Prayers and parking fees
I WONDER if other Freethinker readers have noticed the phrase “Pay to Pray” sneaking into local media recently?
The context is usually reports about churchgoers having to pay to use car parks or parking meters on Sundays. It might just be a catchy little phrase dreamed up by an unknown sub-editor, but as it’s so subtly misleading and seems to be spreading like a meme I think it worth challenging. Here are just two examples from the UK and the US.
The pretence is that churches and churchgoers are somehow less able to pay to park a car than businesses and people just going about non-religious pleasures and pursuits. The usual comparison is to shoppers or those out for a Sunday lunch, as if these are less worthy pursuits than just talking to a brick wall for an hour.
Most of us will not be rude enough to challenge bunkum so bluntly. But we could politely suggest that the religious must learn to cope with a world with more choice and less religious compulsion, in which some people will choose to worship on Sunday mornings, others to play sports, others to shop or just lie in bed late, and all should be equally free to their individual choice if it does not constrain others in theirs.
We could also push that further by pointing out that “choice” seems to be the key word here, and is a religious path not freely chosen worth taking anyway, or even genuine?
As – paradoxically – much of this talk about choice originates in the supposed triumph of the free market (or at least the quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo in which business studies expresses these ideas), and as some of the keenest free market disciples are religious evangelicals I would also point out another analogy between worship and shopping. This is that modern Christians seem to spend their Sundays shopping around for a church to suit their personal prejudices (sorry – “deeply held beliefs”).
Think carefully of your religious friends. How many of them (rather than just attending the church on the corner or where they grew up) test out different churches within a diocese, or other denominations, until they find one where the sermons and form of service handily fit in with their general view of the world (rather than individual belief fitting in with the church)?
A less frivolous “lifestyle choice” than the restaurant they go on to later, or the brand of clothes they buy?
Also note, for example, how even mainstream churches and clergy increasingly put aside traditional religious discourse to witter about a “personal relationship with God”. Is this really any more than adopting the psychobabble we are so familiar with from the workplace, or innumerable therapies to cope with an ever-increasing range of “addictions” we never knew we had until a helpful Sunday supplement told us about them?
More simply, why drive to church anyway? In a quick survey against the map of all the churches around me whose clergy or congregants complain about the price of parking I noted that most are complaining about paying to park within 50 metres of the church door, when there is ample free parking within 200 (sometimes even in purpose built car parks). The worst example (where the complaints all came from the users of some half a dozen luxury cars) also had the town’s bus station within 100 metres.
Never mind “What would Jesus drive”, you lardarses, what about all that sermonising to potential green punters about being stewards of the earth?
But there’s more than a little of the religiously potty calling the steaming secularist black here. I find it hilarious that churchgoers are seemingly so blind to the importance given to paying just to enter a church, even if we’re not there from religious compunction.
How much is it these days for a wander round St. Paul’s to admire the architecture (or even the smaller cathedrals for that matter)? And do they extend you, say, the choice to pay what you can afford (or even not pay because you cannot), or just demand a fixed rate determined by the change likely to be found in an upper-middle class tourist’s pocket?
Then there is that embarrassing situation when you only go to a church event to support a relative or workmate and get mugged. Apart from christenings, weddings and funerals these will include non-religious events in communities where the church is the only available venue.
For example, my wife sings in a choir that goes round rural towns and villages predominantly entertaining pensioners. Fair enough, most members are churchgoers themselves, but they sing in churches because there are no other small town venues. This never stops the host making a point of telling you the place is falling down, so dig deep again even if you’ve just paid a fixed admission fee.
In my funniest example this year, even the vicar wimped out. It turned out to be a “pay-as-you-enter” affair in aid of church funds, but no church warden was on hand to meet and greet, so the audience wandered in as the vicar was delayed elsewhere until the last second.
Looking round the church on a cold night he could see a few frail oldies, slightly more younger relatives just there to ferry Granny there and back and the rest were relatives of the singers – there for much the same reason. Being a fair-minded realist, he explained that we were all supposed to have paid, and there’d be tea and buns after the singing, so maybe folk could slip something into the poor box as we went out – or not, depending on what we could afford or thought of the show and refreshments.
The bigger irony was that my wife (like me, well known locally as an outspoken, if amicable, atheist) had made the cakes in the belief the gig was in aid of choir funds. In a close knit community like ours, you can laugh with church-going neighbours about such things and nobody takes the hump, but there is still a serious point.
Inside the church, Christians should expect to pay to be there of their own free will, but not mug others who are not – expecially when pious town councillors prevent the public provision of genuinely secular community centres on the excuse that there’s already a church hall.
Outside the church, Christians should expect to pay equally for public facilities mostly provided by the taxes of others in order to lessen the inconvenience caused by the motor car. And if they choose not to, they can always take a bus, a taxi or walk.
After all, it’s not even as if they need to struggle home afterwards with wet sports gear or bags full of designer shoes, is it?
• In America, The Re. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, frowns on parking exemptions for churches. He said:
It’s just a very silly idea. I know that everybody is hurting for money. But if you’re going to have meters that operate on Sundays, you can’t get a pass on the four quarters if you happen to be praying at the time.
Top picture shows a parking ticket on the windscreen of one of the cars parked outside St Hubert Church in Oldbury, West Midlands