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Press: Simon Jenkins mounts familiar hobby horse  

07 January 2022


IN ALL the tributes to Desmond Tutu, the one that caught my eye was Richard Burridge, in The Spectator. In the spring of 1990, the Archbishop had finally been granted a passport by the South African authorities. This meant that he could take up a longstanding invitation to lecture at Exeter University, where Dr Burridge was chaplain; but, at the same time, it made him into a world political figure, who must be given the appropriate security treatment.

“At Heathrow, as the rest of passengers remained seat-belted, armed police escorted Tutu and his wife, Leah, off the early morning plane to meet me in VIP security,” Dr Burridge writes. “Despite his insistence that we needed to take the Eucharist, there was no time for it as we raced in armoured cars to Reading station. The train was delayed. When we finally boarded, the poor steward asked me for our breakfast order and was confused when I asked for a small bottle of red wine and a slice of bread as soon as possible. ‘Bread for everyone?’ ‘No, one piece of bread.’ ‘Shall I cut it up for you?’ ‘No, the Archbishop will break it.’ And his final despairing attempt to help: ‘Would the Archbishop like it buttered?’ As we celebrated Holy Communion with police protection at 125 mph, I marvelled at this mixture of spirituality and modernity as the Lord was present to us in the Eucharist and prayer for the state of the world.”

THE other way to read this story is as a vignette of the complete incomprehension of Christianity by British society, even in 1990. That situation has not improved, and one of the themes of the papers over Christmas was how to live in a post-Christian society.

In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins mounted a familiar hobby horse, but with fresh vigour: “A derelict ruin at the centre of every town and village in Britain is not a fun prospect. . . Most people I know fiercely want to keep their local church, even the 2,000 churches that see fewer than 10 worshippers a week — with an average age of 61. Yet wanting to save a building that stands empty virtually all week is not the same as knowing how.”

Although he admires the parish clergy, Jenkins has no time for the structures of the church, which he calls “a national corporation of grandees with 42 diocesan bishops and bureaucrats in tow”. Nor does he romanticise church politics: the Save the Parish movement is “a fistfight on the Titanic”.

“The public issue is thus not the future of Christianity but the future of parish churches. . . The answer must be in some way to copy Europe. It must move underused church buildings into local trusts with a requirement to put them to local use as charities or social enterprises. The best agency to oversee such a move should be the lowest tier of government, the civil parish or town council, its discretion crucially liberated by the power to levy a possibly optional church rate.

“The C of E is unlikely to oversee such a radical act of denationalisation. It must be the government’s job. I sense many in the church would heave a sigh of relief if it came to pass. But then it always claims to be about faith not buildings.”

It’s worth quoting this at length because it is the clearest statement of what must become the most important English religious story of the decade. Someone is going to have to pay for the church buildings that no longer support a congregation. No one has any other solution, short of beating the Church Commissioners like a piñata until they shower their billions on the rest of the Church. But that won’t actually bring the worshippers back.

AN INTERESTING story appears in The Wall Street Journal, where the distinction between business and religion is less clear. More than 30,000 churches have signed up to a service that targets social-media ads on their behalf to potential congregation members.

What feels futuristic is the glimpse of the techniques used. Starting with the data profiles of 245 million people in the United States, the company matched these against a list of 30,000 divorced couples, whose characteristics were analysed to see what they had in common: high credit-card bills, recent travel bookings, and “a low likelihood to manage health”.

Once these predictors were identified, another 33 million still-married Americans were identified whose behaviour matched these patterns. Anonymised slices of this data were then sold to churches. One report cited by the paper “predicted that 25% of marriages within a 5-mile radius may be on the verge of a divorce; 26% of people are likely to experience an opioid addiction; and 3% of households have individuals who are depressed or anxious”.

Only three per cent? Either these statistics are bogus, or Americans are remarkably sanguine about their troubles.

The story resulted in some data brokers’ breaking off contact with the company. But, in a society in which people no longer come to church for life-event rituals, how else are new congregants to be found?

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