Tag Archives: secularization

Resurrecting Brand Anglican: Can Embracing Contemporary Media Save the Church of England? #COFE #FollowTheStar

With the Christmas period fast receding into the distance, it seems entirely apposite to glance back at one of the more intriguing pieces of marketing in the run-up to what has become arguably the greatest target date in the global economy: the Church of England’s 96-second video clip that was the centrepiece of its Follow the Star campaign (‘FTS’, ‘#FollowTheStar’).

According to Adrian Harris – the Head of Digital for the official denomination of state in the United Kingdom’s largest constituent nation – the core concept behind #FollowTheStar was to get more people to attend church. To this end, his organisation’s 2018 Christmas advert follows real-life parishioners in their preparations for and attendance at what one assumes is a semi-fictional Christmas service.

The commercial itself is not the worst out there, although like many of contemporary examples of the genre it suffers from a lack of investment in developing visually compelling characters with truly arresting personalities.

However – after some reflection – we at Mediolana can’t help but wonder if, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, the basic logic of the ad is somewhat flawed. Understandably – in an era when attendances at Church of England venues are reaching unprecedented depths – the C of E is desperate to funnel warm bodies back into the pews; however, the depiction of a full church as displayed in the marketing spot is not just arguably a tad deceptive, but is setting up the viewer for a big disappointment should they ever follow through on their interest in the ‘service’ being proffered.

Instead, it could be posited that the Church of England should look at the problem from a near-opposite perspective and ask itself the basic question of why it is losing market share in the first place.

This is indubitably a vexed and complex issue, but one thing can be said for certain: any religious denomination whose teachings and general theological direction are virtually indistinguishable to that of mainstream opinion in what is easily one of the more secular societies anywhere on Earth is in serious danger of not differentiating itself enough to be relevant – or even basically interesting – to those of a spiritual bent.

This is a problem which even the tremendous resources and privileges that the Church of England enjoys for historical reasons cannot solve. And until this essential weakness is addressed, the curious spectacle of the established church in the home of the industrial revolution experiencing biological leakage to stronger ‘brands’ such as Buddhism, Islam, and other Christian denominations risks continuing unabated.

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Christian Spring? Or Spiritual Ricochet?

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Like many countries in Northern Europe, the United Kingdom of the 2010s is notable for the near-complete absence of religion and spirituality in public discourse: the country has undergone a process of profound secularisation in the last twenty-five years, with many basic social values unrecognisable from their 1980s counterparts. It was therefore with some interest that our CSO read an article authored by Cristina Odone – one of a tiny number of British journalists who is even capable of writing about religious topics in anything other than media clichés – claiming that the UK is ‘on the brink of a Christian Spring’ (Despite our secularist enemies, we are on the brink of a Christian Spring, 19th November 2013).

Odone posits three reasons for a resurgence of Christianity in Britain: (i) Pope Francis; (ii) Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury; and (iii) a popular ‘backlash’ against the more gross examples of shallow materialism. After some contemplation, we at Mediolana do not find any of these to be compelling. While billions of people around the world of all faiths and none seem to find Pope Francis an unusually brilliant spiritual beacon – and his papacy has already seen a stunning turnaround in mass attendances, at least in Italy and the United Kingdom – the structural problems of the Roman Catholic Church, not least systematic child abuse and eye-watering levels of financial corruption, are in all likelihood far too deep for one pope to solve. As to Justin Welby, we would bet good money that a plurality of a representative sample of the British public are more familiar with the teachings of Justin Timberlake; ‘twerking’ might be viewed as somewhat quaint in ten years’ time. 

However, Odone might be onto something, at least indirectly: she could be correct in pointing to a largely-unexpected change in spiritual orientation in the UK, but for entirely different reasons – principally economic ones.

The economy of the United Kingdom is starting to show alarming signs of social distress. Mired in corruption and with no realistic prospect of experiencing any kind of meaningful growth, the British economy is essentially dysfunctional for an ever-increasing percentage of the population. This can be seen in the surreal blossoming in what is meant to be a G7 country of the food bank, an institution that was unknown even a few years ago but the utilisation of which has been burgeoning beyond the exponential: while just 26,000 food parcels were handed out in 2008-9, the figure for April-September of 2013 was over 350,000. And things are likely to get much, much worse, with inevitable interest rate rises almost certain to clobber millions of ‘middle class’ households in the years to come.

Of course, these developments are not guaranteed to produce any given spiritual outcome. But it is almost unthinkable that religious institutions, and religion and spirituality more generally, are going to take the flak for the mess – partly because they have become so marginal in the lives of most people, and partly because they tend to stand in stark opposition to the rampant materialism and wild social distancing that has helped to engender this situation. Instead, it is a set of elites which are largely defined by their alienation from religion which will be seen to have failed. It is in precisely this kind of social flux that new movements step in to fill vacua. What these will be is anyone’s guess – but to exclude some form of religious or spiritual dynamic from them, even in a macro-context of increasing secularisation – may be premature, or even incorrect.

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Give Me My Narrative: A Camera for Post-Postmodernity

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 11.50.53Given its immense salience for today’s post-postmodern media environment, it seems incredible that The Truman Show (‘TTS’, Dir. Peter Weir) is fifteen years old, especially given that life since the film’s release has been eerily paying homage to this particular piece of cinematic art. Having influenced the world of psychiatry through the so-called ‘Truman delusion‘ – suffers believe that their entire life is being staged for the purposes of a reality television show – TTS is now making its mark on the emerging field of wearable technology via the Narrative Clip (‘Narrative’) camera from the Linköping, Sweden-based company of the same name.

Narrative (formerly named Memoto) is a small automatic camera which is designed to be worn around the user’s neck. Every thirty seconds, it takes a five-megapixel photo and selects around thirty of the best ones every day for permanent storage: like in TTS, nothing remains unrecorded. According to the November 2013 issue of Wired UK, the idea for Narrative arose from CEO and co-founder Martin Källström’s ‘miserable failure’ to keep his own diary; with Narrative, this process is, to most intents and purposes, outsourced.

There is a lot to like about Narrative: the camera is weatherproof; the design is genuinely iconic. Unlike its predecessors in this sector – spookily, the first mass-produced ‘lifelogging’ camera was released in 1998, the same year as TTS – the Narrative camera is unobtrusive and convincingly wearable.

But leaving aside the obvious possible flip sides to this invention – the implications for privacy, corporate and state espionage et al – what does this camera say about us as a species? We at Mediolana find it no coincidence that Narrative was conceived in Sweden, historically one of the most successful modern societies but now a country with much more self-doubt that it possessed a generation ago, not least as a result of rapidly-declining academic performance.

The state which effectively supplanted the Lutheran Church of Sweden (which ceased to be the official state denomination in 2000) as the main instrument of collective life is itself being eroded by individualism; religion has a marginal role in Swedish society. In this context, it is entirely appropriate that Narrative – which can be worn very much like a cross – functions as a digital crucifix, providing its users with a layer of experiential meaning; a thin one, but a layer nonetheless.

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Shifting the Spiritual Goalposts: Is Global Secularisation Intensifying?

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 11.42.59A recent column by the author and journalist Mustafa Akyol caught the attention of our CSO for its interesting take on a key sociological issue since the nineteenth century: secularisation. In The curious future of religion (Hurriyet Daily News, 17th April 2013), Akyol – writing his dispatches from Kansas City, where he appears to have researched his article – concludes that the widely-predicted secularisation of the world has not manifested itself; instead, in a world which will be more or less coloured by one belief system or other, religions or movements within religions which adapt to changing circumstances will survive, while those that don’t, won’t.

This is a seductive thesis. But on closer inspection (and after some contemplation), it is questionable whether it bears much resemblance to the facts on the ground:

1. Western Secularism Marches On. The late twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen secularism in the West – particularly, though by no means exclusively in Europe – intensify and broaden. The excellent Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper has pointed out that the recent trend towards legislating for gay marriage in some Western jurisdictions is profoundly consequential in this regard, representing as it does the categorical refutation of the primacy of the teaching of the various Christian churches. Both state and society agree in their rejection of what until the 2000s was an elemental religious principle which even most self-declared atheists did not think of contesting.

2. Eastern Secularism Marches On. It is true that on one level, statist secularism of the kind that dominated the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent, France and Turkey) seems to be on the wane. Extreme laicism is no longer de rigeur in Ankara, and even the Communist Party of China is having to more or less accomodate a surge of new religious believers in its coastal engines of growth. But look a little bit deeper, and it becomes apparent that it is the secular modernist notions of the economy and society that have embedded themselves in religious or religion-flavoured institutions. The irony that historic Istanbul has been disfigured the most (possibly to the point of losing its UNESCO status) under skyscraper-happy governments that have been keen to stress their ‘religious’ credentials will doubtless be recognised by Akyol.

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Faith No More: Is The Sunday Assembly the Future of Anomie?

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 12.21.53In the grand scheme of things, there are arguably two trends that have characterised much of the (post-)developed world during the final quarter of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century to date. Firstly, most people living in these countries have become significantly poorer in terms of purchasing power parity (‘PPP’): real American wages peaked in the early 1970s and have never recovered; a generation of Europeans are having to get used to the idea that many of them may never get a middle-class job in their continent of origin. Secondly, secularisation has advanced to the extent that substantial minorities in nations such as the United Kingdom (25% as of 2011), Spain (14.9%, 2011) and Sweden (23%, 2005) describe themselves as subscribing to one or other variety of non-religiosity.

In other words, this would seem as opportune a time as any for a new non-religious group to emerge, and The Sunday Assembly (‘TAS’) – a self-styled ‘atheist church’ – could be an organisation whose hour has come. Founded by two not particularly famous stand-up comedians – Sanderson Jones, a man who has featured in an advertisement for IKEA, and Pippa Evans, a woman better known via rock chick alter ego Loretta Maine – TAS operates out of a former church in Islington, a part of London ironically best known today for being the old haunt of Tony Blair. Offering the chance ‘to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate life’ without the inconvenience of having to acknowledge an omniscient deity, The Sunday Assembly is already going viral: its monthly ‘services’ are jammed full, and according to Evans there is a whole host of expansion locations, mostly in Europe and North America, about which potential ‘vicars’ have sounded her out.

Could the Church of TAS make a more permanent mark on global culture, or will it become just another Meetup group? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana are finding it hard to keep the faith in the idea that The Sunday Assembly represents salvation:

1. Core Beliefs. Postmodern moral relativism has its place – but that place is probably not a place of worship. To compete with the big-hitting religions which inspire the gnostic billions, TAS needs its version of the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars or the Infinite Tao. Being ‘nice’, Bonnie Tyler and biscuits just might not cut it.

2. Key Figures. The spread of religious movements from Moses to Muhammad has being massively assisted by their possessing human civilisation’s spiritual giants on their letterheads. Proffering redemption for the sins of humanity, perfecting monotheism and providing a framework for the attainment of spiritual bliss are tougher acts to follow than whatever may have preceded Jones and Evans one wet Thursday evening at Jongleurs.

3. Reference Texts. The Bible is the most influential book in Western history and still sells about twenty-five million copies a year; the Quran is widely-regarded even by Christian Arabs as the greatest literary work ever to grace that language’s classical form. While we have the utmost reverence for the Drama and Theatre Arts programme at the University of Birmingham, we question whether this was really the best possible preparation for penning a world-defining work of theological profundity.

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Malta Votes for the Ultimate Red Card

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