How Do Churches Die?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

In the 1960s and 1970s, faced with the rapid contraction of churchgoing in Britain, sociologists, social commentators and theologians often predicted the demise of the mainstream churches.  Traditional Christianity, it seemed, was in headlong flight: once popular organizations, such as the Mother’s Union and the Church of England Men’s Society, were subsiding into irrelevance; numbers of trainee clergy were falling; whilst Roman Catholicism seemed a little more secure, the Free Churches were contracting as rapidly as the Anglicans.  Much was blamed on what were seen as outmoded views, language, and practices.  The churches were faced with a clear challenge – adapt, or die.  Nothing would be left within a couple of generations, unless the churches changed.

Half a century on, they’re still here.  Why they are is a complex story.  In the 1960s no one really foresaw the effects of rising immigration on urban congregations, nor the infusion of energy and enthusiasm from the Charismatic movement and from a resurgent Evangelicalism.  Nor did anyone really foresee the growth of independent, free Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.  And anyway the diagnosis of a crisis was perhaps premature.  Patterns of decline in churchgoing were easily exaggerated, extrapolations from them sometimes misplaced.  The Church of England in particular recovered poise in the 1980s and 1990s, rediscovering its social mission in the wake of the Faith in the City report, and finding strategies for making do with smaller numbers of full-time clergy, and developing non-stipendiary and lay ministry.

There are even today some counter-indications of growth.  The growing literature produced by the ‘church growth’ movement – including some fascinating studies put together by David Goodhew (Church Growth in Britain, 2012) – suggests that, in some towns and cities, there are growing churches, both inside and outside the Church of England itself.  A lot of work is going into the Fresh Expressions and Emergent Church movements.  There are definitely many people seeking some sort of affirmation of God’s love for them through association with communities of Christians.  Sometimes this is spoken of as a new spiritual hunger, a quest for meaning and transcendence in a world otherwise empty and meaningless.

But the question remains whether, rather than sudden collapse, the Church of England – to focus just on that – is facing a long, drawn-out death instead.  Even the most pessimistic commentators fifty years ago did not foresee the communications explosion of the digital age, and the opening up, through the market and consumer spending, of a range of lifestyle choices which seem to leave religion floundering in their wake.  Although decline has slowed down, most indices still point relentlessly downwards.  The religious education that shaped the minds even of those who never really attended church has almost disappeared.  There is little left of the common religious culture – the knowledge of the Lord’s prayer, familiarity with hymns, knowledge of Biblical stories – that half a century ago the vast majority of British citizens shared.

But recently I’ve begun to wonder if the situation isn’t actually even worse than I had thought.  The seeping away of a ‘default’ Christian culture in Britain is one thing, and serious enough.  But put on top of that an extra layer of crisis, a sense of betrayal by the Church’s leadership and a sense of popular dislocation from that leadership and from what the Christian Church represents, and you might wonder how the Church can survive.  It’s common to talk about the Church’s ‘obsession with sex’.  But it’s not an obsession with sex that drives the current crisis, so much as a deep sense of anger at stories of sexual abuse and harassment, at the abuse of privilege, and at the marginalization of gay, lesbian and transgender people.  ‘Sex’ here is a cipher for how we treat people.  Sex is a human urge, life-giving and love-affirming, and necessary to hold in place with relationships of trust and respect.  When people think they see leaders who ought to be icons of love and hope covering up terrible institutional failures, trust fades, and what remaining shreds of respect they might have – even when they have no active belief – are torn away.

Is this how churches die?  When the cultural hinterland of historic Christian faith is thinned out almost to vanishing point, will a crisis of confidence in the Church’s leadership (and I mean all ‘official’ representatives, not just bishops) administer the final coup de grâce?  Will we see – even despite some islands of growth – a final, catastrophic draining away of support from most of the congregations currently struggling to hang on?

I hope not.  I’d want to mount a strong defence of the institutions of the Church, and of its leadership, despite their flaws.  We all have flaws.  Churches are not necessarily any better than other human institutions at facing up to their problems, but generally, in the end, they’re obliged to do so, and sometimes – sometimes – they do that with integrity and faith.

But ultimately if the churches are to recover their sense of purpose and mission, they’re going to have to do more than just try a bit harder.  I don’t have an answer to the problem of looking after all those wonderful medieval churches – that’s a challenge and a half on its own.  But I suspect that top-down, ‘managerial’ solutions are not enough.  We will have to start again at the most basic level, from bottom up.  The Church will have to reinvent itself completely as a servant church, assuming nothing, opening itself up for all, making no judgements about the lives of others, but living for others.  You can’t take an inherited position for granted.  We’re going to have to start all over again, somehow, somewhere.


Posted in Church of England, Jeremy Morris | 1 Comment

My Confusion Regarding Claims of Sexual Harassment

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury


Part of my partner’s job is to deal with disciplinary complaints in his workplace. Among the matters he has to investigate are allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour. As an outsider to his working environment I can easily see how people get themselves into trouble on this matter. Close working relationships blur professional boundaries, signals are misinterpreted, social media compound the problems, and sometimes personal slight, hurt, mental health issues or even a desire for revenge become the pretext for launching formal complaints. In the complexity of human relationships, genuinely bad, dangerous and harmful behaviour clearly occurs. Scripture reminds us that “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. We do well to remember that all of us leave behind us a trail of damaged human relationships of some sort or another.

In my naivete I like to think that such matters are black and white, and that anyone who has been harassed or assaulted will want to come forward and make their allegations known to be dealt with by due process. But it doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that. I recognise that there is a power dynamic that exists between (mainly but not exclusively) powerful men and less-powerful women, often compounded by seniority in the workplace/parish, that makes coming forward or challenging bad behaviour hugely risky. I also see that there needs to be robust enough processes to ensure that there is confidence to know that allegations, when made, will be dealt with appropriately. When matters are not addressed formally, for often understandable reasons, we find ourselves in a very unsatisfactory situation, where claims of harassment are shared between friends and supportive colleagues outside of due process, in a way that make them entirely unsubstantiated rumour. In such cases one is naturally forced to assume that the person who claims harassment is telling the truth, or has understood what can often be a complex situation accurately. Hence the large amount of rumour swirling around, with very little firm allegation. This is deeply confusing to me and I fear it easily poisons the wells of reliability when it comes to formal processes.

ViaMedia has recently published anonymous testimony of two clergy people who told stories of harassment in church contexts. None of us are in a position to judge the claims made because they are by their nature anonymous and as such there is only one side of the story known. This is made more complicated by inadequate institutional responses which diminish the seriousness of the accusations, or the bad advice of sympathetic friends, who advise a complicit silence.

Having been the victim of serious false allegations of an entirely different sort myself – whether malicious or foolish I don’t think I’ll ever know – I have a degree of human sympathy for those who are accused without proper process. But I am acutely aware that I have, culturally and by dint of my personality, a lot of power, which can prevent me being as aware as I perhaps need to be about the problem. Therefore, I feel genuinely confused about the current swirl of concern about sexual harassment in the church and in wider society. I need some help.

If I’m brutally honest what won’t help is inverse mansplaining about how I don’t understand the problem because I’m a man. But if I and others who are as confused as me can show our willingness to understand better, then we should take a stand by providing safety and support to those who need to come forward and turn their silent suffering and often their sense of shame and humiliation into empowered formal complaint. Without that, I fear I’ll just remain confused!

Posted in Church of England, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler | 2 Comments

Let’s Talk About….(oh no…Let’s Not!)

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham

Rosie Haarper

There has been an apparent shift. People have begun to talk about their experiences of being harassed, abused or criminally attacked, with an openness that wasn’t acceptable even a few months ago. The primary focus has been Government and Media, but doubtless other areas of life will come under scrutiny. Nothing remotely surprising has emerged. What is surprising is that it is being spoken about. In a rather random way some people are being held to account and others not. Trump and Boris have both said and done things that are off the scale but different rules seem to apply to them.

The reason that the current phase of talking about abusive behavior is such a change is that we live in a blame and shame culture in which the victim is often seen as just as culpable as the perpetrator. Whistle blowers still lose their jobs, women are mercilessly interrogated in court to search out a way of framing their assault as: ‘they were asking for it.’

A little seven year old who is sent into very expensive care gets his head shoved down the toilet. He would be committing a far greater crime were he to complain than the older boys who assaulted him.

Today, in public, men are learning to say the right things, but the undercurrent in today’s society is far worse than we want to admit. Our teenagers are growing up with an online culture that is sexually exploitative and often violent, and young women often find themselves with considerably less freedom and self-respect than their parents had.

Wandering hands in Parliament have made the news this week, but as Jayne Ozanne’s extraordinary and powerful interview on C4 made clear, the problems are just as bad within the Church.

However, the Church’s problems have a whole further dynamic. It is utterly wrong to dominate and control a woman sexually, emotionally, financially in any circumstance, but to create a religious environment where this is normalized and supported by theology is especially cruel. I think this is because ‘God’ is where we put the really deep stuff in our lives. Stuff that language, art, even music, can’t easily articulate. If controlling, abusive and violent things are done in the name of God, because the bible tells these men that is how you treat women, then the very place that should be the safest becomes the most dangerous.

When a child finds the world scary and other people hostile they run into the arms of their parents. The trauma of being abused by one of those parents is massive. When a child of God is in need they run to the arms of God. If God himself turns out to be abusive there is nowhere else to hide. This is why I find the revelations this year of John Smyth’s abuse of boys when he was chair of Iwerne Camps a particular and life-destroying crime.

The Church’s response has to change. Survivors who have the courage to disclose their abuse routinely experience lack of compassion and culture of silence. We must never love the institution more than we love God or the children of God. It is possible that the way this is handled in Parliament, where women are now prepared to talk openly about their experiences and then action is taken, might just show the church the way forward. There are some simple and necessary steps we could take tomorrow. Set up an external safeguarding agency, make it mandatory to report disclosures, and put together a proper whistleblowers policy to protect those who speak out. There are plenty of very good ideas out there, but what is missing is the will. You might imagine that the Church would be the place where there would be a desire to do the right thing. The truth is that the desire seems to be to do the least embarrassing and least expensive thing. We even have the resources. Money tucked away for a rainy day. This is a rainy day.

Here is how it could go: We are sorry, we will listen, we will help and support you. Publically this is indeed what the Church says. Alas, it is not yet what the church does. We all need to be calling for this change to happen and happen soon.


Posted in Church of England, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse | 2 Comments

A Thought for Today – The Power of Words

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News following her C4 News interview

Jayne Ozanne (3)

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was brought up being told:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but calling names never hurt me”

I never did believe this, and I still don’t.  Names do hurt!  Words do hurt!  In fact, they can do irreparable damage.

At worst they can incite hatred, feed fear and lead to a hardening of prejudices that demonise “the other”.

At best they can bless, and bring hope and understanding, which in turn can bring life.

In my studies of International Diplomacy at Oxford University, I learnt about the relatively new theory of Constructivism within International Relations.  It is the study of how rhetoric can be used to create norms and practices in our society, for good and for ill, which in turn can affect power structures.

Norms and practices – the building blocks that determine what type of society we live in.  It is this that unites us, and indeed what define us – and it is these norms and practices that are ever evolving and changing.

What is “normal” for some can become a cloak for abuse by others.  Indeed, what may seem harmless playground banter to some will be seen as an aggressive attack on liberties by others.  Words count – the context in which they are spoken, count; and the person uttering them, counts.

Hence the uproar when a serving Cabinet Minister makes a crass schoolboy joke live on air, without – dare I say – any reproach from his interviewers.  For some it was a poor attempt at humour.  For others it was yet again an example of words re-enforcing a “norm” that has been for too long accepted by society – that of undermining the seriousness of sexual harassment encountered by women.  This is no laughing matter – especially by privileged heterosexual men who should know better.  The norm must change – and to do that the rhetoric must change.

The Apostle James had much to say about the power of the tongue, it “is a fire, a world of iniquity.”  He even went on to say that “no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” It is indeed the most powerful weapon we each have.

Without thinking we can wreak havoc and devastation in someone’s life, especially if we are seen to reinforce a norm that has served to create a prison cell.  As Sigmund Freud said: “Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”

I am conscious that here, on radio, we have only our words – making it even more essential that every single one counts.

Perhaps it is better to recall what Mother Theresa herself said:
“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

Posted in Church of England, Jayne Ozanne, Sexual abuse | 8 Comments

Painting by Numbers…

by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy Art at school. The paint never went where I wanted it to go, and the splodges of colour I produced rarely looked anything close to what they were meant to resemble. At home it was very different. I had little kits full of tiny pots of paint, which I painstakingly applied to sheets on which the shapes and colours of the intended artwork had been pre-printed. My clumsiness thus constrained, I was able to produce images that bore a satisfactory likeness to the pictures on the lid of the box. I couldn’t paint, but I could turn a canvas covered in digits and lines into an acceptable picture. In short, I could paint by numbers.

The small amount of academic research I get to do these days comprises of writing articles in which careful lines of argument are typically supported by a wealth of numerical data. I analyse the self reported beliefs, behaviours and attitudes of people who engage with Anglican Churches, in the hope that this may help clergy and others understand and serve them better. When invited to turn some of my writings into a book* aimed at the popular Christian market I was faced with the problem that not everyone loves statistical calculations and tables, nor the neat lines of reasoning that connect them to the observed world, anything like as much as I do.

 My solution was to write a book that set out what I had discovered, but which left the numerical and academic analysis invisible to the reader. I overpainted them with as wide a range of anecdotes, biblical stories, uses of humour, and practical suggestions as I could cram in. I gave references as to where the academic papers justifying my ideas could be found, should anyone wish to follow the trail of evidence, but I didn’t anticipate many would. Looking back, what I was doing was very similar to my adolescent artistic activities. I was covering the numbers and lines with colour, allowing the picture to emerge in a form more easily grasped and appreciated.

A colleague said of me a year or two ago, “David’s not a typical bishop, he really does believe in evidence”. I took it as a compliment, but I’m having to learn to also take it as a warning. For years I had been arguing, with facts and figures, the benefits to the UK of allowing refugees to settle here. I had addressed both the humanitarian crisis our almost totally closed door policy was exacerbating, and the moral bankruptcy of successive governments’ positions. Nothing I said or wrote had anything like the impact achieved by a single picture of the body of a child washed up on a beach. By contrast we have seen populist movements coming to prominence across the world, which deem evidence as a best an unnecessary distraction, and more commonly as unwelcome truths for which “alternative facts” can be substituted. The pictures they paint need no lines or numbers to help them represent reality. They are content to throw emotional colour at the wall, in the knowledge that what is produced will be more appealing to their core audience than any amount of carefully presented and verified evidence. As one UK politician put it during an interview at the height of the Brexit campaign, “We’ve had enough of hearing from experts”.

I remain an unrepentant liberal intellectual. I’m not going to cast aside facts and figures in favour of rhetoric and emotion, but I am going to try harder to add colour on top of the lines and numbers of my arguments, and to do so in ways that more clearly bring out the picture they define.

 *David Walker’s book, God’s Belongers: How people engage with God today and how the church can help is published by BRF and available here.

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Church of England, Social Justice | Leave a comment

It Can Happen to Guys Too!

The following is written by a serving gay Church of England clergyman, who has asked for his identity to be kept anonymous.Presentation2

I read the anonymous piece, titled, “A Zero Tolerance Approach to the Weinsteins in the Church?” sadly with very little surprise.  Any institution is going to have those who don’t respect the space, bodies, emotions or lives of others, who use or abuse others for their own pleasure, entertainment or career progression.  The Church won’t be immune to it, and the sooner it is acknowledged and dealt with, the sooner we can continue.

I recognise that the #MeToo campaign is principally about giving women a voice to share their experiences of abuse, and I don’t want to take anything away from that.  This is their campaign, not mine, and it is an important one, if we’re to truly face up to the misogyny, inequality, physical-, emotional- and spiritual abuse that goes on in the Church today.

However, I did want to mention some of my own experiences as a gay man in the Church of England. I recognise that these will pale in comparison … mine aren’t tales of physical or sexual abuse, but hopefully it helps shed more light on what occurs, and may encourage others to share their experiences.  When the power structures are patriarchal and geared towards preserving patriarchy, there is an imbalance of power against all those who don’t identify as heterosexual, cisgendered men.

As a gay curate, I had experience of this imbalance of power on a number of occasions.  I had a straight male colleague constantly making inappropriate and overtly sexual comments and jokes in my presence.  At the time, I was still in the closet.  Whether the comments were to make me feel uncomfortable, or just exert his power over me as a straight, cisgendered man, I may never know, but I do remember thinking how inappropriate they were.  He used to tell explicit sexual jokes in the presence of confirmation candidates under the age of 18 as well, and I think he believed it made him look cool.

In one parish I worked in, a gay male colleague decided it was entirely appropriate to make highly inappropriate and overtly sexual comments to me … sometimes these comments were even about sex with me.  These comments were on occasion even made in the vestry before or after a Sunday service, and went on for years.

I have been winked at in the sanctuary, had other men comment on parts of my body, or how much they love that type of male body.  I have had lewd or crude comments on social media.

On too many occasions when a male colleague finds out that you’re gay, it seems to give them permission to speak openly about gay sex, or to ask really explicit and invasive questions.  It may be that they feel empowered by the permission that they feel a document like “Issues in Human Sexuality” has given them to probe into one’s personal lives … a probing they would be appalled at if it were directed towards them.

Some of the behaviour and comments would be considered sexual harassment at worst, highly inappropriate at best.  None of this behaviour should be permissible in any workplace, least of all the Church.

I have only once felt able to challenge the clergy person who made such comments.  In many years of ministry, I’ve just found it really uncomfortable and found ways to not work with that colleague again or to work with them as little as possible.  I’m not sure what would happen – if anything – if these comments were brought to light.  Can an organisation without Equal Opportunities policies for it’s clergy ever effectively address matters such as these?

It seems that the Church (capital “C”) is so obsessed with the sexual lives of LGBT people – to the point where it is incapable of acknowledging any other aspects of our lives, such as our hopes, dreams, loves, gifts or calling.  Sadly, it has successfully reduced us in the eyes of some people to sexual objects, with whom you can be explicit and inappropriate without any fear of consequences.

It seems particularly that many cisgendered heterosexual men feel they have a freedom to discuss or rule over the bodies and private lives of anyone that doesn’t identify as they do, and that if you’re not a cisgendered heterosexual man, you’re expected to be pure and subservient and comfortable with your biology and sexuality being the object of scrutiny, fascination, humour, advances and inappropriate remarks and behaviour.

It is this power imbalance, and the dishonesty behind it, that I believe fuels misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and creates an environment where people feel empowered to abuse that sense of power and privilege.

Only by naming it and recognising it can we ever have any hope of addressing it, and that’s why I’m sharing my experiences now – in the hope that as a Church, we can change and become a place of true holiness and grace.

Posted in Church of England, Guest Contributors, Sexual abuse | 3 Comments

A Zero Tolerance Approach to the Weinsteins in the Church?

The following is written by a serving Church of England clergywoman, who has asked for her identity to be kept anonymous.


What a den of iniquity Hollywood is! Harvey Weinstein accused of molesting all those women – even a man – and yet no one felt able to speak out till now!

But what of the Church?  The place where we speak of the love of God, of His forgiveness, where Holy Communion is celebrated. Church, we preach, should be a safe haven for all – safe from the likes of Weinstein.  Shouldn’t it?

I am now middle aged and have been intimately involved in the Church all my life.  For most of that time, I have felt loved and nurtured in the faith community. However, sadly I know from personal experience and observation that we, the Church, have people like Weinstein in our midst…even amongst the clergy.  I speak of clergy who flirt and make inappropriate remarks to women, making it impossible for that woman to feel that they can safely access pastoral care from that priest.  Clergy who touch women without their consent – no matter how “innocently”, who make sexual advances, who sexually assault and even rape.  We have clergy in our midst who prey upon women at vulnerable times in their life, luring them with their “best pastoral skills” and then using the opportunity to emotionally and sexually abuse.

Surprised?  Like any other walk of life, it happens!  But why do women not report these clergy?  Why do they not speak out?

Let me explain – based on my own experience.

Many of these clergy are married and so the victim often knows the perpetrator’s wife and family.  They are aware that if they report the matter, in reality the abuser will receive minimal justice and if he is found guilty, then it is his wife and family who will pay the highest price.  You may say that that I’m being melodramatic, but what do you think happens to the perpetrators’ families in these circumstances?  It is they who lose their home and as many do not have any other housing provision, they are left with nowhere to go.  The victim knows this will be the price, so they choose to stay silent.

Sadly, many of us women are very used to being assaulted or molested – you only have to look at the significant number of people responding to the #metoo campaign to see this.  However, arguably one of the saddest findings from these public revelations is that so many thought it was not bad enough to report.

I have often heard male clergy talk of ‘Cassock Chasers’; that is, women who “fancy clergy and chase after them”.  In the same way that woman are terrified of being labelled ‘bunny boilers’, church women are afraid of being called ‘cassock chasers’. So, they say nothing.  This is also tied in with a fear of not being believed.  “Remember that Father So and So? He does such a lovely funeral.  He has wonderful pastoral gifts and does fantastic work in the community”.  Who is going to believe that he is capable of such a terrible sexual assault?  No, it is the woman who must be deluded – she must be making it all up.

Many women think they are the only ones that this has happened to and in a culture where ‘victim blaming’ is so prevalent, women often blame themselves, wondering if they somehow provoked the assault.

It is not until accusations are finally made that others then come forward.  This in turn can lead to accusations that people are just ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. Not at all!  It is a realisation from victims that they are not alone and that finally, collectively they will be believed. It can take a long time for victims to come forward, sometimes not until after the death of the perpetrator, because only then does the victim feel safe enough to do so.

Most will agree that talking about even a positive sexual encounter with someone who is unknown to you, such as your doctor, is difficult.  However, talking about a sexual encounter that violated you, made you feel dirty, ashamed and frightened with unknown “officials” is almost impossible.

As a newly ordained person, I am even more acutely aware of the power of the clerical collar.  I have felt incredibly privileged to hear the personal stories of strangers, who felt trust in what I stand for when wearing my collar.  It breaks my heart thinking of people – often the most vulnerable in our midst – who have put their trust in their clergy, the very same who go on to misuse that trust for their own ends.

It seems to me that we need to develop Zero Tolerance attitude in our churches for inappropriate sexualised behaviour of any kind, however “low level” it may seem.  If people are to encounter God, they need to be an environment that feels safe.  Clergy promise to fashion their lives in the way of Christ and this should be apparent in their conduct and engagement with others, especially those who are vulnerable. Victims must be heard and believed. Even if their case doesn’t end up in court, knowing that the Church listened lovingly and carefully, and then disciplined clergy appropriately, will go a long way to making our church a safer place to be.  It will send a very powerful message that the church is not a soft target for those who choose to do evil.

At our Baptism, we promise to resist evil.  That promise is revisited in the ordination vows.  Clergy and lay people alike must be committed to that promise, even when it means resisting the evil in our midst.

In writing this article, I have focused on the experience of women only because I feel that it is not my place to speak for men.  I would like to acknowledge however that there are many men out there who have experienced similar situations to the ones I have highlighted, and it would be good to hear their voices too.

I have not felt able to put my name to this article because I have seen at very close quarters, how victims are treated and made to feel that they are the ones who have issues and need to ‘get over it’.  We never ‘get over it’, but we learn to live with it and those of us who go on to be ordained do so, in part, because we believe it must be better to do pastoral ministry better and because we believe strongly in those ordination vows.

Posted in Church of England, Guest Contributors, Sexual abuse | 9 Comments