The motive for this paper is not to wallow in the bad news (of which there is plenty) but to do something positive about it – in particular to pray, especially for Revival.

Every day I thank God “for the good things in the church: where there is faith in you, love for you, sincere worship, biblical teaching and true discipleship, unity and love, evangelism and outreach, prayer, spiritual and numerical growth.” It is important to realise that there is a lot of positive information about churches, especially when we remember that the media tends to focus on the negative news. Please bear this in mind as you read this paper which majors on the negative news. The reason for majoring on it is that much of it is very serious and damaging and we need to pray against the negatives and for the positives. And we particularly need to pray for revival – on a scale that happened in the 19th century Wesleyan Revival. Revival always begins with the church. I start with a positive.

The good effects of the Covid 19 crisis

One of the good effects is that many churches are using electronic communication to reach people during the lockdown and it seems they are reaching people who would not go to a church building (in normal circumstances). Obviously, it is important for Christians actually to meet together in fellowship, including for Communion. But if it is a choice between an individual having no contact with the church or being in contact via electronic media then, of course, the latter is preferable. In an age dominated by electronic communication it is important that the church uses electronic means in evangelism and teaching the Christian Faith, and in enabling people to experience Christian worship. It is likely that this increased use of the media will continue after the crisis, which is a good prospect.

Sometimes virtual reality is used, perhaps via a headset, which produces a 3D image, creating a completely immersive experience of an online church community. Then there is chatbot, an Artificial Intelligence device which can answer thousands of questions about the faith.

There was a huge increase in downloading of Bible Apps in the early days of the lockdown. One was installed almost two million times. Eden Bible Stores saw the sale of physical Bibles rise by 55%. American publisher LifeWay Christian Resources said sales were up 62% compared with last year.  Tyndale House Publishers recorded an increase too.

 

There has also been a massive increase in Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity.” Since the lockdown people involved in online Alpha Courses have doubled in numbers.

Use of electronic communication prior to the crisis

Electronic communication was in increasing use before the Coronavirus crisis.

Wycliffe Bible Translators now have a Bible translation method – Mobilised Assistance Supporting Translation – which enables nationals, even in remote and dangerous countries, to translate the Bible into their own language. It uses computer tablets with translation software and high-speed printing. Instead of taking years translation of the New Testament can be done in months.

Church growth

Between 2007 and 2107 10% of Church of England parish churches have experienced significant growth in regular Sunday attendance. St George’s, Gateshead began in 2016 with 20 members and now has 200. 72 other new churches are growing in Co Durham.

Independent churches such as FIEC, Brethren, New Churches (e.g. Vineyard and New Frontiers) the Salvation Army and many immigrant churches have growing membership – an average of 2.4% between 2012 and 2019. However 10% of them grew at an average rate of 6.4%. They include Immigrant Churches, (mainly Black) Pentecostal Churches.

Dr Peter Brierley records that a group he calls Mainstream Anglican Evangelicals, grew from being 16% of all Evangelical Anglicans in 1990 to being 33% by 2010. Mainstream Evangelicals are also growing in other denominations.

Chelmsford Diocese plans to set up 101 new worshipping communities by 2025. Oxford Diocese plans to set up 750 new congregations (e.g. Fresh Expressions) for people untouched by traditional church. Stephen Hance, the new National Lead for Evangelism and Witness in the Church of England heads up a project to prepare 1000 new evangelists by 2025.

However, there is also bad news.

Church numerical decline

Church of England regular worshippers overall declined by 10% in the last decade. 39% of parishes reported a decline but 50% of parishes didn’t provided sufficient data. Membership of Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches is also declining. The number of Evangelical churchgoers (across all denominations) was 1.4 million in 1990 but is declining to an estimated 1.2 million by 2030.

A Gallup poll recorded that US church membership had declined from 70% to 50% since 1999.

Church spiritual failure

A LifeWay study found that only 15% of British regular churchgoers read the Bible every day. 45% read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40% only read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost 20% say they never read the Bible.

A Scripture Union study of over 1,500 Christian ministries found that many of their leaders and volunteers set aside “no or minimal” time for prayer.

Church theological failure

Dr John Shepherd was appointed in January 2019 as interim director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. But the previous Easter he said in a sermon “The resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body….Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts. But they’re not historical records as we would expect history to be written today; they are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.” He subsequently released a statement seeking to give the impression that he was orthodox, saying he believed in the empty tomb. But it is difficult to see how that squares with the above statement. Did someone steal the body?

The Resonate Christian research organisation discovered that whereas 90% of Methodists believed in heaven only 56% believed in hell.  This is strange since Jesus clearly taught about Hell and had more to say about it than anyone else in the New Testament.

St Matthew and St Luke’s Church, Darlington invited local Muslims to pray in the church and told them that a cross and a picture of Jesus as The Light of the World would be covered up.

A Muslim scholar was invited to preach at a Communion service in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford.  Yet Islam denies everything the Communion service stands for. After protests, an Oxford diocesan spokesperson said the scholar would preach following the Communion Service.

Church desecration

In 2019 Southwark Cathedral hosted the London Fashion Week which featured very scantily-clad women parading up the aisle. For example, two were wearing bikinis.

Gloucester Cathedral allowed Sky to film a drama majoring on witchcraft in which one character seeks to connect to her witch heritage and a second seeks a witch to tutor a third character.

On a lesser level but totally inappropriate, Norwich Cathedral incorporated a huge helter-skelter on top of which the Bishop of Lynn preached a sermon before sliding down in his robes and mitre. In his sermon he said “God wants to be attractive to us… for us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world around us and this glorious helter-skelter is about just that. Enjoying ourselves is a good thing to do and God will be revelling in it with us and all those people who have found fun and joy and laughter here.” Now I’m certainly not against fun and laughter but simply entertaining people who are not yet believers is not appropriate for the church.

Rochester Cathedral installed a miniature golf course and Peterborough Cathedral hosted “creative yoga” under a giant model of the planet Earth, titled “Gaia.” Gaia was, of course, the mother goddess who presided over the earth.

The Archbishop of Canterbury commented: “The first thing I want is for people not to be bored. I want them to have fun … If you can’t have fun in a cathedral, you don’t know what fun is.”

Church sexual abuse

Sexual abuse within the church has done enormous damage to the church’s reputation and the cause of the Gospel. There is a great deal of very damning evidence. For example, as I normally do, I read the Church of England Daily Media Digest (summary of secular news items related to the church) on January 14th 2020. Every item in the Digest was about serious crime amongst leaders in the Church of England:

  • Coverage of the documentary on BBC 2 the previous evening of the Bishop Peter Ball case. This was a shocking two-part documentary about the extensive and blatant sexual abuse carried out over years by a previous Bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, for which he was imprisoned. He was convicted of abusing 17 teenagers and young men – one of whom took his own life. The present Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek said “I am utterly ashamed that a so called Bishop in the Church of England committed such horrific abuse.” There was serious criticism of how the church dealt with the situation. Peter Hancock, the Church of England lead safeguarding bishop said “It is a matter of great shame and regret that the Church did not act to address the behaviour of Peter Ball at the time and that survivors were left to fight tirelessly for justice.”
  • Report of an 81-year-old former priest convicted of sex offences from the 70s and 80s in Chichester Diocese.

 

The other two items were non-sexual but very serious:

  • Coverage of a Channel 4 documentary about a former deputy church warden jailed for 36 years for murder.
  • Coverage of the discipline of a priest who had pocketed £6000 from sham weddings

Other serious matters were reported in the media during 2019:

  • “Warwickshire vicar Christopher Goble admits child porn charges”
  • “19 abuse allegations against former Bishop of Chester who died in 1987”
  • “Clergy and staff from Lincoln Diocese were referred to police in 2015 after church leaders had allegedly ‘turned a blind eye’ to claims of child abuse, an investigation has revealed.”

There were reports of sexual abuse in other denominations in 2019-2020. Here are some headlines:

  • ‘Feared’ pastor convicted of rapes which left some child victims pregnant” [This was the same day as the above Media Digest].
  • Dozens of Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing 166 children
  • Birmingham [Roman Catholic] Archdiocese let children be abused and harboured paedophile priests ‘to protect its own reputation’
  • Jesus Army will ‘cease to exist’ [because of sexual abuse].

All of this will have done enormous damage to the church and the Gospel. Little wonder a recent Ipsos Mori survey found that only 62% of people say they trust clergy to tell the truth. That compares with 69% in 2016 and 85% in 1983.

The homosexual issue

The Church of England bishops’ 2016 report

The Church of England bishops produced a report in 2016 entitled “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.” It was a typical Anglican document where the bishops wanted to avoid undermining the traditional view of sexual relations whilst giving maximum freedom to clergy to deviate from it without deviating from it! (No, that is not a typing mistake but a brief description of what the report says). It said there was little support for changing the traditional teaching but they wanted to “affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church.” If clergy are approached by couples wanting to enter a civil partnership “it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy” for the purpose. But “in contrast, forms of service may be “Commended” by the House [of Bishops] without Synodical approval [by the General Synod].” But “clergy may not use forms of service which are contrary to, or indicate any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.” If the reader is confused that is a very sensible reaction! This is Anglican waffle at its worst. But there’s more.

The bishops went on to say “the House of Bishops has affirmed that stable, faithful homosexual relationships can ‘embody crucial social virtues’ of fidelity and mutuality. One challenge is therefore to explore how that affirmation in the case of both celibate and non-celibate [emphasis mine] relationships might be more fully articulated in our theological ethics and better communicated in our pastoral and missional practice, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England on marriage and relationships. …. To maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine in this matter while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it is entirely consistent with our traditions and is a perfectly coherent approach to take.” 

This report was submitted for consideration by the General Synod in February 2017 but the synod refused even to “take note” of it. In other words, it totally dismissed it.

The Church of England bishops’ 2019 report

In December 2019 the House of Bishops produced a pastoral statement “Civil Partnerships – for same sex and opposite sex couples.” This was a largely good statement which clearly stated a traditional biblical understanding on the homosexual issue. It said

“The introduction of same sex marriage, through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, has not changed the church’s teaching on marriage or same sex relationships. A major study of this and other areas of human sexuality is underway (the Living in Love and Faith project). This work, which is expected to be completed in 2020, will then inform further deliberations of the House of Bishops. In the context, however, of the introduction of opposite sex as well as same sex civil partnerships, the teaching of the church on marriage remains unchanged … There is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites’…. While clergy are fully entitled to argue, in the Living in Love and Faith process and elsewhere, for a change in that teaching, they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it aside. With opposite sex civil partnerships, and with those for same sex couples, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity.”

There followed a huge outcry against this biblical statement. Prominent Anglicans produced an open letter which said “The Church of England has this week become a laughingstock to a nation that believes it is obsessed with sex. More importantly this statement has significantly damaged the mission of the Church and it has broken the trust of those it seeks to serve… it seems our trust has been misplaced and we feel badly let down.”

In response the bishops of Gloucester, Worcester and Reading said they were upset at the hurt caused by the statement (although the first two were involved in producing it). Other bishops responded less than positively. Then the Archbishops of Canterbury and York apologised “We are very sorry and recognise the division and hurt this has caused.”

The Evangelical Group on General Synod divides over homosexuality

19 members of the group voted against a statement that marriage is “between one man and one woman” and that unmarried people should be committed to sexual abstinence. Some resigned from the group. 83 voted in favour.

The Lambeth Conference divided over homosexuality

Some senior overseas archbishops will not attend the Lambeth conference because of the presence of pro-homosexual bishops. In 2008 the Lambeth Conference excluded homosexual bishops (in sexual relationships) but they will be included in the next conference. However they may not bring their same-sex partners. The Bishop of Liverpool decided not to bring his (female) wife in protest. People in same-sex sexual relationships have been appointed bishops in Wales, Canada, the USA and New Zealand. The new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cotterell, has said that we need “to look again at those [biblical] texts [on homosexuality] to see what they are actually saying to our situation, for what we know now is not what was known then.” (He is mistaken in thinking this). He added that the biblical texts are merely “part of our story and our inheritance.” He believes it is acceptable to have a communion service for same-sex civil partnerships.

Other denominations

David Hull, chair of Methodist Evangelicals Together, commented on the Methodist Conference resolution supporting same-sex marriage which is likely to be finally approved at the next conference. When asked if he thought people will leave the denomination if the resolution is approved he replied: “I’m urging people not to leave just yet. I’m urging people to stay and to make the case for remaining faithful as long as we can. I don’t believe in division within the body of Christ but I do believe that we need to stand firmly on biblical teaching and so what I will be doing is, when asked the question, whether I continue to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Methodist Church, if it changes I will have to say no at that point.” But other evangelical Methodists have said they will remain in the church. (You can see my papers about the Methodist statements on same sex marriage at Critique of Methodist study guide on same sex-marriage report and more extensively in Critique of Methodist report on homosexual relationships).

St Silas, Glasgow and Westhill Community Church, Aberdeen have voted to leave the Scottish Episcopal Church over its acceptance of homosexual practice.

Churches Together in England is facing serious division because a woman in a same-sex marriage has been appointed one of its presidents.

On the other hand, William Love, Bishop of Albany in the US Episcopal Church is being disciplined by the denomination for not permitting same-sex marriages in his diocese.

Gender issues

In July 2017 the Church of England General Synod voted to welcome and affirm transgender people. Trans people with gender recognition are already able to marry in Anglican churches and they can offer themselves for ordained ministry. In 2018 the bishops produced a document on pastoral guidance as to “how to use the rite of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition.” It said that “elements including water and oil can be used with the prayers and makes clear that trans people should be addressed publicly by their chosen name.” Then “As a central part of the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith the minister lays their hands on the candidate or candidates, addresses them by name, and prays for them.”

However there was a strong reaction against this guidance. Several senior clergy say they would refuse to conduct such services. They included the Bishop of Wakefield and the Bishop of Maidstone who said the Church of England needed to consider the theological basis for the “unconditional affirmation of trans people”. The Bishop of Blackburn who chaired the committee which produced the guidance eventually said that it “both highly divisive and theologically and pastorally questionable.”

One clergyman said “The Church of England would be declaring liturgically on behalf of God its acceptance of the claim that someone who is biologically male is in fact female or that someone who is biologically female is in fact male.”

Later an open letter signed by over 1600 clergy and lay leaders called for the advice to be reconsidered because it was an apparent “rejection of physical differentiation between male and female” which as well as being an “almost universal biological reality” is also “the basis of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage.” They also said it was a misuse of the Baptismal liturgy.

In 2019 my wife wrote to the two archbishops asking if they could make a statement publicly disapproving of children being encouraged to consider changing sex, but she received waffly replies.

Conclusion

It is encouraging that there is an increasing amount of electronic communication by churches, including in evangelism. More people want Bibles and there is some church growth.

However there is serious numerical decline and serious spiritual weakness (many Christians not praying or reading the Bible very much). There is serious theological error – interfaith compromise, lack of belief in fundamental truths such as the resurrection, lack of belief in hell. Then there are the serious moral errors – very serious sexual abuse (including by clergy), widespread undermining of the traditional biblical teaching on sexual relations, and inappropriate action about the transgender issue.

The church desperately needs a major revival which will revitalize spirituality and promote holiness.

Tony Higton

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.