I have been reading Mary Portas’s report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph on the decline of the country’s high streets with interest. (For those who don’t know of her, Portas is the consumer and retail expert – as well as a TV presenter and an amusing, abrasive columnist – brought in by David Cameron to rejuvenate our dying high streets.) In her frank report she warns that unless retailers, landlords and councils work together to revitalise our high streets something “fundamental to society” will be “irretrievably lost”.
She goes on to say that she believes such streets “can be lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community; a sense of belonging which… has been eroded and in some instances eradicated.” While acknowledging that “the problems are complicated and sometimes overwhelming” she believes “the task is not impossible… The more people I have seen and spoken to, the more I realise that there is a massive appetite out there among those willing…to fight for their high streets.”
The comment that particularly caught my attention was when Portas states it is “too easy” to blame out-of-town shopping centres, supermarkets and the internet for the decline, arguing that shopkeepers have the responsibility to adapt. “New benchmarks have been forged against which high streets are now being judged. New expectations have been created in terms of value, service, entertainment and experience against which the average high street has in many cases simply failed to deliver”. She concludes: “The only hope our high streets have of surviving is to recognise what’s happened and deliver something new.”
Before people wonder why I seem to be focusing entirely on Mammon when, on a Catholic blog site, I should be focusing on God, I’ll explain: although it is not an exact analogy – obviously – I see a parallel between what Portas is talking about and the decline of Christianity in this country. There was a time when the Christian faith was seen as “fundamental to society” by most people; there was a widespread sense of belonging to a Christian community; and there is still “a massive appetite” among serious believers to fight for their faith before it is “irretrievably lost” on these shores. Just as shops blame the big outlying supermarkets for taking their trade, we too are inclined to blame outside elements – secular society, the media, celebrity atheists and so on – for our own failure to show how irresistibly attractive our Christian faith is; how life-giving and life-transforming; how it gives purpose, meaning and hope to our lives. In short, how vital it is to true well-being. Portas talks enthusiastically of her “vision” for renewing the high streets; have we forgotten that we have a vision for renewing the whole of society – a vision that is infinitely more wonderful?
We Catholics can get so absorbed in our internal and interminable disputes about church politics that we forget that we are meant to be evangelising and spreading the Good News of Christ, not huddled in our dwindling congregations condemning the world for passing us by. One strident and energetic redhead (Ms Portas; I have a feeling she was raised a Catholic) is bringing a dynamism to her mission that we Catholics could emulate. Otherwise we will deserve to sink, along with the bingo halls and betting shops. You can take an analogy too far; I’ll stop at this point.