The death of church and pub can only further fuel the modern scourges of loneliness and isolation. And these evils cannot be solved directly by public policy or government initiatives because such things trade in abstractions. Nobody is ever lonely or isolated in the abstract. Loneliness only ever affects people—real, individual people in real, particular circumstances. And it can only be solved by real community. This is where the church actually has a tremendous opportunity.
My annual trip to my home village in England is typically a week when I enter the land that time forgot. Nothing much changes. The shop still sells newspapers and houses the local post office. The view across the valley from my mother’s cottage still reveals nothing—not even a street light or a power cable—that would indicate it has a point of origin in the last century and a half. And the Baptist chapel bell still strikes the hour ten minutes late. But even in this land where nothing seems to change, some things do bear the unmistakable marks of late modernity. There are now more cars than houses, turning the narrow country lanes into parking lots. And most striking, the parish church has closed and is now for sale, with planning permission for it to be turned into a residence.
Closure of churches is nothing new. Over twenty years ago in Aberdeen, I noticed that a number of places of worship I remembered from my postgraduate days had turned into nightclubs. And the old Free Church College was now a bar. The College, its entrance flanked somewhat incongruously by historic plaques commemorating its earlier distinguished denizens: the theologian David Cairns and the Semitic scholar William Robertson Smith. Given the importance of the ownership of space for the social imagination, nothing perhaps indicates the change of Western culture more than the replacement of the seriously religious by the merely entertaining.
My village had two churches, the Anglican parish church and the Baptist chapel. In the nineteenth century, both were central to village life. The current primary (elementary) school was founded by the Baptists in the nineteenth century when their children were effectively excluded from the Anglican school because of their theological beliefs. Religion may have created a fault line, but it was also a deep source of identity and community. It motivated people to act in ways that supported each other, that manifested concern for the future, that gave them a hierarchy of goods that framed communal action. It spoke of belonging, and it gave corporate life a context and a significance. Today, the chapel is marginal, the church has closed, and people increasingly question what the village community is, what it is for.
There is a parallel in the fate of the English village pub.