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Lament for a low-key faith

29 January 2016

Angela Tilby on being quietly C of E

IT IS official: we are now living in a post-Christian society. A YouGov poll orchestrated by the sociologist Professor Linda Woodhead found that 46 per cent of those questioned in Britain claim to have no religion.

She further suggests that among those who claim to have no religion are many in England who would once have described themselves as “C of E”. In the past, they might have had little to do with the Church, but they simply assumed that they belonged in some sense because they were English. Now Englishness and the C of E no longer connect. The 46 per cent with no religion are mostly not born-again atheists, but they do have distinctly negative attitudes towards the Church.

There may be a reason for the negativity. If those who were once C of E now see themselves as having no religion, it is also true, as Professor Woodhead argues, that the Church no longer sees itself as the embodiment of a faith vaguely but genuinely shared by wider society. Specifically, the Church has become “more religious” in recent years.

Church people may be baffled by this claim. They see no signs of a revival in ritualism or personal scrupulosity. They do not see Christians lamenting their sins in public, or facing death with heaven shining in their eyes.

And yet it has become almost impossible for people to feel “natural” about having Christian faith. It is no longer a normal way of being a person in society, passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation. Increasingly, being a Christian comes with expectations that an earlier generation of those claiming allegiance to the C of E would, perhaps, have found peculiar.

This includes a degree of intensity about faith; an ability to articulate faith in personal terms; and a readiness to take on a position, a “ministry”, in the life of the Church. Of course, this is exactly what the current leadership of the Church is looking for: confident, energetic disciples who are willing to talk about Jesus.

Clergy are trained to see lay people as potential missionaries, and to train them to be more “intentional” in their commitment. But ordinary C of E people have rarely seen themselves in this way. They feel inadequate faced with the new demands, and at the same time patronised by the assumption that they need to be “trained” to live their faith.

Those ordinary types who still exist are more reticent, less certain; they express a genuine if low-key faith, principally in terms of Christian attitudes.

I lament the loss of the old C of E and of the affection in which it was once held. I fear that the passionate intensity of today’s Church represents exactly what most people distrust.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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