What kind of growth?

latest letter to the Diocese…

Dear friends, 

You may not have heard of Dr Peter Brierley, but you will have had contact with him. Peter is a statistician who specialises in crunching the data about church and faith activity in theUnited Kingdom. He produces fascinating information which is used both by the Church and also secular bodies to assess what is happening in the sphere or religion. He maintains an upbeat and hopeful persona, and is quick to remind us of those situations and places where the Church is continuing to have a creative and growing impact. However, the all-round picture does not look good for the institutions of the Church: ‘Overall the picture is one of decline’, we read after the publication of his latest figures and his projections for church life from 2005 to 2015. Should we be bothered? Well, if you believe that the institutionalised Church is the be all and end all, then there is great cause for concern: less people are going to church services regularly year on year, and there is similar, relentless, decline in services like marriage being conducted in church. Despite the recent report ‘Faithful Cities’ upbeat assessment of the faith communities growing impact on national life, it would seem that the Church of England, at least in its traditional role as a national Church with all that means, is on the wane. There is a great danger that we will become a Church with all the trappings of power…bishops in the House of Lords etc, but with no substantial body of people in our pews in whose name this institutionalised Church can speak. The Church of England can begin to look like a modern day rendition of the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes. Can we take heart?

In the late 1950s, a priest called Edward Wickham started the Sheffield Industrial Mission (he later became my bishop when I was a young priest inManchester). The Mission was designed to address the Church’s mission to the ordinary working man, for Ted had done his homework and found that, in fact, the Church of England had never adequately captured the hearts and minds of the British working classes. His book ‘Church and People in an Industrial City’ gave damning statistics demonstrating that the Church was a largely middle-class phenomenon and inferred that it was obsessed by privilege and position and failed in its duty to the marginalised and poor. I would argue that little has changed since he propounded that view, and a hard look around many of our Sunday morning congregations might make us wonder about the social balance contained therein. On the one hand, therefore, Dr Brierley is not telling us anything new.

Recently, I conducted the funeral of a friend of mine who had been killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 38. He had been a professional boxer, a successful university student, a member of a motorcycle club, a father, a doorman, and had started a health club. His funeral was attended by nearly a thousand people from all the walks of his popular life. These were not people you would normally expect to find in their parish church on a Sunday morning at the Eucharist! Indeed, it is possible they would have had a dim view of religion generally. However, the conversations I had with them after the ceremony were packed full of theology…they talked with me of hope in death; the eternal meaning of human life; the sorrow and pain of human existence, and much more. All of this was expressed, not in the language of liturgy, but in heartfelt and plain manner. The reality is that there may not be a lot of religion out there, and certainly little belief in the established Church, but there is an awful lot of faith. The question is what does the Church of England do with this knowledge to enable it to become, once more, theservantChurchof all the people of this land? For the ground is fertile and ready. Many of the answers will lie in the priorities that local churches establish in their ministry and in greater willingness to be inclusive and to follow through with hearts and minds willing to encompass all. However, perhaps a real start might be made if our Church calls itself back to our calling in Jesus to be a Body which brings ‘good news to the poor’?

+Tim

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~ by Tim Ellis on July 11, 2011.

2 Responses to “What kind of growth?”

  1. For what it is worth…for the Church of England to thrive in the pews, we need to be getting alongside our villagers in a way relevant to them. There are so many preconceptions of what ‘Christians’ are and what a ‘Church Service’ will be like. There can be so many lost opportunities for volunteers to show a different side of ‘Church’ by running social groups – particularily for families. To show Christians as ‘real people’ dealing with the same life issues as everyone else and being able to share honestly how sometimes it may be a struggle to handle situations as God would have us do, leads the way to showing that our God is one of relationship and that ‘Christians’ are human beings as well and that God understands we will mess up at times (speaking for myself, obviously!) I know people that once the Spirit came upon them it changed their whole lives, which is fantastic for them – it has never happened to me, I seem to be a Christian in training for the last 14 years(!) although I have never felt God leave my side. I remember when I first started going to Church, being ‘freaked out’ by seeing people share the Peace, it all seemed very odd, within a few Sundays, I was running round the Church trying to share the Peace with every single person in there – it all feels so different once you understand. Nowadays, if you don’t get out of the starting block pretty sharpish, you are never going to get to share the Peace with everyone (and we only have a small congregation) before order is resumed in the service. I guess what I am trying to say is that being alongside unchurched people and showing a more relaxed, open and honest approach to God and using Groups to facilitate contact with the local Vicar (if you are lucky enough to have one!) in a relaxed setting will definately dispell mith and beliefs long-since-held and comfortable relationships are born and as people ‘understand’ they feel more confident to explore. I would never dream of calling for Traditional services to be scrapped however, there are many days of the week and different times on a Sunday that can be used for the C of E to put on different types of services and I believe firmly, that there should be something that the volunteer groups can feed into (that is not a ‘worship’ service) and that this lighter-service then feeds into a more ‘worship’ orientated family friendly service and that this service feeds into our Family Services – by then people may well be looking at other Services being held and will find what ‘fits’ them. Without bringing the next generation in, where is the future for our congregations and it does pose the question that if the C of E was getting it right (with the very utmost, greatest respect) why are our Churches not being filled? There are so many issues that I as just a member of the congregation do not get a chance to raise such as, if as a Deanary we face the loss of Vicars (because of the growing defecit) who currently do not have the time to be involved in new projects, along with the amount of effort it takes to fundraise just to keep our Churches open and running and to raise enough money for our ‘Share’, where oh where will reduced numbers of Vicars be able to find the time to be involved in work at the ground level (and this is what unchurched people would expect, welcome and respond too) let alone, where do individual Churches find the extra money to put on events and groups that generate the atmosphere of care, fun and fellowship if they are counting the pennies of the cost of heating and how many digestive biscuits they can afford to put out! There is also (I believe) a large untapped talent in our pews, the older generation. Those that are willing and able, would be invaluable to families, couples, children and youth etc, as they have ‘been there, got the t-shirt’ and their experiences, in the main, would be so supportive and helpful to those who struggle, are lost or feel the world is on their shoulders, just in a conversational way. It lifts the heart to hear that someone else has experienced the same thing and come through it and of course again it builds the relationship to God’s guidence in life. Older people do not have to run around with children, but they could sit having a cup of tea with the parents and I believe, even in this day and age, Youth respect the elderly in a group type setting and with so many families living away from their relations and so many dysfunctional families that the Youth especially are crying out for that care and attention. Please excuse my spelling and grammer and the length of this comment a lot has tumbled out and for that I apologise. I have never replied to anything before and I have probably done all this wrong, but may be I will feel better now that I have in some way voiced my concerns. I am a nobody and hope that I have not caused any offence, I love the Church of England (although I would continue to Worship God if it wasn’t there) and I just feel that by reducing Vicar numbers (even though Readers etc are great) you are already eroding the very thing which unChurched people identify with. Vicars are a necessity and they must be given the time to ‘lead’ with a strong leadership team and volunteer workers on the ground (whose opinions should at least be listened too!) If I, having a young family, am finding it hard to find where I ‘fit’ within the C of E group where I live and I love God, then what hope is there for families that surround this group of Churches, who have yet to find our Lord? (used only as an example)

  2. Having written a hundred words that promptly disappeared am I tempting fate by trying again? Well, here goes – again: Jamie is right. The Church is irrelevant to most people and still represents to many ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ as quoted many years ago. What is the Church actually doing in the community? How are its members different from everyone else, apart from attendance? How can we show that Christ has made a difference in our lives? Jamie is very fortunate in having faith despite the Church, yes, DESPITE the Church. There are far too many chiefs and not nearly enough Indians – too many inflated egos fond of titles and position.

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