The ‘established’ church
When Churches are discussed, there is an inevitable focus on the Church of England (CofE). It is the ‘established’ church and deeply rooted in our social and legal history. The parish system, once the heart of local government, still exists and in some areas a parish can be quite influential even if it no longer has any civil power.
But it raises questions about how important churches are these days. Why do broadcasters turn to bishops for comment about Christian affairs when there are other churches, some supported by law although not ‘established’ like the CofE? Where is the balance? Why should we have 27 Anglican bishops sitting in the House of Lords as of right while other churches and other faiths have minimal representation, most often through those who observe that faith and have been elevated to the Lords for other reasons?
The Church is changing
All other churches are suffering in a similar way to the Church of England. Congregations are ageing, declining in numbers and struggling to support themselves through their own voluntary efforts. The number of people coming forward to work as ordained ministers is also falling. Relatively poor salaries, although housing is usually provided free of charge, are a disincentive except for the highly motivated.
There is growing recognition that standard core Christian theology is out of date. The words used to express it in public are counter-productive although at the same time the need for the expression of something ’spiritual’ seems to be in most people’s lives. The pace and pressure of modern life is emphasised by the dominance of money, the passport to better things.
There is a hunger for escapism, whether through television, video games or adventurous off-the-wall holidays. None of these challenges feature very much in Christian theology and attempts to make it relevant by drawing out lessons based on texts which are two-millennia old are empty words.
This is all well-known and debated. Churches embark on ‘mission’ activities to attract a younger membership, but empty words fail. A few outstanding ministers are able to build their congregation and motivate them. As in any area of human activity the numbers of these charismatic individuals is small and the work they do is the exception rather than the rule.
Bending the rules
They often bend the rules too. Their popularity helps to insulate them from criticism, although care must be taken. Some prominent Christian theologians have risen above the implicit control of their church and expressed their ideas about spiritual matters in a manner which causes some friction.
Two prominent Anglicans, Richard Holloway (former Bishop of Edinburgh) and the late John Shelby Spong (Bishop of Newark, New Jersey) have both done a lot to shape a different theology rooted in modern life, unfettered by Christian tradition and with language and ideas which are relevant to today. Greta Vosper a minister of the United Church of Canada, expresses a theology without ‘God’ which relates well to ordinary people even if the powers that be don’t like it. She was tried as a heretic by her church for her pains but survived as its minister in Toronto.
Those that are following a path away from traditional Christian approaches are growing but are still a small minority. What are they saying?
One of the more prominent movements is ‘Free to Believe’, a group of people mostly from the United Reformed Church (URC). The URC is a merger of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in England, Wales and Scotland. It is a small church, now with perhaps 40,000 members, but there are 1,000 churches in communities up and down the country.
Free to Believe describes itself as liberal, open, inclusive and thinking. Its aim is to encourage wider acceptance of the liberal agenda which is evolving in Christianity, as evidenced by Holloway, Spong and Vosper. It is also ‘informal’ – a club of like-minded people sharing ideas and experience. It has members from other churches too.
By contrast there are those that believe that by holding to long-established Christian rites and doctrines they can revive the church.
The Anglican Mission in England is not part of the Anglican church in the UK which it feels has become too liberal. It has about 20 churches in England. Many of its ministers are ordained Anglicans. It believes that by holding on to the Bible, the 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration, it can revive the Anglican church. One line in the Jerusalem Statement says “we rejoice at the prospect of Jesus’ coming again in glory”, a line which the members of Free to Believe would unanimously reject.
So where is Christianity going? Nowhere quite fast, would be a sensible answer.
Not only are numbers dropping in the national census but they are noticeably falling in individual churches of all denominations, leaving them increasingly exposed. The liberals are a minority, but slowly growing in number. The reactionaries have a role and are an attraction for some.
The long-term survival, which future national censuses may record, is likely to be a version of Christianity that looks very different from its appearance today. Churches which are rooted in their community fare better than those which are not, with activities such as care clubs, messy church for children, and food banks all helping. They may not bring greater attendance for worship but they are meeting a community need.
Developing the theology and supporting language which embraces that need, and reflects the society in which it is rooted, is probably the important survival skill.