How Do Churches Die?


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

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.