Surely only the least observant can have failed to notice what has been happening to church congregations in this country over these past many years. In a word they have been shrinking. Perhaps a better word might be disappearing. The prophets of doom have long been predicting that the end is nigh for the Church of England and the role it has played in our national life for decades. The Church itself has robustly denied it. What makes those denials look a little desperate now is that the latest bleak judgement on the future of the church has come not from outsiders but from the Church of England clergy themselves. Three quarters of those surveyed have reached the devastating conclusion that Britain can no longer be described as a Christian country.
Does this surprise you and, if they are right, does it dismay you?
The bald facts are straightforward. The Times has conucted the most wide-ranging survey ever carried out into the views of frontline Anglican clergy. They analysed responses from 1,200 serving priests, the catch-all term for all ordained people who can celebrate sacraments such as Holy Communion. They were mostly vicars, rectors, curates, chaplains and priests who are retired but still serve.
The survey uncovered high levels of stress among priests, many of whom feel over-stretched under the “pressure of justifying the Church of England’s position to increasingly secular and sceptical audiences”. They fear that the church’s efforts to arrest the decline in attendance will fail and this may ultimately lead to its “extinction”. Asked whether they think “Britain can or cannot be described as a Christian country”, only a quarter answered: “Yes”. Almost two thirds said Britain can be called Christian “but only historically, not currently”. The most glaring finding, according to The Times, is that is that “the foot soldiers” of the established religion believe that Christianity has been marginalised as a social force in this country.” Seven in ten believe that it’s a thing of the past.
This defeatism extends to the clergy’s individual working lives. Almost a quarter have considered quitting the priesthood because of overwork. Most are now faced with having to run more than one church, and some as many as ten. Disillusionment with a “remote church hierarchy” is widespread. Some priests described a “profound lack of support from their bishops.” There was a “strong desire” among the clergy for significant changes in church doctrine on issues such as sex, sexuality, marriage and the role of women to bring it into greater line with public opinion. Most priests want the church to start conducting same-sex weddings and drop its opposition to premarital and gay sex.
Professor Linda Woodhead, head of the department of theology and religious studies at King’s College London, seemed unsurprised by the response to the survey. She said the church had found itself in recent decades “pushed apart from public opinion on what’s right and wrong” on issues including sex and sexuality. Priests, she said, seemed to occupy a middle ground between traditional church teaching and broader public views: “This survey shows the clergy take a more moderate position than their leaders. Frontline priests are more in touch with their congregations and ordinary people. If they had been listened to more by leaders ... the church might be in a better place today.”
One of those leaders, the Right Rev Nick Baines the Bishop of Leeds, took a pretty sanguine approach to the survey. “The church is the church,” he said, “and, as such, not a club. It has a distinct vocation that does not include seeking popularity… Repentance means being open to changing our mind in order that society should encounter both love and justice. And this means sometimes going against the flow of popular culture, however uncomfortable that might be.”
He said priests are not “detached in an ivory tower, but really wrestling — thoughtfully and prayerfully — with the kinds of questions our society is also addressing. Evidently, the Church hasn’t always got it right, but it cannot escape the demands of its calling to be faithful to God in loving his world.”
It’s clearly the case, as the Times noted, that the Church of England has endured an “uneasy dual status” for a very long time. It is not only the custodian of the state religion, it enjoys a unique relationship with the monarch and its most senior bishops are entitled to a seat in the House of Lords. So it has a huge influence over important areas of our national life. Over the years it has used that influence in ways which are often at odds with the public sentiment. Gay rights are just one of those areas.
That’s one of the reasons why so many of us will react to the survey with either indifference or even positive approval. They might encompass those who were brought up with the vague notion that going to church on Sunday mornings was something that was expected of them but simply lost the habit as they grew older. Or they might be those who regard anything resembling a state religion as positively harmful.
As the writer Juliet Samuel notes, a certain strand of liberal opinion contend that religion is nothing more than a force for conflict, ignorance and prejudice: “To say that religion has been involved in its share of abominations is a bit like saying human society has been responsible for heinous crimes. For as long as there have been societies, there have been religions; indeed, in most complex societies, religion has been a primary organising principle.”
So would the world, let alone our small corner of it, be a better place without organised religions such as Christianity? Samuel doubts it. She writes: “It is not as if post-religious societies, such as Maoist China or Soviet Russia, have particularly covered themselves in glory. The common factor for evil and exploitation is not religion, but humanity.” She accepts “the inexorable secularisation of this country” but is saddened by it. Britain she writes, “could do with a bit more Christianity, rather than less”. That’s because “where the church withers away, it leaves a gap.”
Here’s how she describes that gap: “It is mostly in the everyday habits and structures of life. There are almost no places left, like a church, where a community gathers regularly on the basis of its geographical proximity. This leads inevitably to a diminishing stock of neighbourly contacts and relationships. “There is no appointed time when a neighbourhood gathers to rest and reflect. There is no shared stock of wisdom to turn to during physical or moral trials, only the Google search box waiting for your plaintive question, with its drop-down menu of suggested phrases … We are forgetting the utility of things we used to know. Where the norm used to be prayers at bedtime, we have endless scrolling; where there was once private meditation, we are engaged in constant sharing; where there was a degree of sexual restraint there is the principle of constant experience-maximisation and opportunism.” Human behaviour, she believes, is not formed by rationale but by habit: “Most religions have embedded within them habits that people are struggling to relearn from their therapists or health apps.”
She quotes the late French anthropologist Marc Augé who wrote: “Today, the television and the computer have replaced the hearth.” This new “hearth” is somewhere in which “influences from the outside world move seamlessly in and out of the home”. And that, she says, “has cost us something important, something we should be able to acknowledge without being accused of pining after medieval theocracy … Humans are a species prone to religious modes of thinking and where old religions fade, other, religious-like structures arise to fill the gap. Sometimes they take the form of neo-paganism, like strands of the environmentalist movement. Others are political tribes, often the nastiest and most destructive of forces. Others dive into conspiracy theories or super-fandom or health fads.”
So how do you respond to the findings of The Times survey? Are you surprised that the clergy appear to take such a pessimistic view of the future of Christianity and the church’s role? Do you believe that the church’s leaders should acknowledge that they are out of touch with the modern world in areas such as sexual relations and adopt a more liberal approach? Would bringing the church into line with public opinion on gay marriage or premarital sex help to revive Christianity in this country?
Above all, do you believe that ours is no longer a Christian country? And if you do, do you care?
Do let us know.