What kind of growth?
latest letter to the Diocese…
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’?