The Church of England published its latest attendance statistics recently. They don’t make very positive reading: another year in which national adult weekly attendances have declined, this time by 2%. Between 2014 and 2019 individual diocesan attendance figures dropped by between 3% and 28%, with my own diocese, Lichfield, showing a 16% drop.
To address this decline, we could look at, and perhaps follow the lead of, the 10% of parishes which continue to grow. In many cases this is because they offer a distinctive ministry. They may focus on liturgy and the eucharist, especially in our cathedrals, on preaching and scriptural authority in evangelical churches or the vibrant worship of charismatic churches. On a purely mathematical basis, taking these churches away from the totals would make the figures for the remaining churches look even more discouraging. But that might not be the whole picture: many large and growing churches draw people from a wide area around, who might otherwise attend local churches. Simply replicating the large Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical or Charismatic churches wouldn’t work
The Church of England has a unique role, and immense potential, because it offers Christian ministry to people in parishes, areas which cover every square inch of the country. What would it take for the other 90% of churches to turn the tide of decline? I came across this in the newsletter of the Retired Clergy Association (used with their permission):
“But how can the Church change and adapt to the context in which it is called to minister and remain the Church founded by Christ? I have listened to sermons as I watched on Facebook the live-streamed services at the church we used to physically attend. Whilst the preachers have done their utmost to expound the readings for the day they have failed to connect the Good News of Jesus Christ with life and the world as we are experiencing it, whether it was Brexit, Climate Change, Black Lives Matter, Bio-diversity, the growing gap between rich and poor. Are people losing interest in the church because for the most part it is saying nothing to the world in which we live?”
In her 1942 essay “Why Work”, Dorothy L Sayers offers a more specific perspective of this failure to connect with the world in which we live:
“In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.”
She continues, “How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”
Is this analysis correct? Take a look at the collects, prayers which the church uses week by week or for festivals throughout the year. How many of them actually touch the ground, asking for something which can be seen in this world rather than the world to come? Contrast that with the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.