Ever since the Enlightenment — in fact, ever since the ancient philosophers complained about the young and their lack of morals — religion has feared for its future. So the front page of The Times yesterday was hardly a scoop.
“Britain isn’t a Christian country now, say clergy,” read the splash — to the surprise of absolutely no one. It’s hard to think of a story that comes around with such regularity and which is so singularly unchanged, apart from maybe the Easter one. But I’m not packing up my surplice. For accompanying that intimation of Church mortality is the human longing for something beyond oneself that nibbles away at the soul. And this is the great paradox of religion: while dying out, it also has endless capacity for reinvention. Take the re-emergence of Hasidism after its near extinction during the Holocaust, or the rise of Christianity in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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The tide was going out on religion back in 1867, when Matthew Arnold wrote: “The sea of faith was once, too, at the full … But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” But tides ebb and flow. As that wise old atheistic cynic Philip Larkin put it, people will always surprise themselves with their yearning for something “more serious”, seeking it in “a serious house on serious earth” — which is how he describes the church.
What is new in The Times‘s “story”, however, is the particularly high level of pessimism among my colleagues. Declining numbers, churches closing, exhaustion at trying to hold things together… But I greet that “news” with something of a shrug. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Because, if it is true that there is a God, then none of this really matters at all. Unpopularity doesn’t make the creeds false just as (another huge mistake) popularity doesn’t make them true.
But a nervous church leadership doesn’t like the ebb to happen on their watch. And so, spooked by these dismal stories of decline, they seek a very secular model of success. Borrowing their thinking from management consultants trying to revive ailing companies like Wilko and Pizza Hut, the leadership focuses on what the customer wants, sets sales targets, closes down underused outlets, and re-energises the sales team for greater, more frenetic activity. But the more we run around like headless chickens, the more desperate, and less attractive we look. Inevitably, the job becomes impossible and the workers in the vineyard become drained of motivation. As The Times reveals, a third of clergy have considered quitting in the past five years. This, then, is what’s new about the Church of England’s current death spiral. “All of the church’s problems stem from the clergy’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” as Pascal almost wrote.
The latest, and most ridiculous of these corporate reinventions of the Church is the idea that the clergy no longer has to work on Sundays – because other people are busy on that day. One deanery in Cornwall will have 23 churches, and only two full-time clergy. One of these “will work primarily in the community, looking for exciting opportunities to grow churches for people who have never been to church,” the area dean bubbled enthusiastically. He went on: “I’ve heard it has come as a bit of a shock that she won’t be working regularly on Sunday mornings.” But this is just another example of the “exciting opportunities” that await us as the Church is dismantled from within by those who are supposed to be protecting it.
A couple of years ago, the parish clergy were notoriously described as “limiting factors” by one of the architects of this new thinking, who imaged a church without its buildings, without paid clergy or their expensive theological training. And, unfortunately, this kind of nonsense comes from the very top. Perhaps that’s why so many of us want to quit.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about this busily secular model of religious success is how clumsy the church is at delivering it. As the business model would have it: if Sunday morning church is being out-competed for children’s attention — by Sunday morning football or cricket — then we need to become more entertaining to bring in the punters. We need fun church, messy church, relaxed modern church, chino-wearing cappuccino church — anything but serious church. So, this summer, Peterborough Cathedral has had a Star Wars theme, with Darth Vader wandering up and down the nave and Rowan Williams leading “‘I am your Father’ — Alternative Worship”. Larkins like me would not pause even to take off our cycle clips. O Lord, save us from entertaining church.
Nor will the Church be rescued by more liberal values. The Times states that the majority of us want same-sex blessings and would be happy with a female Archbishop of Canterbury. I, too, am enthusiastic about both of these things, as it happens. But such changes won’t reverse our decline. We are living through a period of unprecedented scepticism and indifference about the core message of the church: that God exists, that God is love, and that he came among us to save a broken humanity from its self-destructive sinfulness.
As the theologians Andrew Root and Blair Bertrand write in their latest book, When the Church Stops Working: “Your church is sick. But that isn’t the worst part of it. We believe that someone has misdiagnosed it. The treatment plan commonly prescribed — effective innovation — will only cause your church to remain sick… The problem is not decline. The problem is that the secular age has infected it.”
But the job of the clergy is to hold out in difficult times. To say their prayers, to celebrate the sacraments, to look after their parish. Faithfulness to this, rather than frenetic and nervous reinvention, is the order of the day.
The Church authority must stop being so pathetically needy and quit chasing around after congregations as if they justify what it is that we do. We have something life-changing and wonderful to offer. More precious than gold. We have to stop selling it cheap just for a temporary moment of appreciation. “Do less, and know God better” is Andrew Root’s advice to clergy. And the funny thing is, when we do that, the tide often turns.