THE serious story to come out of the General Synod was the decline in planned giving. This was imaginatively spun as an opportunity for young people to pay contactless; but, of course, the problem the Church has is not so much the lack of contact with their credit cards as the lack of contact with any other part of them at all.
The Times went for the contactless angle in its headline, but the story underneath was plain enough: “The amount of money given by direct debit or standing order to the church’s 12,600 parishes, their largest source of income, has fallen for the first time since records began in 1964.
“The General Synod . . . heard that the average age of an Anglican worshipper was 12 years higher than the average age of the wider population. As older parishioners die, their direct debits die with them.
“John Spence, chairman of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee, said: ‘The numbers of people in our “planned giving” scheme have declined by 13 per cent since 2010 [but] individual commitments have grown by 27 per cent, allowing the overall sum to rise by 10 per cent. But in 2016, for the first time, the total coming out of planned giving declined’.”
It is notable in this context that the top of the story led with the chance to pay contactless at weddings and funerals, presumably the only contact that most middle-aged readers have with the Church. And, as Mr Spence was later quoted as saying, spontaneous gifts are no substitute for planned, predictable giving.
If the Church was a commercial organisation, it would be gripped by a desperate urgency to open up new markets among the Millennials, or even those under 50. This may explain the Renewal and Reform video that I watched the other day, which featured every sort of Anglican except lay women over 50, who are probably the single largest demographic group.
THE TIMES was also responsible for the naughtiest headline out of the Synod: “Hundreds of churches join group backing gay therapy.” This turned out to mean that many C of E churches are also part of the Evangelical Alliance. The word “join” appeared only in the headline; in the copy, they were simply members, as they have been for ages.
Actually, I was surprised by the mildness of the EA policy quoted. “Churches should welcome sexually active gay people, but only ‘in the expectation that they will come in due course to see the need to be transformed’.”
This position looks about as stable as the Conservative cabinet — and about as appealing to outsiders, too. There are, of course, some young people for whom one of Christianity’s most powerful attractions is that it excuses them from participation in the sexual marketplace. They can get friendship and social support without erotic complications. This is not to be despised. But I can’t see that this is a selling proposition for people who are already in a reasonably happy sexual relationship. I know that Abelard and Héloïse managed it, but they had help of a sort of therapy which today’s Evangelical Alliance would, I hope, hesitate to defend on the grounds of religious freedom.
THE Thai rescue gripped the imagination of the world. All the more credit, then, to Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times’s man in Warsaw, for finding an original and illuminating angle. Lloyd Parry is the author of one of the best books of reportage and reconstruction I have ever read: Ghosts of the Tsunami, about the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
Both in that, and in the report from Thailand, he reports beliefs without condescension, and with an admirable sympathy for the human suffering which some rituals express and bind: “The caves themselves are rich in myth and, from the beginning, Thais turned to spiritual forces to assist the quest to save the boys. Their full name, Tham Luang Nang Non, means ‘caves of the reclining big lady’, a reference to Jao Mae Nang Non, an ancient princess who became pregnant by a stableboy and eloped with him. Her father’s soldiers caught up with them at the caves. After her lover was killed, the princess stabbed herself to death. Her supine body is the mountain; the river that runs through the caves is her blood.
“Within a few days of the boys’ disappearance, makeshift shrines were being set up and offerings left for the princess-cum-goddess, including flowers, beer and a boiled pig’s head.
“In the depths of his despair, when it seemed as if he might never see his son alive again, Somboon Kaewwongwan made a desperate bargain. Bowing his head in front of the Tham Luang caves, he prayed to the goddess who inhabits them: bring my son back, and I will put him into the monkhood.”
One reason I admire this story so much is that it uses the parents’ suffering without exploiting it. The extremity of their need turns out to be a bridge to understanding, and to sympathy. It is extremely hard to do journalism like that — and most people don’t even try.