Sheffield Retro columnist Monica Dyson looks back to when life centred around the church

With the news that our Prime Minister Boris and his partner Carrie have had their baby baptised into the Catholic religion, do we think it could spark a religious renaissance?

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 12:00 pm

Most of our churches have been closed over the past months with many conducting virtual services.

It came as a great comfort to their members when they were able to worship once more, albeit with restrictions on singing and on things like wedding numbers.

Even prior to the crisis of this year it was disturbing to read that churches that have been part of the community for many years have been closing after congregations have shrunk to less than a dozen people. Not that I can remember the last time I was in one!

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Candles being lit at Sheffield's Catholic cathedral by Michael Wood, aged 25, from Lowedges in 2005

A church in Stocksbridge, built in 1890 during the heyday of religious attendance in Britain in memory of steelworks founder Samuel Fox, when Sheffield steel was famous worldwide, was grand and imposing, on a main road and built to accommodate the large numbers of people who would fill it.

Now it has closed as a place of worship and isn’t on its own, with many smaller chapels all over Sheffield and district turned into office accommodation or private homes.

One of the largest conversions I have seen is Crookes Valley Methodist Church. Built in 1881, the congregations dwindled until it was turned into more than 100 student flats in 2005.

When I was a child, church was the most important social event of the week. It was as important to see and be seen and have a good gossip as any other reasons for going. That was how it seemed when we were young when our mother chatted to her friends in the churchyard.

It was amazing how much they had to say to each other given the amount of church attendances we, as Catholics, attended in the 1950s, Easter particularly. The children living near us who were Protestant didn’t go to church nearly as often.

We attended mass on Sundays, with services at several different times, and Holy Days of Obligation, and we knew that we would commit a mortal sin if we missed going unless there was a good reason. It was instilled into us that anything we did wrong meant that we would ultimately be accountable to a higher power.

There was a sense of fear but it was something we accepted without question. We didn’t know anything about other religions. We were taught that ours was the one true religion.

Anyway, we could always confess our sins at confession. All was not lost! But by and large we were children who didn’t misbehave and had trouble thinking up some sins to confess!

We knew that our parents would take the teachers’ side if we were accused of any wrongdoing and we were in awe of anyone in authority. We respected police, teachers and clergy, even though our trust was misjudged in some cases, in the light of later events.

Our whole lives seemed to be linked to the church. We abstained from meat on Fridays, which was always good for the fishmongers Wilds at Firth Park, where queues would snake round the pavement on Friday mornings, and we fasted for 24 hours before communion.

Church attendances have been declining in the UK for some years now. Growing up in the 1950s, we were possibly the last generation to attend church regularly.

I heard someone say recently that they were less worried about the hereafter than the here and now!

But the decline in church congregations has been slowed down by the attendance of people from ethnic minorities.

Christian Research, a religious think tank, has found that a third of churches are growing, especially those with a predominantly black congregation.

Church-going in England has been in decline with an estimated one million people giving up regular church-going in the 1990s alone. However, the decline has been slowed down as the country has become more ethnically diverse.

In the Catholic Church, things started to change with the arrival of workers from Eastern European countries like Poland.

There has been an increase in popularity of Bible-based Baptist and Pentecostal churches like The Potter’s House, Well Church, City Church, Rock Christian Centre, City Life Church and the Hope Church. That was started in the city after the Hillsborough football stadium disaster but the founders eventually left Sheffield for their native Australia after allegations of racism.

Often referred to as ‘happy clapping churches’, there is no denying the enthusiasm and exuberance of the congregation at these places of worship.

Although religion played a big part in our lives whilst we were growing up and in our school curriculum, things are very different today, where the study of different religions seem to have taken the place of the traditional teachings that we knew.

A Parliamentary group on religious education wants the subject to be treated as a priority by religious education teachers . In today’s world children can be open to an enormous amount of misleading information about different cultures and religions and need to be able to make informed choices about diverse doctrines.

It seems also that an increasing number of schools have ditched the traditional Christian assembly in favour of reflections on topics like bullying, racism, International Women’s Day and International Day Against Homophobia.

There seems to be a feeling, especially in schools of racial diversity, that school assemblies can tackle ethical issues without religious context with issues from the everyday world used to make serious points about morality and society.

Religion is not without humour.

A sign outside a church I passed earlier in the year said, ‘Happy Easter to our Christian friends, Happy Passover to our Jewish ones and to our Atheist ones – Good Luck!’

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