It’s been well publicised this week that there are one or two Church of England congregations that aren’t exactly bursting at the seams. If you go to a Church of England church and find that you can count more of your own fingers and toes than people attending all of its services on a Sunday, don’t be surprised; you’re in good company. This is the case in a quarter of all C of E churches and for rural churches it’s half. With 16,000 buildings and not a lot of people filling many of them, the Church of England is in a bit of a pickle.
What do you do when a church congregation is in single figures but their Grade I listed village church is costing over £11,000 a year just to keep it useable? If it was any sensible business running the show, it would be time for lights out and instructions to the attendees to go and find somewhere else. But of course the Church of England is not a sensible business so those sorts of rules don’t apply.
As we know church attendance has been declining for over a century, but there’s only really been one plan for the C of E during much of this time and that’s to carry on regardless. This is not even a survival strategy; it’s a hopeless attitude of sitting on a long slide into oblivion and pretending you’ll never get there.
Well believe it or not large parts of the Church of England are just about there and as you might expect, it’s not a great place to be. The parish system has been on its last legs for years. Individual clergy have been taking responsibility for more and more churches meaning their limited time and resources are spread increasingly thinly. Multi-parish benefices are finding it more and more difficult to make appointments as most clergy have understandably limited interest in running around madly looking after a bunch of churches with hardly anyone going to them.
Take my diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. It has 134 clergy, 478 church buildings and being a very rural area of has a population of 1,379 per church. Despite rural Church of England attendance being much better than the national average, these figures are increasingly failing to add up. Apart from the C of E’s past inability to take much notice of its mounting problems, additional factors have compounded the situation. Over the last few centuries we’ve had rural populations decline significantly in proportion to urban dwellers and with the advent of car ownership, those who do make the effort to go to church are not automatically going to attend their local church. If you have young children, but the least elderly member of your village church’s congregation is in their 50s, is that going to be your first choice, or will it be a church in the town 10 miles down the road that has a thriving children’s ministry? Even St Paul would have had trouble building up a village congregation given these circumstances.
With 57 per cent of C of E buildings in rural areas, the solution, according to Giles Fraser at least, is simply to blow them up. I have to agree with him that large parts of the Church of England are mired in nostalgia and obsessed with its buildings. This week’s Church Buildings report, which is the first to be produced in years by the C of E, says a great deal about how all of these church buildings bear witness to the Christian faith and the history and memories that are contained within them. The truth though, is that many are saying that Christianity is firmly rooted in the past and that we were once a Christian nation. Buildings speak of what has been, but the people who frequent them are the ones who reveal the present and the future (or the lack of it).
Blowing up a few thousand churches is rather extreme and won’t go down well with local councils’ planning departments, but the choice is stark. Either these buildings will have to see their use adapted considerably for the benefit of local people or they need to become ‘festival churches’ – only open for festivals and special events – or effectively closed for good.
The mistake that is made regularly when we see this state of affairs is to think that the Christian faith is dying. There’s far too much evidence to the contrary for that to be true, but it demonstrates what happens when society moves on and the Church gets left behind. It also is a reminder that if churches spend more of their time concerning themselves with the upkeep of their buildings rather than in mission to their local communities then their buildings are in danger of becoming expensive museum pieces. On this topic, the respected Christian missiologist, Alan Hirsch wrote this yesterday:
In the midst of the rapid change and hyper-growth of almost everything around us, we as the Church have lost our voice to impact the culture. Now more than ever, what is “new and improved” becomes “old and worn out” in just a fraction of the time. This dramatically impacts the mission of the church. As leaders responsible for our generation, we simply cannot expect significantly different outcomes using outmoded understandings of church and culture. If churches are not prepared for what is here today, how will they respond to what lies ahead?
The good news is that we can become the church as it was always meant to be––a rapidly spreading, high impact, movement. We need not settle merely for striving in this rapidly changing world; Jesus’ people can actually thrive in it, and God willing, even redirect it. But if we are to do so, we will have to change. Jesus has given us everything we need to get the job done. Our greatest opportunity is to recover the forgotten ways of church-as-missional-movement
The good news is also that all types of churches up and down the country are creatively adapting their ministries and the use of their buildings in order to share the unchanging message of the gospel. We are rediscovering what was taken for granted in mediaeval times; that church buildings can be a resource and a blessing to a local community whilst still being a place of reverent prayer and worship.
We may be seeing church buildings close for many years to come, but at the same time we are also seeing new ones being born like the multi-million pound C3 Church in Cambridge which opened this month, or the renovation of a derelict gasworks in Birmingham, which as the Times reported at great length on Saturday, ‘is about to become a beacon to attract young people into an encounter with Jesus.’ The Diocese of Birmingham is investing £1 million and has recruited the well-known songwriter and worship leader, (the now Rev) Tim Hughes to head up a new church in the city’s clubbing heartland. Even though the building work is still underway and the first service only took place on Sunday, Hughes is already talking about putting on events and courses, training leaders and planting groups from its community into struggling churches to revivify them. These are anything but the words of a church in retreat.
The Church of England is not in terminal decline despite its past and current failures. The dead wood is being pruned and the new shoots that are growing up in its place will bear plenty of fruit if they are watered well and allowed to flourish. As we have seen time and again, God refuses to let his church slip away. The Church of England is not dying – it is regenerating.