Church attendance of Britons has been falling for decades. The news is not all negative, however. Church attendance of bats is rising. Bats, it seems, are more committed to Christian churches than Britons are faithful to Christianity.
Bats go to church because modernization has reduced their natural habitats. Britons don’t go because modernism has undermined their supernatural beliefs. Conservationists work hard to ensure that bats live and breed in churches safe from predation. Maybe evangelists should work harder to ensure that Britons pray and meditate in churches safe from secularization.
Where secularization fails to reduce congregations, bats may succeed. Excremental offerings from above are a cross that only the heroically religious may choose to bear. But congregants aren’t the sole beneficiaries of penitential droppings. Pews, organs, tapestries, and centuries old frescoes and memorial brasses are similarly anointed.
That’s the penance imposed just for being there. As British law protects bats, additional penance is mandated for harming them or damaging their roosts. If parishioners disturb bats, penalties can include stiff fines and jail time. But there are extenuating circumstances. If bats disturb parishioners, penalties are unclear and often waived.
Pastors, being merciful, may wish to mitigate the penance bats impose on parishioners. However, if they intend to interfere with the winged mammals, they need to get a license and submit to conditions that can be time-consuming and costly.
Some churches devote a significant part of their Sunday collections to accommodate bats. But parishioners, being charitable, are used to sacrificial giving. What’s more, the bats give back and not just in penitential opportunities. Although they don’t pray to a caring deity, bats prey on uncaring insects. Although not reverent, bats are entertaining, especially when they use the ample ceiling space to teach their young to fly. If a pup crash-lands on the lectern, the collision can brighten up the dullest homily.
Bats might be even more helpful if pastors were more welcoming. They couldn’t do better than follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He welcomed birds so graciously that he persuaded a noisy flock to keep quiet while he preached. Maybe if British pastors chose St. Francis as their patron, they could persuade bats to mend their excremental ways and modify their aerial gymnastics.
At St. Francis’ behest, his “brother and sister birds” praised God according to their nature. Not being saints, British pastors can’t expect to move their brother and sister bats to worship. However, if pastors were sufficiently welcoming, resident bats might be more amenable to letting congregants share the churches with them. That is, a more welcoming attitude might prevent some centuries old churches from becoming unusable as places of worship.
Which raises the question “How do you resolve conflicts between conserving contemporary bats and preserving historic buildings, not to mention their antique furnishings and accessories?” As I’ve brought up the question, it’s only fair to let heritage buffs hand down the answer. I wish them luck.
When bats decide to move in, British churches, especially old ones, are more welcoming than congregants. The way they were put together and their often poor state of repair (the churches, not the congregants) provide openings in roofs and walls for easy entry, flight access to roosts and low lighting. In summer, spaces in roofs and eaves house maternity colonies; in winter, towers and crypts accommodate hibernating species.
Maybe church buildings are hospitable to bats because both relate to Halloween, though in different ways, one sacred, the other scary. On the one hand, Halloween is the vigil of All Saints Day, a religious feast that celebrates everlasting life and commemorates the fully alive. On the other hand, Halloween is a secular festival that exalts eternal death and pays tribute to the living dead, including human vampires that shapeshift into bats. I suspect that by making themselves attractive to bats, church buildings mean to turn the Halloween relationships into an opportunity to evangelize the spooky invaders.
Because of their generally more recent construction, Canadian churches are less welcoming to bats than British houses of worship appear to be. Bats occupy some of them anyhow, but not, apparently, as visibly and actively as they do in Britain. As Canadian churches age, however, we should expect their hospitality, and the charity of their congregants, to be tested. For starters, maybe they’ll welcome bats in the belfry (not the congregants, the churches).