THERE was another “Dover Beach” moment this week. The British Social Attitudes survey results for 2016 were published, and suggest yet another decline in mainstream belief and church affiliation. There was a further overall drop in those who describe themselves as belonging to a religion — now outnumbered by those who say they have no religion. Affiliation to the Church of England fell to just 15 per cent of those surveyed. This continuing decline should surprise no one. For some decades, each succeeding generation has been shown to be less religious than the last, so that the overall figure will inevitably fall. The significant lesson is that, by and large, attitudes to religion are set in childhood: in 1986 (the middle of the Decade of Evangelism), 55 per cent of the cohort aged 18 to 24 ticked the “no religion box”. That group now forms the 45-54 group, and that figure is barely altered: 56 per cent. In How Healthy is the C of E? the Church Times health check, published in 2014, Dr Linda Woodhead wrote: “The Church’s greatest failure in our lifetime has been its failure to take decline seriously.” Since then, we have seen the launch of the Renewal and Reform initiative, but the vision has been difficult to communicate, and questions remain about that approach. The new wineskins are on order, but, for now, the old wineskins take most of the Church’s energies. And besides, its people in general prefer the old wine.
In contrast with Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, there is no melancholy, long, withdrawing roar as the sea of faith recedes — just a greater expanse of beach, inhabited with visitors, some of whom paddle in the sea occasionally, most of whom are immune to cries of “Come on in — the sea is lovely!” This shoreline cajolery constitutes most of the Church’s evangelistic enterprise. All the while, however, there are people inland who act as if no sea existed. Many live contented materialistic lives; many more aspire to do so, while struggling with the challenges of low pay, ill-health, bad housing, poor education, or unemployment. Like those who purport to be Christians and yet never attend church, none of these people sees any attraction in churchgoing, an experience unlike any other in their life, unless they happen to remember school assemblies (which some church services now resemble).
There are signs of hope. At the national level, lessons are being learned from the national weddings and funeral projects; the discipleship project has the potential to galvanise lay people; the fall in clergy numbers is being addressed; the Church is developing its digital presence; and so on. All these are valuable, even vital, ways of breaking down barriers for people who express an interest in the Christian faith. But it is only at diocesan and parish level that true encounters can occur with those who have no conception of faith, Christianity, or Anglicanism. The chief task, then, is to encourage and equip individuals to communicate their faith in ways that mean something to the “nones”.