That science, after all the harm it has done, should come to the rescue of organised religion is perhaps the result of divine intervention. Then again, there could be a perfectly rational scientific explanation.
Either way, the Church of England, whose decline in congregations over the past 20 years or so has been lamentable, may look to the future with renewed confidence, its faith undiminished, its vim and vitality restored. Parish priests who had become used to preaching the word of the Lord to row upon row of echoing and empty pews may confidently look forward to beholding a sea of upturned faces that not even the most arid of sermons could evaporate.
Not since Darwin said man was an ape and Einstein declared that all things were relative, will the antique timbers of parish churches have rung so resoundingly to the singing of Hymns Ancient and Modern and the sweet clatter of coin on offertory plate.
Mind you, there will need to be a little bit of marketing done between now and then. To the faint-hearted who say the Church has tried selling itself in the past and failed, I say yes, but this time it’s really got something that will win the applause of the masses, the very thing, in fact, that it’s been lacking all these years.
The problem with religion is that it dwells far too much on the next world, and let’s face it, in this age of science not many people believe in the hereafter. What the punters demand is eternal life here on Earth, a perfectly reasonable request in the circumstances.
In the past, the Church’s attempts to round up its wayward flock and herd it back into the fold have failed because it has overlooked the simple truth that science is the new religion. Everyone believes in almighty science, it’s all around us: it’s in the magic that brings Davina McCall and Anne Robinson right into our living rooms and the biologically miraculous combination of genes, synapses and so on that give us the forbearance to allow it to happen; it is in computer games, test-tube babies, morning-after pills, microwave ovens, talking pedometers, iPods, muzak, mobile phones and the 1,001 ways in which we are able to fill our lives with noise and confusion. God bless science.
No wonder that the Church’s puny efforts at marketing, from trendy vicars, happy-clappy services, free sweets and the New Estuary English Bible, to that last desperate attempt to twang the bra of modernity and strike a chord, women priests, have all failed to dent man’s unswerving belief in his own omnipotence.
And yet one insurmountable problem remains. For all that we can freeze sperm into a solid chunk and warm the planet into a perspiring globule, and despite the astonishing power of endurance that allows us to tolerate prodigious doses of popular culture, we remain mortal. It is nothing short of failure. The triumph of science ends at the point where the undertaker screws down the lid. Praise be, then, to the scientists of the University of Iowa who have discovered that going to church can lengthen your life. At last religion has something to offer that everyone wants; something to rival jogging, aerobics, colonic irrigation, acupuncture, fat-free diets, silicone breast implants, lifestyle gurus, astrology and personal shoppers.
A 12-year study at Iowa found that, of more than 550 adults over the age of 65, those who attended church services at least once a week were 35 per cent more likely to live longer than those who never attended church. The research also found that churchgoing boosted the immune system and made people less likely to suffer clogged arteries and high blood pressure.
Admittedly, these findings are not entirely scientific – how could they be, coming from a department of psychology? – but they are exactly what the Church needs if it is to rival the claims of secular religions such as aromatherapy and slimming.
The Church, however, will have to be careful not to be swept along by over-enthusiastic marketing. It is plain from the quality of most television commercials that the advertising industry, which once attracted bright, intelligent, witty young people with an abundance of flair and imagination – is now peopled by coarse dolts whose creativity and humour rarely rises above the rim of the lavatory bowl.
If the Church is to serve as the elixir of life that most people crave, it must hang on to its sense of the numinous, the calm dignity and love of ritual that have equipped it to survive the horrors of this and every previous age from the time of its creation.
So it must withstand the inevitable pressure to succumb to blue-sky thinking, to replace stained glass with neon, to install pew-back video entertainment centres, and to replace choirmasters with rap DJs.
For it seems to me that the reason why churchgoers live longer is that for just a blessed hour or two each week they can shut themselves off from the world outside and believe, just for a while, that it doesn’t exist.