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.

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 has just published (yet another) report. It publishes many of them. During my 14 years on the General Synod I think the authorities must have destroyed half a rain forest to produce all the paperwork we were given.

This one is called “Challenges for the New Quinquennium” which, you must admit, is a catchy title. It was written by the Bishops of Birmingham and Derby with others. The bishops have realised that the future of the church is under threat. One great need, they say, “is to be explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem. This is partly about taking on the ‘new atheism’.”  It goes on “about challenging public bodies to understand that the proper avoidance of religious discrimination does not mean being suspicious of or hostile towards churches and other faith groups.”

That is indeed a major challenge. I’m not naive enough to hanker for the (allegedly) “good old days” but it is amazing and disturbing to see the change in our own society over the last few decades. We have changed from a society where religion (mainly Christianity) was respected to where it is treated as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, anti-social and even dangerous. We have changed from where the church’s position and influence in society was accepted to where there is an increasing desire to marginalise and exclude it.

Yes, we need to take on the “new atheism” which is what I have sought to do in this website (see http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/apologetics.html).  But we also need to take on the more subtle attacks through politicians and society leaders who have let political correctness undermine their common sense, and through the constant secularist propaganda emanating from news, documentaries and drama in the media.

However, I think the church itself is significantly to blame. I note that the report does not refer to the church’s failings. As I read it various serious weaknesses in the church came to mind.

1. The clergy are not trained to do evangelism

“Challenges for the New Quinquennium” calls on the church “to take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England.”  It adds: “Giving priority to the gifts and practice of evangelism will be an urgent challenge for the Church of England in this quinquennium.”

This sounds good and I’m glad evangelism is getting a mention, but in my view it is just words, rather like the Decade of Evangelism some years ago had little practical effect. The problem is that many clergy simply don’t know how to do evangelism. They don’t know how to put the gospel over simply and convincingly so that people want to commit their lives to Christ. They don’t know how to lead a person to Christ.  As far as I can tell, there is very often no practical training in evangelism in ordination courses and colleges. That’s because many of the trainers (including of clergy) don’t know how to do it themselves. Whilst this remains the case there is no hope of extensive numerical growth in the C of E.

I thank God for my background and training which gave me practical help as to how to do evangelism, how to lead people to Christ. Such help is available – but not in the average C of E ordination (or Readership) training.

2. “A growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community” is a pipe dream

The report calls on the church “to re-shape or reimagine the Church’s ministry for the century coming, so as to make sure that there is a growing and sustainable Christian witness in every local community.”

This is a laudable aim but it is a pipe dream as things stand at present, partly because of the lack of evangelism and partly because of a lack of radical thinking about the role of stipendiary clergy. The report notes that “40% of the Church of England’s stipendiary clergy are due to retire in the next decade.”  This means that the remaining stipendiary clergy will be spread very thinly across the country. Already clergy have 8, 9, 10 or more parishes under their care, especially in rural areas. In practice this breeds a filling station approach to the church. The vicar rushes around filling up the tiny, dwindling congregations with bread and wine, liturgy and sermons. Eventually the vicar will be rushing around taking funerals and then there will be no more need to rush around with bread and wine, liturgy and sermons.

It is essential that the church uses local people, living permanently in the parish, as the mainstay of the church’s ministry to that parish. But again, the church has paid lip service to developing every member ministry. Many clergy simply don’t know how to do it.  It requires:

a.       Encouraging spirituality through prayer, fellowship and the teaching of Scripture. Sunday services are not in themselves adequate for this but without this spiritual growth and openness to the Holy Spirit there is no foundation for every member ministry.

b.      There is a need for practical teaching about the different gifts and a practical way of finding the individual’s gift(s).

c.       Then there is a need for encouragement and training to use that gift.

Leadership is important but it won’t be able to rely on stipendiary clergy. The church is lamenting the imminent retirement of 40% of the stipendiary clergy and yet many of those clergy, when retired, will be willing to take a practical lead especially in the parish where they live. The church appears to be very haphazard, inadequate and wasteful in its approach to the use of retired clergy who are willing to be used.

Then there are NSMs (non-stipendiary ministers) and OLM’s (Ordained Local Ministers) who can be helpful, although it appears that their training leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes NSM’s and OLMs are attached to parishes well served by stipendiary clergy and that can be unhelpful. I had two OLMs in one parish alongside a stipendiary curate, two Readers and myself as Rector. A lot of the effort I put into planning worship was working out how to use the whole team adequately and fairly. We were overstaffed, yet other local parishes were understaffed. We need NSMs and OLMs in parishes where stipendiary clergy are not constantly available. We can also use Readers to take the lead in the local church. I’m not denying this happens in some situations but the C of E still seems too wed to the idea of the stipendiary cleric in every parish. And it won’t work.

3. There is a lack of corporate prayer

Here we are, facing perhaps the greatest challenge to the future of the church and you won’t find the word “prayer” anywhere in this official General Synod report. I heard a bishop say once: “When the church gets stuck it appoints a committee.”

Maybe the Lord won’t take our concern for the future of the church seriously until we all get down on our knees to ask him to do something about it. Oh yes, we pray in church – for a few minutes. But we follow someone who, despite a very busy timetable, spent nights of prayer and often withdrew to prayer.

The church which prays together will grow. Some traditions are not used to prayer meetings. Even amongst Evangelicals there seems a widespread lack of interest in them. No wonder the future looks bleak, the church is declining and in many communities will die of old age.

The real challenges for new quinquennium are:

1.      For clergy to learn how to do evangelism, to teach others to do evangelism and to engage in it.

2.      For churches to encourage spirituality through prayer, fellowship and the teaching of Scripture, to teach about and practically find the gifts of churchmembers and to use them.

3.      For the church to be more creative as to how it uses retired clergy, NSMs, OLMs and Readers to lead local congregations.

For the church to get down on its knees for extensive, regular prayer about the future and its challenges.

I’ve experienced it all in my time. I’ve been censed as the preacher in an anglo-catholic service and enjoyed a variety of high church services. I’ve been Rector of a largely middle of the way church which had a weekly Sung Eucharist. I’ve experienced various types of evangelical Anglican churches – conservative and solemn, open and relaxed. I’ve also experienced “Fresh Expressions” such as a Cafe Church.

I believe all those types of worship have their place, because different people (even in a single parish) have different tastes, different subcultures. I don’t fondly imagine that everyone living in our parish would enjoy all of our services. We need a variety of worship and we already have that to some extent. There is our formal, traditional 1662 Evensong/Communion, our more informal Morning Worship, our All Age Services and our special services.

A parish church is a church for the whole parish, not just the catholics, middle of the way, evangelical or happy clappy residents.

A few years ago I deliberately chose to a parish which was not evangelical, although I remain a convinced evangelical. The worship centred around the beautiful Sung Eucharist which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although we developed a new more informal morning service in our other church, suitable for newcomers, we made no changes to the Sung Eucharist. That way we catered for people with widely differing tastes.

Sometimes Christians speak disparagingly of “happy clappy” churches. However, whereas there are some superficial and unhelpful examples, nevertheless there are many lively churches which are growing rapidly and drawing in young people (and children). Before we criticise, we ought to ask how well we are doing in terms of church growth and find out why they are growing.

People’s tastes in worship should be respected. No-one should be pressed into expressions of worship with which they are not happy. Whatever their taste they should be loved and accepted. There is a place for more traditional worship alongside more radical expressions of worship (on separate occasions or in separate venues).  The Church of England is a Broad Church and now encourages “Fresh Expressions” of worship.

The best form of worship should be that which best helps us to worship God in spirit and in truth.

I understand the objections to women bishops because, as you know, at one time I held them myself. I have never understood the argument that Jesus chose only male disciples therefore all priests (and bishops) should be male. He only chose Hebrew-speaking Jewish men but the lobby for only appointing Hebrew-speaking Jewish male priests and bishops is not a strong one! But I do understand the problem some people have that the New Testament appears to teach that church leadership should be male. (I have no room here to say why I now believe the New Testament allows female church leadership. See http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/womensministryinthechurch.pdf).

Some of these folk can tolerate women priests in the next parish. But they can’t accept a woman bishop because she would have authority over them. This is not, for many of them, misogyny (hatred of women) but a sincerely held belief. The Church of England will have women bishops but the House of Laity of General Synod were, in my view, wrong to torpedo the archbishops’ proposals for procedures to respect the consciences of those who object. The final decision over women bishops has yet to be made and there is time to rectify the House of laity vote.

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.

Our time living in Jerusalem was an enriching experience of relating to Christians of different traditions. The church which I inherited as Rector was definitely Evangelical and tended to keep itself to itself.  I wasn’t at all happy with this and made a point of reaching out to the many churches in the Old City. We lived sandwiched between the Armenian Orthodox and the Latin (RC) Patriarchate. I reached out to both. I had an enjoyable lunch with the (RC) priest of the Hebrew Catholic Church. Then there were the Greek Orthodox (I was fascinated by their Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), the Greek Catholics, the Ethiopian Orthodox (that was a rich experience of a totally different culture). I almost lost count of the ancient “denominations” I’d never heard of. It was great to join in Unity Week led by the Roman Catholics in the biblical Upper Room and to join in two weeks of daily prayers for peace in a different “denomination” each day.  England seems a bit monochrome by comparison!

We had some fascinating experiences of relating to the Jewish Community, but also to our Muslim neighbours. I am part of a group of clergy which dialogues with the Muslims at the local university. I have attended several of these sessions and been impressed watching the devout young Muslims at their worship. I firmly believe that Jesus is the only Saviour but I also believe it is important to reach out in peace and love to our brothers and sisters in other faith groups, and so in a small way to counter the suspicion, fear and violence which characterises the attitudes of some towards those of other faiths.