Comments: Faith in Research Conference 2013

I presume that the CofE will ignore that presentation. What it shows is that demographically it's downhill all the way from here, unless it believes that current 18--24 year olds will mysteriously become homophobic and sexist as they get older. As the CofE leadership is firmly fixed on going down with the ship on same-sex marriage, there is simply no way that this ends well.

Scenario 1:

Those with a sense of preservation ask the question "Is same-sex marriage such an existential threat to the church that simply accepting it will cause us a problem?" (to which the answer is "probably not")

The irreconcilables, who are excitable and exciting and good copy, will leap to the media screaming "Yes! Same Sex Marriage will destroy the church! We must continue to discriminate!"

Result: everyone under 35 thinks it's vile, church rapidly becomes cult for elderly bigots.

Scenario 2:

Everyone does nothing, for fear of what the irreconcilables will do. Issue of SSM is kicked into the long grass, repeatedly, while a quiet rear-guard action is fought, to defeat, in parliament.

Result: most people under 35 think it's vile, or ignores it, church slowly becomes cult for elderly bigots.

Tricky choice.

Posted by Interested Observer at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 1:48am BST

I don't see this going down well with the Catholic Bishops Conference either.

Posted by Fr Alan-Bury at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 7:46am BST

Interested Observer, you are missing the far more probable:

Scenario 3: CofE will do what it almost always does, change to adopt the majority position, just a bit slower than civil society. We will have women bishops relatively soon now, ++York is already talking about same sex blessings, and as the current bench of bishops holding the opinions of their generation retire and are replaced with younger ones with the opinions of theirs, the position will continue to evolve.

Posted by Stuart, Devon at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 7:50am BST

Stuart,
your comment reminds me of Scenario 4: CoE will have women bishops soon but everyone who feels like it will be entitled to say that they're not actually validly ordained and the church as a whole will not be valuing women's ministry to the same extent as male ministry.
Those who want to may bless same sex marriage but it will be optional and it will continue to be acceptable to preach against gay people from the pulpits, so the church as a whole will not be a welcoming place for lgbt people.

The fiction that equality has been achieved will be maintained officially while high profile Christians will continue to lobby against women and gay people through the press and the courts.

The public will be quite aware of this. The "traditionalists" will continue to dominate the media and public perception will remain poor.

Going by the track record of the CoE to date, that is probably the most likely outcome.

Posted by Erika Baker at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 8:50am BST

Stuart, I think your Scenario 3 is the same as Interested Observer's Scenario 1.

But I think the outcome is more likely: most people under 50 think it's vile, Church shrinks dramatically and either dies or has to reinvent itself entirely, from a much diminished base.

There is a problem, and it is urgent.

Posted by badman at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 9:35am BST

The Church of England has even managed to lose some (of us) in our sixties !

How ever did they manage that ?

Posted by Laurence at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 10:32am BST

If ~Alan-bury means RC bishops why not say so ?

Cardinal O'Brien has fallen silent all of a sudden ?

Posted by Laurence at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 10:33am BST

Cardinal O'Brien has resigned. He was a member of The [Roman Catholic] Bishops' Conference of Scotland.
http://www.bpsconfscot.com/

But I suspect the reference was to the [Roman] Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales, http://www.cbcew.org.uk/about.html

Posted by Simon Sarmiento at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 11:17am BST

Irrespective of one's religious affiliation, the Church of England has been a bedrock of English culture and civilisation for centuries. It has usually ended up on the right side in moral debates, even if it didn't start out there. Its network of parish churches, vicars and congregations is a vital part of our civil society. Its strength has been in its ability to compromise, which historically avoided it getting marginalised over issues like divorce, contraception, homosexuality or abortion. It has steadfastly avoided becoming a warrior in the culture wars, which have largely remained in the US.

The Church of England's reduction to an irrelevant cult, which is what has happened to the Catholic Church over the last twenty years, would be a national tragedy. It would drag down with it a huge number of schools, the Scout and Guide movement, several major charities and a five hundred year old tradition of music and liturgy. And it would remove Christianity from our public discourse, leaving it in the same place it now is in Italy or Spain. Whatever one thinks of the details and the missteps, Christianity has been a massive force for good in this country, and its passing from the national consciousness would leave a huge, and regrettable, void.

Now, the CofE is importing culture wars. It has loud, simplistic fights about what red-state USA refers to as "wedge issues", like same-sex marriage, headship (a word, never mind a concept, unknown a generation ago) and even, alarmingly, abortion, possibly the most toxic issue of them all. Rather as sporting gun owners post-Dunblaine thought they could import NRA rhetoric and avoid the inevitable ban, now we have the fringes of the CofE importing wedge-issue rhetoric and thinking that they will find fertile fields to sew it in.

In some cases it's dressed up in anti-colonialist garb ("we mustn't offend the African churches") and sometimes it's social conservatism appealing to people who are worried about change. Either way, it's doomed. Britain is not the USA. Abortion, SSM and sexual equality are not wedge issues outside a tiny, tiny fringe who are both electorally and politically insignificant. There are no fly-over states. If the CofE makes common cause with fringe evangelicals and even, more cynically, conservative Muslims then it will condemn itself to utter oblivion within twenty years. And the country will, I believe, be immensely poorer for it.

Phew! 397 words!

Posted by Interested Observer at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 11:49am BST

But surely we are called to challenge the ways of the world?

If the survey said that 99% of people didn't believe in God, would we say that we were wrong? If 99% said that they believed in the rightness of polygamy, would we say, 'Gosh, looks like we we wrong all along!'

Surely part of the Christian life is that we are called out of the ways of the world, yet remain within the world. Aren't we told to "not conform to the pattern of this world"? (Rom 12)

Posted by Tristan at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 12:17pm BST

A consequence of 30 years of "wedge issues" and culture war in the USA is a rapidly secularizing America. The fastest growing single religious identification in the USA is "none of the above." Churches from right to left are losing members. While the right loves to point out the decline in membership in the Episcopal Church over the past 50 years, they have their own serious retention problems. Those right wing power houses of the Southern Baptist Church and the Roman Catholic Church are both suffering severe membership losses. There are now as many ex-Catholics as Catholics in the USA. Across the board in all churches, it is now more common than not for the children of church members to leave their churches of origin, and to leave religion entirely.

As the right wing churches in the USA continue to suffer political setbacks, especially over lgbt issues, membership losses, and declining credibility with the public, their fringe elements become even freakier and uglier.

Here's what the American public sees more and more as representing Christianity:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEJ6KocmsDk


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhtwgMSYVf8

Posted by FD Blanchard at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 12:55pm BST

> I don't see this going down well with the Catholic Bishops Conference either.

To my jaundiced eye, a difference between RCs and members of the CofE is that members of the CofE who disagree with their Church's teachings try to get those teachings changed, whereas RCs who disagree with their Church's teachings bypass the teachings as if they were ancient monuments and are content to live in disagreement with their own Church about e.g. same sex marriage and women clergy.

Posted by Veuster at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 3:19pm BST

"But surely we are called to challenge the ways of the world?"

Within my lifetime, it was the way of the world to regard women legally as chattel, and to regard gays and lesbians as criminal and ill, and to forcibly confine and "medicate" them by court order.

Posted by FD Blanchard at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 3:19pm BST

Tristan, my take: we're called to live Gospel values, conforming ourselves to the model of Jesus Christ.

Being in the Church (or its leadership) is *no guarantee* of those Gospel values ("Not everyone who cries 'Lord, Lord'"). Nor is NOT being in Church ("the world") a guarantee of being anti-thetical to Gospel values.

Posted by JCF at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 9:45pm BST

Tristan, I think that a relatively simple moral rule is available to us. We are called to be counter-cultural when it means being more just, more merciful, more sympathetic, more imaginative than the world; not when it means being less so.

Posted by Francis at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 10:06pm BST

If Prof Woodhead's presentation is unwelcome - not sure why it should be - then we should throw in the towel. For then we would not only be an institution in deep trouble, but we would be in denial about that, and hostile to people who deal in reality.

I share her analysis of the damage caused by our refusal to accept that women are equal to men and gay marriages as valid as straight ones, but it can’t be the whole story of the Church’s demographic collapse.

Liberal MOTR or Catholic parishes have not exactly packed them in over the past generation. The Parish Communion movement was contemporaneous with a collapse in church attendance; coincidence is not the same as causation, but surely we can at least conclude that the clever theories of clerical Oxbridge dons in the mid 20th century were useless in stemming decline from other causes. So, Thinking Anglicans, if you got the theology of gender, sexuality and inclusion right, what did you get wrong? Answers on a postcard, please. It isn't just "because our bishops were gutless and caved in to fundamentalist bigots". Parish practice was generally inclusive, and people will tolerate many things if they encounter God in worship.

Evangelicals packed them in. Sort of. In pockets. There are many dying Evangelical parishes, of whatever stripe, hidden by the megachurches. It’s still true that Evangelicalism was better at staving off collapse in the late 20th Century than the old establishment. Unfortunately it did so by circling the wagons and at the cost of, metaphorically speaking, pouring battery acid on the mission field. The virtual collapse in C of E affiliation among 20-40 year olds is a damning indictment of the Church since Carey went to Canterbury. Go to your local 'vibrant, growing' evangelical church, and you'll probably notice that this generation is missing. These churches’ age profile now looks like that of Liberal Catholic parishes in the 1970s.

Now the former radicals are the new establishment – Welby, a product of 70s charismatic revivalism, runs the show. But what was new and spirit filled 40 years ago is staid and boring now, and the selective Biblicism that underpins it missionary hemlock.

We argue about which of us has the right answers when we probably aren’t even asking the right question. It’s funny, as long as you don’t care about the future of Christianity in England.

Posted by The Rev'd Mervyn Noote at Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 10:22pm BST

Two slides seem to me to be most significant: (i) slide 8, which indicates that about 60% of the young have no religious belief; and (ii) slide 21 which indicates that 58% have no view about whether the Church is a good or bad institution (in other words, they couldn't care less). My experience of worshiping at well over a thousand churches in south-east England is that Prof. Woodhead's analysis is, if anything, too flattering to the Church. The whole institution is in absolute run-off except in a very few places, and a huge percentage of the church-going population will be dead within the decade. The situation is so far gone and beyond likely redemption that the critical issue now is how to preserve the buildings as public buildings with (I hope) a residuum of Christian worship.

How the Church has come to such a pass is a question for historians. However, what cannot be denied is that at least two generations of Church leaders have evinced a rather distressing complacency towards the desertion of the Church by the young; there was too often the blithe and naive assumption that they would return "when they have families" (often an excuse for neglecting the young who remained in church); there has been a complete failure to engage with youth culture in too many places; there has been a tendency to retreat into an ecclesiastical kraal and to reflect upon issues which, though perhaps of importance, are - at best - of marginal significance to many young people. There has also been the simple, logistical, failure to adjust to the changing weekend timetables of a large majority of the population.

A few years ago a fine American sociologist, Alexei Yurchack, wrote a book called "Everything Was Forever Until it Was No More" - about the public culture of the last years of the USSR. Francis Hutchins also wrote a book called "The Illusion of Permanence" (about the Raj). The Soviet nomenklatura and the ICS alike thought that because the structures of their respective regimes had endured, and seemed so solid, the power they represented was itself sound - whereas, in fact, it was irremediably rotten and fragile, and collapsed into dust in an instant. So too with the Church of England: the cathedrals, the ceremony, the bishops, benefices, etc., give an appearance of a stability hallowed by antiquity that is belied by the hopelessness of the demographic situation.

Whilst I have much sympathy for the remarks of Interested Observer, I cannot help but endorse the sage and clear-headed analysis of Mervyn Roote: we are at or near the end-game - which might soon turn into a literal and figurative death-spiral.

Posted by J Drever at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 1:24am BST

Conservatives are all about the church being counter-cultural, UNLESS it's conservative culture that's countered. Some word I'm reminded of - hypnogogy, hypnotic? Something beginning "hyp," anyway.


The truth is "the culture" has moved toward God while "the church" stood still, protesting the change of the world it has so willingly served since Constantine. The churches are not the leaders in marching to God, but the straggling, protesting, ineffectual rearguard.

Posted by MarkBrunson at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 4:50am BST

While I think the problems in this presentation look very alarming in their analysis of the present constitution of the Church, I am not sure that the figures tell us quite as much about the future as some comments here seem to suggest.
The fact that 60% of young people don't have a religious faith and that 58% of them couldn't care less doesn't really predict what the church will be like in 20 or 30 years time.
40 years ago, when I was one of a vanishingly tiny number of young people in my own, quite typical I think, suburban C of E church (there were fewer teenagers than there are in my church now). When I looked out at the congregation I saw much the same demographic pattern as this survey reflects, with a missing generation of teens, twenties and thirties, and a vastly disproportionate number of older people.
But the 60+'s in this study were the teens, twenties and 30's of that time. They weren't there then, but they are there now. They have come into the church, for all sorts of reasons, later in life, possibly as the easy optimism of youth (that "couldn't care less" feeling) came up against the difficulties and challenges of adulthood.
Before we panic about the small numbers of younger people, and focus on providing thrill-filled worship and gimmicks we hope will lure them in, perhaps we should look at the real, solid, deep provision we make for people asking real, solid, deep questions, the provision we make for silence, mystery, questioning, the provision we make for people to come into church on their own terms, confident that they will be welcome whoever they are and whatever their life-story.
If we believe in God, and we believe in the lasting value of the message of Christian faith, we should be able to trust that it, (and God, who is big enough, surely, to look after himself) has the power to sustain, change and inspire people now just as it did in the past. The church might change, but people, basically, don't. If we could trust God enough to stop trying to fence him round with our rules and regulations ("No, God, you know you aren't allowed to bless that gay relationship, however much it seems to be full of your grace...") we might worry less about the future and feel more free to concentrate on loving the people who are in front of us now, in the present.

Posted by Anne at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 8:36am BST

The problem is existential: fewer and fewer people believe that Christianity (or any religion) makes true claims about any sort of reality. Liberals deceive themselves when they think that the problem lies with attitudes to women or gays. It's important to get those things fixed, of course. The woman one is essentially won; the gay one has some way to go. Thereafter (and in the case of the women one right now), existing Christians should agree to sink their differences and apply their minds to the existential problem. Also problematic: because many Christians do not have minds, or if they do, choose not to exercise them in this context. So existing Christians of whatever stripe have to agree on a range of approaches to the essential problem. Liberals have to exercise forbearance to traditionalists (here used with wide reference) and vice versa. These are tough calls.

Posted by John at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 9:00am BST

Anne,
I think one big difference is that the teens and twens of 30,40 years ago knew what they were coming to. They had enough understanding of the Christian story and of what went on in church to make church a credible option when they needed to change or broaden their lives.
But for most of today's young people Christianity and what goes on inside a church is not familiar and approachable. It's like me walking past a mosque or a Hindu temple - with very little comprehension of what would happen if I actually went there with any level of genuine interest, nor why I should go there and not somewhere else.

It's that complete disconnectedness that's the biggest threat.
Tim Chesterton pointed it out on the recent thread about Alpha courses here - most people don't even know the Jesus narrative any longer, never mind the theology we've wrapped around it.

What they know about Christianity comes from the media headlines. To that extent, the anti-women, anti-gay message is lethal, more lethal than our usual suspects of liturgy, music etc.

In order to impress or turn people off with our thrill-filled worship we first need to persuade them that they might be interested enough to step inside to find out what we actually do and why it should matter to them.

Posted by Erika Baker at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 9:11am BST

The alternative, John, is to recognise that it's not about church at all, it's about bringing people to God.
And we don't actually need the CoE for that, nor our worship structures etc.
There are thriving existential faith conversations going on all around us in society. We can choose to be part of them.
What we cannot do is sit back and tinker at the edges thinking that if we only do this or that people will come to a formalised way of encountering the living God mediated by an institution.
It works for us - it definitely is not how most people go about discovering meaning in life any longer.

Posted by Erika Baker at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 9:24am BST

Anne, you have hit the nail on the head, so thank you for endorsing what I am coming to believe too. That the problem isn't actually the future at all, it's the present.

A friend of mine e-mailed me the following, alleged to have been said by two Russians:-
'The church has only old women in it, it will be gone within twenty years'.
To which the reply was
:- but there is a constant supply of old ladies.

Can we please stop worrying about the future and how we can get bums on seats, and preferably young bums. There is no evidence that young people will become the older members of the congregation. Observation and conversation teaches that many if not most older people have either come back to church attendance or have come to it for the first time, for all the reasons you outline. All this worrying about the future is energy sapping and ultimately futile. Can we concentrate on what and who we have now?

Posted by Richard Ashby at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 9:29am BST

"...a national tragedy. It would drag down with it a huge number of schools..." Interested Observer

It may say 'Church of England' (or, for that matter, 'Roman Catholic') on the sign outside, but these are state schools, staffed by state-salaried teachers. They would carry on, pretty much as before, only without the discriminatory faith-based entrance criteria.

Posted by Laurence Cunnington at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 10:05am BST

I appreciate your point, Erika, but my experience in ministry is that the teens and twenties I come into contact with through my ministry are actually more, not less interested than past generations who had a church-influenced upbringing. They might be teachers or TAs in schools, people investigating marriage, those I fall into conversation with out and about, or even the other women at my belly-dancing class! Because they have little or no background in the church, they are fascinated by it, and haven't suffered the "inoculation" effect earlier generations had. Provided that we are actually out and about being normal human beings (in my case with a dog collar on), and are prepared to talk enthusiastically about the stories and symbols of faith and answer questions openly and honestly, rather than just trotting out some "party line", they will respond. The key is genuinely expecting to find God at work in all people. It is not our job to bring God to them, but to help them find and develop tools to deepen their knowledge of God and their love for one another. Belonging to a church community is part of that task, because it is a place where we can learn the stories of faith and have the support of others, but it isn't an end in itself.
Our misguided (and entirely unnecessary) attempts to "protect" God and the Christian Faith from sullying influences are the thing which will kill off the Church. That is why it is so important that we pay attention to the criticisms of those who would like to be part of the church but are driven away by our attitudes to gay people and women.

Posted by Anne at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 12:31pm BST

"There is no evidence that young people will become the older members of the congregation. Observation and conversation teaches that many if not most older people have either come back to church attendance or have come to it for the first time, for all the reasons you outline."

I think that is rather naive.

A couple of generations ago (ie, current 50 year olds born 1960, who might be on the cusp of becoming the "old ladies") the vast majority of the British population were raised in a nominally Christian environment. Schools would have had assemblies, often daily, which looked an awful lot like a church service (hymn, talk, prayer, hymn). Schools, no matter how secular, would have taught a wide range of Christian stories and cultural artefacts. Weddings, in particularly, would have almost always in in churches. Current fifty year olds' parents (born 1935) and grandparents (born 1910) would have had an even stronger grasp on Christian history and experience. These are all people who, when asked in hospital or on a census form, would put down "Anglican" even if they hadn't been to a church in decades. These are the cultural Christians, and if they drift back to church as they get older, they will feel like coming to a familiar place. The values of the church are probably not that far from their own.

Contrast today's thirty year olds. Which of the above statements is true? As someone upthread has pointed out, what makes a Church any less unfamiliar than a Sikh temple? How close are the values of the Anglican church today (sexist, homophobic, exclusive) to their own?

People return in old age to things they knew when they were younger. It's a fundamental societal shift that today, the churches have no traction at amongst those under 40. People do not return to things they were never part of.

Posted by Interested Observer at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 1:25pm BST

I want to second Erika Baker's comments and say that in my experience here across the Atlantic, most of what many people know about Christianity is from the media and street preachers. They are largely ignorant of the central narrative of the whole faith. Concepts like Grace, Faith, Incarnation, Resurrection, let alone the Trinity, are met with complete incomprehension.

Even people who grew up in Christian traditions are completely ignorant of enormous sections of the religion. For example, my students, most of whom are from Roman Catholic and evangelical backgrounds, have never heard of the Reformation, Martin Luther, or the Counter-Reformation. They learn about those things in my basic art history class for the first time. Ironically, it's the Muslim students who are already familiar with basic church history.

I think the fundamental problem is that we are not making any case for why anyone should be a Christian anymore. The apocalyptic fundamentalist answer to that question is clear and simple -- to avoid the fires of hell -- but in its simplicity, it reduces the Gospel to an extortion contract, and presumes a lot of things that probably should not be presumed. For example, that the listeners have ever thought about life after death or any kind of transcendence or entertain the possibility, or even comprehend the idea.
All of us here, right and left, have the experiences, the legacy, and the language of Christianity written into our DNA and take those things for granted. We should not assume the same thing for people outside our church walls.

Posted by FD Blanchard at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 1:38pm BST

Anne,
that is precisely what I would say too. We cannot expect people to turn up at church, we have to have faith conversations with them outside church.

Certainly, the teenagers I come into contact with (nothing structured, just friends of my girls), are usually completely baffled about church. Yes, they're vaguely interested, but the questions are so basic "so what do you do in there, pray and that?" that show a completely different starting point.

Going out and talking to people - absolutely!
Expecting that they will just drift into church when they're a bit older - no.

Posted by Erika Baker at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 1:48pm BST

Clearly the zeitgeist has been a move to secularization. Sociologists have told me that the Holocaust accelerated that in Europe. It's happening here in the US, just slower.

The call is to live with integrity. Don't care for the poor because it looks good to the masses, do it because Jesus commanded us to love our neighbours, be they homeless, female, gay, or straight. Remember after that commandment, some asked "who is my neighbor" and Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritans. Samaritans were hated by the Judeans. Replace Samaritan with LGBT person or woman, and where does that bring us?

Hypocrisy and bigotry are not going to help draw people to God. They are sins that hang up insiders like most of us.

The Good News is still good news for all. Homophobia, misogyny, racism, anti-semitism, injustice, apathy to the poor and victims of oppression are not the Good News.

The return of the "status quo," i.e. women, girls, and LGBT persons sucking it up and continuing to suffer is definitely not the answer. Not only because the statistics in the report clearly indicate that bigotry has rendered the church irrelevant, but because that bigotry is clearly, clearly part of our sin and not living in the integrity of following the loving and inclusive Jesus.

Sin is hurting others. Sin is not a set of infantile rules. When the infantile rules are hurtful, that is sin. And that is not an inspirational message.

Posted by Cynthia at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 2:54pm BST

Just want to support what Erika Baker said. I am 87 years old and eager to see small Christian communities flourishing with or without the help of sectarian institutions. Committed to this future flourishing and belong to at least three of such groups who meet for prayer, worship, and support in trying to live Gospel lives. Age doesn;t matter. Attitude does. Changes are essential. God goes ahead of us and leaves the fossils to remind us of past glories of creation.

Posted by Una Kroll at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 6:20pm BST

Our future contains a number of possible trajectories. The best is that we pull out of the current tail-spin with significant, but manageable, loss of congregations yet still able to fulfil our vocation as a ‘Church both national and Catholic in character’ (would that we had listened to Temple back in the late 1910s...) The worst is disestablishment and reduction to a rump sect which would at best split into two and perhaps splinter entirely. Those who think that is a positive on spurious liberal grounds should consider that the vote of the Lords Spiritual which most annoyed the government recently was not the self-defeating grandstanding over gay marriage, but the masterfully played banjaxing of welfare ‘reform’.

More broadly, secular rationalism got it right on gender and sexuality but precious little else. Without the Church, what does the English philosophical landscape consist of? The Austrian School, Dawkins and the last dying remnants what used to be the Left? Christ crucified remains the most powerful political statement in history; it must still be preached.

The rosy scenario envisaged by Anne and Richard Ashby is unlikely to come to pass; like them, I worship where there are more young adults than there were a generation ago. But this is the exception; it exists only where the upper middle-classes are numerous and/or minority ethnic communities are numerous. Hence the Church’s growth in London where there are many people from both backgrounds, often simultaneously.

Go to poor White bits of the North, the Midlands and yes, the poorer pockets of the South and West and tell me how we can possibly exist in 20 years time? And these are the places where we of the dear old bloody old C of E are needed most.

Is liberalism a panacaea? Well, how is the Church getting on in industrial South Wales?

Being a bit old fashioned, perhaps I should keep doing the things that seem to be working in our own little tabernacle and trust that God will ultimately do whatever He feels necessary to and with the Church. After 17 centuries of Christendom, in which we have often shown little sign of holding to our first love, perhaps our lampstand is to be taken away from us. Towards the top of the thread, Interested Observer articulated brilliantly why the death of Christendom might not be as cool as dons thought in the 60s...

Posted by The Rev'd Mervyn Noote at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 8:13pm BST

Linda Woodhead: 'I show that there's a 'values gap' between where most Anglicans are and where the Church is'

It rather depends how you define your terms. One could, alternatively, say that the Church is, by definition, in the place where Linda's data reveal most self-defined Anglicans are. Then what Linda has really showed is that there's a values gap between where the Church is and where most of the Episcopacy and General Synod are.

As for the scenarios: if the (Anglican) people of England decide (rightly) that the homophobia and sexism extant in some sections of the executive part of the church are "vile", they don't have to abandon their established church to become a "cult for elderly [or not-so-elderly] bigots". It is open to them, instead, to elect a parliament that takes an interest in reforming the executive part of the church sufficiently to remove the "vileness". On a not-particularly-thorough think through the history of the English church, I can count nine occasions when it's happened before.

Posted by Feria at Thursday, 4 July 2013 at 11:37pm BST

When I have asked clergy about the absence of young people (and in many churches a "young" person is often well into middle age), I have been told time and again that, yes, there are no young people, as such, but then they will drift back when they have children or as their time runs out. Yet when I ask whether there are as many youngish parents now as there were in, say, the 1980s, they are forced to admit that the idea of a return to the Church is becoming a fiction. Just look, for instance, at the baptismal rolls in the back of many churches and note the rapid falling off in the numbers of baptisms after the mid-1980s, followed by a complete collapse after about 2000.

As for Richard Ashby's assertion that we need to be looking at the present rather than the future (which will somehow take care of itself). Well, fair enough, but is it not myopic to suppose that the present does not rather immediately transmute itself into the future? What we are now reaping is the meagre harvest of decades of pastoral complacency and neglect - in other words, a past failure to look to the future. The clergy needed to move up a gear or three from the 1950s onwards (when people's weekend/lesiure habits started to change quite radically). In many places they signally failed to do so, and assumed that "the people" would keep on coming. They haven't.

As to the suggestion that churches were full of old people who have simply been replaced by other old people - that is definitely true of certain places (where I have had first hand experiences recounted to me of church attendance in the 1920s and 1930s). However, in many more places it is clear that there were very many more young people than there are now.

I simply cannot overstate the complete and practically unbridgeable disconnect between the great mass of the young and any form of organised religion. Gadgetry, social networks, downloads, football, etc., have largely supplanted faith and worship. There can be little need for religion when the yearning for it has generally ceased to exist, when there is no sense of the numinous. Whilst I often find it difficult to agree with Damian Thompson, I cannot help but approve his recent suggestion that unbelief is the default position of almost everyone under the age of forty or so (much as "CofE" was the default position several decades ago).

Mervyn Noote once again puts his finger on it. There are critical masses of young people in a few churches. In the south-east these churches are, for the most part, based in the affluent parts of the commuter belt (think of St Nicholas Sevenoaks, Christ Church Bromley, Emmanuel South Croydon, St Mary Reigate, St Paul Dorking, St Saviour Guildford, etc.) or in some of the highly affluent quarters of London, or in the occasional "student" church (such as St Mary Bredin Canterbury or the revived St Peter Brighton). The young have largely vanished almost everywhere else.

I really want to be optimistic but, in truth, I cannot.

That aside, I would like to thank the editors for having instigated such an excellent thread. It has encouraged a discussion about much the most pressing issue that confronts the Church. It has also been somewhat refreshing after the interminable and frequently tedious discussions about women bishops and homophobia which, though important, are being done to death.

Posted by J Drever at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 12:36am BST

An interesting conversation on Tuesday evening with a group of highly intelligent PhD students who were discussing the possibility of remaining silent for twelve hours without their tablets or mobile phones. It was considered impossible.

The idea of a silent retreat for several days without recourse to electronica was, to them, somewhat interesting "what do you do?", and clearly very challenging "So you let all the noise in your head stop?".

Posted by Jeremy Pemberton at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 7:30am BST

In 1917 the new Soviet Union began a rigorous policy of state atheism,trying to eliminate all religion. It closed churches, persecuted clerics and forbade any sort of proselytizing. The main cathedral in Moscow was dynamited. For 70 years religion was banished from the public sphere and from as much of private life as the state could reach. Materialism dominated. With the downfall of atheistic communism religion revived.

Now I don't like the craven attitude the Orthodox Church has (and has always had) towards the state and I don't like its nasty manifestations in intolence. But Christianity didn't die after seventy years of persecution and indifference.

'Take no thought for the morrow...'

Posted by Richard Ashby at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 8:16am BST

I agree with most of J Drever's analysis but I do not think that young people have no sense of the numinous.
There has recently been a (from our side scathing) conversation about the number of people describing themselves as spiritual but not religious.

The yearning is there, the sense of "something more, something deeper" is there, the conversations are happening.
But people do not believe that the answer to their experience of that something can be found in church or in any organised religion with its set of credal statements and beliefs and its theological set-in-stone interpretations of that something. They don't equate the Christian God they may have heard of with that tenuous but precious something they sense around them.

What we are truly lacking is any organised or structured way of engaging with people without pretending that all they need to do is talk to us to get all the answers.
That approach will no longer work.

Posted by Erika Baker at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 9:06am BST

"The rosy scenario envisaged by Anne and Richard Ashby is unlikely to come to pass:"

I don't think that I or Richard were painting a "rosy scenario". Speaking for myself I was simply challenging the rather formless reaction of panic that always seems to greet reports of church decline, which usually result in a lot of hand-wringing and demands that clergy step up several gears as if furious evangelistic activity would cure the "problem". We had the Decade of Evangelism, during which time the church declined even faster than it had done previously. We have had numerous initiatives since - glossy projects with grand sounding names like "Hope 2008", as if no one had any hope without it... We are hectored and lectured and told we should be going to this training session or that, buying into this programme or that... All these things provide the illusion that we are being busy, but actually distract from the core business of being in the parish, getting alongside people, supporting what is already happening in our communities which is good - in the church or outside it - whether that is dropping in on the cubs, helping organise the street parties, sitting in the pub...whatever it takes to be known and recognised so that people can ask the questions, argue about God, tell you about their frustrations at work etc. Cars have a lot to answer for - how can people know their clergy if they are always whizzing past to some "important" diocesan meeting at 60 miles an hour in a tin box?
Maintaining the church as a place where people can easily find tools to explore their own spiritual life without having to come to services is vital too. That means opening churches wherever and when ever humanly possible, or at least opening some part of them - a porch with a prayer board is better than nothing, somewhere people can pick up leaflets and leave requests. It also means paying attention to the content of websites - there might be lots of glossy PR material, but are there any prayers people can use in times of trouble, information about what actually happens at services, answers to the questions people actually ask...? Many church websites aren't run by the people who actually have front-line contact with those actually coming into contact with the church for the first time (usually the clergy) and that can mean that they don't actually meet the needs of those who are tentatively looking to see whether this might be a place they could find what they are hungry for.
I find no lack of interest in Christian faith among those who aren't churchgoers - quite the reverse in fact. It has "novelty" value now - people haven't had it rammed down their throats to the point of death as they once did. They might not know the stories of the Bible, but that gives us the really exciting opportunity to tell those stories afresh, something I find myself doing often, and to people who are thirsty and hungry to hear those stories.

Ultimately, though, I think the problem is that the issue of numbers is all too often about pride. It seems humiliating to many that a once dominant force in the UK is declining. That leads to an over-anxious focus on numbers in church, rather than a confident focus on making sure that when they come into contact with the church, either by stepping over the threshold for Sunday worship, an occasional office, or just to have a look around, or virtually through the internet, or personally as they encounter the clergy and lay people of that church, they will find food for their hunger and water for their thirst. If we could have more courage to stop worrying about whether the church was smaller or larger than it once was in numbers and influence, and simply say "yes" to the people who are actually there in front of us the nunbers would sort themselves out. "Yes, you can have your baby baptised on a Sunday afternoon if that is more convenient to you," "yes, I would be delighted to bless your civil partnership" " yes, if you want me to do a flash-mob dance at your wedding I will have a go!" "yes, I can give you the space you need to talk, or pray, or weep, or learn - whatever sort of space that is, and even if it doesn't fit into a programme like Alpha"

The church began with a tiny handful of people and no public recognition or honour at all. What it had, though, was people whose lives had been changed, and who knew what it was like to be loved and welcomed...I am not a rosy optimist about the size of the church, but I am a rosy optimist when it comes to God and the power of his love.

Posted by Anne at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 10:03am BST

One of the "values gaps" that hasn't been mentioned in the discussion so far is euthanasia and assisted suicide. Here, I think the official church's opposition to assisted suicide is right, but it has been hopeless at expressing its concerns in a manner that makes sense to secular society. It really ought to be talking more about the dangers of a society which increasingly denegrates and demonizes people with disabilities and which at the same time is haoppy with the idea that people who no longer feel their life has value should be helped to commit suicide. But instead, the C of E is losing moral authority by focusing on the lost battle of gay rights.

Posted by magistra at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 11:30am BST

Magistra,
I read Anne's long post and then immediately yours. And what struck me is that one of the things I perceive to be wrong about church is that it thinks it has to have official positions on moral questions and campaign for them.

Anne's church is wonderful, welcoming, open and offering people a Christian framework in which to make their own moral choices.

There are a large number of Christians who support euthanasia and assisted suicide for very good reasons. What I want from church is to help me to put moral dilemmas into a God focused framework without telling me what conclusion I must come to.

We need to lose the idea that there is a divide between the morals of secular people and of Christians and we need to stop claiming that our understanding of God allows us to make sweeping moral statements about every single hot button topic and sweeping judgements about the motivation of people who don’t share our personal conclusions.

We need to start treating the rest of the world as equals, as people who are just as capable of moral discernment. If we could step back a little, if we could campaign more for social justice and the equality of all and if we could be truly open to people, recognising that as adults they may well come to moral conclusions some of us don't like, we’d to a lot better to becoming the kind of conversation partners people might want to speak to.

Posted by Erika Baker at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 12:10pm BST

I see The Times has caught up with this story .... today.

Posted by FrAlan-Bury at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 4:03pm BST

Erika,

I'm genuinely confused by the difference you see between "moral questions" and social justice/equality. What is social justice and equality except a moral issue? Would you be content if people listened to what the church said about not being racist or not discriminating against women or not oppressing the poor and then decided that actually, they'd made their own mind up and they were going to ignore equality? Or are you trying to make some other distinction between moral decisions that should be left to the individual and moral decisions that should influence a society's laws?

Posted by magistra at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 7:20pm BST

I see that the ABC has issued a call for a Church ''revolution' (see report above) yet immediately descends into churchy language by saying that we are all 'sinners'. Quite frankly if that is the message we have to share then the cause is hopeless. We have to get away from this sort of self flagelation, it's unattractve, it puts off people and it means nothing for most of us.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 7:36pm BST

Magistra,
yes, I think I do distinguish.
If I try to work it out as I write... I want to say that the goal ought to be a more moral world. I suppose you could say that my yardstick would be "by their fruit...."
The fruit of inequality are bad, and that includes the fruit of oppressing black people, lgbt people and women.

But other moral questions aren't so clear cut. Divorce was (is?) one of those not so clear cut questions and I am tempted to say that there is no universal right or wrong, the truth lies in the particulars of every single marriage. And the decision has to be made by every single couple.

Suicide was once considered a crime, now we accept that the rights or wrong of it are not always so clear cut. The same is true for abortion, for war, for much of the way we exploit our environment and use animals for our purposes.

And for me, euthanasia and assisted suicide come into the latter category of moral problems where there is not abstract and absolute right or wrong, but where the truth has to be determined on a case by case basis.

At the very least we should accept that while everyone who believes black people to be inferior is missing the moral component, not everyone who wants assisted suicide for themselves is in that same position.
We should therefore be very careful when making supposedly clear cut moral statements.

Posted by Erika Baker at Friday, 5 July 2013 at 9:14pm BST

I was much moved by Anne's last post. I completely agree with her about the importance of the Church being out in the parish itself as well as being within the building. One of the major failings of recent decades has been the tendency of certain clergy to turn away from engagement with the wider community and to separate (at least within their own minds) the Church community from the whole community - though there have been times in the distant past when both communities were synonymous. Yet, it is surely the responsibility of the national Church to administer to the needs of the whole community, whether or not they have any affinity with the Church itself - perhaps an arrogant presumption, but not an ignoble one.

Anne thinks that sections within the Church make a fetish of numbers, and that this about a form of hubristic pride. That might very well be so, but is the Church at worship not the "gathered under" community? Is it not the collective act par excellence that gives meaning to the Church as the body of Christ in the world?

Moreover, is it not also about finance? Regular attendees give more - in time and money. If we do not stress the importance of increasing the numbers attending services then it becomes much more likely that a very great part of the parish system - which we hold so dear - will become that much more economically unsustainable, and the erosion of that system (which so many of us dread) will occur much more quickly.

Erika Baker notes, correctly, that it is not the case that the young have no sense of the numinous. It was a specious generalisation of mine to have suggested otherwise. However, I do feel (with little evidence) that they have a diminished sense of the numinous compared with that of some preceding generations.

Posted by J Drever at Saturday, 6 July 2013 at 12:22am BST
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