Saturday, 27 April 2013

On not going to church

The Westminster Faith Debates, backed by a YouGov poll, have produced much telling information about the real attitudes of Christians to church leaders and the things they expect us to believe.

Yesterday’s Church Times carries a full-page article by Linda Woodhead who devised the survey. Entitled ‘“Nominals” are the Church’s hidden strength’, it argues that ‘non-churchgoing Anglicans may be much more important to the Church and its future than the dismissive word “nominals” implies’.

According to the poll people calling themselves Anglicans make up a third of the population. Woodhead divides them into four categories.

Godfearers say that they are very certain in their belief in God, and God is their main source of authority. They are the only group to take notice of religious leaders, though only 4% of them say they do. They are much more ‘conservative’ in their views of personal morality, especially on sexual matters. They make up 5% of self-identifying Anglicans.

The Churchgoing Mainstream are similar to Godfearers only in that they are attenders. Compared with non-churchgoing Anglicans they are a little more religious and a little more morally conservative, but not by much. On matters of belief and morality they may consult religious authorities but they make up their own minds. They make up 12% of self-identifying Anglicans.

Non-Churchgoing Believers believe in God, and half say they regularly practise some spiritual or religious activities like praying or meditating. They make up 50% of self-identifying Anglicans.

The other 33% are Non-Churchgoing Doubters: they either feel unsure about God or are outright atheists (15% of this group). Over 20% of the group practise some religious or spiritual activity in private.

Woodhead comments:
There is a recent tendency, both within the Church and in the media, to represent the Godfearers as the most real [Anglicans]. This is a mistake. It is not just that this group is very small, but that it is unrepresentative of Anglicans today and Anglicanism in the past.
The Church of England seems to have abandoned its sense of itself as a lay Church governed by monarch and Parliament, and responsible to the people, and has become both more clerical and more congregationally based. This is bound up with a dismissal of “nominal” Anglicans.
This certainly echoes my experience. I spent my teenage years in the 1960s as a vicar’s son in a Somerset village, where the local church was a place of public events. On seeing the vicar people would find excuses for their non-attendance at services, thus revealing that they still thought they belonged. I then went to university and threw myself into the social life of its chaplaincies. Chaplaincy students, mostly Anglicans but also Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and PresbyCongs (as they were in those days; later Prongs) became my closest friends. My wife Marguerite had a similar experience in a different university, and between us we still retain many friendships from those university chaplaincy days. What happened to their churchgoing patterns? Pretty well all of them did one of two things. A few got ordained; the rest stopped going to church at all.

St Peter's Church & Chaplaincy, Manchester, where I lived for a while

Why? It wasn’t about losing their faith, though for all I know some may have. They never were Woodhead’s godfearers. The chaplaincies encouraged experiment, variety and debate, so religious activity had a more open-ended feel. To some extent their previous experience of churchgoing must have prepared them for this kind of thing; otherwise they would have preferred societies like the Christian Unions.

I’m thinking of those chaplaincy colleagues because I know them, but they belong to the generation which, according to the historians, produced the first big drop in churchgoing. The big change seems to be not that that generation became ‘nominal’ and less Christian, but that churches have changed. Instead of responding to the spiritual needs and questions of ordinary people, churches have increasingly looked inwards. They have made their own theory-based decisions about what worship ought to be like, what sermons ought to be preached and what moral standards ought to be upheld. As the Common Worship Baptism Service makes clear, for a non-churchgoer to attend a church service is to be confronted with an alien agenda. Increasingly, churchgoing culture is designed for the godfearer minority.

It is easy enough to spot practical reasons for this change. With the decline in numbers of clergy and money to pay them, church leaders increasingly depend on those most willing to turn up regularly and put plenty of money on the collection plate. The people who can be relied on to turn on the church heating and put out the service books every Sunday without fail, and put substantial amounts of money on the collection plate, are inevitably the ones with fewer other commitments: the single-minded, the godfearers.

It’s a mistake. If the Church of England carries on going down this path, we’ll end up with only the godfearers keeping it going. It will become one more tiny sect turning its back on the world, and the other 95% who still call themselves Anglicans will respond to the next poll by calling themselves something else.

No doubt there are many reasons for this trend, but one must be the strong tendency, among those who count themselves religious conservatives, to think that all the Christian answers are to be found in the tradition inherited from the past. It generates that ‘we have all the answers’ mentality which fails to hear the questions. Just as this backward-looking mood has encouraged church leaders to resist new awareness of gender discrimination, it has also encouraged them to ignore what ordinary non-churchgoing people are saying about their actual spiritual concerns and needs.

The spirituality of our society is too important, and too varied, to be left in the hands of those with a vested interest in numbers of churchgoers. It’s about everyone.


  1. Anthony Woollard27 April 2013 20:56

    A pity Woodhead's research didn't extend to the question why some people (the Churchgoing Mainstream) go to church and others (Non-Churchgoing Believers), who are similar in most other respects. don't. A narrower and more inward-looking Church may have something to do with it; but the growth of sectarianism in recent years looks more like a consequence of secularisation than a cause. Hope to write more on this anon.

  2. I think the Church projects itself as a happy club for self assured heterosexuals. I am not sure how many are put off by that and the happy club for heterosexuals may actually be a good strategy for church growth. It's very easy to say if only the church was run for my tastes loads of people would return. My problem is that I feel morally compromised by the way the Church behaves (I know we are all miserable sinners). I feel acute feelings of conflictedness about the CofE. This isn't to justify myself but to make the point that the non active/attending Anglicans may have a variety of different preoccupations and possibly might justly be considered as part of the Anglican family rather than being dismissed as irrelevant - the Church is very good at pushing people away.

  3. Encouraging people to attend worship, though important, is not the main object - but we are not helped when baptisms, weddings, and sometimes even funerals (!) are denied to those who still identify as C.of E/Anglican (still the 2nd largest group of patients in our hospital in a dense multi-ethnic suburb,)and whom I continue to find so generally welcoming of a visit from their Church at a time of need. Not helped when hurdles are placed in the way of those seeking baptism for their children (the BCP - linking infant baptism with the story of Jesus and the children - demands no promises nor attendance at courses). Not helped when the enforced "chummyness" of the "Peace" is not accompanied by a real welcome afterwards. Not helped especially when Holy Communion is the only service offered, making our Church - outside Sydney which often does not care much for the Sacrament at all - into almost a eucharistic sect (as I have argued, citing scholarly observers from all traditions, in my "Morning Prayer Matters"). Not helped when here in Sydney Diocese in whole regions of the Diocese one can hardly find an ordinary, traditional Anglican service. Not helped when our Diocese has become on the whole, despite some good achievements, in a self-satisfied way, so narrow,intolerant,and fundamentalist, and where the
    "gospel " is equated with the offensive idea of a penal substitutionary atonement and the allegedly one way of escaping eternal damnation. Etc! Not helped when casual visitors are bludgeoned with the Bible and warned against such dangerous ideas as evolution. Not helped when too many of today's radical evangelicals (unlike their forebears) seem little interested in sharing - with other agencies - in the pastoral care of all who are C.of E., especially of the sick and aged. I write as a liberal, culturally conservative (Prayer Book Society, Modern Church) Anglican but at least with 22 years as Rector of a then thriving working class/lower middle class parish before retirement, and wide experience of the Church in Australia, the UK and the US, and as an honorary hospital chaplain now for 14 years. My former middle-of-the-road parish church is bare now, stripped of icons and ornaments and simple ceremonies, but also stripped of people - with e.g. up to 385 at five services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the 90s (Sung Evensong, three Communions and sung Matins), and now about 30 at one service. But against all this, of course, in this "joyful Eastertide", is the good news of the kingdom which tells us to "fear not".

  4. Oh dear - I don't fit in anywhere here. I go to my Church because it gives me joy, support, community and a sense of belonging in a society which shares my love of God. I give to my Church with joy because I want to not for some fear or need of an authority figure. When I had a bad time, I was surrounded by people who cared and let me talk when I wanted to and be silent when I needed it.

  5. Anthony Woollard14 May 2013 21:06

    Anonymous' comment probably reflects that of the vast majority of more-or-less regular churchgoers. The fact that such communities exist (and many do) is far more central to the Gospel than any doctrines promoted by the Archbishop of Sydney and his equivalents in the UK. We can (and I would) argue about Eucharist versus Matins versus happy-clappy. What we can't argue about is the reality of a common life, grounded in but not locked into a tradition, which does actually "save". Anonymous is surely part of Woodhead's "mainstream", which like all sociological categories is more diverse than appears at first sight and includes many who are as deeply committed as the Godfearers whilst avoiding their sectarianism, as well as others whose commitment is maybe a little more tenuous.


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