival like the one which Billy Graham brought to Britain in the 1950s, at which he "came forward" and set out on the journey which made him a Methodist lay preacher. Certainly it is true, as Methodism's founder John Wesley said, that "if you catch on fire with enthusiasm people will come for miles to see you burn". Yet the prospect of a new generation of Billy Graham-style mass conversions seems even less likely in our age of cynicism and consumerism. And in any case history has shown that, in religion, "enthusiasm" can be a bad as well as a good thing.

But the Spirit may move far more unexpectedly than that, and ask us to question our past templates of success. In bygone days, social convention may have ensured far larger numbers of bums on pews but is there any more evidence that gospel values transformed the reality of the nation's daily life? By contrast it felt as though the breath of God most surely touched the tiny congregation into which we were temporarily welcomed.

"I am afraid lest Methodists should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power," the church's founder, John Wesley, once wrote. This was a man who was constantly heckled as he delivered around 40,000 sermons in fields, factories and on the streets. Perhaps what the church needs now is the inversion of Wesley's equation: the power without the form. Perhaps Christians need once more to be open to the unexpected places in which the wind moves. And wonder what it is that those church walls keep out, as well as trap inside.