There’s lots to be worried about in the Church of England. Numbers are declining, those that still remain are resistant to change that might bring in newcomers and the leadership seems increasingly deaf to the voices of the grassroots. Bishop Alan Wilson in a blog earlier this week wrote that the Church of England needed to be rebooted, to rethink its place in English society.
Andrew Brown, responding to that essay, elaborates on the problems and challenges facing the church but also some of the signs of hope.
He quotes in particular Jessica Martin, a “former English don at Cambridge” who is now the vicar of a small rural congregation:
“The problem, she says, is finding ways of reaching half-believers. “The cultural assumptions of the people under 40 who I meet are just totally different, and the habits of being that the church both assumes and inculcates are new. When people are confirmed as adults, a lot of them have problems with penitence; they say: ‘But I have always been a good person!'”
Yet the church remains attractive in her villages partly for reasons that have nothing to do with theology, she says: “I encounter quite often in the people who do flirt with church a quite explicit desire for physical community: an anxious sense that people need to get together and do stuff in the same place and time.””
After listing additional significant challenges facing the CoE, Brown returns to more signs of hopefulness found in a study published today of the growth in cathedral attendance over the past years. In particular he writes:
[T]here are unmistakeable signs of growth in the roots. Parts of the church have adapted. Although the long-term trend has been downwards for 50 years, over the past decade attendance has been flat, and has been growing in cathedrals and in London.
Pete Wilcox is the dean of Lichfield cathedral, and will move shortly to Welby’s old job as dean of Liverpool. Last summer, the cathedral mounted an exhibition of an Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found outside the city, which dated from the first Christianisation of Mercia, in the eighth century, along with two of its own relics of St Chad, who led that missionary effort. It was fantastically successful, but it didn’t seem Christian at first: “For three weeks we ran absolutely full capacity. We could barely have crowbarred in a single visitor. But they came quite explicitly to see this exhibition. We had exhibited the gold alongside our own artefacts and the chronology enabled us to communicate.”
The visitors, as they left, were handed prayer cards. They could light a candle, and leave a request for prayer. The cathedral was astonished by the response to these. Apparently secular visitors filled out two or three times the normal volume of cards: “What we had for the three Sundays of the exhibition was an overflowing wicker basket, too many for us to read them all out. They were entirely the work of people who hadn’t come with any spiritual purpose in mind.”
Much of what is written in the article above applies to the Episcopal Church as well. And there are similar signs of hope amidst the concerns.