by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Is the Church of England still the church of the nation?
It’s probably only Anglicans themselves who still assume it is, and even then not all of them. Constitutionally, little has changed in the last century or so to imply that the Church of England’s position is fundamentally different now from what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. In that sense, it is still the national church, or at least the established church. But it would be very foolish to think that the vast majority of the population of England have any real, tangible sense of this. Many – but a declining number – still get baptized, married and have their funerals in Church of England churches, but with an ageing and shrinking congregation, the wider claim looks more and more fragile.
Two weeks ago the usual annual report on statistics was issued, bearing the by now well-established balance of good and bad news.
There was plenty of bad news. Once again, the average Sunday attendance was down, to 765,000 in October 2017; that’s a seemingly catastrophic decline of almost 15% in ten years; but the fall was higher – 24% – for attending children. Easter attendance has fallen by 16%. Baptisms have fallen by 22%, weddings and associated services by 27%, and funerals by 28%. All of the falls reflect longer term trends, though of course there are fluctuations in various indices year on year. No wonder the perception of many parish clergy is that the Church is in dire straits.
But there is some good news. Christmas attendances are up again, rising gradually over the last few years to reach 2.68 million, suggesting that nearly 5% of the population are at a Church of England church at some point at Christmas. That led the Bishop of Manchester to suggest that Christmas services probably represent a more attractive form of worship than the usual Sunday fare.
But the other quoted statistic concerned a different measurement, the ‘worshipping community’, a more amorphous concept meant to catch those who ‘regularly’ attend at least once a month, but not necessarily weekly. This suggested no essential change since 2012, with some 1.1 million in that category. Moreover, the Church’s ‘hits’ on social media more than doubled in one year from 1.2 million to 2.44 million.
These positive figures enabled the statistics to be spun, as critics were quick to point out, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to work out that if (and it’s a big ‘if’) we take all these figures at face value as accurate, then one conclusion must be that commitment to regular attendance is thinning out, as the weekly Sunday numbers continue to fall, yet people’s wish to be in some way connected to their church via less frequent attendance remains apparently stable.
As lots of people have pointed out, the idea of the ‘worshipping community’ is particularly problematic, because it’s not at all clear what it’s really measuring. The broader and looser the technique of measuring something is, the greater the number of variables one is likely to have to factor in when interpreting the data. Someone who slips into Evensong from time to time because they like the relative calm and the opportunity to reflect, and the music (if there is any), might have very little real sense of identity with the local worshipping community – indeed the whole point for them might be to avoid community. And yet, I suspect there is a basic realism about the measure, however slippery.
When I was in a parish, and also when I was in charge of a chapel, I’d often find myself totting up roughly the number of people I would see from time to time and would count as part of the wider ‘family’ of the church or chapel – it was of course always much bigger than the weekly attendance. Sometimes the only connection between all these people was me. Sometimes someone who attended irregularly turned out to have a very strong, informed faith. Amongst those who came for the sake of the music, or the peace (when they could have it), were certainly some virtual non-believers.
All of that reminds us that spirituality is not the same thing as going to church, that great devotion does not necessarily show itself in being active in church life, above all that people’s motives are always very complex and varied. The statistics barely penetrate these deep, below-the-surface realities, and the only way to get at them at all is by close study of particular communities – a brilliant example being Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas’s study of Kendal (The Spiritual Revolution, 2005).
We should, then, be very cautious in making precise deductions about what people do and don’t want from the annual statistics, and also of being a bit inclined to seize immediately on the positives – in that sense, I doubt that Christmas really is much of a pointer to ways forward. That downward trend looks pretty steep, and it poses an enormous challenge to the Church of England.
In response to that challenge, there seem to be two quite different strategies on the table – I’m talking in general terms, not about specific church policies.
One is to emphasize the distinctiveness of Christian teaching over and against the world around us, and to press people to make firm decisions between the Church and the world. Some would call this circling the wagons, or going into the bunker. It looks like a defensive move, but it usually depends on a definite strategy of mission, with catechesis, with distinct forms of outreach, and so on. So it isn’t necessarily inward-looking. But it is what the larger Evangelical congregations essentially are about, and it’s usually defensive about wider developments in society such as changes in sexual ethics and changing concepts of identity.
The other is to stress inclusivity, to widen the boundaries of those to be welcomed, to open up the Church to those who might otherwise feel excluded or condemned by it. This has its own risks, of course, which are likely to include looking a bit woolly and a bit over-reactive to social change.
Both may miss something vital about the Church, which ought to be relentlessly inclusive and at the same time confident in its values and traditions. Reconciling those two things requires a lot of hard work, but it also requires a readiness to change and above all a willingness to listen to others and to learn from them.
We have a gospel to proclaim. But our first thought should surely be, ‘What do others have to say to us, and what can we learn from that?’ In order for us to hear what they have to say, we have to encounter them wherever they may be – and that means tearing down the walls of our own defensiveness and insecurity. Only then can the Church truly be an inclusive community.