Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sleeping and Decline

It seems that much of the active church related blogging world has gone to sleep, although since my full computer reinstall I lack some of the bookmarks I once had. A number do it less, now that they are curates, and one is having a drink of New Wine; one is on holiday where the bathing huts line up in different colours, and another is having a new broadband. But it is July and August, and August is a time when some churches become sleepy, if they have lots of elements that can be reduced down. Or perhaps that should be sleepier...

At the moment, then, there is not a lot happening, other than the most general of news events still setting the scene:

In 40 years, attendance at Church of England services has halved and, according to the latest figures, is still falling: down to 1.13 million a week, barely 2 per cent of the population. Among the young, the drop is said to be 80 per cent.

This (in the Financial Times) is far from unique. The consequence was, and is, a disappearance of Christianity as in Sunday School or even casual church connection, in the general public memory. RE lessons in schools are no substitute, even if assemblies are supposed to be Christian in general (but are mostly not even religious) and RE courses tend to be Christian and another faith each year. RE is a cinderella subject, and pupils go to RE as a pause in the day. Some do part or whole GCSEs, but it is something exotic. Nothing beats involvement in a church for mind formation.

As an adult I became involved in a movement between Anglicanism and Unitarianism. I was involved at the Anglican church in Barton while on the south side of the River Humber, but a gradual decline took place in terms of involvement for belief reasons. Actually, belief is not a reason for decline as such, as people tend to be quite plastic in beliefs and live with contradictions; most will fit in with institutions regardless.

Looking round the Minster [states Mathew Engel, the FT reporter], I wondered if the highly sophisticated and intelligent people reciting the Creed really believed everything they were saying. Everyone was in full voice; I failed to spot anyone with their fingers crossed. But the answer seemed to be: not exactly.

Reasons for decline are social, like moving away, or biological, like dying off, but the real crux of the matter is the cultural one of not being involved in the first place, even increasingly for rites of passage. A 'keep it at a distance while accepting church rites of passage' has become a longer distance and more in the way of alternative rites too, including the secular 'pretty' marriage ceremony away from a church.

The Church of England parish I live in now is the largest in population terms in the country. It had 80,000 people in it when I last checked (at least, probably more now with more surrounding housing) and five Anglican churches. One of those was mothballed. One is specifically for a village beyond the edge of the whole city. The only time I went to the main church (also of a village - this one, Sutton) it had fifteen people in attendance. OK, it was snow on the ground, but there were people there who, like me, could not be elsewhere. The lay preacher sermon was pathetic, about Noah and what he was thinking. There was not a critical thought in it, for example the water cycle and why Noah's Ark is a nonsense story in terms of actually happening. Who wants to come to hear drivel like that, even if once 'in' they do put up all kinds of nonsense? It is as if a different thought-world mentality operates within those walls. The church was in an interregnum but the previous incumbent was a band singing evangelical cleric.

Some folks I note are very involved but one describes herself as 'Agnostic or Inclusive Church'. Cultural involvement, indeed those long-developed cultural riches, are inherited and abound, but this situation reminds me of the composer John Rutter, whose modern yet tuneful Anglican music for liturgy comes from a man who doesn't actually believe in the texts of that for which he writes. He is preserving a cultural tradition rather than expressing in music a belief from within. His belief as it is relates to the wrapping paper rather than what might be inside, if anything is inside. It is what I call Museum Religion, where the contents are now on display in a lost sense, and this approach is rather significant among the declining numbers of those involved. Actually the Museum is like one with virtual interactivity, so the glass cases may have nothing inside them at all, but there are many video screens and objects for entertainment.

The Unitarian denomination has a self-memory of itself which is Museum Religion. I do it myself: I can give a good account of a past of involvement that suggests an identity for now. But does it? Isn't history a get-out for those lacking theology? The actual church I attend is also having tough times with attendances not dissimilar to the above and often less. Too many people have left, often with arguments and frustrations, and when one person drops out it matters. If it had kept all who had attended regularly, even with the deaths, it would now be well attended. I get frustrated, and I am now (as it happens) so at present I am just doing my main role and otherwise taking a step back. I'm one of the few who attends every week because I must, but again you puzzle that in a city of some 230,000 so few darken the doors.

One reason for the crushing state of things is that people do not want to be involved in running things and to give commitments. People don't join political parties or social groups: they almost immediately demand money and involvement. There is also a lack of historical imagination, like the sixth former who once asked me why a Puritan didn't "go shopping". However, when it comes to small groups of people, some people love it, even thrive on it, with the activities, and some then have power and manipulation talents (and drive others nuts sometimes).

But, the point is, most keep away. You don't trek into an unknown group. The chances of being anonymous in the small place are slim, so it is better not to show face in the first place. Some do go to cathedrals as a sort of cultural-rich reflective space, no further questions asked. Attendances have risen, but they are hardly blockbuster in numbers, and they are substitute attendances for somewhere else in terms of avoiding involvement.

Incidentally I am not a member of this Hull church: since my time at Unitarian College ended I'm not joining a congregation or any other body, and, in any case I prefer a wider definition of 'membership' in terms of principles and ideas rather than a specific local body. I do not vote in congregational meetings where formality matters though I express opinions and the music solution was mine. This way I keep out of too much involvement.

As for those 'newbies' venturing inside these places, I maintain that the Christian Eucharist service is highly excluding as well as in bizarre language for the outsider, and although Unitarianism as a known concept was surely lost to the British public memory now the World Wide Web has given it a wider potential view, so that these days almost all non-random visits are Web informed. Enquiries come not from the secular, at a bald level, but the already religious and involved somehow. Usually a change in the social situation gets combined with a personal honesty about actual belief.

But I think people who enter Unitarian churches become disappointed quite rapidly. The publicity sounds great, but what they find is a shell of Protestant religion, where everything in terms of innovation of style has come to a full stop. Content is different, but the atmospherics are old school. There is a real need to become more fluid and adventurous. I try to do this with the music, but most of the time I can't and also the effect is limited.

We are like the Last of the Mohicans: just a few, keeping an old show on the road, and wondering if something will turn up. Perhaps not, and perhaps that is it. Perhaps it is wrong to think these places should continue.

I suppose my model is that people of varied and different views should have a place where they can contemplate, reflect and discuss ideas that try to rise above the material and exchange. In so far as these people are friendly, this might be helped by some socialising. There is also the function, among such a group, of mutual care. This set up is never going to attract the masses, and there is absolutely no wish to remove from the State the functions of education and welfare, or indeed to reduce the opportunities for leisure, so as to be some way to boost the existence of the church again (many a conservative would want this reversion to the past). It is just the provision of a meeting place. However, these ideas by which to reflect have been developed in the past and currently, and these are the places to hear them, the ideas that frame and develop ethical reflections. For me, then, comes a model of people of difference coming together and sharing, which is then a 'gospel' of how the wider world can operate, hopefully an example for the wider world.

It seems to me that this is worth having, but in the end the bums on seats will decide whether it happens or not. For a long time the answer seems to be probably not, and as for Christianity the bums have been coming off the seats consistently and persistently for many decades, and now it is starting to matter because the infrastructure around these meeting places will not hold up much longer.


tony mcneile's unitarian sermons and writings said...

If the human being needs religion then we have to reinvent religion to be a valuable tool for today's person. The old religion is dead, God is dead but the need remains. Do we worship shopping, or celebrity or money as an alternative - or do we seek a new light to fill our spirits and a new power within that puts us in control of ourselves and wipes out the fear of feeling different and unattractive?

Suem said...

I agree that bums on seats is a real issue. When few people attend a church, those who might have joined decided not to bother! It doesn´t look like a going concern for a start! Will there be anywhere left to worship in a few decades in the UK?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Good question. Dunno. Some places will bob along the bottom, some will bounce back, but there may be many fewer in the future. How many Methodist churches in a city or town, for example?

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile MILLIONS of people have watched someone undergo a type of near death experience as he accepts his death and walks forward to face it in the form of someone who has continually fled from death.

Harry Potter confonts Lord Voldemort (flees from death).

The old institutions may be dying but the Spirit finds a way to keep on putting the message out .......

Jonathan Clatworthy said...

Particularly good blog of yours, Pluralist.
Two reasons why attendances are decling.
First, churches are still trying to do what worked in the 19th century. Faced with the threat of science disproving all religion, they emphasised a completely separate spiritual world uncontactable by science: in effect they turned everything they could into unverifiable dogma. People wanting to explore their spirituality don't want Hurdle 1 to a load of impossible stuff you're expected to believe.
Secondly, most churches are responding to declining numbers by mission projects, i.e. techniques of manipulation. What makes them seek more bums on pews is their own anxieties about failure; what really would attract people is if they had something worthwhile to offer. And these days most clergy are too busy running the show to read books and make sure they know what they are talking about.