Many of us church goers will have had our breakfast spoilt on the 1st of November ,Eve of the Feast of All Souls, by newspaper headlines such as,
‘Preaching to people will put them off God, Church warns members.’
It seems the Church of England is to signal to congregations that speaking openly about their faith will most likely put non believers off and will not help in spreading the Christian message. This follows a study, with the somewhat puerile title, Talking Jesus, commissioned by the church and a coalition of Christian groups. More dismal still over the toast, was the news that this research found that four in ten of British adults think that Jesus was a fictional person akin to Harry Potter, and a third of those surveyed said they didn’t know anyone who went to church. Non believers were asked if a Christian had ever spoken to them about their faith. Of those who said yes, only nineteen percent said it made them want to know more, compared with fifty nine percent who said it made them uncomfortable.
British people have never liked talking about religion, unless they’re ‘holy- rollers,’ the sort who pepper their speech with Biblical texts and are best avoided. Personal faith used to be as unmentionable as private sexual proclivities. But to read that few people now even meet a practising Christian was very depressing for those of us who love ancient British institutions, including Hymns Ancient & Modern, and hope our national traditions, including Christianity will continue.
None of that was really a surprise though. In May this year, NatCen, an independent social research agency found that the proportion of people saying they are Anglican has fallen by two fifths, by 4.5 million in ten years, from around 13 million church goers to about eight and a half million. This is part of an overall picture of decline going back more than 30 years.
What is surprising is the church’s response to this critical situation which has been bewilderingly negative. Since the 1960s they have tried changing and watering down the ancient liturgy, losing all vestiges of poetry and anything regarded as, ‘inaccessible.’ We’ve got modern hymns and recently language avoiding all reference to gender. None of this has got more bums on pews. The latest thinking is to remove the church congregation from the church building altogether. The idea is for a change of use for many of its ancient buildings. Generally this will mean no more pews taking up space which could be used for toddler groups and community activities, and when services are not taking place the public could come in and enjoy ‘philosophy cafes.’
We’ve got ‘messy church’ in many parishes which allows children to run riot and some vicars have already moved towards irregular forms of meeting on a Sunday which form an open discussion rather than a service.
The real nature of these changes was clearly evident to me when I visited the small parish of Lewknor in Buckinghamshire recently. At first I was charmed to see an ancient country church next to a tiny, thatched infant’s school, looking like something from an old fashioned child’s picture book.
Inside work by those children lined the walls; bright illustrations, big cut out letters and messages in childish writing scrawled on pink and yellow post-it notes. But there any resemblance to traditional C of E education ended. There was no mention of the Christian religion whatever, anywhere. No bible stories, instead all the children’s work referred to what are now called,
‘Personal Skills,’ in particular, ‘Assertiveness.’
That was just the porch. Inside the nave there were more big cut out garish letters and posted messages of international adages and worldly wisdom. As in those small books of self-help mainly published in America, some of the sayings were of doubtful attribution:
‘Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, then, surprise, surprise, you are doing the impossible.’
Apparently that dropped from the lips of Mahatma Ghandi, possibly when he was passing through California.
Pinned up under the stained glass windows, there were a lot of quotes from bearded old men, none of them from the Old Testament. Neither were there any sayings from Christian saints, theologians, missionaries or even mildly religious people. There were messages about ‘Mindfulness,’ the new cult of Buddhism ‘lite’ for middle class people aspiring to secular happiness.
Christianity of course is in a difficult place in education these days as it has never been about achieving personal, immediate happiness. The Christian idea of self-sacrifice and obedience to the will of God has been largely junked in favour of something less demanding. Added to this, there is the issue of ‘community values,’ and ‘cultural sensitivities.’ No doubt the teachers from the local school and the local vicar would say that social and religious cohesion cannot be assumed, even among the seventy eight pupils at this rural school.
More likely from what I saw on those ancient walls, many teachers in church schools and even C of E vicars no longer believe in God themselves. They are sophisticated men and women and have quite likely embraced fashionable atheism. I say C of E because none of this applies to the Anglican church abroad, particularly in Africa, where faith is undimmed and loudly dispensed.
In England the old embarrassment about religion remains, the Christian sort of course, Muslims proselytise without hesitation and are widely approved of by many on the Left. This queasiness about our national religion may soon be fatal to the church in England. Like the BBC the church as we used to know it no longer exists as a creative force, but takes its identity largely from focus groups and opinion polls. An institution which has no faith in itself of course ultimately founders.
Perhaps it might help if teachers in our Anglican schools could put aside the works of the Mahatma for awhile, and look instead at someone like Richard Hooker, 1554-1600. He was writing at a time when Puritan reforms threatened to radically change the appearance and ritual of our churches. He once published a treaties on ecclesiastical folly, including the words:
‘Though for no other cause, yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.’
Things which once lost can never be recovered.