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Measuring the Church’s social footprint

14 February 2014

Happily, Linda Woodhead finds that the Church of England also has a value and meaning for those who are not part of its regular congregations

LAST week, a young person asked me a question in response to recent articles in the Church Times which brought me up short: "What should change, Church or society?"

The reason I was dumbfounded was that I had never thought of the Church like that - as separate from society. The more I reflected on it, the less sense it made to think of a Church of England without England; it actually made more sense to think of a Church without congregations.

Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.

But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue: occasional offices; Christmas services and other major festivals; cathedrals; civic and national rituals; chaplaincies; social action; schools; centralised church activities; bishops in Parliament; heritage sites; and the Church's living legacy of ethics and culture. Resources could be concentrated on them.

That is a fantasy, of course. But it is a way of making the point that an assessment of the Church's health has to do with more than just congregations. "Church growth" also needs to consider how well social activities are faring. Happily, the answer is not all doom and gloom.

MY SURVEYS last year found that half of all British adults (excluding Northern Ireland) reported having some contact with the Church over the past 12 months. And these numbers are not declining - those aged 18 to 24 report much the same level of contact as those aged over 60.

How do they connect with the Church? In descending order, the five most common points of contact are: funerals, visits to a cathedral or historic church, weddings, Christmas services, and christenings. Regular worship came in sixth place.

There is some variation by age. The top three for over-60s are funerals, regular worship services, cathedrals. For those aged 18 to 39 it is funerals, visiting cathedrals, and weddings. Not surprisingly, schools and school chaplains are also important points of contact for some younger people. More surprisingly, Christmas services are more pop-ular with young people than older ones.

In the educational sector, we find obvious vitality. Church of England schools still play a vital part in the English education system, generally perform well, and are popular with parents. When asked why they would send a child to one, parents who completed our survey gave four main reasons: academic standards, location, discipline, and ethical values. These are traditional Anglican commitments.

Another area of societal Church which is doing well is cathedrals and heritage. The Church's own statistics reveal that, although Sunday worship is declining, interest in cathedrals - above all, midweek choral evensong - is going in the opposite direction.

There is also growing public interest in other activities that involve participation in history, such as choirs, pilgrimages, and Mystery plays. It is hardly necessary to mention cathedrals' and abbeys' continuing success in orchestrating national pageants, from funerals to royal weddings. Historic parish churches are also widely appreciated - just not for regular worship.

THE part played by the Church in social welfare is much harder to measure. Studies veer wildly from suggesting that the Church is in a position to take over welfare functions from the state to finding that its impact in even some of the most deprived areas of Britain is minimal or non-existent.

When I asked about contact with the Church over the past year, one per cent of the population reported having received help from the Church. As Professor Adam Dinham explains, the Church's mode of social action has changed, from leading projects nationally and locally to working in partnership with other faiths and statutory bodies. This is an inevitable consequence of congregational decline, and the growth of a multifaith landscape.

But, of course, not all social action is carried out by congregational volunteers; lay-led, quasi-autonomous Anglican trusts and charitable bodies continue to make an important contribution.

When it comes to the Church's occasional offices of baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the picture is more easily quantifiable - and worrying. Even though they remain the Church's most significant points of contact with society, their popularity is waning.

It is not that people no longer want such rites - far from it. A re-ritualisation of personal life has been taking place since 2001, which has seen the rise of baby-naming ceremonies, school proms, engagements as a rite in themselves, more lavish weddings, divorce parties, marriage re-dedications, and so on.

Growing numbers of people, however, are doing these things outside the Church. Baptisms in the C of E have fallen from 20 per cent of live births in 2000 to 12 per cent in 2010. Funerals have dropped from 46 per cent of deaths in 2000 to 37 per cent in 2010. And, between 2010 and 2011 alone, the Churches of England and Wales conducted seven per cent fewer weddings.

THE Church's changing influence in the media, in civil debate, in value-change, and in political life are other important areas to consider, and they will be touched on in the final of this Church Health Check series. Whatever detailed judgement we make, no one seriously maintains any longer that religion is becoming a purely private matter.

Overall, then, the report on the health of the societal Church must return a mixed verdict. Some parts look healthy; some do not. So, what makes the difference?

The single most significant factor seems to be a willingness to abandon a paternalistic mode of action. The bulk of the Church's social activities - and many congregational ones, too - were shaped in the 19th century in response to the demands of urban industrial modernity, and missionary activity. They were premised on social inequalities that were rarely challenged, and had to do with dispensing salvation goods, educational goods, and material goods to "God's children", and the "poor and needy".

Those forms of Christian activity which have not shaken off this paternalistic mode are in trouble. Where they have given way to genuine partnership, and co-creation, they tend to be doing much better.

It is the difference between asking parents to have their child baptised in a Sunday service, among people they do not know, and making the family the centre of the event. It is the contrast between designing a funeral with the active participation of the bereaved, and telling them that they cannot even have the music they want.

It is the shift from school chaplains who were there to give Christian "instruction" to the employment of chaplains - even in non-faith academies - to support the moral and general well-being of the whole institution. It is the difference between being a Church that works with other agents in society - and is open to being changed by them - to one that claims to be the sole repository of truth.

Rather than ignoring or repressing the Church of England's deep insertion into society, the time seems ripe for rediscovering it as its saving asset. My point about a Church without congregations is tongue-in-cheek. Success always depends, in part, on activists. But once the Church starts to exist for the benefit of activists alone, it ceases to be a Church, and becomes a sect.

Linda Woodhead is the Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.

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