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Secularisation appears to be accelerating

by
29 August 2014

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From the Revd Hugh Wright

Sir, - I have now been in my present post as incumbent of three churches in and around a small seaside town for one year, having spent 20 years in a larger town ten miles away. In the past three to four years of my previous post, and in this new one, I have noticed a real acceleration in the process of secularisation, which has taken me by surprise.

It is shown in many ways, principally in a dramatic drop in requests for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but also in a much greater difficulty in attracting people to faith, although there is plenty of support for the cultural and philanthropic work that the church does. People may love our Gothic arches and our Street Pastoring, but have a stubborn lack of interest in the faith behind them.

It is also harder to persuade churchgoers to take on particular responsibilities within the church. This decline is quite steep, a finding confirmed by the Archdeacon.

Something is happening here, but do we know what it is? Church decline is not ubiquitous. Many people point to the remarkable increase in church attendance in London and other urban areas, but I think this can be principally put down to the presence of large immigrant communities, bringing their churchgoing habits and enthusiasm with them to Britain, as well as the presence of a few Evangelical "megachurches".

These exceptions can, I believe, blind us to the alarming situation in traditional white areas, especially the countryside, thought, till not long ago, to be the stronghold of the Church of England. Although his thesis is not shared by all, for me this is sad confirmation of Callum Brown's findings in The Death of Christian Britain (2001), where he argued that secularisation in Britain was no gradual process, but a sudden one that started in the early 1960s.

All around me, I see the generation who came to faith in the 1950s, and who, remarkably, have kept many churches going for the past 50 years, beginning to fail in their powers and not easily being replaced. In my town, I also see many of my generation - fifty- and sixty-somethings, who were probably taken to Sunday school, but have lived their whole adult life without church. This sudden decline is now coming home to roost, 50 years later. It is like climate scientists' visiting the Arctic circle and seeing global warming, spoken of for so long, happening in front of their eyes.

What can be done about it? It is not just about hard work in clergy and lay people. The climate has dramatically changed. There are no easy answers here, but one helpful thing might be a clearer recognition of this by those in leadership in the Church. There is no shortage of resources in the Bible to help us with themes of disappointment, depletion, and exile, as well as new life coming out of death. Yet what we so often get is a kind of Panglossian optimism about church growth (which, in my experience, invariably amounts to transfers from other congregations). For many, it bears little resemblance to the facts on the ground.

Am I right here? Do others notice this trend, or is it purely an Isle of Wight phenomenon? I think not.

HUGH WRIGHT
The Vicarage, Maples Drive,
Ventnor, Isle of Wight PO38 1NR

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