Sunday, 9 February 2014

Decline and fall

The science of numbers in the Church of England always makes for sobering, if depressing reading. I'm not sure I can take much more of it. 

Linda Woodhead, writing in the Church Times this week, termed the decline in numbers of Ministers 'not enough boots on the ground', saying that 'there are no longer enough troopers to keep the show on the road, and the show will have to change.'

As well as not enough Ministers, there are of course, fewer and fewer people attending Sunday worship. An influential American writer on spirituality said recently he didn't really connect with God through 'going to church', to which 'Christianity Today' responded with, of course, an article saying why going to church still made sense. They'd have to, wouldn't they, because deep down, we're all thinking what will happen if, say in 30 years time, no one in the UK really is going to church (or to an Anglican church anyway...)

Of the people who do attend on Sundays, the graphs show ageing congregations, (in the C of E, the average age stands at 62) with few coming up from younger generations to take on all the jobs the older ones have done. A piece in Church Times suggests that the army of ladies born in the 1930s and 1940s are the real troopers - when they pass on, who on earth will keep all this stuff going?

Of course the church, in some form, goes on all through the week, with numerous volunteer run events up and down the UK - mums and toddler groups, lunches for the elderly, drop in centres, debt centres, etc. etc. All this is the church in action. But we still have the issue of Sunday worship. If congregations slowly dwindle to nothing, what will we do with all those buildings, for a start?

And so the question 'why go to church?' haunts believers, Ministers in particular. We're the ones who are supposed to be 'keeping the show on the road', who worry about the show grinding to a halt when all the people have gone. The likelihood of turning those graphs around till attendance is rising and average age falling to something more representative, seems small.

If people come to faith later in life, with ready made families and lifestyles, creating a culture of church going can be extremely difficult. It has to be fitted in to an already crowded life, and sometimes it seems it just cannot be. Cue Fresh Expressions of church - mid-week, Saturday mornings cafe-style, Messy church, etc. But people are still busy, busy, busy. Are we too busy to gather?

When you grow up from childhood with a rhythm of gathering, churchgoing, it's simply what you do on Sundays, just as going to school or work is what you do the rest of the week. As one writer put it, there's a noticeable difference between going if nothing else comes up, and going unless something else comes up.

Is there a way to lighten the dismal tale of ecclesiastical decline and fall? What do Ministers do about the significant number out there who believe stuff without 'going to church?' What even is 'church'? 

Linguistically the word ecclesia began in civic life - the 'ekklesia' was a gathering, pure and simple. That's what church is - it's us gathering. What we do when we gather flows from there. 

At first we gathered in homes - presumably gatherings got too big - after persecution and missionary scattering across the globe, people started putting up special buildings for gathering, some of them very large, some smaller, in every locality in the UK eventually, and organising themselves into manageable groups (with some acrimonious splitting along the way, as is only human) - and here we are today.

Church growth (decline) graphs are ultimately depressing, but they should tell us one thing - we must attend to what the point of our gathering is. When we know that, and know the relationship between gathering and being sent out again for a purpose, we will be on the right road. If we forget, we can say goodbye to the show, and the road, completely.


  1. So glad you've picked up on this. I spent this afternoon reading last week, and this week's Church Times and like you getting increasingly depressed. It feels like I'm being ordained to a sinking ship, especially when you add in Matthew Caminer's article about the trials and tribulations of curacy and burden that the figures seem to indicate is going to be left on the shoulders of a small army of SSM women priests picking up the pieces in the many places where there's not a stipend to be seen.

    We need to know why we're gathering you say, and you're probably right. From my 'still at theological college' eye view, that's going to be down to context (ecclesial and community and ...), not just that we go to church 'to worship God'. Or am I missing something? And every gathering will be different surely, certainly day to day, and possibly even Sunday to Sunday?

    Theological college seems to be trying to teach me a lot about how to have a theological debate, something I'm not very good at, but adding to my sense of inadequacy right now (which I grant is typically high pre-ordination) is the sense that I don't feel remotely equipped to deal with the problems that Linda Woodhead's work is highlighting.

    Shall I give up now?

  2. My daughters and their friends, all raised attending church, were talking about why they don't go (mid to late teens). They simply have too many gay friends, and refuse to attend an institution which marginalises and excludes women and gays. For several of them, the CofE's decision to vote against women bishops last year was the end ("they hate women"), and Welby's poisonous attitude to same sex marriage killed it for the rest ("they hate our friends"). They equate the CofE with the BNP, because they equate misogyny and homophobia with racism. As the CofE's membership becomes older, more conservative and, frankly, weirder (YEC, "healing", etc) the sort of mainstream people who might have attended a generation ago will just look on, aghast.

  3. We have a massive image problem re. gay people and women ministers, yes. But to put it in a wider context, the Christian church worldwide is actually growing, and I'm always surprised when I'm reminded that the 'average' Anglican worldwide is young, black, female and theologically conservative. Worth pondering...

  4. Thank you for a challenging post, Claire. Anonymous, it isn't only younger people who stop going to church. I speak to many over-50s who were heavily involved in church life but now find it difficult. It's hard because belonging to a church has been who we are, we believe in being part of a community rather than thinking it's all about us. We're told that if we stop going to church we're like an ember which falls from the fire and goes out, but experience church as the place where our flame goes out. As well as recoiling from an institution which marginalises women and gays, a common thread for these older Christians is needing to explore doubt and uncertainty as part of a faith journey, rather than it being seen as failure or sin. So, a church which treats members as thinking adults and provides belonging for everyone - but that's the opposite of the types of churches which are growing.

  5. Don't give up - no!
    Somebody pointed out that growth is God's work and if we try and 'measure' what God is doing, then probably that's a task doomed to failure anyway...

  6. Anne, I think there's something really important about what church is as we go through different life stages, and the 'growing' churches you talk about maybe appeal to younger people whose faith begins as full of certainties and only later is challenged by maturity, where questions come to the fore more. I know of people whose faith has wavered at this point because 'church' as they preciously knew it doesn't cut the mustard any more. The writer and Telegraph columnist Cole Moreton is a good example. Again, it depends how you define church. Small, accountable groups within church life might help...?

  7. Do we 'gather' pure and simple or are we more than a gathering? Are we not the Body of Christ in our context?

  8. Yes, definitely...we gather and disperse, gather and disperse...but if one of those bits is dis functional, we have ineffective worship and witness.....?