Last week I was challenged by someone who believed the Church should see its role as increasing people’s happiness.
What people value is what makes them happy, he argued. The Church needs to be better at understanding what people value, and responding to that.
I am inclined to agree, but that leaves the question, what is happiness, and what makes people happy? And what dimensions of happiness might the Church appropriately provide?
These are not new questions. Apparently the first Bishop of Dunwich, Felix, delivered “all the province of East Anglia from longstanding unrighteousness and unhappiness.” That was written by the historian Bede about a century after Felix died in 648.
We do not know much detail about how Felix actually made the people of East Anglia righteous and happy, except that he preached, established a school and a monastery, and set up a number of churches.
Felix came from Burgundy, and was sent to East Anglia by the Archbishop of Canterbury in response to an invitation by King Sigeberht of East Anglia.
The King was already a devout Christian, having been baptised while in exile in France. The Church had not been established in our region, and he asked Felix to come here to do that. Sigeberht later abdicated in order to enter a monastery.
Felix is thought to have been the first Bishop of Dunwich and I have just been joined by a new colleague, Mike Harrison, to serve as Felix’s latest successor. Mike takes up the post last held by Clive Young from 1999 until his retirement in 2013 and very sadly died after a short illness in October last year.
Clive is remembered in the county for many things, and not least for his support for the pig farmers during the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
Mike will serve as an assistant bishop (known as a suffragan bishop) but in fact the title, Bishop of Dunwich is far more ancient and historically distinguished than the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich which was only created in 1914.
Part of Mike’s brief is to help the Church in Suffolk reach more people and be better and doing what it exists for. In some respects it is not that different from Felix’s brief, given the challenges we face today. So if we look at the task through the lens of happiness, what might that mean?
Plenty of people who do not attend church nevertheless value what the Church provides, and that valuing must in some sense provide at least a little bit of happiness.
Whether that is by receiving help from a homeless project, or foodbank, or a visit from the parish nurse, or attending a young people’s project or attending one of the county’s 88 church schools. All of these we would hope add to the happiness of the people involved, whether or not they practice the Christian faith.
A report published earlier this month by the Office of National Statistics suggested that religious people in the UK are happier than those who identify themselves as having no religion. In fact Hindus come out as the happiest, closely followed by Christians.
What is it about religion that might engender greater happiness? Dr Amit Sood in a study for the Mayo Clinic in the United States, identifies the qualities of gratitude, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness as being key to enhancing happiness.
These are the common currency of Christian faith, and other faiths too, so it is not surprising that religious people score higher on happiness.
Other studies have shown that being part of a community, a congregation of friends and familiar faces, who hold beliefs and motivations in common, are crucial factors in the happiness of religious people.
That is also of course where the experience of gratitude, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness is lived out. As Christians we would say that is because we are trying to live in response to the gift of the love of God shown us in Jesus.
I think there is something in this – something in the Church having a role in increasing people’s happiness.
It comes from having a bigger perspective, one that has, if you like, an eternal point of view and that says that whatever we face now, all will in the end be well.
So I look forward to our new Bishop of Dunwich, like his predecessor Felix, helping us increase in happiness.
-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of Ipswich and St Edmundsbury