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.
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.