Christianity is growing around the world and some churches in Britain are growing. But one of the main motives for praying for Revival in Britain is the widespread decline of the church numerically, spiritually and morally.
Church attendance in Britain is declining but what does that tell us about religious belief? Dr Peter Brierley, an expert on religious statistics, pointed out recently that in 2000 72% of British people said they believed in God and 5% attended church. In 2015 the figures were 60% and 4% respectively and he estimated that, at this rate, in 2020 they would be 50% and 3% respectively. So, despite the decline in church attendance, many of those who have left the church still have religious beliefs. Some may be genuine Christians but disenchanted with the church. Some may be nominally Christian. Some may believe in God as creator. Some may be adherents of other religions.
Steve Aisthorpe, Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland, published a book in 2016 called “The Invisible Church.” He did a survey of people who no longer attend church and reported that, of the 2000+ people who leave churches each week, the majority remain committed to their faith. He added that many meet up with others informally or online.
The important question is how much Christian belief amongst those who have left the church is purely nominal and not a saving faith.
It is interesting that smart phones and social media are playing an increasing role in Christianity. The Rev Pete Phillips is director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University. He has said “A new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing. One that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.” It is focused more on the charitable and moral side of the Bible – the underlying tenets of religion, rather than the notion that the Universe was created by an all-seeing, all-powerful leader. This very individualistic approach means that people can pick and choose what doctrine they believe and avoid doctrines they don’t like. Phillips wrote “Millennials prefer this generalised picture of God rather than an interventionist God, and they prefer God to Jesus, because he’s non-specific. He stands behind them and allows them to get on with their own lives rather than Jesus, who comes in and interferes with everything.” But this pick-and-mix religion is hardly Christianity. True Christians who have left the church are missing out on Christianity as essentially corporate, as the New Testament makes clear. For example, at the heart of the faith is meeting together for Communion.
Unbelief amongst those claiming to be Christians
A Com Res survey in 2017 found that 28% of people who identified as Christians (including 5% of those who identified as “active” Christians) did not believe in the resurrection. Yet a third of people who identified as non-Christians believed in the resurrection. 10% of “active” Christians didn’t believe in life after death.
A 2017 YouGov poll about the importance of the 10 Commandments found that less than one third of Christians believe in preserving Sunday as a day of rest, only 38% were against using the Lord’s name in vain and only 43% disapproved of the worshipping of idols.
So, again, although there are people claiming to be Christians who don’t attend church, their beliefs sometimes conflict with Christianity.
Then there was the 2017 Christian Greenbelt Festival which invited participants to “Experience dhikr (remembrance), meditation, and poetry, and witness the sacred movement of the whirling dervishes. Participants can learn basic universal Sufi chants that are rhythmic, healing and a unique form of mystical worship.” I am thoroughly in favour of interfaith dialogue and respect but such worship in a Christian context is unbiblical and conflicts with the fundamental belief that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
Also in 2017 there was a controversial reading from the Quran at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Epiphany Service in Glasgow. A Muslim law student went beyond the reading included in the order of service and added verses explicitly denying Jesus was the son of God. The dean, Kelvin Holdsworth, commented “This same Quranic reading has been given before in services and no outcry has happened. Is it because this is in a cathedral run by a gay man?” Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali commented “Christians should know what their fellow citizens believe and this can include reading the Qur’an for themselves, whether in the original or in translation. This is not, however, the same thing as having it read in Church in the context of public worship. It is particularly insensitive to have this passage read in Church on the Feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate not only Christ’s manifestation to the gentiles but also his baptism and the divine declaration, ‘You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’”
Distrust in the church and clergy
A survey in December 2016 by nfpsynergy found that 56% of the British population had very little or not much trust in the church. An Ipsos/Mori poll found that 25% of people did not trust clergy or priests. 69% said they did trust them compared with 93% trusting nurses, 91% doctors and 88% teachers.
One of the worst factors which has damaged the church is, of course, sexual abuse by clergy. This has seriously affected the Church of England. But more recently the Roman Catholic Church has been the focus of concern. In Ireland sexual abuse has seriously damaged the Catholic Church. Twenty years ago 90% of the population were regular attenders at mass. Now the figure is about 18%. In America, after a two-year investigation, Jos Shapiro, Attorney General of Pennsylvania discovered 1000 victims but said there are likely to be many more. He added that in some cases, “the cover up stretched all the way up to the Vatican” and that bishops “protected their institution at all costs”. His colleagues believe that, even today, bishops are working hard to protect themselves. All of this has done enormous damage to the church and to the cause of the gospel.
On a different level, the apparently uncritical support of American Evangelicals for Donald Trump has undermined their credibility and some are dropping the description “Evangelical” accordingly. In fact, there is a support group on Facebook called “Exvangelical”! Inevitably people in Britain will conclude that British Evangelicals are Trump supporters too, which is not helpful.
The situation in the Church of England
There are good things going on in the Church of England, for example various initiatives reaching out to local communities such as the new Advance 2020 initiative. The organisers hope it will mean “the gospel being taken to the nation on an unprecedented scale.” One of the organisers said “We’re dreaming of seeing the United Kingdom come back to relationship with Jesus.” Evangelistic initiatives like this are very good and should be fully supported. But we have to face up to experience. They have very limited effects and tend to influence only the minority of churches already into evangelism. Also we are dealing with a population which is very resistant to the gospel. It is very important to do evangelism but it will only scratch the surface. We need more. We need revival.
There are also prayer initiatives such as “Thy Kingdom Come” – an international, ecumenical call to 10 days of prayer around Pentecost which grew out of an initiative of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2016. It involves over 50 denominations in 85 countries. There is a lot of faithful work going on in parishes, although the overburdening of the reduced number of clergy is a growing problem (however a growing number of younger people want to become ordained). And some churches are growing. At its best the Church of England has a lot to offer.
However it is facing enormous problems. There is serious numerical decline in many churches and many have small elderly congregations which doesn’t bode well for the future. The number of people identifying with the Church of England has more than halved (from 31% to 14%) in the last 15 years according to a recent British Social Attitudes survey. One Christian commentator said: “The Church [of England] is becoming less and less embedded in the public consciousness as representative of their own spiritual identity. It has become strange.”
Controversy over sexuality
The main issue it is struggling with is controversy over sexuality. There has been extensive bad publicity over sexual abuse by clergy and even one bishop. The Church of England has been facing 3,300 allegations of sexual abuse. It has been made worse by the fact that the issue has not been handled well by some bishops – a fact which has hit the headlines.
The other prominent aspect of the sexuality controversy in the C of E is the issue of homosexual practice, gay marriage etc. Officially the church is committed to the biblical view that sex is a gift of God to be enjoyed only within the context of heterosexual marriage. Anglican Canon Law states: “the Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is a union permanent and life-long, of one man with one woman…”
However, in an interview in October 2017, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked “Is gay sex sinful?” He replied: “Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.” In just a few words the archbishop seriously undermined the biblical stance of the Church of England.
In addition Canon Giles Goddard, chair of the Human Sexuality Group of the Church of England’s General Synod, said the church could not maintain its traditional position. He wrote an open letter on behalf of 240 of the 483 synod members, saying: “Marriage between a man and a woman is the majority stance of the Anglican Communion, but just because so many people say something does not mean it is right.”
A recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 73% of Anglicans don’t think premarital sex is wrong, and 55% don’t think gay sex is wrong. 62% of Roman Catholics support same-sex relationships. In 1985 only 9% of Christians in Britain supported same-sex relationships.
Confusion in the House of Bishops and General Synod
There is huge controversy over the issue in the General Synod which has a strong pro-gay lobby led by such people as Jayne Ozanne, an Evangelical who recently ‘came out’ as a lesbian.
Hereford Diocesan Synod passed a motion calling for “official prayers and a dedication service for gay couples after their civil partnership or marriage.” This has not been discussed in General Synod but it does not take much imagination to see that the church is moving towards such a position.
One of the problems is the confusing messages coming particularly from the House of Bishops. On the one hand they say they are maintaining the biblical teaching on marriage. On the other they appear to be moving towards accepting homosexual practice.
A 2017 report from the House of Bishops supported the official definition of marriage but also backed a greater role for practising homosexuals in the Church. The archbishops have promised “radical new Christian inclusion” in the church. The bishops were accused of “looking both ways” in sexuality. The house is working on a report on sexuality to be presented in 2020.
In August 2018 Ely Cathedral flew the “Pride flag” to support the local pro-gay organisation held its first festival. The bishop defended this and said it did not represent a shift away from traditional church teaching on sexuality and gender. But the festival was not just supporting the correct idea that homosexuals should be treated with full respect as people. It was affirming that homosexual practice is acceptable.
On the 50th Anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK the archbishops made a public statement which included the words “Sin is not a characteristic of a particular group of people. Sin is the same for all of us. And the challenge to take onto ourselves the obligation to be yoked with Christ, to bear the load he gives us, is the same for all of us.” This statement is true but anyone who follows events in the Church of England knows that the intended implication is that the church should therefore tolerate homosexual practice. The correct implication is that the church should not accept any unbiblical behaviour – in any of us – but urge repentance on everyone. This is certainly not the message the church is giving.
Uncritical emotional reactions
Another serious problem is the tendency of the church to act on a purely emotional level. Take for example the tragic case of 14-year old Lizzie Lowe who committed suicide because she did not believe she would be accepted as a Christian because she believed she was gay. Who could not be deeply distressed at such a tragedy? It shows the importance of the church making it clear that it accepts and respect homosexuals as people just as much as heterosexuals. But, sadly, in addition to this, her traumatised church has radically changed to accept homosexual practice. For example, it invited the first Didsbury [Gay] Pride event to take place in its grounds. It has also joined with 11 other neighbouring churches to become the first “inclusive” Deanery in the Church of England. The area Dean is gay.
The church must warmly welcome all human beings but it should not necessarily welcome their behaviour.
Increasing support for homosexual practice in other churches
The Scottish Episcopal Church decided in 2017 to approve same-sex marriages taking place in their churches. One third of its clergy have asked to be licensed to take them. However St Thomas’ Edinburgh has left the Episcopal Church because of the decision. The rector, David McCarthy, said “We have not done it easily. We have had many tears and many sleepless nights. It is a tragic necessity. But it is the Episcopal Church who are leaving us. They are leaving orthodoxy.”
A few months later, in a meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury, a decision was made to exclude the Scottish Episcopal Church from ecumenical and leadership roles in the Anglican Communion.
In September 2018 the head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange gave a presentation on same-sex marriage to the Church in Wales. Afterwards the governing body stated: “It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.”
Meanwhile the Presbyterian Church in Ireland decided against allowing same-sex marriages and not to allow those in same-sex relationships to be full members. This resulted in 232 senior members of the church writing to express their “profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger” at those decisions.
In May 2018 the Anglican Church in New Zealand voted in favour of blessing couples in same-sex relationships. But it does not permit same sex marriages to take place in churches.
In view of all this, it is hardly surprising that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are facing serious division (and will face more in the future). The Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) is a new organisation which seeks to establish Anglican Churches in England outside the Church of England. However it also supports Church of England churches which are seriously struggling with the way the Church of England is going. AMiE grew out of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) which involved archbishops, bishops, clergy and lay leaders. The first conference happened in 2008 and its aim was to take a “united stand against the moral compromise, doctrinal error and the collapse of biblical witness that were becoming prevalent in parts of the Anglican Communion.” The conference said that the Episcopal Church of the USA, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Scottish Episcopal Church had departed from the Christian faith (over the issue of homosexual relationships and same-sex marriage). They called on the Archbishop of Canterbury not to invite representatives of these churches to the Lambeth Conference in 2020 and said if he didn’t the archbishops in GAFCON would not attend.
AMiE has recently taken the very controversial step of arranging the consecration of an English clergyman as a bishop outside the structure of the Church of England. He is Andy Lines and is legally the Missionary Bishop to Europe of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which is outside the Anglican Communion. He has ordained people as Anglican clergy (again outside the Church of England). In addition Jonathan Pryke, a senior minister at Jesmond Parish Church, Newcastle, has been ordained bishop without Church of England authorisation.
If the Church of England approves of homosexual relationships and same-sex marriages the division is highly likely to spread.
What should be the attitude of biblical Christians to homosexual people?
As Christians and churches we should welcome sinners (there is no one else to welcome – we’re all sinners) but we should NOT welcome sin. So homosexual people should be warmly welcomed and respected as much as everyone else. But we should not welcome either their sins or anyone else’s, including our own. Jesus died bearing the penalty for their sins and ours. We all fall to temptation sometimes but if we repent, i.e. express sorrow and seek to mend our ways, God will forgive us. Christians should always forgive the penitent sinner. But if people persist in sin, we should treat them with love but we should in no way give them the impression we approve of their sin. Many people can fall to sexual temptation, which can be a powerful temptation for most of us, but we need to exercise self control. This is the conviction of “Living Out”, a Christian organisation run by same-sex attracted people committed to homosexual celibacy. It is run by three same-sex attracted Anglican Ministers who say “We experience same-sex attraction and yet are committed to what the Bible clearly says, and what the church has always taught, about marriage and sex. See http://www.livingout.org/