by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Whatever the causes of Church decline – and I’ve spent much of my adult life researching this and writing about it – and whatever the scale or the finality of it, what is beyond doubt is that the mainstream churches have spent the last half century or so desperately trying to find ways of stemming the tide.
There have been church-wide initiatives like the “Decade of Evangelism” and the current “Thy Kingdom Come” appeal for prayer, educational and catechetical movements like Alpha and Cursillo, the church planting movement, new emphases on leadership in mission, new ways of trying to recruit ministers and clergy, new approaches to stewardship to try to counter the slide in resources, and so on. No one can be sure how well these things have or haven’t worked. In the UK, overall, they don’t seem to have stopped decline altogether. But that doesn’t mean they’re not working at all – there are new congregations, and growing congregations; there are downward trends in some areas that have been slowed down; there are some parts of church life doing better than others.
But most of the indices, nonetheless, have been downward, and continue to be. And that has exerted continued pressure on the churches to come up with new methods of evangelism. It has also pushed churches sometimes towards an instrumental idea of mission. Effort has been poured out trying to adapt the means of evangelism to contemporary society, so that the more fundamental question of what mission really is has never been faced adequately. I don’t mean it hasn’t been considered, or that there haven’t been major changes in the way we conceive the theology of mission. It’s impossible to deny the impact of David Bosch’s Transforming Mission (1991), for example, or of Lesslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), books that repay re-reading and constant reflection, on those working in the field.
But I suspect most of us are stuck in practical terms in an instrumental mode, in which we tend to think of the problem as simply one of communication, and not of the very conception of faith we inhabit. We think of ourselves, perhaps, as servants of the Word, who need to learn how to communicate better the Word we passionately believe and try to follow: if we get the mode of communication right, others will follow. But will they? Or perhaps we think of ourselves as faithful followers of the Gospel tradition, and mediate that tradition to others through worship and the sacraments. But again, do they follow? Will they follow?
I can’t help but think that many Christians have just not reckoned on the scale of the sea-change that has happened under their feet and around them. It’s all too easy for those of us who are actively involved in church to assume that faith addresses a lack, a shortcoming or gap, in a person’s experience, and by reorienting their attention – that inescapable metaphor of the moral compass – towards the God who made us and loves us, delivers a better, more rounded, more fulfilling life. But I suspect that’s just not obvious any more to the majority of non-believers. Do you need faith to live a happy, fulfilled life? Whatever my own convictions on this, the truth I suspect is that most people would simply say “No”. You can live well without faith! In the past, the sheer pervasive character of Christian belief in the West provided a kind of commonly-assumed default of virtue which, even if rejected, nonetheless would continue to gnaw away at us, and to undermine our attempts to achieve a happiness we suspected could only ever be selfish.
And it’s not enough to point out – as I’m sure some will, reading this – that the argument itself was always flawed. Happiness is never guaranteed by faith; fulfilment is a poor measure of Christian belief. The problem for us, as Christians now, is that even the plausibility of what we are trying to communicate has fallen away. It may be that the values widely shared in our society have Christian roots – undoubtedly true. But the Church itself has become tainted or damaged goods. The seemingly endless flood of allegations of abuse and cover-up, hitting the Catholic Church this summer just as hard it continues to hit Anglicanism and other traditions, the churches’ seeming inability to resolve internal wrangles over human sexuality, the basically middle-class character of much British Christianity, all this and much else besides means that churches are often seen as places of threat, and not as sources of liberation and peace.
I’m always conscious that as soon as I begin to reflect on the state of Christianity in Britain today, I’m likely to sound too gloomy, too quickly. So I repeat what I said near the beginning – it’s not all failure, it’s not all downwards, and anyway I do believe that faith is not to be measured by contemporary ideas of fulfilment and well-being.
However – we do have to ask ourselves, again and again, what we are we trying to communicate? Is it a set of beliefs, or a set of practices, that may or may not chime in with the life experience of people, or is it actually a life that perhaps can’t really be packaged and communicated at all, unless people first begin to get to know us, and to share things with us, and find out who we are?
Do we need, in other words “a new evangelism” that doesn’t even use words and phrases like ‘leadership in mission’ and ‘church growth’, and doesn’t seem to put the institution first, but just helps Christians to live out amongst people, faithful to their calling?
On September 7th the British Social Attitudes Survey published its results showing that the number of Brits who identify as Church of England has more than halved in the last fifteen years.