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Listen to the people of ‘no religion’

17 June 2016

Christians need to have a stronger grasp of why much of the population is no longer even nominally C of E, argues Alan Billings

THE latest research has confirmed what thoughtful Christians have understood for at least two decades (if not longer): we live now in a time of “no religion”. “No religion” means that people do not go to church, even infrequently, and religion plays no obvious part in their lives.

What is different now, however, as distinct from 20 years ago, is that people today are willing to say so (News, 27 May). They feel under no social pressure to say “Church of England” when they really mean “no religion”. That is a change of great social significance. And it has happened in our lifetime.

And yet for people to say they have no religion, in a time of no religion, also makes it more difficult to know just what they mean by it. It is the converse of people’s saying they were “C of E” in a time of religion. It does not tell you much, and may mislead you.

So, for example, while religion may play no obvious part in people’s lives, that is not the same as saying that it plays, or could play, no part at all. Even people who live quite “secular” lives might still turn to the Church in certain circumstances.

These may be the pastoral Offices of christenings, weddings, and funerals. They may be services of commemoration — quite a few this year with First World War anniversaries, as well as Remembrance Sunday. There are also those liturgies that people still trust the Church to deliver at times of local tragedy.

As long as the Church responds to these occasions sensitively, the local establishment of the Church of England, on which the national establishment depends, is still maintained. The Church will continue to have a place in public life, whatever the numbers at Sunday services.


THE parish clergy and Readers also understand how these occasions may help not only those who say they have no religion, but also those who also say they have no belief.

Dame Mary Warnock, for instance, who is an atheist, has written about the importance for her of the rituals and metaphorical language of the Church as being the most accessible and fitting way of expressing such collective emotions as generalised gratitude — for the end of a war, or the birthday of a monarch — or grief. For some, they may be the only language. Professor Richard Dawkins and the author Alain de Botton are not the only guides to what non-believers might need.

This public ministry should never be despised. It is just as much ministry as visiting the sick. If it is done well, it may also be a means of evangelism, although that is never the prime objective.


NEVERTHELESS, the clergy, Readers, and thoughtful lay Christians do need to understand the perilous place that the Church now finds itself in. Efforts to “grow the Church” or create Fresh Expressions may have led to a few congregations’ growing — in certain areas and among certain demographics — but, overall, the Church is shrinking. The strategy is not working.

This suggests that, at the moment, we are making some false assumptions about those who say they have no religion. In truth, we know next to nothing about them. We need to listen.

Christians, including the clergy, who play a full part in the non-religious life of their communities are best placed to begin this hard work of listening. As we listen, we will begin to see why more and more people are distancing themselves from “religion”, and why redeeming the situation is going to take a long time.


AS I listen to people in chance encounters in non-church settings, I find similar themes emerging. People speak about how the Church has failed them, both as a moral guide and as a moral exemplar.

In recent decades, people have wrestled with a series of personal moral questions. Ordinary people, inside and outside the Church, wanted help in thinking through such issues as the place of women in the family and the workplace, abortion, divorce, same-sex relationships, and so on.

Instead, the Church began an interminable internal debate, leaving people to work out issues for themselves. Many turned to forms of situation ethics, with love (the primary Christian virtue) as the critical value. This decided matters for them, with the result that when the Church did pronounce, it often found itself on the wrong side of the argument.

It was then seen not simply as trapped in an unresponsive tradition, but as immoral. Telling a homosexual couple that they could not express their love for one another physically seemed to turn a loving relationship into something destructive. The Church was seen as an unreliable moral guide.

As for the Church as a moral exemplar, issues of child abuse in church institutions have left many feeling angry and distrustful. Rebuilding trust takes more than apologies. Indeed, many regard the apology as a cheap way of trying to recover a lost reputation.

Now that I have some responsibility for another institution that has also failed people, the police, I begin to appreciate the depth of the disappointment, frustration, and anger that many who now profess “no religion” feel towards the Church and its culture.


IT WILL not be easy for the Church to re-establish itself as an institution capable of contributing to contemporary debates about moral issues. It has to change its own culture first, and that begins with seeing ourselves as others see us.

The place to start is in the parishes and day-to-day pastoral encounters. The crucial skill that we develop there is the ability to listen — to listen to those with no religion, and what they have to say to us. Only then will we understand what the gospel is for this generation.

We are in for the long haul.


Canon Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, and the author of Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts (SPCK, 2004) and Making God Possible (SPCK, 2010).

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