GP Taylor: Church must stop us giving up on Lent

NO matter what your beliefs, there are parts of the year where Christianity still manages to pervade the daily life of the community.

Dean of Ripon Cathedral John Dobson (centre) and the Mayor of Ripon Cllr Mick Stanley outside the Cathedral yesterday for the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race.
Dean of Ripon Cathedral John Dobson (centre) and the Mayor of Ripon Cllr Mick Stanley outside the Cathedral yesterday for the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race.

As the days lengthen and the nights get lighter, all that stands between now and Easter is the dreaded period of Lent. Traditionally this was 40 days of fasting and self-examination. It was a period of abstinence and giving up, thinking of higher things and preparing the mind, body and soul for the Easter Eucharist.

In the early world of the Church, Easter was the main Christian celebration of the year. Christmas was unheard of. The big event was the story that Jesus had come back to life. It became an annual remembrance, linked into the Jewish feast of Passover.

As a child, I can remember that my mother would try to observe Lent – even in the non-Christian household in which I grew up.

Here was the amazing tradition on Shrove Tuesday of Pancake Day. As a Scarborough lad, I loved the idea of bunking off from school, eating pancakes for dinner and then skipping on the seafront. It was more of a communal celebration than a religious observance.

This was one of the big days of the year and its significance was totally lost on me. There was no way it was linked into the Christian story of Jesus, 40 days in the wilderness being tempted didn’t even get a mention. It was about as relevant to many people then as it is now.

Without any doubt, we have to admit that the traditions of the Church are becoming less and less relevant. As we pursue money and happiness, there is a demise in the place of God in our lives.

However, there is something about 
the idea of Lent that appeals to the human condition. Glossy magazines are full of tips on how to detox, to get the body back in shape by watching out what you put in. Getting healthy is promoted through giving up that which is bad for you.

Perhaps this mantra for the modern age should be the public relations tip needed by a Church that is failing to connect with the modern world. Mainstream religion is being quickly replaced by do-it-yourself spirituality. People are looking to other options for filling that God-shaped hole in their lives that cannot be satisfied by anything else.

The Church could tap in to this growth of new spirituality by rebranding Lent for a modern world. The current guidelines by the Catholic Church for Lent are that no meat is to be eaten on a Friday, and meals are to be restricted to one meal a day and snacks at breakfast and tea. This isn’t exactly the kind of thing that will get people queuing to join in.

Lent could be made to be about a spring clean of body, mind and soul. Giving up on the trivial could be replaced by taking on something that will bring change to our lives.

The year is now slowly filling with months of abstinence. In November we all stop shaving and in January we all stop drinking. Now is the time for Lent to give up on abstinence and become a catalyst for change. Not eating chocolate for six weeks or avoiding the occasional cream cake doesn’t have a deep changing effect on who we are as people.

Like any good spring clean, Lent has to be deep and vigorous. It should be about thinking who we are, looking at what we want to achieve in our lives and relationships. To make it relevant, the Church has to make Lent accessible and take away the grim and dowdy image. This is not something the Church is good at doing.

Lent for the modern world has to be a challenge promoted on social media and focusing on change.

For me, it is not about giving up but about taking on. Lent 2015 is to be a time of finding out more about myself and chasing some of the demons that have dogged me over the last year.

To fight my long-standing depression, I have enrolled in a Buddhist mindfulness group and an adult acting class. To attack my obesity, I am trying to walk five miles a day. For my mind, I intend in six weeks to read at least three books that have sat on my shelf for the last year.

Lent can be relevant for a modern age. All it takes is the desire for change.

• GP Taylor is a writer, and broadcaster, a former police office and vicar and can be followed on twitter @gptaylorauthor