The headline data from the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey is that the percentage of those who think of themselves as Church of England is down, in just a year, from 14% to 12%. I assume that rounding of averages percentages distorts this slightly, and that the real drop is probably only just over 10%; but even so it is a big further drop. At this rate, the percentage of people who regard themselves the Church of England will be down to just a few percent, in only a few years.
As the report explain, this is not because people are changing their allegiance to the Church of England. It is a generational change. Those who felt allegiance the CofE are dying off, and the replacement cohort lacks that sense of allegiance. The Church of England used to be the church of the nation. It clearly has long ago ceased to be that. It is one of the most dramatic social changes my generation (born 1946) have lived through.
What is the church leadership to do in a situation like this? Who would want to be an Archdeacon in an organisation that was going under at this rate? It is like the Titanic hitting the iceberg. How do you keep smiling, dealing with petty squabbles, when you know that the game is up, at least as it has been played so far? Yet, still, the plans of most Dioceses have the word ‘growth’ in them, when any honest church leader admits they are managing decline.
As far as I can tell, the Church’s plan is to try to manage resources better, to create as many plants of Holy Trinity Brompton as it can in the short time, and to encourage innovative, informal activities like ‘Messy Church’. I am not sure I would have a better plan, but I don’t think this is an adequate response (through the HTB strand is probably the best part of this plan; I visited an impressive new such church in Nottingham earlier this year).
The Church of England will carry on as best it can for as long as it can. However, in practice, the focus will increasingly have to be on battening down the hatches for the rapid oncoming decline, in the hope that it can be weathered somehow or other. People still try to pretend that nothing has really changed, but water from the floodtide of secularisation is already coming in under the door.
It is hard to respond hard to know how to respond at local level. Due to remarkable effort and hard work, the church I attend now has now installed a kitchen and toilets. It has taken forever to connect them to the drains, and I am not quite sure whether they are connected yet. It would be a fitting way of marking the latest data from the BSA survey if we are able to use the church toilets for the first time on Sunday.
It is deeply upsetting that the church that inspired me when I was a teenager no longer exists, and what remains is so shrunken in vision and capacity. At a recent meeting on plans to install bells in our tower, I briefly interrupted the meeting to blurt out my thoughts. It was not really appropriate. One kind and impressive friend who, much to his credit, understands the trends of which the latest BSA data is a reflection all too
well, wrote to me afterwards, noting my passion and anguish. What is to be done? Should I stay or go, when the church that remains is so far from what I hope it might be.
However, even in these straightened times, there is much that is impressive about the church that I attend (St. Clements, in Bridge Street, Cambridge). Tomorrow morning (July 14th) the 11.00 am service will be led by Rowan Williams, who is a remarkable human being with a strong spiritual presence. He is someone who as one of my New Age friends says, can ‘hold the energy’. He also has a mind big enough to have an impressive grasp of the complex social trends we are living through.
In the evening, at 5.00 pm, we have a smaller, quieter Eucharist with poetry, silence and chanting. We will be joined this week by the impressive writer and public intellectual, Prabhu Guptarawho, in place of a sermon, will read some of the excellent poems he hasbeen publishing for half a century or more. I am pleased that St. Clements is able to welcome such a person.
There are three things I would hope to find in a church that would still inspire me. One would be a continuing interest in Jesus (I mean Jesus of Nazareth). He was fascinating and obviously had a very interesting vision and plan. It should be an absolute priority to try to understand better what he was trying to do, and how to continue with his project.
I am also looking for a church that prioritises the spiritual life. Of course, I am just a child of my times in wanting that. Most people now, except in mainline denominations like
the Church of England, prioritise seeing spirituality over religion. Sadly, however, the church still does not seem to get it, or to know how to respond.
Also, as I said in my last blog, I want to be part of the church that has an inspiring social vision, as it had when I was part of the Coventry Cathedral community in the 60s and 70s. The range of issues with which Coventry Cathedral grappled in major conferences over a few years still seems to me remarkable and prophetic, including ‘What do we want out of Europe?’, ‘How are we going to manage the rising tide of nationalism?’, ‘How can we design cities that serve the needs of people?, ‘How can we discharge our ecological responsibilities?’ I want a church that is grappling with such questions. Sadly, the Church of which I am part no longer has the vision or resources to do so.