Sunday, September 02, 2007

Has preference for commitment over numbers been a mistake?

Writing in yesterday's Guardian David Self (Face to Faith column)argues that the increased irrelevancy of the Church of England in modern British society has been greatly assisted by the Church's preference for commitment over numbers. He cites the rise of the parish communion service at the expense of matins as the main evidence of this preference. It has made the Church of England into a club for the committed faithful worshipper rather than a church of the nation inclusive enough to allow those with questions and doubts to continue worshipping with some integrity.

Self raises some interesting issues, but I can't help feeling here is another example of special pleading from a lover of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible. The argument is familiar to all parish priests because they hear it so often from nostalgic older worshippers: the church used to be full on a Sunday, and a respected influence in the community - we used to have Matins and Evensong every Sunday, ergo, the abandonment of these servces is the cause of the decline in numbers and influence.

But the facts on the ground don't support this. Most parishes that had a flourishing matins service introduced the weekly Sunday eucharist service as an alternative, at a less convenient time, such as 9.30am, whilst the main service of Matins classically was at 11am. These eucharist services then steadily grew in numbers attending as parishioners chose them in preference to matins. Families began to take part, bringing their children, and so creche and junior church activities began to be provided alongside. In previous practice children had been neither seen nor heard at church services like matins unless they were in the choir and that was restricted to boys only. Children were expected to attend Sunday School which took place in ancillary buildings, often during the afternoon.

Contrary then to Self's argument, the change from matins to parish communion was a move towards greater inclusivity, responding to the clear preferences of the diminishing sector of the public inclined to attend church. Wider societal changes, especially around the place of children in families have been a major factor in the move to parish communion. Without the parish communion movement church attendance would be even more restricted in numbers and public appeal than it is now; and the influence of the Church in society even more limited. Parish churches which have resisted, or been unable to introduce parish communion services, have seen drastic reductions in church atendance over the latter part of the last century. And, despite the rise of car use, lovers of matins have not bothered to travel to parish churches which have continued to offer this form of worship.

Self also cites the rise of the evangelical wing with its commitment to biblical preaching and personal conversion as another example of this preference for commitment over numbers. And yet evangelical churches generally have attracted much greater numbers than the traditional churches have done and they have made increasing numbers a primary goal of their activities. Many churchgoers now attending churches in the catholic or liberal wings of the Church acquired their faith in evangelical churches when younger. ( And in the United States evangelical churches have been integral to public life in the sense that politicians have known that they would not garner enough votes to win elections without the support of this churchgoing constituent of the electorate.)

Where I think Self's argument does pose a challenge to the Church which is worth hearing is in respect of our response to contemporary society. The Church tends to blame itself for its decline in numbers and influence and Self is no different. His claim is that the liturgical changes and the rise of evangelicalism were self-conscious decisions which were a mistake contributing to the Church's demise. Others, like Michael Hampson, for example blame the hierarchy for not giving the laity enough real power.

But I don't believe the Church's demise is chiefly the consequence of any conscious decisions or trends within the Church; nor any particularly culpable failure to act. Like the crab who stays put in slowly warming water the Church's fate has been sealed too slowly for it to realise the full severity of what was happening. The Church of England has rather been overtaken and outflanked by other powerful actors in society. Chief among these is the State, and its adopted twin, large business corporations. The sacred canopy of Christian faith has been blotted out by the new horizons of material security and comfort the modern State and business have been able to provide for Western European populations in particular. The ability of modern societies, through these key institutions, to provide populations with order, meaning, purpose, and security in their lives, quite apart from any need for recourse to spiritual power has sidelined the Church. There is more to this than alternative entertainment on Sundays. It is about the dislodgement of any significant authority or role for the transcendent in modern living. Like the inner city children who never see the Milky Way because of light pollution, the modern consumer-citizen rarely has any opportunity to be confronted by the reality of the divine.

What's interesting to me about Self's comments is that they raise the question: How should the Church respond to its contemporary situation?

Self has identified a tendency for the Church to become more inward-looking and for there to be greater dissonance between its voice and the voice of the majority on a number of matters including, notably, sexual ethics. Although I disagree that this was a deliberate turn to prefer commitment over numbers it was perhaps an almost unpremeditated effort to sustain the life and functioning of the Church. It was a response to its environment which makes sense at any particular moment in time. And this response was to focus energies on meeting the needs of the more committed - after all to keep seeing the stars through the haze of modern consumerism you need a level of distance and commitment.

But natural and understandable as it was, this response by the Church needs re-assessment. Perhaps the whole "mission-shaped church"/"fresh expressions" movement is part of that re-assessment. The small but growing resurgence of interest in the role of faith in the workplace may be another sign of a changing approach. But it is not a new approach ultimately; it will be a rediscovery of the classic Anglican spirit, such as found in Richard Hooker, the 16th century philosopher of the fledgling Church of England: listening to,learning from, and engaging with the world at large.

There is not a choice between commitment and numbers. I doubt under the present conditions of society in Western Europe that we shall see a massive return to church in a short time. But Self's comments make me think; there is a choice between a continued slide into intellectual marginalisation and dissonance which awaits a Church obsessed with small matters and its own survival; and a Church which has the courage to turn its resources towards engaging with the big questions of our time and with people where they are.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I quite agree. In order to see that Self is wrong, you only need to look at parishes that have maintained Matins alongside more contemporary services to see that people are voting with their feet. Whilst there is a core congregation who want Matins, it is increasingly irrelevant to modern worshippers.

When our service pattern alternated Matins and Rite B with Rite A and a Family Eucharist, the numbers noticeably dropped on the Matins and Rite B weeks - now with an order 1 Eucharist every Sunday, and fortnightly Matins, whilst there is a respectable turnout for Matins, it is the contemporary language Eucharist and family services where we are regularly running out of space in the Church.