WHITHER the Church of England? Or the way things are going, wither the Church of England? There have been more than enough promises via the new development plan Simpler, Humbler, Bolder – aka (Archbishop Stephen) Cottrell’s Wheeze – about the ‘exciting’ future that awaits the C of E just around the corner. Well, plans and predictions are one thing, but facts are quite another. So, how goes the numbers game?
The Rev’d Dr David Goodhew, visiting fellow of St John’s College, Durham, has made a detailed study of the figures, and I would say they are somewhere between catastrophic and apocalyptic. For instance, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells in 1990, around 34,000 people attended church on Sundays. By 2019 Sunday attendance had halved to about 17,000. In every diocese but one the numbers have fallen substantially. Moreover, the figures have worsened in recent years. And that was before Covid and the tragic decision to lock the doors of the churches.
Snapshots are unreliable, so the best procedure is to look at trends and here we see relentless decline. In the year 2000, weekly attendances nationally were 950,000. By 2010 the number had fallen to 799,000. In 2019 only 680,000 turned up at Sunday services. Thus, the total of churchgoers has dropped by nearly a third in less than 20 years.
For baptisms, the news is even grimmer. In 2000 there were 161,000, in 2010 135,000. Then disaster, as in 2019 only 86,000 adults and infants were baptised. So the number of new church members has almost halved in less than 20 years. Going, going . . . nearly gone.
Most dioceses are facing severe financial pressure and their response is to cut the number of full-time, stipendiary parochial clergy, which can only be a recipe for further decline. Sunday attendance and electoral roll figures paint a similar picture and are backed by other data.
There is a solitary exception to this depressing trend: London Diocese has grown, albeit slightly. Indeed, London is the one Anglican diocese in either the USA or England to have grown in the last 30 years. At this rate, given another thirty years, many other dioceses will have virtually ceased to exist.
Dr Goodhew concludes: ‘The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. Significant chunks of the Church are vigorous, even as significant chunks face oblivion in the coming decades.’
Einstein said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. Simpler, Humbler, Bolder is an example of this insanity in practice as it proposes more of the same: more lay leadership, fewer full-time ordained clergy and fewer traditional parish set-ups in which every local community has its own resident vicar.
The policy of the Church over all the 50 years of my ordained ministry has been to ditch traditional English Christianity. The classics of 400 years’ devotion, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, have been thrown out and replaced with doggerel ‘modern’ texts. This amounts to sacrilege. I have room for only two examples. How could anyone with an ear for the joy of the English language replace ‘Behold, a voice crying in the wilderness’ with ‘Listen, someone is shouting in the desert’? Or ‘With this ring I thee wed’ with ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage’? Eleven words for six. Did the arrogant re-writers think we didn’t understand the original? The true idiocy of the new version is in the fact that, if the groom has to tell his bride that the ring is a sign, it means the sign isn’t working.
The Venite and Te Deum at Matins, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evensong have been ditched. The much-loved traditional hymns have been replaced by banal ‘worship songs’. St Paul said, ‘All things must be done decently and in order.’ But decency and order have been discarded in favour of clapping, waving, dancing and sundry ululations. The guitar rather than the organ is increasingly the instrument of choice. Many of today’s services are distinguishable from a pop concert only because they are so third-rate.
As Dr Goodhew says, the issue is primarily theological. The bishops have consistently ‘demythologised’ the supernatural elements of the gospel – Christ’s Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Ascension and the promise that he will come again in judgement – in favour of sociological fads, Left-wing politics, diversity, equality, the LGBT+ agenda and most recently the complete totalitarian wokery.
In response, the people have simply removed their bums from the pews (where the pews have not been replaced by stackable chairs). I was going to add, ‘and their knees from the kneelers’, but the kneelers went long ago.
How can I speak to the catastrophe that is Simpler, Humbler, Bolder with all its secularising machinations? Only that I am heartbroken to see the real church into which I was ordained fifty years ago destroyed, its Bible and Prayer Book discarded, its historic theology trashed, the great jewel of the traditional parish about to be abandoned and exchanged for a confection of power-grabbing bureaucracy, jargon, social engineering and the whole agenda of rampant wokery.