Church growth and decline

 

Churches with a conservative view of Scripture who treat the Bible as the Word of God grow faster than those with a liberal view, according to a new report. The report, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” was based on five years of research amongst churchmembers and clergy in Ontario.

 

It discovered that only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches. I’m tempted to ask what planet those clergy from declining churches are living on. But it is more serious than that. I would not like to be them on the Day of Judgment.

 

The report also discovered that:

  • 93% of clergy and 83% of churchmembers in growing churches believed in the bodily resurrection of Christ compared with only 56% of clergy and 67% of worshippers in declining churches.
  • 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.

 

However, it is not true that all conservative churches are growing. If they don’t have a strong corporate prayer life, an openness to and experience of the Holy Spirit’s power and a practical commitment to evangelism they won’t grow.

 

There are, of course, other factors. A UK report entitled “Going Deeper: Church attendance statistics and clergy deployment” published in January 2016 states: “An increase in clergy is associated with the likelihood of growth in attendance, while a decrease in clergy is associated, on average, to a decline in attendance.” However, at present rates the number of stipendiary clergy will decline from 7,400 in 2016 to 6,300 in 2035 (it was 8,300 in 2012). 25% of clergy are over 60.

 

There has been an 11% decrease in attendance in the Church of England over the past decade with an average decline of just over 1% a year. 100,000 worshippers have been lost in that period. J John recently pointed out that in 7 out of the 43 dioceses 40% of worshippers are over 70. He added that attendance is declining in 37% of parishes but is growing in 10%.

 

The church and homosexual practice

 

It is important to keep the issue of homosexual practice in proportion. In October 2016 The UK Office for National Statistics published its official figures that only 1.7 per cent of the UK population are lesbian, gay or bisexual.

 

Obviously, every individual and every minority is important. But we need to relate this very small percentage against the enormous effect it is having on society and on the church. This effect is out of all proportion to the numerical size of the problem.

 

So why is it happening? Although there are important non-sexual evils in society, it is clear that there are spiritual forces using sexual sin – heterosexual and homosexual (including promiscuity, adultery, easy divorce, etc) to undermine the family which is the fundamental unit of society. Enormous damage is being done to individuals, including children (quite apart from child abuse) and that has and will have huge negative effects on society.

 

Professor Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, wrote about rapid cultural change. She said: “American culture has become more individualistic and more focused on the self and on equality.  For society to become more focused on self is very damaging. She added that from 1973 to 1990, the percentage of adults who approved of same-sex relationships rose from 11% to 13%. But in the last 25 years, the figure has risen to almost half of all adults.

 

Damage is also being done to the church and there is discrimination against individual Christians. One example is the case of Barry Trayhorn who was chaplain at Littlehey prison. He was disciplined for quoting 1 Cor 6 which condemns various sins including homosexual practice in a sermon. He explained that he wanted to assure the inmates – many of whom have committed horrific sex abuse crimes – that God could bring forgiveness. The prison authorities said he had broken equality laws by quoting a ‘homophobic’ passage.

 

In recent times the following events have happened which show an increasing acceptance of homosexual practice by the church:

  • The vicar of St. Peter’s, Brighton, an evangelical church planted by Holy Trinity, Brompton said he was very supportive of a gay pride march. He added that many of his churchmembers would take part. They had a lot of LGBT people in the congregation and were very supportive of them.
  • The Anglican Church in Canada approved of gay marriage and the Diocese of Toronto elected an “openly gay, partnered bishop.”
  • The evangelical Bishop of Liverpool said the insistence that homosexuals must be celibate to practise their faith should be dropped and that he had “learned to respect the experiences of people who want to celebrate and express their sexuality, and be within the church.”
  • GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference) published a list of clergy who have entered into same-sex marriages and remained in office. One of those clergy, a member of General Synod commented on the recent ‘conversations’ between synod members who have different views on homosexual practice. He said: “I came away with the strong sense that Synod is ready for change … what I experienced and heard was a recognition that the current stance of the Church is untenable.”

On the other hand, the Church of England Evangelical Council stated:  “The blessing of same-sex relationships would be a de facto change of Church of England doctrine.” Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden and a member of the CEEC, said “The House of Bishops are still engaged in conversations about the nature and shape of pastoral provision in this area. Many evangelical Anglicans would agree with the analysis and the concerns expressed in the CEEC document that any move towards further liberalisation would bring to a head the divisions in the Church of England and might well cause a split. My role – and that of my colleagues in the House is to do all that I can to prevent a split and to hold people in the Church of England – though that will not be easy, given what is at stake.”

 

 

How should we respond to all this?

 

We should welcome gay people to church

We should welcome all sinners – heterosexual or homosexual – to come along to church to hear the gospel and to experience the reality of the presence of God. In fact, we can only welcome sinners to church because they are the only people available! We’re all sinners. But the New Testament says that those who persist in serious sin should not be regarded as members. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul gives the example of a person in an illegitimate sexual relationship. (We should note, though, that he also says those persist in greed, idolatry, slander, a drunkenness or swindling should not be regarded as members 1 Cor 5:11).

 

Andrew Brown, a secular journalist, points out a serious inconsistency in the Church of England: “In effect, there is one standard for the laity – which is to conform to the liberal norms of society – and a double standard for the clergy who are supposed to be celibate, even when they live with same sex partners, if not heterosexually married. It is perfectly in order for clergy and even bishops to be civilly partnered.”

 

However the Church of England (like other churches) is making fundamental mistakes in its approach to the homosexual issue. It has not yet changed its basic position that homosexual practice is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture but it is gradually weakening its position in the following ways:

 

We want to be seen as nice

It is trying too hard to be seen as kind and relevant to society. It needs to re-read James stark warning “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” In following Christ and his word we have to be willing to be unpopular and deemed irrelevant and outdated. Whereas we should take trends and opinions in society seriously we should not allow them to dictate what we believe and preach. We should try to communicate as effectively as possible with our secular society but we should stick to our guns on what we believe.

 

We apologise too much

Of course we need to avoid any negativity towards homosexuals as people. We should love our homosexual neighbour as much as our heterosexual neighbour. But loving our neighbour doesn’t mean we have to love their behaviour.  Clearly there have been Christians who despise homosexuals as people – and that is wrong. It is true that there could have been comments and discussions in the church which have been unloving towards homosexuals as people. But the church has now become obsessive about apologising to them. Time after time we have church leaders apologising. It wasn’t helpful that the Archbishop of Canterbury said he was “constantly consumed with horror” at the way the Church treated gay people and that he lay awake thinking about the issue. In their naivety church leaders don’t realise how this excessive apologising comes over to society. It gives the impression we are uncertain of our basic position and we are apologising for it. By all means apologise, but don’t keep on doing it.

 

We give the impression that the moral issue is simply a matter of opinion

I have been involved in a great deal of dialogue with homosexuals and it helps develop inter-personal understanding. But the Church of England General Synod may not be aware of the impression it has given to society by its recent “conversations.” The impression is that both opinions are equally legitimate – those who approve homosexual practice and those who don’t. The further impression given is that, in a true Church of England way, we’ll eventually decide that both sides have won and both shall have prizes. The message that should be conveyed is that, whereas discussion is valuable, the official position of the church, as decided by a 98% majority of the General Synod in 1987, is that, like fornication and adultery “that homosexual genital acts … are … to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion” and those who disagree are mistaken. Also the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops agreed “This conference, in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”

 

We think we might be able to bless sin

We are considering the possibility of blessing gay relationships. If such relationships are not sexually active there is no problem. But if they are sexually active we should not bless them. The weakness in the position that we can bless sexually active homosexual relationships is that God will have no part in it – and he is the one being asked to provide the blessing.

 

So we contribute to the moral decline in society which is doing enormous harm to adults and children. May God forgive us.

 

Conclusion

The church needs to return to the clear teaching of Scripture in the power of the Spirit and we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to bring revival in the church and society

 

So, yet another report of the dramatic decline of Christianity in the UK has emerged in May 2016. It was based on British Social Attitude surveys from the last 30 years and showed that in 2014 48.5% of the population claim they have no religion (compared with 25% in 2011). On the other hand 43.5% claimed to be Christians. Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University, said that 40% of people raised as Anglicans have abandoned their faith. Another report by ScotCen Social Research said that 52% of Scottish people claimed to have no religion compared with 40% in 1999.

 

A YouGov report in March 2016 said that only 41% of British people who claim to be Christians say they definitely believe in a Creator and 18% said they didn’t. Also 44% of British “Christians” believe in heaven but only 27% believe in Hell. In 2015 YouGov found that only 55% of people claiming to be Christian believe in God.

 

One thing is clear from these figures. Many British people claiming to be Christian are not really Christians. Part of what is happening is that fewer British people are claiming to be Christian when they aren’t. Many people who were not involved in the church superficially regarded themselves as “C of E” but that rather irrelevant practice is now dying out. This is hardly a decline in Christianity but more a facing up to reality.

 

A recent editorial in The Guardian stated: “This decline in self-identification probably has very little to do with belief. The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe.” There is some truth in that.

 

In its Statistics for Mission 2014 the Research and Statistics Department of the Archbishops’ Council reported that in 2014, the worshipping community of the Church of England was 1.1 million people, of whom 20% were aged under 18 and 29% over 70.  It also said: “Most measures of attendance show a similar trend: a steady decline of 10-15% over the past decade, although adult weekly attendance is down by 7% since 2004. However, I would urge caution when considering trends. Some questions, such as the usual Sunday attendance, have been asked in almost the same way for many years. Others have changed, to reflect changes in church activity or the evolving interests of those using the data; these changes potentially make it difficult to compare figures from year to year.”

 

In his recently published book “The Invisible Church” Dr Steve Aisthorpe, a mission development worker for the Church of Scotland, writes: “Changes in wider society and in the practices of Christian people mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed.”

 

It was interesting to read in the same Guardian editorial comments about the effects of the serious decline of Christianity in the UK: “Such an enormous change is bound to have implications for the rest of us. A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.”

 

It is important to keep a sense of perspective on the decline of church attendance in the UK etc. Canon Giles Fraser wrote recently in response to the recent statistics: “In 1900 … there were 8 million Christians in Africa. Now there are 335 million. And the growth rate continues to accelerate. God wasn’t dead. God was reborn. Indeed, far from being the century in which religion went away, … the 20th century was numerically the most successful century since Christ was crucified … By 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world …, 31% … of the world population … The secularisation hypothesis is a European myth, a piece of myopic parochialism that shows how narrow our worldview continues to be.”  He adds that projections from the Pew Research Center show that by 2050 the number of Christians will have grown to near 2.9 billion.

 

Fraser puts the decline in church membership down largely to Western individualism “we in the west are less and less a society of joiners. And religion begins not with the metaphysics but with the taking part – belonging preceding believing. Which is why the communitarian spirit of religion is declining in places where liberal individualism thrives.”[1]

 

The Church and Sexual Behaviour

 

Speaking on sexual morality is by no means the most important subject on the church’s agenda. But it has become an issue which will do more damage to the church than most others, not least because it is so important in society. The main damage is caused by the church compromising biblical teaching. However, on the other hand, in so far as the church reaffirms biblical sexual morality, it will make itself unpopular in society and create barriers to its witness.

 

The above-mentioned Guardian editorial commented on the report that there are now more irreligious people than Christians in England: “Over the last 50 years ‘religion’ has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. ‘The religious’ now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both. But the Church of England was so much a part of the old imperial state that life in post-imperial Britain was never going to be easy.”

 

We Christians have to take that comment seriously. That is how many people see us. The devil has used the liberalisation of sexual behaviour to marginalise the church. Should we therefore keep quiet about sexual immorality or even give way to modern liberal views? Not at all, although it should not be the most important subject the church addresses.

 

The snare of seeking popularity

 

All too many Christians think we are meant to be popular and that this is the way to win people to faith. But Jesus said: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). He adds: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). He goes on: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21). So, being hated and rejected is meant to be an on-going experience of committed Christians (although we should not, of course, fan such hatred by insensitive or unwise words and actions). We do not belong to the world, says Jesus, because he has chosen us out of the world. Therefore the world hates us.

 

Jesus also says this rejection and hatred will be a sign of the End Times: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:9-13).

 

Obviously, we shouldn’t go out of our way to be unpopular or do unnecessary or wrong things which cause people to reject us. We should (prayerfully) choose our battles. However, we are not to compromise on important matters, in order to try to win unbelievers. Even if we succeeded in being popular with unbelievers we would find they still regarded us as irrelevant.

 

Yet the church is doing this. The Church of Scotland has just decided that local churches can appoint a Minister who is a partner in same sex marriage. That, of course, is completely contrary to God’s Word. But the context is that Church of Scotland Ministers are not allowed to take same sex weddings. This adds ludicrous hypocrisy to the situation.

 

The Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, the Very Rev John Chalmers said the church was not changing the theological definition of marriage (which, of course, says same sex marriage is wrong) but allowing congregations to opt out if they want a minister who is in a same sex marriage. In other words, he is saying we are still calling sin sin but we are officially allowing congregations to sin if they want to! This makes the church a laughing stock.

 

In April 2016 archbishops of most of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion met in Zambia for the Anglican Consultative Council. Only Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda were unrepresented. The Archbishop of Canterbury had to use all his diplomatic skills because the ACC was facing the possibility of a major split over the US Episcopal Church approving same sex marriage. He said that the Episcopal Church had changed the “basic understanding of doctrine, ahead of the rest of the Communion and without consultation.” Again this statement can give the impression that eventually the whole of the Anglican Communion will eventually accept same sex marriage – the current problem being that the Episcopal Church hadn’t waited for all the others to catch up and agree with them.

 

In the end a major split was avoided by the Episcopal Church only being allowed a limited role in the ACC for the next three years. The Archbishop said: “We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion.” The agreement stated: “It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

 

It is reported that eight of the 38 provinces are open to accepting same-sex unions: the US, Canada, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, South India, South Africa and Brazil.

 

Misleading compassion

 

It is wrong to reject homosexuals as people and if we have done so we need to apologise. The church has been doing this or rather over-doing it. I fully support an apology where necessary but not such repeated apology that it gives the impression the church has unofficially changed its mind on homosexual behaviour. The latest unhelpful example is from the Church in Wales. It apologised unreservedly for the church’s prejudice towards gay and lesbian people. Fine. But then the Archbishop of Wales adds: “We are not ready, as a church, to take the step of authorising same sex marriage.” This comment conveys to society “We won’t get away with authorising same sex marriage at the moment but just wait and we will.” Other churches have conveyed the same message and society clearly believes the majority of the church privately accepts not only homosexual behaviour but also same sex marriage, but will take some time to find the courage to say so.  This is hugely damaging to both the church and society. The church must accept serious responsibility for encouraging the radical liberalisation of sexual morality in society. And we will answer to God for it.

 

Little wonder that a January 2016 YouGov poll found that 45% of those claiming to be Church of England approve of same sex marriage and only 37% believe it is wrong. Three years earlier the figures were 38% and 47% respectively. 56% of the general public favour same sex marriage and 27% oppose it.

 

The church has to decide which of two signs of the End Times it will be: an obedient church hated by many in society or a compromising church which is departing from the faith or deceiving people by false teaching (Matt 24:9-13).

 

[1] Giles Fraser, The world is getting more religious, because the poor go for God, The Guardian 26 May 2016.

 

It is clear that there is a widespread disinterest in or antagonism towards religion in the western world. A report from the Pew Research Centre conducted in April 2015 showed that just 21% of British people regard religion as very important in their lives. Only some 20% of English people claim to be Church of England nowadays compared with 40% in 1983. China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea are the only countries less religious than Britain.

However research carried out in 2015 by the Barna Group and ComRes found that 57% of people in England identify as Christians (9% are practising) and 43% of people believe in the resurrection.

A 2015 YouGov survey discovered that in Britain 14% of men and 6% of women believe they are destined for Hell. 48% believed they would go to heaven.

In the United States 23% of the population are unaffiliated religiously compared with 16% in 2007. 89% believe in God. 53% say religion is very important to them and 50% attend worship at least monthly.

It is interesting that Jonathan Freedland, Executive Editor of The Guardian, wrote an article in September 2015 in which he said that people like Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne and H G Wells would not have anticipated that religion would still be very much around in the 21st century. He added that their “prediction of the future proved wrong: faith is still here, apparently stronger than ever. For that reason alone, for the role it plays in shaping our world, religion has to be taken seriously – more seriously than Dawkins-ite atheists, who dismiss it with talk of ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or ‘sky-pixies’ will allow … It cannot be explained or justified in the clear, stainless-steel language of pure reason. Some of it is absurd and bizarre. But you might as well ask a man why he supports this football team rather than that one. Ask a woman why she loves this man rather than that one. Reason is what separates us from the animals. But it does not account for all that makes us human.”

Non-religious spirituality

Many people now call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Science doesn’t satisfy the way many people feel about the universe. They experience awe, wonder and mystery, perhaps inspired by a beautiful sunset or moving music. They are not able to express these feelings in words. Professor Michael King of University College, London says about 20% of people in the UK are spiritual but not religious. In the West our enhanced physical quality of life has created spiritual hunger. Since the 1990s do-it-yourself spiritualities (“New Spiritualities”) have come to the fore, emphasising personal transformation and therapeutic healing. In terms of spiritual activity, spiritual but not religious people may be involved in meditation, focusing on nature or becoming deeply moved by music

So the picture is certainly not simply one of secularisation. Spirituality is alive and well alongside religion.

Britain no longer a Christian country?

David Cameron is clear that Britain remains a Christian country. In his 2015 Christmas message he said “we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

However in 2015 the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institute and chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, published a report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good.” It concluded that the UK is no longer a Christian country and that public life should therefore become more pluralist (multi-faith). The next Coronation should be multi-faith and some of the bishops in the House of Lords should be replaced by leaders of other religions. Schools should no longer be required to have collective worship.

The demise of the Church of England?

In October 2015 Simon Jenkins wrote an article entitled “England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go.” He referred to a report that over 25% of churches have less than 20 worshippers on a Sunday. He added: “Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches -85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation.” This, of course, is additional evidence for spirituality in society.

Jenkins believes that churches should be handed over to local councils to be used for various purposes (village shops, farmers markets, Wi-Fi cafes, sub-post offices) and “The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths.”

He concludes: “The secularisation of churches has been a long time coming. The reason is because the nationalised Church of England, so avid to reform others, is so averse to reforming itself. It wants public money for its upkeep yet closes its doors to other faiths.” (For the record the C of E does not receive any public money. Also some congregations, including small congregations, are growing).

Religious views can be ignored

In September 2015 the British parliament discussed a bill to allow Assisted Dying. Before the debate an editorial in The Independent stated that the debate should “be conducted on purely secular and not religious terms, drawing on the considered advice of the medical profession and of others directly involved in caring for the very ill. If the clergy want to weigh in again, so be it, but that does not mean MPs should attribute any particular force to their views.”

I am aware that in a democracy the majority opinion rules and that majority may be secular. But it is a sad evidence of the decline in Christian belief that such a statement should be made. As it happens the bill was rejected by 330 to 118 votes.

Religious education challenges

In November 2015 Mr Justice Warby said that the Education Secretary made an ‘error of law’ when she stated that the GCSE due to come into effect in September 2016 would “fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”. Three families supported by the British Humanist Association had taken the issue to court saying that teaching atheism must be included in RE.

The judge said: “It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” But the assertion that the new GCSE “will fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE duties” was incorrect.

The Education Secretary sidestepped this judgment and produced a document which said RE should “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian” and that “there is no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious views.”

The government also said that “Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” But “It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background.”

However, Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian makes an interesting point. He says: “Humanism gains its strength in Britain today because it is not taught. Instead it is simply assumed to be the only rational ground on which decisions could possibly be made. The tenets of humanism are taken to be facts, while other moral or metaphysical positions are simply beliefs. Humanism is approached in a completely ahistorical way, much as devout Muslims approach the Qur’an, as if it had no roots and could never be superseded by any other belief system. Teaching humanism as a belief system alongside Christianity, Islam or Hinduism is the first step towards getting people to notice that this is what they actually believe (and so are free to disbelieve).”

I certainly believe schools should teach that humanism is a belief system, as Brown says, rather than the only rational ground of thought.

BBC Cuts to religion

The BBC is making significant cuts to its religious broadcasting and has been criticised for side-lining faith at a time of massive global upheaval. The Bishop of Norwich criticised it for doing this at a time when we “need – as everyone acknowledges – more religious literacy in the nation.”

Sunday Trading

The government is in favour of giving local authorities freedom to extend working hours on a Sunday which is another sign of secularism as well as the tendency to put economic advantage above more important considerations. 64% of local authority executives in England and Wales favoured such extension. However the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) revealed that 91% of retail staff in large stores are opposed to longer opening hours on Sunday, primarily because of the potential detrimental effect on their family life.

The decline of the Church of England

No-one will be a member of the Church of England by 2082 and no-one will be attending by 2100, according to John Hayward. He is a Christian who was a university lecturer in mathematics and has a blog called Church Growth Modelling. He adds that the Church in Wales (C in W) and the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) will be extinct by 2043 and the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA) in 2055.

He goes on to suggest reasons why the Church of England (C of E) is not in quite such a bad way as these other Anglican churches:

1. The C in W, SEC and ECUSA are episcopal by conviction whereas the C of E is a national church which happens to be episcopal. He says the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are more rigid in their views and don’t relate so well to other denominations.

2. Unlike the others, the C of E is established by law as the national church and so is not able to change so easily. The C in W, SEC and ECUSA have changed quickly and adopted liberal views e.g. accepting homosexual practice and same-sex marriage. So they have aligned more to secular society and, contrary to their expectations, this has caused them to decline faster.

3. The C of E has a much stronger evangelical section. In 2006 Peter Brierley, a Christian statistical expert, recorded that out of 870,600 C of E members (a smaller number than attenders), 297,500 (34%) were evangelicals (77,400 mainstream, largely conservative evangelicals, 114,900 charismatic evangelicals and 105,200 broad or less conservative evangelicals). 4273 (26%) of the C of E’s 16,247 churches were evangelical. Of the 160 largest churches, (1% of the total number of churches) with a membership of over 350, who make up 10% of the membership of the C of E, 83% were evangelical. Reform, the Anglican conservative evangelical group, calculates that about 70% of male ordinands (candidates for ordination) under 30 come from conservative evangelical churches.

4. The C of E has been much more influenced by charismatic renewal than the others. Hayward comments that “Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others.”

5. Wales and Scotland are more rural than England.

John Hayward then adds that maybe the C of E is more mission/evangelism- minded than the other three. I don’t have the information to comment on that except to say that, yes, the C of E does stress mission but sometimes it is better at discussing it and passing resolutions about it than doing it! He then makes the interesting comment: “It could be that … most of the pre-1900 denominations are coming to an end because they have put too many resources into themselves at the expense of mission. The way forward is not to work out how to save the organisation, but let it fade and try saving the lost. Something new will then emerge. Perhaps the Church of England, with its greater diversity, is much further down the road of that reinvention.”

Other commentators are more negative about the C of E. In November 2014 The Bishop of Truro said: “The Church of England has only five or six years to save itself.” Andreas Whittam Smith, First Church Estates’ Commissioner, said at the July 2011 General Synod that, assuming the recent declines in younger people continued, the number of worshippers “would fall from 1.2 million in 2007, to half a million in 2030, and 125,000 in 2057.” Peter Brierley commented: “This means an almost 90 per cent decline in overall attendance in the 45 years between 2012 and 2057. It would mean not only that by 2030 the attendance would have dropped to 500,000, but also that the number of larger C of E churches (attendance over 300) in England would have probably declined from about 200 to 100, some Cathedrals might need to have been “decommissioned,” perhaps 9,000 of the current 16,000 churches will have closed as “unviable”, with large numbers therefore of redundant church buildings, half the eight Theological Colleges will have had to close, several Dioceses merged, the numbers of Bishops reduced, and so on, unless God revives his work again.”

In June 2015 NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey found that the number of people who describe their beliefs as being Church of England or Anglican (but many don’t attend or only attend rarely) dropped from 21% to 17% between 2012 and 2014. That is a loss of 1.7 million and now the number of people identifying as Anglicans stands at about 8.6 million.

On the other hand, in November 2014 Giles Fraser (an Anglican clergyman who writes for The Guardian) pointed out that about a million people go to a C of E church each week whereas the Conservative Party has 134,000 members, Labour 190,000 and the Lib Dems 44,000. Adding them together it is less than half the members of the C of E. More people go to the C of E than to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday. He commented: “We have survived every conceivable war, crisis, scandal, collapse and disillusionment. OK, we may not have the money to keep the heating on all the time. But don’t expect the “for sale” sign to go up any time soon.”

The C of E reported that in 2012 an average of 1.05m people attended C of E churches each week and this has been the case for the previous decade. Around 25% of churches are growing, 25% declining and over 50% remaining stable.

However, it is true that in some ways the C of E is becoming less and less relevant to the people of England. It is less trusted by the public than the army, charities, police, monarchy, legal system, the Bank of England and the BBC but more than parliament, the government and political parties.

But the picture is not consistent. A recent study found that 56% in England wanted the Church of England to remain the official established Church, with 15% disagreeing, and 29% neutral or undecided. It is significant that the Chief Rabbi and many followers of other faiths support the establishment of the C of E. Perhaps even more significant, an Opinion Research Bureau survey in 2004 found that 42% of Britons think that local churches should receive funding from the State through central taxation. This is probably related to the fact that nearly 90% of adults had been to a church or place of worship once in the previous year to find a quiet space or for weddings, baptisms and funerals and for community purposes, as well as for regular services of worship.

The state of belief in the Church of England

A 2002 poll reported that a third of C of E clergy doubt or disbelieve in the bodily resurrection of Christ and only around 50% believe in the virgin birth. But the poll was criticised because the question to the clergy provided five responses:
• Believe without question
• Believe but not sure I understand
• Mostly believe
• Not sure I believe this
• Definitely don’t believe

Many clergy ticked the second box saying they weren’t able fully to comprehend God and many of the beliefs that they apprehended wholeheartedly. But it appears that only those who ticked the first box were classed as believers. Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of clergy who do not believe in the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ. If they cannot sort themselves out and come to believe those doctrines they should resign with immediate effect. Not to do so is unethical. It is significant that an analysis by a Muslim scholar of the views the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who didn’t believe in the virgin birth and had serious doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, was found in Osama Bin Laden’s library. It argued that doubts about the resurrection of Christ could further the Islamisation of Britain.

On the positive side, in January 2015 a General Synod report outlined “Ten marks of a diocese committed to developing disciples.” These are:
1. A lifelong journey of discipleship and growth in Christian maturity is supported and modelled by all.
2. The importance of discipleship in daily life is affirmed.
3. Gatherings for worship celebrate the discipleship of all the baptised.
4. Disciples are equipped to help others to become followers of Jesus.
5. Diocesan work on vocations is based on the principle that all the baptised are called into God’s service.
6. Good practice in facilitating learning and formation is developed.
7. Gifts of leadership are recognised and developed among all the baptised.
8. Innovation and experiment are encouraged in mission, ministry and discipleship.
9. Specific diocesan policies and plans promote discipleship development.
10. Diocesan resources are committed to the development of the whole people of God.

Division in the Anglican Communion

The Anglican Communion, which is the third largest Christian body in the world with 80 million members, has been seriously divided by the issue of homosexual practice and also women bishops. Many African bishops and others from the southern hemisphere regard any acceptance of gay relationships as a serious denial of biblical truth. The liberals in the western church regard this as homophobic bigotry. Traditionally the 800 bishops of the Anglican Communion meet for the Lambeth Conference every ten years. But in 2008 250 stayed away, largely because of the consecration of the openly homosexual bishop Gene Robinson in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury has postponed the next conference, scheduled for 2018, but has called together the 38 primates (senior archbishops) to meet him in Canterbury in January 2016. Having discarded the failed approach by his predecessors to bring conservatives and liberals together he is going to propose that the communion be reorganised as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other. He regards the attempts to bring liberals and conservatives together as “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere.”

The African conservative bishops have formed an organisation called GAFCON (The Global Anglican Future Conference). If they decided to withdraw totally from the Anglican Communion other Anglicans may join them, including in England (thus leaving the Church of England).

Women priests are predominantly liberal

22% of clergy in the Church of England are now female. But Peter Brierley says: “There are very few Anglo-Catholic female clergy, and relatively few evangelical female clergy. Consequently the large majority of female clergy are of broad, or liberal, churchmanship, so that, as their number increases, so will the balance of churchmanships change within the ranks of stipendiary clergy.”

This is a serious matter. It will mean that gradually the proportion of Church of England clergy who are liberal will increase. Part of the cause is that many conservative Anglicans, evangelical and catholic, are against women priests and so their churches will not produce female candidates for ordination.

The damage caused by clerical sexual abuse

The most serious damage is, of course, to the innocent victims of this criminal behaviour. But it has also done enormous damage to the reputation and credibility of the church, including the Church of England. In October 2015 Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester, was jailed for two years and eight months for sexual abuse of 18 young ordinands. One of Ball’s victims committed suicide. Ball had been charged with some of the offences back in 1993 but he avoided a trial by accepting a police caution for abusing one young man and resigning as Bishop of Gloucester. However he continued to work as a priest in Truro. His victims are suing the Church of England for hundreds of thousands of pounds. The damage to the church caused by such appalling behaviour is enormous. The Archbishop of Canterbury has ordered an independent review of the church’s handling of the Peter Ball affair. The church published an official statement which said: “It is a matter of deep shame and regret that a Bishop in the Church of England has today been sentenced for a series of offences over 15 years against 18 young men known to him. There are no excuses whatsoever for what took place and the systematic abuse of trust perpetrated by Peter Ball over decades.”

In 2014 Lord Hope, the former Archbishop of York resigned from ministry when an independent enquiry found he failed to deal properly with allegations against Robert Waddington, former Dean of Manchester, for abusing schoolchildren and choir boys.

Confusion over same-sex marriage

There is an old joke that “The Bishops of the Church of England are, generally speaking, generally speaking!” The House of Bishops seems to be in its “generally speaking” mode over gay marriage. On the one hand it upholds the fact that the official view of the Church of England is that marriage is heterosexual but it also produced a statement in which it acknowledges that there are strongly-held and divergent views in the House of Bishops about the matter. So the confusion continues, which is damaging to the church.

The pro-gay Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, acknowledged in 2014 that he couldn’t bless same-sex marriages but he added: “If I am approached by a gay couple, I think it perfectly possible to devise something with them which is as appropriate as it can be in the present confused situation. You can pray with people pastorally but you can’t use the B word [Blessing].”

A YouGov survey in October 2014 found that 51% of clergy believe same-sex marriage is wrong, 39% disagree, and 10% say they don’t know. 88% of evangelicals believe same-sex marriage is wrong.

A Church Times Survey in 2014 found that some 60% of Anglo-Catholics agreed with practising homosexuals becoming priest or bishops and about 55% of middle of the way Anglicans but only around 20% of Evangelicals. Around 39% of Anglo-Catholic and middle of the way Anglicans approved of same-sex marriage and 12% of Evangelicals. 51% of Evangelicals also disapproved of any kind of blessing for a same-sex marriage.

At least two Anglican priests have married same sex partners. Canon Jeremy Pemberton had Permission to Officiate in Southwell Diocese but the Bishop rescinded that permission. In 2014 the Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain married his atheist partner. He has the old-style legal freehold as Vicar of St Mary with All Souls in Kilburn and St James in West Hampstead, which makes it probably impossible for the bishop to remove him.

Then it was announced that Foreshew-Cain had been elected by fellow-clergy to General Synod. Some people called for him to be removed but the Secretary General of the Synod, William Fittall, said questions about eligibility were addressed before any voting took place and at a diocesan level. He added that any questions surrounding the suitability of a candidate was for the electorate to decide.

The House of Bishops has given an uncertain sound over same-sex marriage (as have many clergy) and this will do enormous damage to the church.

Bishops – the good news

It is easy to concentrate only on bad news. But some bishops are making great efforts to help the church face up to the great challenges facing it. In my own diocese we have two evangelical bishops, an evangelical archdeacon and rural dean. They are going to great lengths to encourage parishes to reorganise, co-operate with other denominations and to major on mission and evangelism.

Bishops speak out on other moral issues

Before the 2015 General Election, the bishops produced a letter encouraging “voters to support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:
• Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
• Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
• Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
• Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
• Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
• Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that it entails.”

More recently they called on the government to receive 50,000 rather than 20,000 Syrian refugees in the next five years.

Conclusion

The Church of England is facing decline in the number of worshippers and clergy, unbelief in fundamental doctrines by clergy, division and enormous damage over sexual issues: sexual abuse and same-sex marriage. There needs to be much repentance, some firm action and earnest prayer for revival. But there are encouraging aspects with growth in some churches and a realistic emphasis on prayerful outreach and evangelism in some quarters. Other churches are facing huge problems too. Then there is the old saying: “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, you’ll spoil it.

Introduction: the Bible and the Church

My concern about the homosexual issue is to be clear as to what the Bible says about it. It is then up to the individual and the church to decide whether to follow that teaching or not. The Church of England’s position on Scripture is quite clear. Its Canon Law, which has legal status, states: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.” Canon Law also supports the 39 Articles of Religion which state: “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Every Anglican bishop and clergyperson is legally bound to follow these rules. So ensuring an accurate interpretation of Scripture is important.

The official position of the Church of England on Sexuality is stated in a General Synod decision in 1987 based upon a Private Members Motion I put to the synod. The Bishops modified my wording but then the synod voted by a 98% majority that sexual intercourse belongs properly within a permanent heterosexual marriage and that just as fornication and adultery falls short of this ideal so “homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.”

We now live in a very different society from 30 years ago. It has different attitudes towards homosexual practice. Homosexual marriage has been legalised. Even some evangelicals have changed their minds on the issue. But the Church of England is still committed to the 1987 decision and has been granted exemption from having to celebrate homosexual marriages. However, the pressure will increase and there are clear indications that the homosexual issue will be a cause of oppression and ultimately persecution for Christians who stand by the traditional biblical teaching.

We are called to love our homosexual neighbour, as we are called to love all of our neighbours. There is no place for antagonism towards or rejection of homosexuals as people. But loving our neighbour does not necessarily involve loving their behaviour. Homosexuals will, of course, claim that those who don’t accept their sexual behaviour are rejecting them as people. That reaction is understandable but it is illogical. We should strongly affirm that homosexual people are equal to heterosexual people. But that is not the same as saying that homosexual practice is the same as heterosexual practice. All people are equal but not all behaviour.

The marginalisation of the church

The fact that many in society do not make this important distinction leads to the church being seen as intolerant and judgmental. So Ireland, which in 1987 voted overwhelmingly against the legalisation of divorce, and only legalised homosexual practice in 1993, in 2015 became the first country to approve same-sex marriage after a referendum. But there were other factors. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church has hugely diminished. This is largely due to what is seen as hypocrisy, namely the allegations of sexual abuse amongst Irish clergy and of the church’s failure to deal with it properly.

A recent poll found that 52% of Americans favoured same-sex couples being allowed to marry and only 32% disapproved. Another poll found that 53% of Americans were favourable towards gays and lesbians compared with 42% towards evangelicals. 18% were unfavourable towards gays and lesbians compared with 28% towards evangelicals.

In July 2014 the UN stated it would recognise the same-sex marriages of its staff. An Ipsos MORI poll in April 2014 found that “the proportion of Britons who think homosexual couples should be able to marry has more than quadrupled in the four decades since 1975. 69% now agree with the statement that “homosexual couples should be allowed to marry each other”, whilst just over a quarter (28%) disagree. When the same question was asked in November 1975, support for gay marriage stood at 16% (with 53% disagreeing). Simon Atkinson, Assistant Chief Executive at Ipsos MORI, commented: “It is very unusual, even over a period of 40 years, to see such a sea change in public attitudes. People in Britain are clearly behind the recent legislation on gay marriage – a rare example of Parliament and public opinion being very much in tune with each other.”

Pro-homosexual evangelicals

Many Christians uphold the biblical teaching on homosexuality but some, including Evangelicals, support same-sex marriage. Jayne Ozanne is a prominent evangelical I know who was a member of the Archbishop’s Council. She describes herself as “a staunch evangelical … a fully signed up charismatic evangelical … an ardent evangelical” who has “an extremely high regard for scripture.” However she has been in a “gay relationship.” She lays down the challenge that if this is sinful “why then do I see so much fruit in my life? As Jesus said, “Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7). Why does God continue to answer my prayers? Why do I see his power constantly at work in my life; his voice whispering in my inner ear; his healing power touching the lives of people who have been deeply hurt and broken by a Church that has shunned them.” She said that back in 1999 her views on sexuality were “extremely black and white” and added “I did not believe it was compatible to be gay and a Christian.”

Jayne also wrote that in a General Synod debate she read “a draft suicide note written by someone struggling with their desire for love, but knowing that the only thing that could satisfy this hunger was ‘forbidden fruit’. The letter was my own, written during this time of pain – a cry from the created to the Creator, asking why I had been created with such a cruel dichotomy.”

One cannot read this last paragraph without one’s heart going out to Jayne and others like her. We need to pray especially for homosexuals and lesbians who face such trauma. We also need to be sensitive in our approach to the subject.

However, one cannot base moral decisions on emotion or on people’s motives. The crucial question remains: What is the biblical teaching on homosexual practice? The fact that Jayne experiences answers to prayer and spiritual fruit in her life is an evidence of God’s mercy. After all, we are all sinners and don’t deserve answers to prayer and spiritual fruit. Such experience does not justify what is wrong in our lives. Also, it is not just homosexuals who experience great traumas about their circumstances and who cannot understand why God has put them in such a situation. We need to understand them but that does not mean we approve of everything they do.

The Rev Steve Chalke, a very well-known evangelical leader and leader of the Oasis Trust which seeks to provide housing, education, training, youthwork and healthcare in various countries, similarly disclosed his change of view over homosexual practice. Ultimately this led to the Evangelical Alliance terminating the Trust’s membership.

The Evangelical Alliance has been criticised for this decision. Critics point to its “Evangelical Relationships Commitment” which states: “We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time. We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”

Like Steve Chalke himself, the critics say that the issue of homosexual practice is a secondary one. Chalke commented: “It is extremely disappointing that this matter of sexual ethics has again been seen as more significant than central matters of the Christian faith. I would call on the Evangelical Alliance to reverse its decision and declare that acceptance of same sex relationships can be compatible with evangelicalism.”

Dr Justin Thacker, lecturer in theology at the evangelical Cliff College, wrote “My concern is that this looks like a decision, not born of confidence in the gospel or trust in the power of the Scriptures to transform, but rather one born of fear – fear that the church is becoming inevitably compromised by the world and that its time to pull up the drawbridges.”

Accepting Evangelicals is an organisation which states: “We are an open network of Evangelical Christians who believe the time has come to move towards the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships at every level of church life, and the development of a positive Christian ethic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” It has 960 members. It commented that the Evangelical Alliance “can … no longer claim to represent ‘the UK’s two million evangelical Christians’ as there are clearly many evangelicals who they no longer represent, or who they are unwilling to represent.”

Other Christian response

In May 2015 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed by 309 votes to 182 the idea that individual congregations could opt out of the tradition view of marriage and appoint a minister in a same-sex civil partnership.

However when Canon Jeremy Pemberton married his male partner the Church of England removed his licence to minister. The Bishop of Buckingham, who supports equal rights for homosexuals, said this was unjust and that homosexual clergy are subject to “harassment and victimisation.”

Steve Chalke’s Oasis Trust did a survey and found that the attitudes of churchgoers has undergone an “ethical earthquake” in the past decade, “despite the more hostile tones of the denominations they belong to.” Around a quarter of churchgoers believe that same-sex relationships should be affirmed by the church, but are reluctant to share their views, a new survey has found. 49.6% of Christians across the main 11 denominations believe that monogamous same-sex relationships should be fully embraced and encouraged. 68% said that their views have become more inclusive over the past decade, with 61% noting that the shift had come as a result of “understanding or interpreting the Bible differently.”

In October 2014 the Vatican published a synodical report which stated:
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York put out a statement in February 2014 about the views of the Church of England House of Bishops which said: “We are not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church’s response. However we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.”

The legal situation in the UK

In a March 2014 poll BBC Radio 5 Live found that 59% of people believed a person should not be considered homophobic for opposing the legislation that allows gay marriage. However there are increasing attempts to bring legal action against those who do not approve of homosexual practice. In April 2015 The Guardian published an editorial which stated: “It’s at least possible that conservative Christians might at some stage end up as despised and disadvantaged a minority as some of their victims have been in the past … In the west we privilege conflicting but broadly liberal values. We no longer privilege the authority of the Bible. So, once we have determined that discrimination against homosexuals violates the principle of equality – and that is the settled position in both law and public opinion now – the fact that some people are compelled by their consciences to disagree does not exempt them from behaving as if it were true. There cannot be a special exemption for mistaken beliefs held on religious grounds when these harm others.”

The same month an article in The Guardian stated: “Hostility to homosexuality, abortion or extramarital sex may be justified as the teachings of gods, prophets or scriptures … and anyone has the right to follow them. But actions based on those beliefs should have no particular privilege and, if illegal, the fact that the person undertaking them believes in the Almighty should be no defence.”

However the Equality and Human Rights Commission has stated that the UK Same Sex Marriage law provides “protection under equality law for ministers of religion who do not wish to marry same sex couples. The Commission stated that “churches and individual ministers will not find themselves forced by litigation to conduct same sex marriages and no one will be required to promote views about same-sex marriage which they do not support.”

Welcome though this is, it is also evidence of the increasing marginalisation of the church in today’s society. How long will it be before such protections are removed? There are already calls for that. For example Lord Fowler, former chair of the Conservative Party has said that the government should be able to prevent the Church of England from sacking clergy who enter same-sex marriages. We are seeing Christians accepting homosexual practice, despite the biblical teaching on the matter. We are also seeing a further trend towards oppression of those who uphold the biblical teaching. We need to recognise the seriousness of these trends.

Religion is in its death throes according to A C Grayling, who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of London. Having a keen interest in astronomy, I wonder what planet he is living on.

There is, of course, a decline of Christianity in Britain and the West but it is arrogant to think that this means Christianity is finished in the world. It is rather old-fashioned colonialism. Christianity is alive, well and growing in many parts of the world, in Africa and China (despite its atheist regime), for example. But he explains claims that religion is growing as “the volume and the irritation and the frustration [being] ratcheted up” by religious people who feel threatened by the decline of religion. This is, of course, wishful thinking on his part as an atheist.

John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, said recently that “The vocal fervour of today’s missionary atheism conceals a panic that religion is not only refusing to decline – but in fact flourishing” He pointed out that “The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.” He added that science cannot determined human values: “None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.”

Nevertheless we need to take the decline of Christianity in the West very seriously. The question often arises as to whether the UK is still a Christian country. The Pew Research Centre published a report in April 2015 stating that on current trends the percentage of the UK population identifying themselves as Christians will fall from 64% in 2010 to 45% in 2050. Similarly, less than 50% of the population will claim to be Christians in France, the Netherlands, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Australia and New Zealand by 2050. 16% of the world’s Christians will live in Europe but 40% will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

One illuminating indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is a quotation from Lindsay Meader, Rector of St James’s church in Piccadilly, which has significant number of gay and lesbian members, and chaplain to the Apollo Theatre. She said: “I’ve had people who work in the theatre say: ‘It’s much harder to come out as Christian in the theatre than to come out being gay.’ I think we’ve come to a stage in society where actually it’s easier to come out as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, intersex, than sometimes it is to come out and actually say: ‘I follow a particular religion.’”

Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University has said: “We are living through the biggest religious transition since the Reformation of the 16th Century.” She added: “Western governments will have to work hard to convince the world of the value of liberal democracy and the forms of religion and belief which have supported it, and I am not sure they yet grasp the scale of the challenge.” Even more serious was her comment: “Religions have a natural dynamic towards more sectarian fundamentalist extremes, and we are losing the moderating forces internally and externally that used to regulate and deal with these tendencies, including Parliamentary interest and involvement.”

However Grace Davie, Professor emeritus in Sociology at the University of Exeter wrote: “Looking at the figures, there are the committed religious people, the committed secular people, and in the middle, there’s this grey area. The pendulum is swinging gradually towards the secular end, while everyone is wondering what the growth in Islam will mean. There’s no room for complacency, but there will be a future for Christianity,” she says. It will just be a different future. It will be smaller and more committed, but not necessarily more extreme.”

Caroline Wyatt, Religious Affairs Correspondent at the BBC commented: “That increasing lack of belief is not confined to religion alone, but appears to be affecting almost every other sphere of authority – while new technology allows individuals to access more knowledge than ever before about the world around us, while apparently leaving us no happier. Faith in politicians, government, the mainstream media and in many other institutions has diminished, yet the human search for meaning, identity and principles that unite us as a society has not gone away.”

A recent WIN/Gallup Poll concluded that the UK was 59th out of 65 nations in terms of the proportion of the population self-rating as a religious person. The 2015 Britain Uncovered survey on the attitudes and beliefs of Britons in 2015 found that 61% of Britons associate with a religion but it is only a minority of that group (29%) who actively practise their religion with 21% describing themselves as atheist. 61% of Britons agree with the view that “These days religion is a negative influence in the world rather than a force for good.”

The Christian Concern Easter 2015 Poll conducted by ComRes found that 47% of Britons still think that Britain’s Christian heritage continues to bring benefits to the country today (32% say the opposite). 55% welcome the fact that Easter is a Christian festival (33% don’t). 52% believe that Christians should be able to refuse to act against their conscience without being penalized by their employer. For example 72% think it is wrong that health care workers should be threatened with the sack for offering to pray with patients.

Andrew Brown wrote in April 2015 about the challenge facing the Church of England: “Institutionally, the Church of England is set up to be entirely embedded in the nation around it, from the parish system all the way up to the coronation service. The idea that it could somehow reinvent itself as a religion for outsiders and the marginal may be profoundly Christian, but it is sociologically incredible. The God that the English still more or less believe in is less and less likely to be found in churches, or at least in church services.”

David Cameron wrote in Premier Christianity magazine that Christian values “are the values on which our nation was built” and said he is an “unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country.” However, as I have noted elsewhere, he shows little understanding of the faith when he wrote in a Downing Street press release in June 2015 disapproving of the idea that “religious doctrine trumps the rule of law.”

A YouGov poll at the end of March 2015 recorded the little influence religious leaders have in the UK. Only 28% said they took any notice when religious leaders commented on politics or economics and 23% when they spoke on personal morality.

George Osborne, the UK Chancellor, has announced what will prove to be the end of the present Sunday Trading laws because it will boost the economy.

There are calls for the end of compulsory religious school assemblies. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romaine said: “Collective worship belongs to a previous century when everyone was religious and everyone was the same religion, but not in multi-faith Britain today, and it is unfair to make children of one faith, or no faith, sit through worship of another faith every day. Collective worship also confuses the role of schools, which are to educate and be objective, and the role of churches, synagogues or mosques, which are confessional and subjective. Faith should come from the home, family and places of worship, but not from the school system, where knowledge and values should be the only task.” Dr Romaine is very liberal and he supports the legalisation of brothels, voluntary euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In June 2015 The Guardian commented: “Christianity is now only the largest among many contending religions or life stances; among schoolchildren it may not even be the largest any more. In these circumstances, the state cannot mandate the practice of any one religion, nor demand that any one be taught as if it were true. But precisely because they are all contested it is vital that religious education teaches children how to live with others who inhabit entirely different imaginative worlds, whether these are explicitly religious or not.”

In the United States the Pew Research Center found that more than 25% of American men say they are not affiliated to any religion compared with 20% in 2007. 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian compared with 78% in 2008.

Non-religious spirituality

Whereas we must address the serious decline in Christianity in the west, we must not ignore the fact that while many people outside the Christian church reject or disregard religion they do retain their own spirituality. “Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular phrase. Professor Michael King of University College London estimates that one fifth of British people are spiritual but not religious. A Pew Research Center survey in the US found that one fifth of the population were religiously unaffiliated with 37% of them regarding themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Mark Vernon, who was an Anglican priest but became an atheist, has written a book called “How To Be an Agnostic.” In it he writes: “People associate religious institutions with constraining doctrines, and bad things that are done in the world. That may be outright fundamentalism, the oppression of women or some kind of conflict with liberal values.”

Craig Hospital, a Rehabilitation Hospital in Colorado, says on its website: “Some people use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ interchangeably, but spirituality is really a broad term; religious ideas and concerns are only a part of a much larger concept. So, while some people’s spirituality is very much related to God or a higher power and might include worship in a church, synagogue, or mosque, for others spirituality may have nothing to do with religion and things like praying or going to church. Some examples of spiritual activities are meditation, traveling, reading, learning or doing something new, focusing on nature, and becoming deeply moved by music.”

Non-religious people can experience awe. Journalist, Oliver Burkeman, writes: “Spirituality I take to refer to things that are not expressible in words. There’s an aspect of human experience that is non-conceptual.” Another journalist, Tom de Castella, writes: “Awe and wonder is how spiritual people often describe their relationship with the world. There’s a sense that life is more than pounds and pence, of work, childcare and the rest of the daily grind … There are moments that seem transcendent in their lives – a beautiful sunset, a football crowd filling a stadium with noise, or a moving piece of music.”

However, it is a cause of concern that Professor Michael King and others produced a report of research which aimed “To examine associations between a spiritual or religious understanding of life and psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses.” It concluded that people who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder such as anxiety or depression.

Atheist Philosopher Julian Baggini comments on the yearning for something more that spiritual people have in his book “The Shrink & the Sage”: “My short reply is that you can yearn for higher as much as you like, but what you’re yearning for ain’t there. But the desire won’t go away.” This is, of course, a statement of faith by Baggini. He cannot prove scientifically that what people are yearning for is not there. In fact, what spiritual but not religious people are yearning for ultimately is God. And they are seeing something of God in creation but not recognising him. As Paul puts it in Romans 1:20, 25: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” but some people “worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

Conclusion

Christianity is declining in the West though not in some other parts of the world. Even amongst those who have no interest in religion or the church there is clear evidence of a spiritual yearning for something more and of experiences of awe. The church needs to be imaginative, rather than confrontational, in reaching out to those who are spiritual but not religious. However, the decline of Christianity is very serious not just in spiritual terms but also socially. As Professor Linda Woodhead has warned, it weakens the foundation of liberal democracy.

One important difficulty with taking eschatology seriously is that we are creatures of tradition. Our attitude is that everything with respect to God’s relationship with the world will be “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” We therefore find the idea of spectacular divine intervention on a world scale difficult to accept. We find the idea of Christ ruling on earth, of the Antichrist etc., difficult. But Jesus was on earth. Also, for centuries up until the early 20th century, people would have found it difficult to accept that the State of Israel would be re-established. Yet it has been and is either a most remarkable coincidence or the beginning of a fulfilment of prophecy.

Another difficulty is that we tend not to stand back and see the bigger picture of trends and dangers in the world. We are aware that:
• we have the ability to destroy all life on earth,
• one fifth of the world’s population is already under a godless dictatorship (China) (and adding other smaller countries the figure is higher),
• we now live in a global village with constantly developing globalisation and the potential for world government.
• a religion with an alternative Christ can attract millions of followers and have huge and growing influence around the world (Islam),
• secular scholars and authorities are concerned about Earth being struck by large asteroids.
But we tend not to see the significance of these things with respect to eschatology. Of course, the unbalanced and paranoid prophets of doom don’t help.

Why do we not stand back and see the bigger picture of trends and dangers in the world? It is a spiritual blindness to prevent people preparing for eschatological events and particularly for judgment. Many people don’t even prepare spiritually for the inevitability of death. The church’s neglect of sensible teaching on eschatology, and especially our individual accountability to God on the Day of Judgment, is a spiritual deceit and a profoundly unloving failure to prepare unbelievers and believers for eternity.

I have said before that, whereas there is a serious decline in many churches, especially in Europe, this is not the whole picture. Overall the church is growing, as are some European churches. 700 mostly black Pentecostal churches began between 2005 and 2012. Many of them are in London, for example some 240 in Southwark. Also Roman Catholic numbers have been boosted by immigrants from Poland and Orthodox from Romania. Independent and New Churches are also growing.

However we must take the decline seriously.

The end of British Christianity?

“2067 – the end of British Christianity” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph on June 13th 2015. Damian Thompson wrote that between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million — about 10,000 a week. He added that, at this rate, Christianity amongst those born in Britain will finish in 2067. Peter Brierley discovered that in 2013 there were 5.4 million church members in the UK, 10.3 per cent of the adult population over the age of 15, 0.3 million less than in 2008. A recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that British people claiming religious affiliation had declined from 68.6% in 1983 to 52.3% in 2012 and regular attendance at church had declined from 21.3% to 17% in the same period.

Thompson pointed out that the Church of England is declining faster and will disappear by 2033. 40% of the population were Anglican in 1983, 29% in 2004 and 17% in 2014. That is a loss of 1.7 million people in the last two years. British Catholics fell from 10% in 1983 to 8% in 2014 and the Church of Scotland has declined from 36% of Scots in 2001 to 18% in 2014. The Methodist Conference recorded a loss of 96,233 members between 2003 and 2013.

One of the reasons for the decline is that unlike in the past, people who don’t attend church no longer feel the need to be identified with the Church of England. Also some people may just regard themselves as Christian rather than as belonging to a particular denomination. However although Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, said the poll figures “should be treated with some cau¬tion, she added: “Where all the polling agrees is in finding that An¬¬glican affiliation has declined dramatically since the 1980s, and continues to do so.” Of course, there are many churches which are exceptions, but the overall pattern is of decline.

Distrust of the church

A 2014 survey discovered that 55% of the British public distrusts the church as opposed to 37% who trust it. In fact the church was the 11th most distrusted institution, doing worse than supermarkets, TV and radio stations, the BBC, Police, Royal Mail, charities, the royal family, schools, small businesses, the NHS, scouts and guides and the armed forces.

Sexual abuse

Of course, one of the highly publicised factors contributing to this distrust is sexual abuse within the church. In May 2015 the Methodist Church made an unreserved apology for 1,885 cases of physical and sexual abuse of children since the 1950s. Ministers or lay employees were involved in a quarter of them. Other churches have reported cases of child abuse. In 2014 Pope Francis revealed that Vatican data suggested one in 50 Catholic priests is or was a paedophile. It was also revealed that in 2011-12 Pope Benedict defrocked 400 priests for child molesting. Where is the fear of God in such people?

Unbelieving clergy

Trust in the church is hardly increased by the recent report that one in 50 of the Church of England clergy don’t believe in God. It is not clear how many of these clergy are functioning in the church but if they are they should immediately resign and stop causing harm to the church’s credibility. If they are secret unbelievers who simply responded to the survey then they should resign because they cannot take anyone spiritually further than they have gone themselves.

Christian compromise and spiritual failure

Compromising the Gospel

A Muslim at the Church of England General Synod in February 2015 began his address with words in Arabic which mean “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is basically a denial of the Trinity. In a service commemorating the First World War Muhammad was referred to as “Muhammed Mustafa” which means “the Chosen One.” But Christians do not believe Muhammad was chosen by God or that his message was from God. A prayer service was led by Muslims in St John’s Church, Waterloo and Christian imagery in the church was covered up. (We can be grateful though that the Bishop of Southwark subsequently said that Muslim services are banned in consecrated churches). A similar service was held in an Episcopal Church of Scotland church in Aberdeen. I am all in favour of dialogue and co-operation with Muslims which does not involve any compromise of the faith but back in the nineties I campaigned very publicly against interfaith worship events where Jesus was excluded or marginalised, especially when they were held in churches. I am still of the same opinion.

Corruption

The Pope has attacked corruption particularly in finances at the Vatican. He accused Vatican bureaucrats as hypocritical, having a lust for power and guilty of “careerism and opportunism.” There have also been examples of financial corruption in other denominations.

Spiritual failure

The Evangelical Alliance reports that 50% of (especially younger) evangelicals don’t read the Bible daily and 37% don’t pray daily. Only 40% feel their church is good at making disciples of new Christians and only 26% feel equipped to share their faith with others.

The Bishop of London said in September 2014 “Western religion is feeble.” He added: “The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us … The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.”

Why is the church declining?

I have thought a great deal about why many churches are declining and here are some of my conclusions:

1. Clergy are often not people of prayer and so do not encourage and facilitate adequate corporate prayer in their congregations, outside brief intercessions in the Sunday services or mid-week liturgical services.

2. Clergy are often very inadequately taught about the content of Scripture and consequently often do not teach it to their congregations.

3. Clergy very often are not taught New Testament principles of church growth and development and so do not adopt them or act on them.

4. Clergy are very often not taught how to do evangelism and so do not do it, even in sermons and addresses where there are people present who are seeking God.

5. The church has little effective prophetic voice.

6. The church is maintenance-minded and most outreach is fundraising. Even Fresh Expressions are often initiated to stem decline rather than spread the gospel to new people.

7. The church seems to think that if it accommodates itself to secular attitudes, e.g. on sexuality, it will lead to church growth whereas, in fact, it will lead to even greater irrelevance. The church will be brought into line with secular opinions and will lose even more of its distinctiveness and of its visibility.

These weaknesses need to be addressed and if the established congregation is unwilling to support a ministry which corrects them it should be carried out in a Fresh Expressions context, using any willing individuals.

The C of E Newspaper reports that the US government has released information about documents found in Osama bin Laden’s library. They include material about David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, who said the resurrection was a “conjuring trick with bones.” The paper, the only Christian-related paper in his library, argued that doubts about the physical resurrection of Christ could facilitate the Islamisation of the UK. I remember reading the paper in 1984.

It was this statement by David Jenkins on Radio 4, shortly after he was appointed bishop, that made me realise God was calling me to take a very public stand against such unbelief. It led to a national campaign, writing to all 10,000 clergy in England about it (and similar issues) and eventually campaigning about them on the C of E General Synod.

I have always stood by what I did in those days but this revelation confirms how important it was. We Christian leaders have an awesome responsibility and will stand before God one day to answer for our behaviour and beliefs. This statement by a bishop did enormous harm and clearly encouraged the enemies of the Faith.