You may have come across this headline:
To be clear, this is not just that the number of people in church is smaller than those who don’t go on a Sunday. And this is not the fact that active members of the Church of England are in a minority. What this is, is that when you ask people their religion, 48.5% of the population of England and Wales say they have no religion. And the number who say they are Christians, of whatever denomination, is 43.8%.
The increase in those who identify themselves as having no religion has increased massively in a very short space of time. As recently as 2011, the figure was 25%. And by 2014 it was 48.5%. It used to be that people who were not very religious (but who were not actively anti-religion) would put themselves down on forms as ‘Church of England’. That is increasingly not the case. And people who were brought up in a family where religion was practiced now say they have no religion, rather than simply identify themselves with the religion of their parents or grandparents.
Half of those who identify themselves as Christians are over the age of 55. ‘Millennials’ – those born in the period from about 1980 to 2000 are missing from church. We might comfort ourselves by saying that as they get older, get married, have children, they will come back to church. That’s highly unlikely because they are not people who see themselves as Christians who just don’t have time to go to church; increasingly they see themselves has having no religion.
In 1983, those who identified themselves as Anglican made up 44.5% of the population. In 2014, it was 19%. The Church of England has never been good at converting people to faith: we have somehow assumed that everybody in England was more-or-less a Christian unless they identified with another religion, in which case it was in poor taste to suggest they might like to come and join us. Those who do join the Church of England tend to come from another Christian denomination – a transfer, rather than conversion. And for every one person who joins the Church of England, 12 leave it. The Church of England itself predicts that attendance is going to fall for the next 30 years, at least.
Clergy numbers are going to continue to decline as those who retire outnumber those who come forward for ordination. 25% of C of E clergy are aged over 60. Only 13% are under 40. In another profession, people would be asking me about my plans for retirement.
How do we respond?
This is it. We are the last generation. The church may limp along for a few years yet, but there’s no real future for the church when we have gone. Will the last person to leave kindly turn out the lights?
Something must be done! If we don’t get more people coming to church, the collections will continue to go down, we won’t be able to pay our bills. We are in danger of making ourselves and one another feel guilty. Clergy do this all the time!
We are doing some good things: looking at our worship and the way in which we publicise our services. We want to develop the building so that it provides a welcome to visitors. Those are good things. But we can’t do that just to assuage our guilty consciences.
Is there something we have going for us?
It turns out, we believe in resurrection. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus raises the widow’s son from death to life, as an act of compassion and in anticipation of his own resurrection.
The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:15-17)
A miracle like that would do us a power of good! But we see little miracles here all the time. On Thursday morning, as walked to the front of church to start the service there two people talking to each other, oblivious to me. I stopped for a moment and waited for them to finish their conversation. They looked at me and I looked at them. And it made me laugh. That Thursday morning congregation has in it a number who have suffered loss and bereavement. Some who live with long-term illness in themselves or are carers for others. And on Thursday mornings, we meet here and make each other laugh. There’s a communion service complete with sermon in the middle; but far more importantly, we have a cup of tea and a biscuit afterwards. It’s a group of people who have learned to love one another.
It’s not just the Thursday morning crowd. I’ve had a couple of people say to me in recent days how much they have appreciated the support of the church while coping with difficult circumstances. These are little miracles and they happen here. They are not things that we proclaim from the rooftops but we give thanks to God because we sense that God is here amongst us.
On Pentecost Sunday, we had a service of all-age worship. There was quite a group of younger children, some currently part of Praise and Play, some now part of the school. They came and sat on the carpet on the front. I did a magic trick, creating a cake to celebrate the church’s birthday and we sang a children’s song. And while I was talking, one little lad engaged me in conversation. At one point he was telling me that his trousers had a pocket in. It’s become one of my favourite things: sitting on the step at the front of church with the Praise and Play families on a Friday afternoon and with the children who come to our all-age services.
We live in a society where people are increasingly isolated. The elderly who never see a living soul from one day to the next. People of working age who never get time to be with their families. Young women with children who long to have another adult to talk to. People who live with mental health problems and don’t fit in. Young people who spend hours a day looking at a screen, not another person. Church is the opposite of social isolation. Church is where you come through the door and you belong. From the youngest to the oldest of us, this is our space where we matter and so does everyone else.
What if that got out? That this was the place of little miracles? Where people get to know themselves loved? And commit to learning what it means to love one another? Maybe it will be a while before we have queueing round the block, but you never know!