There is a very much travelled narrative in the UK that the Church is in a nosedive decline to marginalisation and irrelevance. The case for this is the falling church numbers in the Church of England and other mainstream churches. So in the Sunday Telegraph in article mainly about gay marriage Cole Moreton says:
Frankly, though, it is as if those who speak for the Church can’t see what is really going on. Or else they’re playing politics, desperate to hold on to their last remaining threads of influence. If the end is nigh, it’s not because of gay marriage. That may be a snip in one of the ties that bind, but they’ve been snapping for a long time now.
He goes on to say
Society has changed dramatically over 30 years. We no longer want to belong to anything much; we’re disenchanted with authority of all kinds; we have a remarkably improvisational approach to family life; and are open to cultural influences from all over the world.
And this is the really interesting bit. Sociologists have been arguing for a long time that people in the UK are less and less willing to sign up to belong to something that requires commitment. So, we see the decline in faith attendance but massive rise in things like National Trust membership, which requires no commitment other than paying out some money by direct debit each year.
But when you look at the Church of England and compare it to the Labour and Conservative parties you start to see how it is affecting most voluntary organisations. In 1971 there were 1.3m members of the Conservative Party and 700,000 in the Labour Party. In 2011 there are estimated to be 177,000 Conservatives and 190,000 Labour members. In the same period the Church of England declined from 2.5 million to just under 1 million. In other words the decline of the political parties was even more severe than that of the Church of England.
But this isn’t the whole picture for the Church. The Church of England is merely one part of the picture. Two things caught my attention this week. Firstly, a letter from Dr Peter Brierley (who is into Church statistics in a big way!). He is after doing a census of London churches this autumn but makes a number of interesting points along the way. Did you know that other than Catholic Mersyside that London has the biggest church attendance in the country (Some 8.3% of the population)? He makes the point that immigration has been a key driver in this.
The second thing that caught my attention was an article in the Church of England newspaper headlined “Startling academic research shows widespread Church growth in Britain”. So its opening paragraph says:
Sit down, breathe deeply – I have some shocking news to give you. The church in Britain is growing. Yes, I know this sounds mad. The TV and the newspapers routinely depict churches as half-empty and populated by geriatrics. Not a few church leaders and congregation members walk around like Fraser from Dad’s Army, declaring ‘You’re all Doomed !!’ But there is something else going on.
Now I have to say that the headline and article is a bit overflowery for my tastes but there are some areas of it that are important to pick up. For example London diocese has grown by 70% in the past 20 years. This is because London has invested in growth. It has released churches to experiment and to plant churches in different ways. When you look over the border from Southwark it can be seen that there is less bureaucracy and that church planting and Fresh Expression are actively encouraged.
Finally, there seems to be a similar movement in Southwark at its initial stage. There seems to be some signs of hope of the diocese wishing to unlock the creativity and enthusiasm of the church. For example, tomorrow the new Bishop of Croydon is taking a paper to the senior staff team of the diocese to recommend that we put on and encourage a Fresh Expressions Mission Shaped Ministry course. This would be a first for Southwark, although most other dioceses have run them. If the diocese backs this then Springfield would be actively involved in hosting and leading this course in the diocese (Sue, Jean and Nigel have already been on it). Then there is the money that the church commissioners have awarded Southwark (and ourselves with St Paul’s Brixton) for a bid for a church planting strategy based on the model that we have been running on Roundshaw. This is all besides the fact that the Bishop of Southwark has issued a Call for Mission and wishes to encourage and develop mission within the diocese. There is no reason why Southwark can’t see similar growth to London diocese.
There is no reason that the Church cannot grow again in this country but it needs to refuse to sign up to the general narrative that is being spun by the media. That means that we need to refuse to accept it both at an institutional level and also at a church level. So, for instance, in my report on Donna’s first year I was surprised not see anything about mission on the document that I was supposed to fill in. A small thing but an indication that mission is still not seen as central to our calling. At a church level we have discovered that if we don’t over-emphasise mission that we fall back into the safety zone of only inviting or including our church friends! But the church exists for the sake of the world. That is why we support all the charities that we do and why we wish to build up and strengthen those in need.
I believe that we are at a really exciting time in the life of the church in this country. Yes, there are many hurdles but there is a real opportunity for the church to grow and flourish in new ways. This may mean that the ties are cut between church and state but this isn’t the end of the story and the state will always be wary when the reality is that the Church is still huge in terms of people and in what it does. The chief Rabbi earlier this year wrote an article about the influence of faith and quoted a Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s work
frequent worshippers are also more active citizens — they are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, or health or arts or leisure. They are more likely to join neighbourhood or civic groups, professional and fraternal associations. Within these groups they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They take a more active part in local civic life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. They turn up, they get involved, they lead. And the margin of difference between them and [the] secular ..[citizen] is large.
The country at large may not realise that it needs the church for a healthy society but in these cash-strapped times I am sure that the state does! I don’t wish to reclaim a time when the Church was so hugely controlling of people but I do wish to see us recover our nerve and the early church’s focus on caring for all in need.