The Fight to Survive?

Jeremy Paxman (former Newsnight presenter and University Challenge inquisitor) has written a piece about the Church of England in, of all places, the Financial Times (to which he is a contributing editor). It’s an affectionate piece. He clearly has a soft spot for the good old C of E. But it’s a bleak piece too, about ‘the Church of England’s fight to survive’, as Paxman asks

“is the Church of the brink of extinction?”

Paxman describes a visit to “an ancient Dorset church as a tiny handful of parishioners takes communion”. The priest is 87 years old. None of the congregation is “in the flush of youth”. Paxman admires the scene but speaks of the Church’s “Irreversible decline”. Whereas a decade ago, 13 million British people identified themselves as Anglican, that number is now just 8.5 million. Fewer than one million people go to church regularly, a decline of 11% over the past decade.

The Church, he says, has some very precious real estate. But historic buildings are expensive to maintain: 20 C of E buildings are closed each year. Why not sell most of them off?, he asks.

Church giving, as well as church going, is declining as our core supporters age: 70% of giving to the Church comes from those over 50. 40% from the over 70s. He quotes Mike Eastwood, the Liverpool Diocesan Secretary, as saying that we have “about 10 years” to turn things around.

Paxman writes:

Optimism is a precondition for any job in the Church of England. But the overwhelming impression is of dwindling, ageing congregations: homely, well-mannered and kindly folk increasingly out of joint with the noisy, secular spirit of the age.

Underlying our problems is the fact that every survey shows that succeeding generations are less likely to believe in God or have a positive view of religion or church.

In the end, the C of E’s problem is that not enough people believe in the one thing that makes it different from the secular world…

There are signs of hope, too, including an increase in the numbers coming forward for ordination. (A quarter of the Church’s clergy are aged 60 or over.) But where are congregations growing?

One of the phenomena of our day is the success of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and the churches it has planted. ‘HTB’ is the church that gave us the Alpha Course which offers people an opportunity to explore the Christian faith, usually over a bowl of pasta. Paxman tells us that 24 million people have completed the course. HTB is a success story: not only are its services full but HTB sends whole congregations out to plant churches elsewhere. Sometimes the HTB plant takes over a church building that is in danger of being closed down. It’s a controversial strategy but one in which the Church of England is investing money. (One church that has been ‘taken over’ by HTB is St Sepulchre’s, Holborn. Known as the ‘National Musicians’ Church’, St Sepulchre’s is the last resting place of Proms-founder, Sir Henry Wood. When former HTB curate, the Revd David Ingall became Priest-in-charge, the church announced that it would no longer host concerts because the space was required for worship. The change in policy drew criticism from figures in the music world such as John Rutter and Aled Jones.)

HTB’s theology is conservative evangelical and its worship style, charismatic. It is the form of Christianity in which I was ‘born again’ and from which I heard the call to ordained ministry. But I have changed in the 31 years since I was ordained deacon. To those who care to ask, I sometimes describe myself as ‘post-evangelical’ and a ‘recovering charismatic’. I still believe that Jesus is good news and that God is to be encountered in the bible which bears witness to Jesus as the Word of God. My own preference is for contemporary styles of worship: my ideal church service would be a ‘Rock Mass’ – lead by a band (with me on lead guitar and preaching, of course). But even vicars don’t always get want they want. And neither should they! In Stretton and Appleton Thorn, we continue with our ‘mixed economy’ of services – from All-age Worship to Book of Common Prayer Evensong – because we are trying to serve the whole community. In city centres, you can specialise – if you want Anglo-Catholic worship there’s a church for you. If you want a conservative low church, there’s one for you. And if you want guitars and drums, you can find that too. In our churches, we have to try to offer something for everyone. The danger of course is that you end up pleasing nobody.

And I’m not pessimistic about the church: as Paxman says, you have to be an optimist in my line of work. I’m encouraged by some words I heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the church survives because it is God’s idea.

I believe that God has a purpose for the churches in our parishes and I don’t think that involves us going out of business. We need to learn to engage with a culture that no longer takes faith in God for granted and which does not have a ‘brand loyalty’ to the Church of England.

We are not going to be ‘HTB’ – at least, I don’t think so – but we do need to be the church in this place. I still believe that the story of God’s love for the world revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the best news there is. How do we live our faith in the world as it is today (not harking back to some halcyon days, now long gone)?

Those are the challenges we face. I think we can do it. What do you think?

Alan Jewell

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