Not fade away: the challenge for the Church

by
02 July 2015

The future of the C of E is being talked of in apocalyptic terms: grow or die. Over the next ten pages, we listen to different voices in the debate about church growth. Illustrations by Brent Clark

 

The context: Grace Davie examines the changes in Britain that have affected religious adherence

BRENT CLARK

I PUBLISHED Religion in Britain since 1945 back in 1994. It is mostly remembered for its subtitle: Believing without belonging. In due course, the publishers requested a second (comprehensively revised) edition, now published as Religion in Britain: A persistent paradox (Wiley Blackwell, 2015).

The paradox in question is easily stated: in terms of their statistical contours, the Churches (and related organisations) have continued to decline. This is undeniable and well documented. In terms of the public presence of religion, however, the debate has intensified, and includes not only the part played by the Churches as such, but a much wider discussion regarding the place of faith and faith communities in a liberal democracy.

The urgency of this debate reflects the changing nature of modern Britain, a country with a deeply embedded Christian culture which, at the same time, is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly diverse with regard to its religious profile.

The new book explores this paradox in the light of six key factors that push and pull in different directions. These are:

 

1) the place of the historic Churches in forming British culture;

 

2) an awareness that the historic Churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population, nor would they want to;

 

3) an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of Britain, which are increasingly operating on a model of choice rather than a model of obligation or duty;

 

4) the arrival into Britain of groups of people from many global regions and many different faiths, which has led to the increasing significance of religion in public as well as private life;

 

5) the reactions of Europe's secular elites to this shift;

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6) last, and a little different, a growing awareness that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe, which includes Britain, should be considered an "exceptional case" in global terms: they are not a global prototype.

 

THE Church of England has been influenced, and at times buffeted, by each of these points. Without doubt, it has been formative in British (specifically English) culture, and to an extent it remains so. Its buildings are some of the most visited in the country, and they continue to host the liturgies associated with national and local life.

Closing a church, either temporarily (St Paul's Cathedral) or permanently, provokes displeasure among a wide variety of people.

Parish churches, moreover, remain the default institution for substantial numbers of people as they mark the turning points of life, though more so in some cases than others. The figures for baptism and marriage continue to plummet; those associated with death are more stable.

That said, the rites themselves are changing. Baptism is no longer associated with Englishness, but has become a sign of membership in a voluntary community.

The unbelievably rapid acceptance of same-sex partnerships has radically altered assumptions about who can and cannot be married in church. And, even in death, a growing number of alternatives erodes the taken-for-grantedness of the parochial model.

Indeed, whatever indicator is selected, an unmistakable process is taking place, as "contracting in" replaces "contracting out".

Even residual forms of obligation are no longer meaningful, as the parish church, along with all others, has to compete for attention in a population which will frequent - let alone commit to - only an organisation that makes such an activity worthwhile. There are losers in this situation, but there are also gainers, both within and without the Church of England.

 

WHO falls into which category is doubly interesting: current preferences are revealed, but so also are the mistaken predictions of an earlier generation. The actively religious these days are disproportionately drawn to two kinds of religious organisation: Charismatic Evangelical churches on the one hand, and cathedrals or city-centre churches on the other.

In both cases, there is a noticeable experiential element, albeit differently expressed. The purely cerebral, often associated with liberal Protestantism, is losing out - which is exactly the reverse of earlier expectations.

A second reversal is equally interesting: that is the turnaround between urban and rural. Some 20 years ago, the former (notably the main conurbations) were still considered stony ground as far as religion was concerned; the latter were relatively conservative, and sustained churchgoing habits from earlier generations.

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The opposite is now the case. Rural parishes struggle, compared with striking examples of growth in urban areas - most of all in London, where patterns of religious life are more like those in the Global South.

This is unsurprising, given that the Global South continues to arrive in London in considerable numbers. Immigration clearly stimulates growth; it also expands the market.

 

GROWING religious diversity, moreover, is the principal reason for religion's return to public discussion. Britain, like all European societies, must strive to accommodate those whose cultural backgrounds are different from our own. It is a tricky process in itself, which is compounded by the growing visibility of religion in the modern world-order.

Secular voices respond accordingly, some of them more sharply than others. "New atheism" is a noisy but not all that numerous component of a section of the population which is expanding fast.

That said, the "secular" in Britain is as distinctive as its religious counterpart: both are coloured by the specificities of a past in which religious diversity, and the tolerance that comes with this, has a longer history than for most of our European neighbours.

Britain, for example, may be less democratic than France, but it is markedly more tolerant. Britain has retained its monarchy, an unelected second chamber, and its links with its historic churches. Justifiable or not, all three affirm a space for faith and faith communities at the core of our society.

France's majoritarian democracy is less able to accommodate such identities; indeed across the Channel communautarisme (the French form of communitarianism) applied to anything - gender, ethnicity, and so on - is considered a markedly negative term,

 

AGAINST this background, the Church of England is making some very critical decisions. No longer able to maintain the public utility that the parochial structure represents, it must find a new way forward that sustains the best of the old model, while responding to new challenges.

Here, the market rules, like it or not. Parish churches, like all other churches, will only "succeed" if there are good reasons for parishioners (and others) not only to come, but to stay.

There are two things to say in connection with this. The first is to appreciate that the current crisis is hardly the fault of the Church of England; it is a mutation that is taking place right across Europe, though in different ways in different places.

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Critical in this respect is the funding model of the Church in question. In the Lutheran Churches of northern Europe, church tax, or its modern equivalent, ensures the survival of the parish system in societies which are every bit as secular as Britain.

Across Roman Catholic Europe, there is huge variation, from a largely intact state of affairs in Italy, to the massively eroded structures in France. The Roman Catholic Church in Spain is sliding rapidly in the same direction. Ireland is moving faster still.

The second point follows from this. Appreciating that there are others in the same boat does not make the English situation any easier; it does, however, suggest that finger-pointing and blame are unhelpful. It is more constructive to look forward than back, and to realise when looking for solutions that it is very unlikely that one size will fit all.

There is a huge variety of possible alternatives: a traditional, or even traditionalist parish is as much an option as the freshest of Fresh Expressions. Either can be done well or badly. Put differently, it would be unwise to limit the possibilities to what is currently in favour. That, as we have seen, can change quickly.

 

A POSITIVE step within this continuing flux is to recognise - and then to build on - the advantages of a weak Established Church. It is abundantly clear that a strong State Church runs the risk of being both excluding and exclusive - as, indeed, does a strong state. A weak State Church has the capacity to be more accommodating.

Discerning its strengths from a distinctive past - that of a partial monopoly - it can use these imaginatively to welcome rather than exclude, and to encourage rather than to condemn. It is, moreover, a way of working that can be applied at national, regional, and local levels.

Most important of all is to foster a better quality of conversation about faith in British society. Religious literacy has become a buzz word - rightly so.

We need, however, to go further, and establish not only ground rules for the debate (the common courtesies of exchange), but distinctive bodies of knowledge, in order to facilitate constructive contributions by people of many different faiths to communities of very different kinds.

The spiritual care of elderly people demands one thing; legal advice to an employer on "reasonable accommodation" in the workplace quite another. The accurate assessment of what has become known as radicalisation is different again.

Given its reach, however, even a residual Established Church has a unique part to play in encouraging and refining such activities.

 

Grace Davie is a Professor Emeritus of the University of Exeter.

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