THE JESUS CRUNCH

From THE TIMES:

The Church of England has been hit by a new slump in its congregations, with the latest figures showing its fifth year-on-year decline.

Also, the Church’s first analysis of its worshippers showed that nearly half are pensioners.

The established Church has lost more than 40,000 worshippers since 2003, shortly after Dr Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2002. Average weekly attendance fell from 1.187 million in 2003 to 1.145 million in 2008. In spite of a rise in the number of children and young people at services, the average age of a member of a Church of England congregation is 61, according to statistics published yesterday.

The figures also show a slight acceleration in the rate of decline in the past 12 months, indicating that there may be even worse news in years to come.

COMMENT: In England we are living in the end times of state Christianity. The government and the people of England no longer regard faith groups as moral agents but see them only as political organisations. As The Church of England causes the government few headaches politically (we don’t riot, vote as a block, use violence to get our way or play the martyr card convincingly) we are hardly on their radar anymore. The “man in the street” finds Christianity embarrassing. He has come to this conclusion because of the two stereotypes of contemporary, English Christianity – wishy washy, trendy liberal vicars and happy clappy evangelicals.

Unfortunately the church is run by completely the wrong sort of people to reverse the decline in its membership. Its theologians and leaders are, on the whole, divorced from the vast majority of the people they are supposed to serve and have very little understanding of the lives of people who are not from their social and academic backgrounds. For example, the theologians of Radical Orthodoxy have many interesting things to say about secularisation and the power of the Kingdom, but they are so caught up in academia and the language of academia that their message will never become popularist. And the church hierarchy is responding to the numbers crisis by battening down the hatches. More and more power is being grabbed by fewer and fewer people at the centre and they are using their power to control and conform. This is so wrongheaded and will lead the church into meaningless obscurity.

What the church should be doing is embracing freedom. The grass roots should be allowed to flourish without constant pruning and weeding from above. Imagination and creativity must be encouraged. Mistakes will be made. Wrong avenues will be pursued. But the good will also spring forth from such freedom.

Above all we need to sever the link between the episcopacy and stuffy academia, and between the episcopacy and the conformist middle class. Bishops should be raised up from the parishes. They should be people who have lived among the people of secular Britain, who understand their concerns and aspirations. The last thing we need is more trendy vicars but we do need streetwise vicars and streetwise bishops. Our paradigm for this is Christ and his disciples. A group without political power. A group made up of working people from the unprivileged grass roots of their society. A group always on the road. A group with nothing to lose.

The powerful in the Church of England have not just turned their back on the Holy Spirit, they have assumed its authority for themselves. Worse still, they are stifling the work of the Spirit among the rank and file. This must stop. Cowardly retrenchment is not the answer. In stead, we should bravely and foolishly go over the top and charge the enemy head on with all guns blazing.

Comments

THE JESUS CRUNCH — 27 Comments

  1. Thankfully my days as a young trendy vicar are over – if they ever existed in the first place.
    All I do now is keep walking the path of faith where I believe I perceive it in these communties, and basically ignore the HQ and its endless ejaculations of pronouncements, panels and paper.

  2. A very well written analysis, which I’m sure is correct Mad One. And also a very rousing conclusion.

    In stead, we should bravely and foolishly go over the top and charge the enemy head on with all guns blazing.

    I would consider following you over the top, on a good day. But who would follow a trendy vicar? Not me.

  3. Christianity is declining across the board in the USA as well. I think it’s because the man in the street here identifies Christianity with right wing politics and aspiring morals police. I would imagine that he sees the Christian faith as anything but liberating. The long hegemony of the Evangelicals in the USA is creating a ferocious backlash of equally narrow-minded missionary secularists who see all religion as nothing but bigotry and superstition.
    And the irony is that the secular backlash is every bit as right wing (with that peculiarly American mix of nationalism and solipsism) as the “Jesus is MY Lord and Savior” religious right.

  4. “The powerful in the Church of England have not just turned their back on the Holy Spirit, they have assumed its authority for themselves.”

    Oh, my. This is a powerful and greatly disturbing assertion.

    And, tragically, I think it may well be largely true. (And in TEC over here as well.)

  5. “charge the enemy head on with all guns blazing”?
    Hmmm.
    Here on this side of the pond the first charge against the churches, christian in particular, is that they are hypocrites. This is pretty consistent in the poles asking about religious affiliation.
    A pretty big mirror to hold up to those who desire the place of the church be preserved as a body served.

    I wonder if those who stay away know more about the Gospel than we think?

  6. I think you are spot-on in your critique of the CoE. And that same analysis can be applied across the pond in some cases. In the south, happy clappy evangelicals often come armed with Bibles they use as batons to gay bash, and our version of “trendy vicar” doesn’t want to jump into that fray, and they start to resemble Peter during the arrest of Jesus. End result: those outside the church believe that anyone who’s a Christian is either a homophobic moron or a wishy-washy coward.
    “Foolishly go over the top and charge the enemy head on with all guns blazing.” YES!

  7. Should my assessment matter, I believe that you are absolutely correct, and the unblinking eye must apply this analysis to the full-spectrum of the church — “right” to “left”, across all “ponds” and back again.

    While we are a faith community and share in our reconciliation with God corporately, I believe the Gospel is left behind when the church abrogates its mission, whether left or right, to the political/governmental realm, and yes, assumes the role of the Spirit. Our communion is extended at the personal level, and when that is the case, the world is changed. When we attempt to apply our faith at the political level, all is futility.

  8. I don’t disagree with your thoughts on the CofE, MP, but I would always take what any of the national papers say on the subject with a sizeable grain of salt. It’s a journalist’s job to wring whatever drama they can from statistics, the doomier the better, and to “big it up” as much as they can, to use the trade lingo (I know you know this but I thought I would make the point anyway). Also, there is quite a lot of hostility to religion and specifically to Christianity in pretty much all of the broadsheet newsrooms, with the possible exception of the Telegraph (I should know, I have worked in all of them). Interestingly, Church Mouse on his blog has read the statistics to mean that the CofE attendance is flat – no particular move either way – for what that’s worth.

  9. It’s a journalist’s job to wring whatever drama they can from statistics, the doomier the better, and to “big it up” as much as they can,

    Same here! Or hadn’t you noticed?

  10. Yes of course I had noticed. You’ll possibly hate me for this, but I reckon you’d make a great journalist, MP. If you ever get really fed up with the CofE you should consider it as a potential career.

  11. Bishops should be raised up from the parishes. They should be people who have lived among the people of secular Britain, who understand their concerns and aspirations. The last thing we need is more trendy vicars but we do need streetwise vicars and streetwise bishops.

    For such was San Fabian, whose blessed memory we invoked recently, who was but the dung hauler (vender?) visiting from out of town.

  12. I did a bit of dung hauling today. Seriously, I slung a 25kg bag of chicken manure into my car. Doesn’t that mean I should be a Bishop?

  13. I would like to quote Andrew Brown from the Guardian commenting on these same statistics:

    “It is worth remembering that there are on any Sunday at least 100 people in an Anglican church for every member of the National Secular Society. To believe in an inevitably secularist future is also an act of faith, and one which must overcome an extraordinary amount of evidence.”

  14. If only you were ABC MP…

    The quiet service of the people at the grass roots is the only hope.

    Even so-called “fresh expressions” (damn I DETEST that term) has been hijacked as yet another official project that is just spin for letting a few experiments run until the Collective assimilates them. Resistance is futile.

    Until a major rethink over what being Christ-like in daily life means the Church in it’s organised form will die a slow death.

  15. “fresh expressions” (damn I DETEST that term) has been hijacked as yet another official project that is just spin for letting a few experiments run until the Collective assimilates them.

    I agree. It is a watered down, domesticated version of liberation theology that the hierarchies can control. I knew it was bogus when I noticed most of the books, conferences etc. that came with it were concerned with leadership.

  16. I have to say that when I watched the ABC’s New Year message, the sight of him wandering through the streets of London made him look like Dumbledore trying to blend in with the muggles and failing desperately.

    I think there are positive things being done, but by and large, the Church is an arcane institution that does not speak the language of those it is trying to reach.

    I’d like to see a cull of LOTS of our bishops (OK, it isn’t going to happen – but the thought is appealing.) I’d like to see lots of our realistic, resourceful women priests appointed in their place. I’d like to see a Church that wasn’t so fearful and cautious or afraid to have fun.

    I don’t know exactly how it can be done, other than by much greater grassroots initiatives and building on good practice – but it we don’t do something, we will die out. I worry that by the time I am 60, I will need to travel miles to find that quaint thing called “a church”, let alone one I feel comfortable in ( which is hard enough at the moment.)

  17. Cathy, one could also read Mr. Brown’s comment as rather silly, tricksy, and uninformed. After all, the church seems to require weekly attendance at its meetings as a prerequisite for remaining a member in good standing.

    One can be a secularist without joining a particular group, attending a meeting, or making any kind of public declaration. One has only to ignore the church, refrain from attending services, and generally live free of the confines of church influence to be a secularist of sorts. False equivalency?

    The church doesn’t seem to cotton to individuals declaring themselves free agents of Christ, however, which seems to be a large part of the problem with their declining numbers and influence.

    Of course Jesus has his say and doesn’t seem to pay much attention to whose heart he touches, does he?

  18. I would disagree with both of your points, Priscilla.

    Firstly, secularists are people who actively campaign against religion (at least, that’s what they all do in England). This makes them a different kettle of fish to your bog standard atheist and agnostic, most of whom are ambivalent towards peaceful religion as long as it doesn’t make their lives less enjoyable (and even then they are intelligent enough to blame the guilty parties rather than religion per se. Therefore, Andrew Brown is right in his assertion. The number of card carrying anti-religion people in England is miniscule compared to the number of church going Christians and committed members of other faiths.

    Secondly, you cannot be a freelance Christian as Christianity is about being part of a body. It always has been since the beginning of the church. Even a hermit is attached to the church and requires the sacraments and support of the church. Christianity is communion with Christ and with people. The image of the vine is paramount. You don’t have to belong to an institutionalised church (and if you do you don’t have to like it). But you have to be in communion with other Christians.

    A freelance Christian is just somebody who has invented a new, personal religion based on some of the teachings of Jesus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t, however, Christianity.

  19. The other thing that got on my wick that figures into all this was something I saw on the old St Paul’s cathedral web site, describing how their Canons had extensive ‘portfolios’……

    So much for prayer, holiness and service…

  20. makes sense to me.
    Aggressive atheism in the U.S.A. seems to be education- and class-related. These are (a very small fraction of) people who have had liberal arts degrees, often graduate degrees, and the basic scientists, plus some business-minded followers of Ayn Rand. People who are loudly atheist tend either to come from the extremes (academics and overoptimistic socialists on the very left or libertarians/Randians on the very right), or have been the victims of churchiness – gays for one. Non-believers who don’t make a fuss about religion are of all demographics. They outnumber the vocal atheists 100 to 1, except around college campuses.

  21. MP, you are right of course. Christians far outnumber secularists in number and power.
    I’m not in communion and don’t claim to be much of a Christian but I love you too much to argue. Peace to you and Cathy and your superior interpretations.

  22. Bear in mind, I am talking about those who use the word secularist in opposition to religion. When the word is used correctly then the majority of my American Christian readers are secularists, in that they believe church and state should be separate and that society can be, and should be, governed justly without reference to religion. My problem with English secularist organisations is that they are no different in intent to fundamentalist religious organisations. They want to impose their world view on everybody else.