Christopher Smith marvels at the transforming power of self-identification

I was on a train recently, coming back from an overnight visit to my native Hampshire. The train became quite busy after Basingstoke, and I was able to make little progress with my novel. Then at Woking a young woman came and sat next to me. I made an apologetic comment about having had my bag on the seat, and from that point to Waterloo she talked to me. Wanting to be polite, of course, to say nothing of not wanting to show the priestly office in a bad light, I found it impossible to say ‘Can we be quiet now so that I can read my book?’ I put the book down and went into listening mode, and she evangelised me. She very distinctly evangelised me, though not about the Christian, or any other, faith. She was trying to get me to believe in what is, as far as I can tell, a sort of self-help organisation.

I won’t burden you with the details, but clearly part of its ‘thing’ is what we would call reconciliation. And her ‘way in’ was to tell me about how she had fallen out with her brother, and had eventually decided that she had to heal the rift and call him. She needed to stop being stubborn, stop blaming him for the whole problem, and say ‘sorry’ to put it right. By that point, I was feeling rather as though I was in the confessional, so I was keeping quiet and nodding gently. Then she started telling me about the lifestyle course, and how it had encouraged her to stop putting herself first and try to repair the rift.

She invited me to come along, which was the point at which I realised I was being evangelised, and she gave me a card inviting me to a free session. Would I like to come? She was sure I would get something out of it. Well, it was very kind of her; but no, I would not come, because the life of the Church did all that for me, and for free. And I explained that it seems to me that, as people have stopped going to church, they have begun to miss the community life it offers, and the self-examination it encourages, and the reconciliation that comes about through a Christian approach to relationships and the celebration of the sacraments. And, frankly, I was not going to be evangelised without having a go back!

We arrived at Waterloo and went our separate ways. Inevitably, when I got home, I did a bit of internet research about this organisation, and discovered that, while the introductory session might have been free, the next session would have cost several hundred pounds, and the one after it even more. They don’t advertise, but rely on ‘word of mouth’ – hence the conversation that unexpectedly changed the character of my railway journey. They come in a category of organisations – mainly American in origin – offering something referred to as ‘large group awareness training.’ They are often somewhat litigious.

So what might we learn from this sort of thing in the life of the Church? Well, for a start, we need to stop giving away all these expensive sessions – services, as we used to call them – for nothing. I suggest that Low Mass on Sundays should cost £150 per person, and the Parish Mass £250. If people want to come to both, which I strongly recommend for their self-confidence and well-being, there could be a discounted rate of £350. One-to-one counselling from a priest might henceforth be charged at £100 per hour, with confessions charged at £50 per unit of six minutes, plus an absolution fee of an additional £45.

No? Well, maybe it’s not quite what Fr Mackonochie had in mind when he caused the words ‘Free for ever for Christ’s poor’ to be written above the door of my church. But it is astonishing that people will look anywhere to try to find substitutes for the life of the Church they’ve turned their backs on, and are willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege. Will it make them content in the long run? I fear not. Does your faith make you feel smug? I hope not. But I hope it gives you joy. The joy of the Christian faith is not some artificial, whipped-up confection offered by someone who promises to sort your life out on a two-day conference for £750.It is the joy that filled the Apostles when they went back to Jerusalem after the Ascension – it is the opposite of apprehension, hopelessness, emptiness, and the opposite of feeling lost.

These ‘buy yourself happy’ courses will not give you that joy, because they have nothing to say about eternity. It’s all about me in the here and now: and perhaps about entering a vicious circle in which writing the cheque makes needy people need to stay in the ‘programme,’ whose ‘leaders’ have assumed power over their subjects and exercise it knowing that their own remuneration depends on keeping people in the system. It is not unlike certain other money-making schemes disguised as religions – also inclined to litigation – and it’s no wonder that people feel as though they are being drawn into a kind of cult. They are made to break themselves apart in order that they can be put back together at further expense!

It was a cute pitch on the train, and a brave one. The temptation for us is to feel frustrated that so many people are looking in the wrong place for something to meet the need that only God can meet. We need to be even braver in our attempts to get them on the right track.