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Census data and religious phenomena

Howard Gregory

Sunday, November 04, 2012    

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It can hardly have missed public attention that since the release of the Population and Housing Census 2011, a few weeks ago, the subject of extensive focus has been the data dealing with religious adherence or the lack thereof.

Census data, like all statistics, can be used to tell differing stories and, while the officials of the Statistical Institute (STATIN) have been pretty objective and professional in the way the data have been presented, it appears that some persons are prepared to take off on tangents and have a field day with their interpretations and personal agendas.

Census is nothing new to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, it has had a chequered history in the life of that community. The earliest reference to such an exercise in Israel is one in which a king comes under divine judgement for his attempts to take a population count to ascertain the strength of the nation, contrary to the divine instruction, as this was a sign of faithlessness and a lack of trust in God to see them through the challenges which they faced from their neighbours of more formidable strength.

Likewise, the Christian story takes shape in the context of a census decreed by Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (Luke 2:1), which resulted in the displacement of Mary and Joseph, and the consequent birth of the Christ child in a manger.

While, in the Book of Revelation (chapter 7), there is this image of the servants of God numbering 144,000 being identified with a seal on their foreheads, even as they are surrounded by a multitude of people from all nations which defies all count.

What then are we to make of census data in today's world as Christians and as members of the wider society? Certainly, there can be no denying the fact that accurate census data is a prerequisite for planning by those responsible for governance, so that appropriate policies and strategies may be developed. At the same time, other agencies and institutions need this kind of information if they are to be realistic in targeting the population which they seek to reach and to serve. The question then becomes, to whom and of what interest are the data on religious affiliation and distribution of relevance?

Already, the census data of 2011 are being used to pit one religious group against another and to make certain moral and religious judgements about the various religious groups based on the numerical strength of their membership.

A fundamental truth which must be affirmed in dealing with judgements about the moral and religious integrity and credibility of religious groups is that, because religious groups are made up of human beings drawn from civil society, no religious tradition is exempt from the evils which are manifest in the others, notwithstanding the vehemence of denials to the contrary.

Judeo-Christian traditions do not consist of the perfect drawn-out of society, but human beings who are sinners in common with other human beings, and whose lives are being transformed by the power of God's Holy Spirit in their life, through baptism into Jesus Christ.

That having been said, there are some realities which the census data bring to the fore and which require some discussion. There is no reason to question the veracity of the data from STATIN as it relates to religion, although there are some questions that must be answered in relation to the population of Portmore and the discrepancies between the findings of STATIN and the Electoral Office as it relates to the population in specific constituencies.

Religion for many people is just a matter of sociological curiosity, but for the religious, it is about much more than that. How, for example, can we account for the rise of Pentecostalism as demonstrated in the census data? Pentecostalism is not a new phenomenon to Jamaica, and those who attempt to present it in this light are unaware of our history.

In 1860-61, there was a religious resurgence in Jamaica with a marked increased in membership in the "traditional churches" as they existed at the time. This was followed by a religious revival which saw the mushrooming of another movement by which traditional Christianity was being impacted and transformed with African retentions and elements which are the forerunner of the Pentecostal movement in Jamaica, and which are still evident in a place like Watt Town in St Ann. It was clear then that there was something about "traditional religion" which did not resonate with some of our people.

Pentecostalism of today manifests several of these features. Several of the leading Pentecostal churches in Jamaica today have their roots and leadership among the diaspora and those who have become "returning residents". When our people migrated to the United Kingdom and North America in the early decades of the past century and attempted to join the denominational traditions to which they were affiliated back home in Jamaica, they were not made to feel welcome, and that is putting it mildly.

Consequently, many found themselves among their Jamaican enclaves, where churches mushroomed under the leadership of persons with no formal theological education, just leadership potential and a religious commitment. Often these were great paternal and maternal figures.

Several of these groups grew to establish congregations in certain cities of the United Kingdom and in Jamaica. One only has to travel on flights from Jamaica to the United Kingdom to see the frequent travel of the clergy of these religious groups on their mission on both sides of the Atlantic. Additionally, among the leaders of local-spun Pentecostal groups are persons who have travelled and experienced church life abroad, and who, no doubt, related to traditional churches here on the basis of their assessment of their experience of the mother churches in the metropolitan centres.

This is not the end of the story, however. I recall an interview on Public Radio in the United States of America with one of the great sociologists of religion of the last century, Martin Marty. He was asked whether, given the expert position which he occupies in matters religious, he anticipated the rise of Pentecostalism in the latter half of the 20th century.

He proceeded to articulate his analysis of the major factor contributing to the rise of Pentecostalism, which he attributed to the marriage of Pentecostalism with technology, primarily radio and television. Is there any surprise then, that the two leading religious groups in Jamaica, according to the census, are those which own radio and television stations and control religious broadcasting on the airwaves?

The impact of Pentecostalism on the church in the 20th century and, to a lesser extent in the 21st century, is undeniable, to the extent that a new term has been coined to speak of the church throughout the world today, namely, "the Pentecostalisation of the Church". No Christian tradition has escaped its renewed focus on the person of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostalism is not as monolithic as a casual observer would think. There is another level of Pentecostalism which does not trace its roots to the same migratory dynamics outlined before, but to the Pentecostalism which has come out of North America, and has been influenced by the media reach.

Several of these groups are founded around emerging middle class professionals and graduates of tertiary institutions, and who also are unhappy with traditional institutions and structures of leadership in society as a whole, including that exuded by "traditional churches". They, too, often begin with a leadership which has not received formal theological education and with a leadership structure which is flat. With time, however, they begin to take on features of traditional religion.

There is no debating the fact that traditional churches have been facing a decline in membership. Various reasons have been advanced for this situation. It is true that the traditional churches have been more staid in their approach to matters of worship and teaching, and have a sense of connection with the church through the ages. As is true of a nation at 50, a people without a sense of their history, but with eyes only for the present, are a people without identity and integrity of being.

But is the decline indicative of some inherent failure in the proclamation of the gospel and in living the faith? The Christian faith is one which seeks to embrace the whole person, body, mind and spirit, and all the human senses. The contemporary preoccupation with emotion and feeling, as that which drives the moral and religious life of persons, is not consistent with the gospel as understood by Christians of a historic tradition.

Additionally, when the religious feelings have worn off, with what is the individual left? Emotional expression serves a cathartic end, but does it lead to social action and responsibility as it recedes? The mandate of Jesus to His disciples is that of preaching, healing, exorcising the things which lead to distortion in the life of the people, and feeding those who are hungry. It is interesting that among those religious groups which understand the gospel in this holistic way and are most involved in the life of the nation in these ways are those on the decline.

While traditional churches, like all historic institutions, will need to constantly examine their mission in a changing world, we need not see the data as a call to retreat or to make a public confession of failure. Their contribution to education at every level of the educational system would collapse if we were to somehow be guided by the popular faith that is driven by emotional considerations. So would the children's homes, and the homes for the elderly.

Focusing on a denomination other than my own, and in the face of allegations of hypocrisy among people of traditional churches, it is interesting that the Roman Catholics, whose work through the Missionaries of the Poor, Mustard Seed Communities, and the founding force behind Food For the Poor, among other things, should be held up as one, whose statistical decline should be a matter for ridicule.

It is true that faithfulness to the gospel always involves a balance between worship, proclamation and works of charity, but to make worship of a particular expression the esse of the Christian church is untenable.

There is no question that one of the issues confronting the people of this nation is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and despair in face of the many social and economic problems which we face and a loss of confidence in the system of governance to make things better. This is precisely the breeding ground for apocalyptic faith traditions as the answer to the search for meaning in a context of hopelessness.

It should not surprise us then that among those traditions which are witnessing growth in their numbers are those who express a world view that this world is evil and that God will be destroying it in the near future in order to establish His reign with the faithful adherents who belong to their particular group.

Also present among this group of adherents is the search for certainty in the midst of the crisis facing the world and the society. Religious expression which offers faith which can be summed up in a few statements of belief and which assure the faithful that they constitute the preferred people of God is most appealing.

What must be of concern to the traditional churches is the growing number of persons who have indicated no religious adherence. The Christian community, of all traditions, can take no comfort in the fact that this sector is growing while those in the church play musical chairs, moving from one denomination to another. Movement from a traditional church to a newer church does not fulfil the Great Commission.

In addition, religious affiliation is less about religious and theological truth, and more about that which resonates with the personality of the individual, and the stage one is at in the transition through life. It must be the burden of all churches that there is such a growing unchurched population in our society.

While it would be bigoted to suggest that where there is no religion there is no morality, it is also true to say that the current trend has serious implications for the moral and social tone of this society in moving forward.

Among these are the children who, faced with all kinds of attractions and diversions, are increasingly losing contact with the church. We must be realistic in our evaluation of the situation. Religious commitment makes most sense and engages the attention of the middle aged when life issues begin to pose questions of meaning which seek answers.

The Church must be present to and for the youth, not just to make them members, but to help to influence their frame of reference and commitments in a world that is confusing and presenting them with more material than they can handle at their level of development.

Census data constitute an important tool for social analysis, planning and development, but care must be exercised in how it is used to make judgements which reflect our prejudices, or which are uniformed regarding the reality which we are engaging.

It is ironic that while there are journalists and religiously committed persons making much of statistics, using strength of numbers as an expression of authenticity, the Christian tradition which has the largest number of adherents is one which subscribes to the theological notion of the remnant community, the smallest subset, which is set apart from the unfaithful multitude as the true people of God.

Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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