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What Mary Portas can teach us about evangelisation

Like high streets, the Church will have to change to revitalise

By on Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Mary Portas, with David Cameron Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Mary Portas, with David Cameron Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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.

  • Anonymous

    I attended the recent Celebrate conference at St. Albans and saw the excellent Catholic speaker John Vaughan Neil. He quite rightly said that Catholic evangelisation in Britain is now in a state of paralysis. I absolutely agree but, I would go one step further and say that it is now dead. When we end up on judgement day it will be the English Catholics that will have an extremely high price to pay for presiding over a holocaust of souls whilst gormlessly looking on.

    If I hear another Catholic misquoting St Francis of Assisi when he ‘said’ “evangelise at all times and when necessary use words” as an excuse for not actually opening their mouths I will quite literally scream.

    This misquote is one of the most dangerous things we have in the Catholic Church.

    Michael Voris had a recent post about the evangelicals/protestants now starting a co-ordinated drive for the next billion souls. He pointed out how much zeal there was in many of their Churches for achieving this and the fact that there was no zeal in the Catholic Church.

    Yes, we can learn something from Mary Portas, as long as we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  • ms Catholic state

    I agree.  Though as Catholics we face many and growing problems in our secularised society….Evangelising is a joyous activity for those who love the Faith.  Next year the Pope has planned some formal Evangelising activities, but there’s lots we should be doing ourselves at a parish and individual level.

    I think we need to compile a list of simple evangelisation activities we can do.  For instance….our Priests could leave all unsold Catholic newspapers with the local Catholic secondary school or even the local library: we could buy prayer cards in bulk and distribute them at busy rail stations; reading material could be left outside Churches in weather proof see through cases for the public to take…..or the Church could invite the public into the Church for specified prayer times.  Catholic groups could set up toddler playgroups or after school clubs on our run-down estates…..with a clear Catholic inspiration etc  These and other activities cost next to nothing to implement.

  • Anonymous

    “…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.”

    ## But how many Catholics – how many in the UK who claim to be Christians, for that matter – think it is any of these things, let alone all of them ? And if we don’t find it “irresistibly attractive” – what possible reason is there why Dawkins or Singer or Hitchens or a host of others should think it “irresistibly attractive” ? How can we give to others what we ourselves do not have ? Catholicism is scandal-ridden, authoritarian, bitterly divided, has a hideous historical record, is ruled over by a remote & unaccountable foreigner who switches back and forth between between religious & political identities as needed; and it depends on the “fiat” of this foreigner for any reform, no matter how necessary, to take place. Catholicism cannot even be relied on to be morally good. If it were a secular affair, it would have long ago been closed down. But it’s a Church, so it has a free pass to cause infinite mayhem.

    Evangelicals evangelise tirelessly – that Catholics hardly ever do so, is far more damning than anything its worst enemies could say. That Catholics don’t evangelise, can only mean that they don’t believe they have  any Good News to share. St. Paul was unable not to evangelise – he was under a compulsion to do so; but Catholics ? For how many Catholics is Jesus anything more than a dead guy from 2,000 years ago ? How many Catholics would go to Mass, if they did not have to ? IMO, the obligation to go to Mass, and some of the other precepts of the Church, should be abolished ASAP; they are either a dead letter, or unecessary; a living Church with active & enthusiastic members does not need the crutches of ecclesiastical law or coercion. If it can’t do without such crutches, maybe a Church should be allowed to die.

    IMO, the Church has adopted a great many methods of  being the Church which are totally antithetical to what the Church is meant to be and do; and we are seeing the Dead Sea fruit of those bad ideas, now that the Church no longer has power to kill, imprison or otherwise to silence its critics. The CC in particular is deeply sick, but even to say this is to invite accusations of anti-Catholicism, for the Church does not have a habit of self-criticism; so it bombs merrily along like a Juggernaut, leaving devastation in its wake. But if the Church does not cultivate a habit of self-criticism, it is dooming itself, and – far more important – future generations, to making the same ruinous as errors as it has made already. If human beings have no right to behave like that, far less has the Church. It desperately needs to get rid of its attitude of entitlement. But maybe it has a death-wish – if so, it has only to carry on as usual.

  • ms Catholic state

    Or…..our Priests could hold Benediction in the Church courtyard once a month or so and invite all passers by to ‘Come and kneel before Him now’ as in that wonderful video of Benediction in the market place.  On Corpus Christi ….the Blessed Sacrament could be taken to the market place or Parks for public Adoration.  Also newspaper vendors might consider taking Catholic religious material and newspapers.

    Please feel free to add your own ideas.