October 14, 2021

Disrespectful and often deeply offensive, headlines in The Sun have long been a feature of our national conversation. There was the unforgettable “Gotcha!” after the sinking of the Belgrano with the loss of hundreds of lives (judgment: utterly disgraceful); or “Up Yours Delors!” as the President of the European Union was pressing for a single currency (judgment: well done my Sun); or even “Freddie Starr ate my Hamster” (judgment: actually, he didn’t). With such attention-grabbing openers, Rupert Murdoch won his ratings war with competing tabloids. Brash and unashamedly populist, The Sun targeted a younger less reverential, less establishment audience.

Sometimes, I can’t help but chuckle at their irreverence. And so it was last week with their “Taking the Michael” headline. St Michael’s Church in Bournemouth had renamed itself St Mike’s “in a trendy rebrand to entice young people”. Grumpy conservatives online — like me — pointed out that the “el” bit at the end of the word “Michael” is of one of the words for God in the Hebrew Bible. Michael — roughly translated — means something like, “One who is like God.” Given this, taking the “el” bit off the end seems rather unfortunate, especially for a church.

But like most headlines in The Sun, there is a streak of cruelty about it. St Mike’s is a huge barn of a Victorian church designed to seat 1,000 people, but now with a congregation of 20. Bournemouth has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the South West. The Vicar there, Sarah Yetman, has a tough gig and all power to her elbow for trying to turn things around. “We aren’t trying to alienate anyone by changing the name” she explains, “But I do feel that if we don’t take steps now to draw people in from those younger generations we will be lamenting what we have missed in the years to come.” “A bid to become more trendy” was the Daily Mail’s take.

So why did this tiny story attract such attention from the national press? Well, I suspect because it does say something rather important about the changing nature of the Church of England. “Taking the Michael” is just the latest in a broad transformation whereby formality of worship is being dropped because it is seen as a barrier to new younger worshippers. The big idea is that we should all get more chummy with the divine. The austere, intimidating God of fire and thunder, the God of the mountain top, the God whom we approach in awe and wonder, is being replaced with the friendly face of Jesus, more mate than majesty. St Michael was the angel of battle who defeated Satan in the ultimate celestial firefight of good vs evil. I don’t think he’s a Mike.

For the Daily Mail and The Sun, what is going on here is of a piece with the cheapening of our national life — which may seem a bit rich coming from them, but there you are. Trendy vicars are the new trendy teachers trying to relate to the kids with permanent (draining to watch) smiles, over the top, unrelenting enthusiasm, and awkward references to popular culture. Yes, I get it. I too want my children’s teachers to look more like Hector from the History Boys (without the fondling) than the Nineties era Tony Blair leaning casually against the photocopier in his stonewashed jeans. And the comparison is not just with trendy vicars. Our new Bishops want to be known as Ric or Pete or Rod. Names are all about relatability. And Christianity is about our relatability to God.

But here, of course, we stumble very quickly into some deep theological waters of the sort Christians have been arguing about since the first few centuries of its existence. It is a cliché — and indeed an antisemitic trope (See Richard Dawkins) — to compare the violent austere God of the Old Testament to the loving warm and cuddly God of the New Testament as captured in the person of Jesus. Old Testament bad, New Testament good — that’s not Christianity btw.

But nonetheless, the central dynamic of Christianity is to be found in the interplay between immanence and transcendence, between the God who draws near and the God who is far off. And far off isn’t a bad thing. This is the God who hovered over creation at the beginning of time. The is the God of the unknown, the one who rather put Job in his place by saying that there are some things that will always be beyond his understanding. This is the God of the God’s eye view, looking at things from the widest possible perspective. This also is the mystical God of silence, there in the still small voice of calm. For Jews, this God is not even to be named. He is known as “Hashem”, the name. This is the God who hides his face from Moses.

Christianity doesn’t resile from any of this. But adds something shockingly different. God is manifest in a particular person, with a name and a face. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He is down-to-earth (quite literally) and makes God relatable in a whole new way. Jesus is God, and Jesus is my friend.

For the first 400 years of the church’s history, it struggled to express how both of these perspectives could be true at once, how God could be both near and far, immanent and transcendent. And what it came up with was the doctrine of the Trinity, not so much an answer to how these different perspectives co-exist, but rather a firm commitment to the idea that neither could be given up without giving up the heart of what it was to be a Christian. The Trinity is not any sort of philosophical answer but a kind of regulative guide to what orthodox Christianity looks like. “But play you must a tune beyond us, yet ourselves,” wrote Wallace Stephens. It’s a bit like that.

I am not convinced that the whole Jesus-is-my-best-friend approach best carries all that young people want from the Almighty. There is nothing like spending an hour or so on your knees, somewhere vast and empty, to put your life into some kind of larger perspective and make you feel suitably humble in the great scheme of things. There is nothing quite like the order and majesty of catholic worship to summon a sense of holiness. This is the place where you can come with all your baggage, failures, stupidities, and hold them up to the altar without the distracting need for chat or explanations. This is the place where the sinner hears the convincing reply of silence. Even the deeply irreligious poet Philip Larkin could see what this kind of church offered: “Since someone will always be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious.

St Mike’s has spent some of the considerable money it received from the central church funds on a smart new website. It has the look of a Benetton advert with ridiculously good-looking 20-somethings in fashionable clothes set in interesting locations. Some of the clergy I know call this sort of thing “imaginary church”. On the website, there are no images of the church itself or the real congregation. So I looked for some. I found one of ladies in their 70s with tight platinum rinses and big coats keeping out the chill.

Being a vicar is extremely hard. And it looks like the Vicar of St Mike’s has a job that is harder than most. I wish her well. But even so, the new St Mike’s scares me for the future of the church. As numbers collapse, it is the small pools of musty holy silence that are being cut out first, ordinary churchgoers being sidelined, as central church finance is being pumped into smiley relatable imaginary church. People can find relatable anywhere these days, in every walk of life. Our culture is sick with the sugary taste of emoting professionals. Because, like diabetes, it eats us away from within.