New statistics tell us what we already know
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Norman Ivison works for the Fresh Expressions unit of the CofE and so tends to be aware of developments in general around the Church. His article above is worth a read, as a perspective on new statistics published recently showing further decline in church attendance.
It’s hard to get a good perspective on statistics when so many are published and seem to contradict one another – for example the Anecdote to Growth report recently appeared to show that fresh expressions and new forms of church had brought in around 60,000 new church attenders in the last few years and had reversed the picture of decline in a decade.
I don’t have any easy answers. From inside the CofE, the rate of change looks very mixed. Some diocese’ have reorganised completely and appear to be taking the mandate for experiment and learning what might work seriously. Others appear to be making no changes whatsoever. The majority in the middle are possibly tinkering with some youth work or pioneer ministry or starting up Messy Churches.
But the big problems remain – our structures and our history means the ways in which we worship remain largely unchanged and so that gap between the people outside in the street and the activities that go on in the church buildings gets wider as each year passes. I believe churches may need to offer less worship and services and spend more time, energy and money getting out and involved in the local community. Some churches do this brilliantly but others are still insular. The connection between the needs of a town and its church are not always clear – service outside the building is hard to facilitate when keeping the show on the road in the building is a very time consuming task and hard to find people for. Congregations may need to consume less of what they want, and begin to offer time and energy to serving others. Of course in some places this happens hugely and churches run foodbanks and youth clubs, but not everywhere.
In some places, being Anglican still consists of private piety and attendance at a liturgy which must remain the same as it’s what I like. Rows about taking out pews and re-ordering may soon be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Sometimes the limitations and struggles inherent in a culture mean it cannot make the sweeping changes that are needed for survival, and it may be that large parts of it do literally die off in the next ten years, as rural churches close and older congregants can no longer attend. I wonder if things will need to get much worse before sweeping liturgical and organisational changes bring freedoms that would allow change and engagement to happen with local communities and contextual service and mission would once again be the primary driver. My guess is, as Norman says, this will come from the laity as the clergy are still, so far, being trained and locked into the existing culture and so find it hard to think outside the box.
I am a part of this church and there is much about it I love. But I am a relative newcomer, whose job here is to help mission happen, and so am also an outsider in part. I don’t say these things because I don’t love the church or respect the clergy who work hard and with dedication and sacrifice to keep the doors open and the show on the road. It is a huge task and is becoming harder as every year passes. Structural responses to decline make it harder where benefices comprising ten or more rural churches are served by one priest, whose catalysing presence in any community can only be fleeting. I wonder if the Holy Spirit is waiting to rebuild from the ground up once further decline happens, as we don’t seem capable of thinking outside the box enough to dismantle some of our ancient culture and structure to allow newness to come. If all our ‘givens’ stay the same, they may take us down under their weight.
Rowan Williams predicted there will only be cathedrals left and some larger parish churches in fifty years’ time, and the rest of the CofE will comprise house-group sized groups that meet in homes, run by lay people, and he may be right. Maybe we will go back to only taking communion several times a year at major festivals then – or maybe the laity will break out and re-discover communion taken around a table with a meal among brothers and sisters, as Christ instituted at the last supper and the early Acts churches followed. Maybe the dismantling of all the structures of establishment and Christendom will take us back to a pre-Constantinian time of lively faith among the believers, and new life will spring up as the people learn for themselves who they are called to be.
I am hopeful, because I believe God loves his church and is always shaping and calling it forth as his bride to be restored and redeemed. But I think pain may characterise the next period of change and we need to take the long view. I hope we can learn to love one another and learn to face change together. There is life on the other side, just not as we know it.