The Church of England is actually holding up pretty well in an adverse market
It is perfectly understandable that an organisation that believes in resurrection ought to be generally less anxious about the prospect of its own impending death. Or perhaps this lack of anxiety is a form of denial. Whatever the explanation, it seems that the Church of England continues to slip quietly into non-existence; at present it’s on the gentle downward gradient of a 1% loss in membership a year.
The bishop of Truro recently told his diocese that, unless this trend is reversed, the Cornish church will be unsustainable in about six years. Likewise, the bishop of Blackburn has said that the Anglican church is set to go the same way as Lancashire’s cotton mills. But despite these apocalyptic prognostications from the top brass, individual churches just keep on keeping on, often oblivious to the noises-off that speak of death. And I think that the churches are right and the bishops are wrong.
About a million people go to a Church of England church each week. It’s not the glory days of the church, admittedly. But just compare: the membership of the Conservative party is just 134,000 and has been very nearly halved since David Cameron took over. Membership of the Labour party is higher, at about 190,000. And the Lib Dems have just 44,000. But add them all together, and even throwing in Ukip for good measure, and you still don’t have half the number of people who go to church.
More people go to church on a Sunday than go to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday. And remember: we are just talking about the Church of England here. Since 1979, membership of trade unions has fallen off a cliff. And, if you are reading this column in printed form, you also are a dwindling breed.
My personal reading of the church’s apparent decline is that it is holding up pretty well, despite seriously adverse market conditions – namely, a society that increasingly prefers the personal autonomy of bowling alone, liking its social connectivity online rather than in draughty church halls, and is generally far more suspicious of religious belief per se. Of these two reasons, the first is by far the more significant – which is why the atheists’ organisations can probably hold their AGMs in a phone box.
Yes – to continue the business metaphor – there is a problem with the delivery of universal service provision. And some consolidation is inevitable. But I still believe the fundamentals of the business are sound.
Philip Larkin was no apologist for the church. But in his poem Church Going, in which the narrator potters about in an empty “failed” church, saying “Here endeth” as a bit of a piss-take, he captures something essential to the churches’ survivability. First he wonders what we will do with church buildings when they are no longer employed for worship. Maybe they will become “rent-free to rain and sheep”?
And then he answers his own question by reflecting that a place where “all our compulsions meet … never can be obsolete, / Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious”.
That hits the spot for me. We may argue about doctrine, and I often find the church insufferable in its pomposity and narrow-mindedness. But for a great many people, it is still the place where a certain sort of moral seriousness can be found – where I can sit alone or with others and contemplate the meaning of things, and my place in it, from the widest possible perspective. And the need for this is never going to go away.
Moreover, churches – like live theatre – cannot be successfully replicated online. Churchgoing is about the solidarity of sitting in the same pew, being involved in the same liturgy, trying to get on with people with whom you don’t have anything else in common. We have survived every conceivable war, crisis, scandal, collapse and disillusionment. OK, we may not have the money to keep the heating on all the time. But don’t expect the “for sale” sign to go up any time soon.