1999 was one of those times when there was a feeling that change was in the air. Of course, everything would be similar the following year, but there was a sense that people expected a change. Embracing the fin de siècle that pervaded much thinking, I bought a book on a spirituality for the Twenty-First Century; I probably still have it, somewhere. Rather than being a handbook of what to do, it attempted to analyze what the writer believed would be the trends within popular thinking and what response churches might make in the way they structured their spiritual life.
The key word in the the writer’s thinking was “affective,” he believed that churches needed to appeal people’s feelings and emotions. The book was set aside, not because the analysis was faulty, but because, as anyone familiar with the Church of Ireland will know, we do not engage in emotional worship. Low church Protestants tend to recoil at the idea of anything that might approach the adjective “affective.”
Eighteen years after reading that book, there is an awareness that the churches that attract people are those that understand the power of the affective, those that understand the need to appeal to people in ways beyond words. The so-called “New Age” was dismissed as a reversion to old paganism, but at its heart there was a desire to find something that could not be found in the dry propositional worship of the traditional churches.
The affective can take various forms. Perhaps that’s the problem with it, what appeals to the feelings and emotions of one person may leave another person wondering why a fuss was being made. Personally, there have been three situations recently where affective spirituality has been memorable:
An evangelical gathering, where the speaker sought to speak not to reason and intellect, but to the heart; speaking of a personal response, a faith rooted in feelings unarticulated
Choral evensong at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral where having a canon’s stall in the choir puts one at the heart of music that is transcendent, timeless, spine-tingling.
A funeral Mass in a local Roman Catholic church where the Eucharistic prayer, with the stroke of the bell at the consecration, and the final commendation, with its antiphonal chant and incense, spoke of a faith beyond the rational and propositional.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, research shows the places where attendances are growing are the evangelical, the cathedrals, and the traditional Catholic. Affective spirituality is not so much New Age as old Christian.