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.


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3 Responses to How Do Churches Die?

  1. Frances Yunnie says:

    What a informed article and how true.


  2. Janet Fife says:

    Yes, we’ve moved an awful long way from the footsteps of Jesus.

    The irony is that the most effective evangelistic method I’ve found is good pastoral care and being true to your values. And not just because you want to do evangelism and fill the pews, but because you care about people. What attracts people is the love of God being put into practice.


  3. J Drever says:

    Many thanks for this! I have attended services at nearly a quarter of the total stock Church of England churches over the last decade, including most churches in Cambridgeshire. Whilst the situation in the county (I except the old Huntingdonshire) is perhaps not as drastic as elsewhere – partly because of the significant recent increase in the local population (often migrants from Greater London and the home counties) – there are still large areas of weakness that are essentially beyond recovery. Recently I comprised about a quarter of the congregation at Tadlow and Wentworth (admittedly extreme examples) on main Sunday services, whilst other churches (Carlton-cum-Willingham, Landwade, St Andrew the Less [redundant in all but name], etc., are practically in deep freeze or effectively closed to regular worship). The congregations of even ‘vibrant’ churches outside Cambridge itself are heavily weighted to the demographic aged eighty and over. I estimate that 95% of the congregations I have seen across 30+ dioceses will be extinct in the next 10-15 years, many of them sooner. Of course, congregations are of a respectable size in places like Great and Little Shelford, Trumpington, Littleport, Soham, etc., but even some of the larger villages have only modest handfuls.

    You mention Fresh Expressions. This ought to have been done in the 1980s and 1990s at the latest. It is simply far too late almost everywhere. Revivals can, of course, be effected (S. J. D. Green remarked in his ‘Passing of Protestant England’ (2010) that religions are always dying, which is why they are always being revived), but the obstacles to any meaningful revival are so immense that it will take more than a miracle for it to come to pass. People’s weekend timetables have changed fundamentally: Sunday is just another Saturday, but the Church has not altered its timetable: I can think of only Chatteris in Cambridgeshire that has an all-age service one a month in the slot between the supermarkets closing (at 4 PM) and people getting ready for the week ahead (after 6 PM), though Lolworth and Rampton also provide mid-afternoon services catering to a very limited demographic.

    I think that it is time the authorities took a good look in the mirror and asked themselves whether the current system is plausible. How can the Church continue to maintain its parish ministry with few or no parishioners and yet remain the custodian of one of the nation’s greatest assets, its church buildings? The obvious answer is that it can’t. Having thought long about this the only solution I can recommend is that the Church passes title to all church foundations (note, not buildings) established before 1830 and any Grade I or Grade II* foundations created thereafter to the state. At the same time the Church should partially dis-endow itself, transferring title to between a third and a half of the Commissioners’ assets to DCMS so that the state can maintain the buildings without any short to medium term call on the taxpayer (it being politically intolerable for the state to assume any maintenance obligation in current economic and political conditions without a supporting endowment). In return the Church would have the permanent right to continue using all the buildings for worship, although they would presumably have to be put to other public uses. The remaining assets of the Commissioners would then be retained to meet pension obligations and the Church would be ‘freed’ from the commitment to the buildings which – we are so often told – is one of the factors that inhibits mission.

    If this or a like plan is not implemented, and quickly, the ‘window of opportunity’ will pass, and more and more of the stock (like Grinsdale in Cumberland or Astwood in Buckinghamshire) will be privatised by being turned to residential use (the CCT and FFC having practically reached the limits of what they can afford). That would be an even worse disaster. At least churches like Parson Drove, St John Duxford, SS Cyriac and Julitta Swaffham, Papworth St Agnes, St Michael’s Longstanton, St Peter’s and All Saints in Cambridge and now East Hatley can continue to be used for worship even occasionally. That will not be possible if the likes of Tadlow or a number of other churches, having been wrung through the Pastoral Committee and the Churches (Uses and Disposals) Committee are turned into private units, so that a little bit here and there is cut off until the whole fabric of the parochial structure is reduced to rags. Transfer to the State by means of a variant of the French system would avoid that problem. The position in Wales would, however, be much more difficult because the Church has already been disendowed; again, there is only so much Cadw can do, and the loss of ancient buildings to public use is accelerating: here again, it should be recognised that a portion of the Commissioners’ assets originated in transfers from the four Welsh sees (notably the better endowed Bangor and St Asaph), so perhaps the stock in England and Wales could be transferred as part of a package.


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