In the Fourth Nocturn

What are we to do about the decline of the Church?

The Church of England is dying: from 42% of people in England attending worship in 1851, the number had dwindled to 24% in 1900; 11% in 1965; and in 1981, 7%. Today, only about 2% of the population of England regularly attends Sunday worship.

Faced with this seemingly interminable decline, which has continued unabated over the longest of terms, the Church of England has in recent years entered a state of panic. In doing so it has uprooted its most important tradition: the Anglican sense of calmness and of a quiet confidence in one’s faith, and in God’s providence for the whole Church — a highly distinctive and distinguishing feature in a religious landscape already crowded with boisterous expressions of personal salvation.

Having abandoned our historical institutional tendency to cool-headedness, we have rashly created church plants, fresh expressions, messy churches, community drop-in centres — and have embraced, unquestioningly and without qualification, anything that might pull a few people back in to plug the gaps. The aesthetic is one of an unappealing desperation for self-preservation, most incongruous when compared with the Church’s claim to its own divine chosenness and its godly protection from destruction. Everyone knows the church is in decline — 150 years of falling numbers don’t hide themselves. Putting new churches where there’s no obvious demand, in the hope people will show up, grows out of a kind of naïve optimism in the principle of ‘build it and they will come’ — and it further contributes to the impression of a church that is out-of-touch with its own fate, let alone with the pastoral needs of parishioners. ‘Why are we opening so many new churches when the old ones are still closing down?’ is a question hardly asked, but desperately in need of an answer.

This is not a call to apathy or willful ignorance of the problem: we must continue to ensure that our parishes appeal to newcomers and regular churchgoers alike, and that our pastoral care, our communal worship, and the theology we have which underlies them both accommodate the practical needs of modern parishioners. Outreach itself remains important, but the Church must be realistic in how its offering will be perceived by the unchurched. By way of example: as Nicene Christians we react with various degrees of negativity to missionaries of the Latter Day Saints or Jehovah’s Witnesses — but too often we seem to fail to realize that our Alpha courses, newcomers’ services, and back-to-church Sundays are perceived by the unchurched in exactly the same way: with cynicism and hostility.

The answer to our plight is right there in the gospel: our outreach and ministry ought first of all to be to the poor, the hungry, the bereaved, the persecuted. Those whom Jesus called blessed are, in their moments of need in their earthly lives, the most in need of spiritual care — an outlet and community where they can express their sorrows, and are the least well-provided-for when our churches turn into Sunday social club cliques for the middle classes.

Yet even here we have competition from an historically unlikely source: the state. I think we within the Church have only just begun to grasp just how far behind in the dust the Church has been left in the field of social ethics by the development of the welfare state, and how feeble its charitable efforts look in comparison to what the state is now able to provide. Merely plugging those few gaps in the state’s social safety net (important though it still is) will not suffice to revive the Church. We must look for ways to reach through the social net, to those who perhaps don’t realize how much they need a spiritual outlet.

Through this the Church must take on at grassroots level the most insidious lie of consumer capitalism: that money (and things money can buy, such as medicine) are all one needs for fulfillment. The state can provide unemployment benefits, housing, food, and healthcare to everyone. But whoever thinks this is enough to make it through the dark times of desperation — it is truly a rotten feeling to be totally dependent on someone else, especially a faceless bureaucracy, for one’s basic upkeep — is deeply impoverished in another way.

Answering this kind of poverty — spiritual poverty — is the Church’s eternal calling. It was the Church’s death that it turned away from it for so long, and it will be its revival when it truly turns back to it.