In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds, the tranquil life of the small hamlet of Bodega Bay, near San Francisco, is shattered by the arrival and erratic behaviour of countless numbers of birds. In the final dramatic scene before calm is restored (even if we know calm is not really going to be restored because it’s a Hitchcock film) Tippi Hedren (in her screen debut) finds herself in a room in which she thinks she will find two calm lovebirds, but instead is ferociously assaulted by more birds than she can count. Eventually, tired of the onslaught, she sinks down in despair whilst the birds continue to circle and attack her, their cacophonous squawking shattering any peace she may have hoped to find in the seaside town.
I have to admit that each year in August I begin having some sympathy for Tippi Hedren’s character, as the calm life of the Costa del Sol is somewhat shattered by the arrival of hordes of people. Restaurants where one can usually just drop in become overcrowded. Pavements where one can ordinarily stroll with one’s dog without too much fuss become chockablock with suntanned Spanish families and their more reddish Scandinavian and British counterparts, clutching coolers, boogie boards, umbrellas and giant inflatable animals as they parade towards the sparkling sea.
And the parking! Don’t even get me started on the parking! What seems like hours each week is taken up in driving around and around, eyes darting this way and that in hopes of finding a space (“Is it? Is it? No! Curses on you, Smart car!”) whilst mumbling prayers to God in hopes that he will see fit to bestow a genuine parking miracle: a spot right in front of Saint Andrew Church in Los Boliches.
Of course I know I should be grateful, in that I am privileged to live in a place where so many people want to spend their holidays, and I am. But their sheer numbers bring to the fore another thought worthy of reflection: Why is it that the beaches are full and our churches are not?
Now, naturally, I am aware that many of our own people head back to the UK in the summer months, trying to catch the handful of days of guaranteed good weather that the British Isles have to offer. So, of course, our numbers always go down in the summer (as, nota bene, does our income - so please remember to be generous!). And, of course, the people who remain here are just as faithful as they are the rest of the year, and always step up to make sure everything gets done on a skeleton crew.
No, neither our people who go back to the UK nor our people who stick out the heat here are catalysts for my pondering. My question is about the people who come to our shores in droves. Why don’t they come to church? It is, in many ways, a question that we cannot answer alone, as, with very few exceptions, if one does not attend church at home one is not going to do so on holiday. So we are suffering as the result of a general trend, it would seem.
Now loads of people purport to know what exactly is needed to get our churches full again. Some say that we need less formality; others say we need more. Some say the music needs to be lively and new; others say that people want the old hymns. Some say we need to be unencumbered by rigid structures; others say that without discipline and rules we are lost. Of course all of these points are valid in some way, but frequently the validity of them gets lost in polemics and finger pointing. In the end, all too often, much of it seems to boil down to this: The Church would be better off it it were more like I think it should be, and less like someone else thinks it should be. It is difficult to move beyond such sentiment.
What is the solution then? Are we, as Lord Carey would suggest, just one generation away from extinction? I don’t think so. But I think instead of asking ourselves countless trivial questions, we should be concentrating on the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on whether we’re smells and bells or happy-clappy, we should ask ourselves if God is being worshiped authentically. If he is, then people will respond. Instead of trying to be a club where some are in and some are out, we should make everyone feel welcomed, safe and loved. If we do, then people will respond. Instead of chasing after trends and being like everyone else, we should ask ourselves what we uniquely have to offer people and give them that. If we do, people will respond. Instead of just taking care of ourselves, we should seek to give as much as we can to help others. If we do, people will respond.
Now, I think our impressive increase in membership over the past two years shows that we are obviously doing something right at Saint Andrew’s, and thank God for that! But I hope that we can continue asking ourselves the right questions, continue growing, and hopefully begin to reach out and get known to visitors. Wouldn’t it be grand if, in some August in the future, we notice that they’re flocking to us. If this happens - when this happens - I swear I won’t ever complain about the parking again.