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.

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.

There are some things God won’t do in our church (or in our private lives) if we don’t pray. Is that because God is being awkward? No, it’s because he loves us. He regards what we do and how we live as very important. But he regards it as even more important that we have a relationship of trust with him. If we pray we are taking notice of God and not taking him for granted. How many wives have said to their husbands (who might be helpful and kind to their wives): “Why don’t you talk to me? We never seem to make time to talk.” God is like that. We might try to serve him, supporting his church and he’s pleased with that. But he’s saying: ““Why don’t you talk to me?”

Do you remember when the children were small? You wanted them to ask for the good things, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ In other words, you wanted them to develop a relationship of courtesy and gratitude with you. God wants the same with us. So he won’t bless the church (or the individual) as much as he wants to unless we say ‘please’ (pray) and ‘thank you’ (giving thanks). That’s why it is essential to pray if we really want the church to grow spiritually and numerically.

But why corporate prayer in a prayer group? As Jesus said: “if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matt 18:19-20). There are some things God will only do in response to corporate prayer and a prayer group allows more time to pray about more topics and to concentrate on some of the more important ones.