In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that there should be a census of all the world…
Well, the figures are now published from the latest census about the life, times and culture of our nation today and they make uncomfortable reading for the institutionalised Church. It marks continuing decline in those touchstones which have defined the Church of England’s relationship with the people of our land: less people feeling they can claim the name ‘Christian'; less people attending regular worship and less people owning up to feeling the Church has a continued major influence in public life. Today, 4 Million less people regard themselves as Christians than in 2001 and there has been a 75% rise in those who follow Islam, and Norwich and Brighton emerged as the most Godless places in Britain- in what many would already argue is a largely Godless country.
It is interesting and instructive to place these findings alongside others relating to changing social circumstances and understanding today: less than 50% of the country is married; the number of children born in single parent families showed a marked rise and there was a continued rise in the average length of life. At least one commentator has suggested that Christianity will be a minority belief by 2018 and the secularists, notably the British Humanist Society, are issuing the warning that the perceived conservatism of the Church, a perception recently enhanced by our public stance on same-sex marriage and women bishops, is part of the reason for this decline. Put simply, what the Church is saying about how we should exist in this world is dramatically parting company with an increasingly diverse, liberal and inclusive society and a massive majority of people are so out of sympathy with the Church’s views on things that they absent themselves from regular attendance, choosing to associate with us only on those easy and open occasions such as Christmas, Harvest Festivals and Remembrance Sunday.
Andreas Whittam Smith, a First Estates Church Commissioner and one of the founders of the Independent newspaper, writing in that organ suggests that this is further evidence, not necessarily of decline in influence, but ‘believing not belonging’. He goes on to say that, rather than hide our heads in the sand about these figures, we should face them square on and try to understand their significance for the Church. Hear! Hear! Getting up on the morning after the Census was published, one knew that we were going to be faced with a barrage of senior clergy telling us that ‘we don’t measure attendance the same anymore’ and ‘there is a complex pattern of growth and decline': spin, all spin, and all demonstrating our unwillingness to face the facts…and people don’t believe a word of it.
Now, it has to be said that the Church is not the only institution facing such decline in influence and adherence: a diverse, inclusive and liberal society will always demonstrate these qualities by being suspicious of any organisation that attempts to be clear, unswerving and dogmatic in what it presents to the public. So, education has had to dramatically alter how it does things now from the days of my youth: the colourful, user-friendly classrooms and kindly teachers are a far cry from the uniformed, cane wielding days of my Grammar School experience, for instance. Similarly, the Police and Doctors have undergone a radical shift in persona and presentation. In contrast, the Church has shown itself unwilling and resistant to any of the changes it could make to stay in step with the mores of the society around us. Now, here, I am not talking about watering down core beliefs such as Resurrection, the Incarnation, and such like, but I am suggesting that there are second-order matters which it is well within our competence and right to change: ordaining women to the episcopate is one of them, it seems to me, and we now know what untold damage has been done to our credibility in our diverse, flexible and inclusive society. And, as we set up these issues as central and unchanging, we alienate the vast majority of the nation who simply cannot agree with us and therefore distance themselves from core adherence to a Church which tells them they need to subscribe to these views to belong. Along the way, we lose them from hopefully travelling the path of Faith with us in those core aspects of Christian adherence which are truly important and have something to say and offer to a stricken world.
Whittam Smith suggests, rightly I believe, that the institution of the Church is under severe stress in Britain today. Will it survive? Only time will tell, but he also goes on to talk about all those places were new gatherings of Christian people are bubbling up, vital, free and unfettered by the chains of the past. These emerging patterns of adherence are marked by numerical growth, by community and by fun and laughter-we have much to learn from them. The question remains as to whether, in this Christmas season of birth and new life, the Church will allow itself to be a midwife to these exciting but challenging new expressions, or whether, once again, it will resist them as ‘not quite proper’.
A very Happy Christmas, and may that fresh and new child born at Christmas be in your homes and hearts.