When I was at university studying Architecture, we were given the hypothetical brief of designing a new chapel for the campus. Having looked forward to it initially, it actually became the most problematic project during my entire time there. I was familiar with the use of the existing chapel and the Christian groups on campus. Consequently I felt I had a good understanding of the needs of those using the designated place for Christian worship. I produced my designs accordingly.
What I had failed to take into account was that our professor who had set the brief had a very different view of what a chapel should be and how it should look. He was an open atheist, but had an interest in ecclesial architecture. However, it became apparent that he was more interested in architectural forms and particular aesthetics than what would be of most use to the chaplains and students. It resulted in some heated words and, unsurprisingly, I was the one who lost when the marks were handed out.
The experience taught me a valuable lesson: that academia detached from practice can lose its grip on reality if it holds its opinions too highly.
All of this brings me on to the Westminster Faith Debates which began another series of public events this week. The Debates began in 2012 as part of the £12m Religion and Society Programme. They bring together leading academics and public figures to debate the latest research on religion and values conducted by the programme. It has covered a wide range of areas revolving around religious belief in this country and beyond, analysing views and trends on such hot topics as assisted dying, gay marriage, faith schools, religious freedom and radicalisation. The findings at times have been substantial and have regularly been picked up by the media.
These Debates are organised by ex-Labour Home Secretary, Charles Clarke MP and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, who has been described by Matthew Taylor, head of the Royal Society of Arts as “one of the world’s leading experts on religion”.
It is commendable that Clarke has become involved because of his desire to improve the way religion is understood and dealt with by politicians and public figures. Having followed these debates for some time, it is obvious, though, that they are the real baby of Linda Woodhead. Her contribution to the understanding of how religion continues to play a part in our lives in the UK should not be underestimated. Much of it has focused on the state of the Church of England and its demise (at least in attendance and affiliation) over recent years. The research has been solid, but numbers only reveal part of the story. How they are framed and interpreted is just as important, if not more so.
Through the press releases, interviews and articles which Professor Woodhead has presented, a narrative has emerged that describes a Church of England where its leaders are increasingly out of touch with regular Anglicans and detached from society at large. Her argument is that, in order to survive, the church must allow itself to be moulded by societal views rather than seeing itself as the “sole repository of truth“. She is also keen to see the CofE reaching out more to those who describe themselves as Anglican, but have no contact with a church or even necessarily any tangible belief in God. Instead of paying so much attention to the attitudes of the “God fearers” who attend churches weekly and have a living faith, the views of those 87% of Anglicans who do not come along regularly should be given more weight in order to attract them into the fold.
In much of her analysis, Professor Woodhead has drawn sound and incisive conclusions, as you might expect. But when it comes to the future direction of the Christian faith, her personal views would appear to take her down a certain liberal route that sees the Church as being a man-made institution, rather than is the embodiment of God’s kingdom on Earth. She is right to draw attention to the Church’s role beyond its congregations: Jesus commanded his followers to be missional and to get out into the world and share the Good News with everyone. Reaching out to those who identify themselves with the Christian Faith is as good a place to start as any. Beyond that point though, I start to get worried. Yes, the Church of England is the Established Church and that brings certain responsibilities, but if any church starts to take its eyes off Jesus and puts anything else on an equal standing or even above Him, it is in deep trouble. Rather than being inclusive to the point of not taking too much interest in what those attending might believe in the hope they will stay, the Church of England – or any other church for that matter – would do better pointing out that being a Christian is much, much more than just believing there could be a God or having some family connection with a church. You can’t leave salvation out of the equation, even if it’s not politically correct.
Part of the reason church numbers have declined so much is that people have realised that going to church for no reason beyond habit or tradition is a boring and unfulfilling exercise. If you look at the churches that are growing in the UK, you’ll find that they are full of ‘Godfearing Churchgoers’ and those serious about finding out more, both of whom have little interest in woolly niceties. They are much more interested in having a life-changing encounter with the living God. Leaving people to think that being a Christian or an Anglican isn’t anything worth taking seriously does both the Church and those it should be engaging with a huge disservice. Jesus regularly emphasised that following Him was a big commitment and that being a hanger-on wasn’t a credible option.
Ian Paul, who is both an academic theologian and also the Associate Minister at St Nic’s Church in Nottingham, sums this up well in one of his many excellent Psephizo blog articles:
What has gone wrong here is that theology has been subordinated to sociology, instead of sociology – with its crucial insights as it holds up a mirror of reality to the institution of the church – being shaped by and serving a theological vision. The worst thing the church could be, from a sociological point of view, is a ‘sect’… But Christian distinctiveness is the lifeblood of the people of God; without it, we wither and die.
This week’s Westminster Faith Debate centred on the future of the Church of England’s parochial system, which, by all accounts, is becoming near impossible to sustain in some parts of England due to falling attendances, lack of clergy and the cost of building maintenance. In a pre-event interview with ex-Times religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, Professor Woodhead said that the Church of England is on its “last chance”, saying quite rightly that the system, where every square foot of England falls into a delineated parochial area, and the tradition of the Church paying for clergy accommodation, would all have to be reexamined: “The Church of England is one of five great British cultural institutions, but it is in crisis. If it is to survive it needs an urgent injection of fresh thinking and radical reform.”
This radical reform is already happening, and it looks very different from Professor Woodhead’s vision. There is a growing movement within the Church of England that, rather than looking to secular culture to inform its direction, is firmly based on biblical principles with the desire to grow God’s kingdom at its very heart. This is the found in the Fresh Expressions stream which is having considerable success raising up new congregations and injecting fresh life and thinking into the Church of England. The Alpha course has had a massive impact on the growth of churches around the country, and there is a new movement in the training of leaders (many of whom are young adults) with the formation of the increasingly influential St Mellitus theological college.
There is much more, too, that could be added, but little of this is reported through the work of the Westminster Faith Debates programme. Perhaps it is because this is outside the field of interest, or maybe because it does not fit the ‘right’ narrative. But ultimately it will not be academics who determine the future of our churches; it will be those who are inside them who are putting a vision grounded by faith into place.
This is not to say, by any means, that academic study in this area is of no value. But unless it embraces the principle that the Church is nothing unless God is at the centre, it runs the risk of becoming little more than an intellectual exercise.