A couple of years ago, I was visiting a market town together with a group of friends. It was a saturday, near Christmas time and the town was bristling with activity. We were a group of a dozen people. We were informed by a flyer that the local Anglican church was inviting for the afternoon. “Come in and relax”, was the message. It was a bit like a marketing exercise for Starbucks: “tired by your shopping and the excitement of the day? Spend a quiet 30 minutes with us!”.
I must admit that I was curious. It was clearly not a Mass (that was explicitly said) and it was clearly not a party. It must be – we decide – a “sermon light”, with no fire or brimstone in sight. An Anglican take on the Christian faith. We decide to split in two groups and I choose the Vicar.
At the appointed hour, a man and a woman come in. Both wear dark suits but there is nothing in their appearance saying “I am a Vicar/I am a Vicarette”. They introduce themselves and yes, that’s what they are. To a Catholic this always makes a strange impression; it is a bit as if a man in shorts would knock at the door and say “I am from the undertakers’ “.
The two start to talk about the stress of modern life and how they understand how so terribly tiring it is to spend a saturday in a market town. Captatio benevolentiae, we’d have called it at school, but it is clear they have captured the audience already.They are impossibly nice.
Then they start cracking jokes. A lot of them and all rather brilliant. They act in a double like stand up comedians, are well-trained and professional; the end result is highly entertaining. It goes on this way to the end. There is no attempt to present Christianity as something alternative to secular mentality. There is nothing controversial, or even thought-provoking. There is, of course, absolutely nothing which might have caused some of the people looking for a bit of “relax” to get offence. There are two (they might have been three; but I think they were two, really) fleeting mentions of Jesus, of the “Jesus liked to see happy people around him too”-sort. There is no mention of, say, a parable or an episode of Jesus’ life and his significance. There is no attempt I do not say to convert, but to even instruct. There is not one single train of thoughts with Jesus at his centre.
It is as if the two felt compelled to slip His clearly embarrassing name somewhat in, but were sending the message that this, unfortunately, must be; we beg your forbearance; normal service will be resumed shortly.
But they continue to crack jokes. Brilliantly. It is obvious that the routine has been rehearsed because they are beautifully synchronised and assured in the delivery; not one hesitation or interruption. They end their performance after the promised thirty minute, expressing the hope that they have delivered on their promise to relax us. They most certainly have.
Once out, we immediately comment on the entertainment value of the double act (very high) and on its Christian content (slightly below zero). We can’t call it a sermon, because it isn’t. This, none of us had expected. As Catholics, we are accustomed to a priest saying that he talks about Christianity even when he talks nonsense.
I re-read the invitation flyer and at that moment it dawns on us. This wasn’t meant to be a sermon. It really wasn’t. The “Vicar and Vicarette”-duo didn’t want to talk about Christianity, at all! When they said “come in and relax” they meant… just that! Come in and be entertained by us! Come in and get something for the money you pay at Christmas and Easter! Come in and be assured that we will not make you uncomfortable with obnoxious Christianity! Come in and we will amuse and delight you! Come in and see that we are not entirely useless!
This episode seems to confirm what appears clear from many other signs: Anglicanism is nothing much to do with Christianity anymore. It has transformed itself into a strange body seeking (financial) support from a largely agnostic audience and careful not to upset them by actively promoting Christian values. Social work and entertainment is now all they want to offer.