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Not healthy yet

27 May 2016

CHURCHGOERS are used, these days, to hearing that they are a dying breed. Seldom a month goes by without another poll or survey that plots some aspect of the Church’s decline. The abandoning of the church census (News, 13 May) is not going to leave church leaders in the dark. The latest piece of research is an extrapolation from recent British Social Attitudes surveys by Dr Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, a Roman Catholic institution.

The key finding is that, essentially, evangelism is not working. According to the report’s figures, 92.6 per cent of Anglicans were brought up as such, and 5.4 per cent came over from other denominations. This leaves just two per cent who were brought up as non-believers, and a further 0.1 per cent who converted from another faith. Looking across the denominations, this two-per-cent rate is pretty good, shared only with the Baptists. Roman Catholics manage 1.3 per cent converts, Methodists 0.8 per cent. The traffic in the opposite direction is considerably heavier. If secularists talked of “conversion”, they could claim a far greater rate of success: 40.6 per cent of those brought up in Anglican Churches in England and Wales now state that they belong to no religion. (A further 6.8 per cent have moved to another Christian denomination; 0.9 per cent now belong to another faith.)

The remedy is complex, but contains nothing alien to existing good practice. In early 2014, the Church Times published its Health Check (available as a book, How Healthy is the C of E, £10.99 from Church House Bookshop). In it we list the suggestions of various contributors: “Attention to the Bible, diligence in the sacraments, a deepening holiness, more effective social action, a willingness to unite with those outside the Anglican fold, a radical slimming down of bureaucracy, creativity in worship, the pursuit of theological understanding, intelligent shared leadership, joyful friendliness”. Nothing we have seen betters this list. The problems facing the Church are known but not yet absorbed. The remedies are available but not yet applied. Success is in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot know what it looks like — though we suspect that a heaven that experiences joy over “one sinner that repents” works on a different numerical system to ours. But perhaps the pre-Pentecost novena is a sign that at least prayer about this has started in earnest.

A key factor is a willingness to change. Professor David Voas, whose research informed From Anecdote to Evidence, remarked in 2014: “If you think about it, an awful lot of people who go [to church] week in week out do not have strong incentives to change,” he said. “They are probably content with the way things are, and, from their point of view, bringing in lots of new people could actually be somewhat destructive. . . I don’t think anybody is going to say deliberately, ‘I don’t want my church to grow,’ but I don’t think on a conscious level they are quite aware of their own disposition to change.”

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