WHEN the great lockdown took place on 23 March 2020, it was those aged 70 and over who were advised to stay at home to shield themselves from the virus and to save the NHS.
The British Social Attitudes Survey (Volume 36, 2019) reminds us that it is these older people who are most likely to regard themselves as Anglicans: 33 per cent of those aged 70 and above, compared with one per cent of those aged between 18 and 24. These older people who were shielding may be particularly important for the future of the Church of England.
Casual observers may draw attention to the greying of Anglican congregations. But further statistics from Peter Brierley (UK Church Statistics: 2021 edition) are needed to map the trend. According to these, 19 per cent of Anglican churchgoers in 1979 were aged 65 and over. The proportions for this age group then rose to 22 per cent in 1989, 28 per cent in 1999, 35 per cent in 2005, and 40 per cent in 2015. Older people were becoming increasingly important for keeping the Church of England afloat.
Congregation surveys, such as the Signs of Growth survey conducted throughout the diocese of Southwark in 2012, have been drawing attention to the ways in which older churchgoers are feeling increasingly marginalised in their churches, the older they get. Those in their eighties and over are among the least-satisfied churchgoers.
THE Coronavirus, Church and You survey (which was live with the Church Times between 8 May and 23 July 2020) gives us an opportunity to check how the shielding generation (those aged 70 and above) of churchgoers fared alongside younger churchgoers. We were able to compare the views of 867 churchgoers aged 70 or over with 924 churchgoers under the age of 60.
The older churchgoers may have been shielding during the lockdown, but they were not shielded from the impact of the experience on their attitude towards the Church. This is particularly evident across four areas of the survey (see the chart above for the results).
The first area showed that the older group had a less positive opinion than the younger group on how the national Church had handled the crisis or led the nation in prayer.
The second area concerns attitude toward churches as local place and sacred space. Older churchgoers aged 70 or over held a more positive attitude towards the church building, and consequently were less impressed by the lock-up and by the lock-out.
The third area concerns attitude towards the online future. Older churchgoers aged 70 or over held a less positive attitude towards an online future that might mean virtual church and use of social media for pastoral work.
The fourth area concerns attitude towards the future sustainability of the local church after the pandemic. Older churchgoers aged 70 or over held a less hopeful attitude toward the sustainability of their church, in terms of having willing volunteers or finance to maintain buildings.
Our new survey, Covid-19 and Church-21 (News, 22 January), is designed to explore these issues in greater depth. Here is the opportunity to let your voice count in these debates.
THESE findings may carry two implications for the build-back strategy of the Church of England as it attempts to recover from the pandemic: one is pastoral, and the other is financial. These two implications could, however, be closely interrelated.
The pastoral implication concerns the visibility of those aged 70 and over in rebuilding an offline presence and offline ministry during the period of building back. There will be older churchgoers who have been shielding and who will have lost touch with their habit of churchgoing, and who may have lost confidence to return. There will be older churchgoers who have been shielding and who may feel neglected and uncared for. They may have effectively become church-leavers during the extended period of the pandemic.
Research on church-leavers, however, indicates that there is quicker return on investment in the dechurched (those who once belonged) than in the unchurched (those who never belonged). Strategic development funding invested in reconnecting the lost to their churches may be wiser than investing in new churches.
The financial implication concerns securing the resources to prolong the life of some of those fragile churches now apparently crippled by the pandemic. It is precisely here that local people, local initiatives, and local finance could come to the rescue.
Yet such a rescue would need a vision of sustainability which made sense to the local environment. It could possibly be the case that such a vision for the future might rehabilitate the good will of those aged 70 and over, and unlock the resources (human and financial) to build back an offline “Christian presence in every community”, together with a ministry equipped to sustain such a presence.
The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, both at York St John University.
For more details on the Covid-19 and Church-21 survey, visit: www.yorksj.ac.uk/coronavirus-church-and-you