Paxtonvic’s Blog

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Britain is no longer a Christian nation- apparantly

The latest in a long line of reports that pop up from time to time about declining church attendance…this time in the Daily Telegraph June 27th  (see link above)

By the Rt Rev Paul Richardson– assistant Bishop of Newcastle
Published: 27 Jun 2009

If recent trends are any guide, many Church of England parishes will have been cheered by higher attendances at Easter services. The last published statistics for 2006/7 show rises of 7 and 5 per cent in church going at Christmas and Easter.

But these figures are just about the only signs of hope for the church and certainly not the first green shoots of a revival. Other statistics make for gloomy reading.

Annual decline in Sunday attendance is running at around 1 per cent. At this rate it is hard to see the church surviving for more than 30 years though few of its leaders are prepared to face that possibility.

In the short term we are likely to see more closures of buildings as the church battles to meet a big pension bill, pay clergy, and maintain a large bureaucracy.

To its credit, the church has been successful at getting members to give, but larger donations cannot offset the fall in numbers. At present the church is struggling to maintain 16,200 buildings, many of them old and listed with 4,200 listed Grade I.

If decline continues, Christian Research has estimated that in five years’ time church closures will accelerate from their present rate of 30 a year to 200 a year as dwindling congregations find the cost of keeping them open too great.

Perhaps the most worrying set of statistics for the Church of England is the decline in baptisms. Out of every 1,000 live births in England in 2006/7 only 128 were baptised as Anglicans.

The figure rises by a small amount if adult baptism and thanksgiving services are included but it is hard to see the Church of England being able to justify its position as the established church on the basis of these numbers.

By way of contrast, out of every 1,000 live births in England in 1900, 609 were baptised in the Church of England. Figures for church marriages show an equally catastrophic decline.

The church is being hit by a double whammy: on the one hand it confronts the challenge of institutional decline but on the other hand it has to face the rise of cultural and religious pluralism in Britain.

How it responds to the second challenge will be crucial in determining whether it will be able to survive as a viable organisation and make a contribution to national life.

At present church leaders show little signs of understanding the situation. They don’t understand the culture we now live in.

Many bishops prefer to turn their heads, to carry on as if nothing has changed, rather than face the reality that Britain is no longer a Christian nation.

Many of them think that we are still living in the 1950s – a period described by historians as representing a hey day for the established church.

The coronation brought church and nation together in a way which will never be repeated. School assemblies had a definite Christian tone and children still sang familiar hymns.

The church could function as chaplain to a nation that was nominally Christian and Anglican, even if many actually only attended for baptisms, weddings and funerals. That world has gone for good.

Gordon Brown’s unilateral decision to take no part in nominating bishops to the Queen (a matter he did not discuss with David Cameron or Nick Clegg, in breach of constitutional protocol) makes it less likely that bishops will retain their place in a reformed House of Lords.

Rather than try to cling on to their places in the House of Lords, they should take the initiative by withdrawing, which would show that they appreciate Christian Britain is dead.

The church can try to fight the forces of change or it can see the crisis as an opportunity to give itself a clearer sense of identity.

One reason for increased attendance at Christmas and Easter may be that people are looking for a way of affirming identity in a pluralist society.

So far its leaders are choosing to resist but doing so in a very Anglican way: making concessions when necessary and hoping by small, strategic retreats to buy time and preserve the status quo.

The reason offered for upholding establishment is usually that it gives the church a sense of responsibility to the whole nation. In practice it often looks as if the church is really trying to keep its special privileges on false pretences.

For a time other faith communities may welcome the special position of the established church as a bulwark against secularism.

The Chief Rabbi is a forceful defender of the valuable role the Church of England can play in bringing faith communities together and fostering understanding across creedal barriers.

But the church would be a more effective bulwark against secularism if it was stronger and the role the Chief Rabbi has mapped out is likely to disappear as different faith communities get used to dealing with each other directly.

Disestablishment will actually pose major problems for society. Every country needs shared rituals and celebrations to foster a sense of community and provide a backdrop to major national occasions.

We are going to have to invent a new civil religion. Already the process has begun with the observance of Holocaust Day and increasing focus on Human Rights as providing a shared basis for morality.

If Anglicans could acquire a stronger sense of who they are and what they believe they might slow the rate of decline and possibly even stabilise their numbers.

They would still be a minority but they could be a creative minority. The trick will be to reach this situation without falling into a fundamentalist trap or cutting off links with the wider world.

Other organisations, particularly Roman Catholics with their three-hundred year history of persecution and minority status, can be a guide, showing both the dangers to avoid and the opportunities to seize.

What do you think? What makes me a wee bit cross is  basing the health of the Church of England on attendance figures on sundays and the numbers who come for occasional offices… Our churches are about far more than those figures.

So many churches have mid-week activities and groups – toddler groups, youth groups, activities that meet in schools and halls – pastoral care and outreach work – do they count the number of funerals we are involved with, pastoral care groups that visit and village/town events we are involved with?   What about the work of our church of England Schools and the input that parishes have in them??

I think  a report such as the above  which defines the health and viability of the church by these limited criteris distorts  what is really going on.

See Bishop David Thomson’s blog or our Diocesan web-site  for all that  if happening  in the Diocese of Ely – its  wholly encouraging – so can we stop putting ourselves down and rejoice in the growth that there is.  And, yes, I do think we need to look to new ways of engaging people at key times in their lives – the formal marriage and baptism services are obviously loosing their appeal.

Im off to a concert in tiny Diddington Church this afternoon – there will be over 100 people enjoying music and each other’s company. Would that be counted in any  report on the state of our churches? Would the many congregations  who are undertaking re-ordering projects and using their churches for community use get a look in in any reports on  the state of the Church of England?  Probably not. And no mention  of  Fresh Expressions in the above analysis either….

And finally, all the clergy I know and meet with regularly are very busy people with not enough hours in the day to do all they would ideally like to do – not what you would expect from working in an institution which is in terminal decline. And when you think the Church of England is basically supported and sustained by a huge host of lay people also working very hard and giving their time, talents and money – I reckon we are a pretty impressive organisation.

June 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. I’m an associate of Christian Research and find it frustrating that the media keep picking up on some fairly old projections. Dry statistics are meaningless and always need interpretation. Church leaders and commentators who are obsessed with ‘church attendance statistics’ as the arbiter of ‘success or failure’ need to reflect on what the church is really about! To imply that Christianity is in decline because fewer people attend church every week is akin to saying drinking alcohol is in decline becasue fewer people go to pubs every day. We know that’s not the case – people are ‘drinking’ differently and people are doing curch differently – not just on Sundays, not just in church, not just CofE…and so on.

    For Christian Research, I edit a publication called ‘Quadrant’ which regularly contains articles that illustrate exciting community and social initiatives – an immense amount of Christian discipleship being enacted and very little of it in church on Sundays!

    If you want to receive Quadrant, you just have to become a member of Christian Research.

    Best regards


    Comment by Graham Sharp | June 29, 2009 | Reply

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