Patrick Mitchel: Questions for the Churches from ‘Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland’

Sometimes you stumble upon something online that you really wish you had read a year ago.

That was the case for me when an internet search for something else turned up a post on Patrick Mitchel’s thoughtful ‘Faith in Ireland’ blog. The post featured his reflections on his participation on an ‘Author Meets Critics’ panel that marked the launch of my book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, at Trinity College Dublin last year.

While I reported on the Author Meets Critics panel at the time, I somehow missed Patrick’s later post.  

In it, Patrick expands his thoughts on what the sociological data presented in the book might mean for churches in Ireland. While Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland is an academic book, I also hoped that it would prompt this type of reflection on the part of Christians in Ireland.

Below, I reproduce an extended quotation from Patrick’s post (though I recommend you read it in full!), including the questions it raises for churches in Ireland.

Questions for the Churches from ‘Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland’ by Patrick Mitchel

However you read Gladys’ book, the trends and stories within it pose questions to historic denominations in particular – and whose membership is in relatively rapid decline.

One response may be to decry ‘extra-institutional’ spirituality as a sign of an individualism shaped by consumerism – religious shopping for the I-generation. A spirituality that all too comfortably side-steps the demands of Christian discipleship – accountability, community, costly mission, a willingness to be rejected and marginalised?

But such a response locates the ‘problem’ externally – with those pesky individualists who don’t go along with the status quo. It ignores their passion for serving others, for social justice and a pursuit of community.

The better response to a book like this (for churches) is to look within; to listen; to reflect on practice that, in Christendom, meant that churches became what Gladys calls religious ‘public utilities’ dispensing services to all while relegating personal faith and authentic living of the Christian life to the background.

I think there are fruits of such self-examination, listening and reflection on practice within some churches in Ireland. Perhaps you know and have experience of some. Places where there is space for diversity; personal transformation; community; a passion for social justice.

And it’s here that I find sociological categories too general and abstract. For behind such descriptions of behaviour lie beliefs that motivate and shape that behaviour. That’s why contemporary debates about the nature of the gospel and how it plays out within the Christian life are so important ….

Sociological analysis can helpfully describe and interpret trends, but as a Christian I want to argue that spiritual renewal and authenticity comes from a nexus of things like grace, the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the empowering and transforming work of the Spirit, repentance, faith, humility, love, self-sacrifice, care for the powerless and oppressed and so on.

In other words, is the search for authentic spirituality within extra-institutional spaces really a quest and longing for ‘the church to be the church’?

(Image from Patrick Mitchel’s Faith in Ireland blog)

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