Alf McCreary: Yes, fewer of us may be going to church, but faith is still all around

​The recent survey published by the Evangelical Alliance on the state of church-going in Northern Ireland is timely and interesting but in the broad sense it confirms what we already know – namely that attendance is generally dropping compared to what it was 10 or 20 years ago.
​The Evangelical Alliance report said that only 12% of people in Northern Ireland read the Bible once a week​The Evangelical Alliance report said that only 12% of people in Northern Ireland read the Bible once a week
​The Evangelical Alliance report said that only 12% of people in Northern Ireland read the Bible once a week

​Even the term “evangelical” is problematic. Nowadays it is taken to mean those churches whose main aim is outreach, evangelisation and the attraction of new members, and these are generally more conservative in their theology.

However, many people in the mainstream churches would claim also to be “evangelical” in that their mission too is to spread the Gospel. By the same token, however, those who claim to be “liberal” are often regarded by the conservatives as “soft “on social issues such as same-sex relationships.

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The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), for example, has been becoming much more conservative in recent years, and this is seen in its election of moderators.

The current Moderator the Very Reverend Dr Sam Mawhinney announced shortly after his election last year that he did not approve of the ordination of female ministers.

This year’s Moderator-elect the Reverend Richard Murray stated in one of his first interviews that it is “the Lord who decides, and if the Lord wants a woman minister to be moderator next year, then that will happen”.

This has to be one of the least persuasive excuses in the long history of the Presbyterian Church which has never elected a woman moderator, and this is particularly depressing because the PCI was the first major church to ordain a woman minister – the Reverend Ruth Patterson in 1976.

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Sadly when she stood twice for the moderatorship she failed to get elected. Sadly and significantly on the second occasion she did not get a single vote from any of the 19 Presbyteries.

Such a total rejection by the church which had ordained her as its first female minister was hurtful to many Presbyterians, and extremely regrettable.

In recent years the PCI has taken to promising its membership that there will be a female moderator some time, but people are entitled to ask “when?”. So far, not so good.

This poor record of failing to elect women to the moderatorship in an age of the widespread appointments of women to top posts in politics, industry, banking and other major aspects of modern life has not helped recruitment and evangelisation in the PCI, and members are leaving to join other denominations which give women the respect and authorisation to take top posts which they deserve.

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On a broader canvas the Evangelical Alliance report reveals, for example, that only 23% of those surveyed claim to go to church once a week, while 35% of people in Northern Ireland pray only once a week and only 12% read the Bible once a week.

Equally fascinating is the statistic that 46% of practising Protestants say they are evangelical, while the figure for Catholics is 38%. Given the secularisation of society it is no surprise that only 31% of Northern people claim that they never pray, and that 25% never go to church.

Such figures are no doubt accurate, but I wonder if those who say that they never pray or go to church, or those who say they never read the Bible, may turn to faith in times of crisis? It is worth noting that when something terrible happens, like a random shooting or a terrible car crash, many people go to church to try to seek consolation or to try to make sense of the senseless. And how do we know where or when a person prays? That is a secret between him or her and God.

Having covered religious affairs as a writer for decades, I have met many people who sit loosely to organised religion, but who are searching for spiritual comfort and meaning for their lives. There are others who live lives which would put many Christians to shame but who never darken the door of a church. Many years ago on a working trip to Vietnam on behalf of Christian Aid, I was helped greatly by a local woman whom I thought was an exemplary Christian, whereas in fact she was a Confucian.

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Since then I never judge people on what they believe, or say they believe, but on what they do. Also I never try to make people believe what I believe, nor do I tell someone “you are wrong in your faith”. That is for a higher judge than me to determine.

Sometimes you get a major example of faith in action which is ennobling and inspiring. I read in last Saturday’s Times that the Russian opposition leader and hero Alexei Navalny, who was murdered by the Kremlin and whose funeral took place in Moscow yesterday, was a practising Christian although at one time he had been a militant atheist.

In his show trial in Moscow in 2021 he told the court: “I am now a believer and that helps me a lot in my activities because everything becomes much, much easier.”

Apparently he was particularly challenged by the Sermon on the Mount, and the words of Jesus “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”.

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Such an example of total courage, sacrifice and Christian commitment by Alexei Navalny crosses the centuries and the barriers of man-made religion, and it ought to inspire us all.

The Times ended its report on Navalny with a extremely timely quote from the Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”

We should never forget that.

l Alf McCreary is an author and award-winning Northern Ireland journalist who has written extensively from home and abroad on religion and current affairs. His new book ‘Keeping the Faith’ is published by Messenger and will be available from early April.