Saturday, December 15, 2012

Who will save the Church from itself?

One of our most treasured institutions in English life is the church, and, in particular, the Church Of England. Religion and faith is deeply rooted within our national conscience. Go to any English village or town and you will see, in pride of place, a church – sometimes it dominates the area, other times of more modest size, but in nearly every case it will be a main centrepiece of the community, an organiser of social activities, a place of celebration at Christmas, a place of solemn reflection on Remembrance Day, and always a place of worship and thanksgiving.

I write as a regular attendee at my local church. I am actively involved in event organisation and fund raising, I sit on the Church Council, and I edit the church newsletter. On Sundays, when I can, I go along to pray for my friends and family, enjoy some fine hymns, and partake in the service.

So it grieves me when I see the church and its leadership regularly shoot themselves in the foot, completely unaware of how their actions, or inactions, may make a difference to the future of the existence of the church itself.

Everyone who loves the church should bear in mind two simple facts and commit them to memory. These facts are (i) each year, the numbers regularly attending church have been steadily reducing – congregations get fewer and fewer in size, and (ii) the average age of those who regularly attend church has been increasing. Even at the age of 45, I am one of the youngest in my congregation. Apart from the children, who may have been dragged along, the vast majority of those present are pensioners – and there are very few young adults.

Should these two trends continue then, sooner than we think, congregations will die out and disappear altogether. And churches all over England will become empty disused buildings.

Why is this the case? Why don’t people go to their local church? Some tell me they are simply too busy, others that they like a lie-in on Sunday mornings after a busy working week, and others, not unreasonably, think churches are full of old people and they would feel out of place. But the most common reasons are that people say they ‘don’t feel religious’, although these people celebrate Christmas and see their kids in nativity plays or, the issue I wish to deal with, they simply do not see the relevance of the church to themselves and to today’s world. It is part of the old corrupt British establishment of politicians, financiers, businessmen, people who are only in it for what they can get out of it, and of complete disinterest to ordinary working people

Now I defend the institution as much as I can but feel the Church is its own worst enemy and this viewpoint is only confirmed by two massive blunders in recent months. Blunders which continue the battle between church and society (and history has shown that when the church battles with society, it is usually society that wins out).

The first blunder refers to female Bishops. There is still some way to go but, in the modern age, women have made great advances in all areas of society and that is something we should welcome. You would have thought the General Synod would almost unanimously have voted to allow women to be ordained as bishops – after all, why not?

The Synod did indeed vote for this measure by a considerable majority, but in the House of Laity it fell a few votes short of the necessary two thirds requirement. But people at large are not interested in the finer details and procedures of church decisions – all they know is that the church has considered the issue of women bishops and held out its hand with a big NO!

The second blunder, in my view, refers to the, perhaps more divisive issue, of same sex marriage. In the week that we learn that fewer couples are getting married than ever before, the church considers the government's proposition of same sex marriage and once again it is the hand with the NO! To be fair, some would consider allowing same sex marriages in their church, but the government decided on a complete ban on the Church of England while those of other faiths and religions have the option of ‘opt-ing in’ – a clear case of religious discrimination. Had the church shown a more positive and enthusiastic response, then the situation may be different.

In my view, the institution of marriage is a wonderful presence. I have been happily married for ten years. If two people wish to publicly commit themselves to love and protect each other, under the eyes of God and regardless of their gender, that is something we should welcome and encourage. Opponents say that marriage should be solely between a man and a woman, and I have sympathy for that view, but in the modern age, many couples are of the same sex.

Statistics show that married couples live happier, healthier and longer lives. If more people were married, the world would be a happier place. I believe that the institution of marriage would be protected not undermined by same sex marriage. As more heterosexual couples see the happiness that marriage can bring, they may well take the plunge themselves. Allowing and blessing more unions would reverse the current trend towards marriage dying out.

So what do people see of the church? They see the Archbishop of Canterbury and an array of old men dressed splendidly in fine robes, preaching to us about charity and sacrifice but not showing signs themselves of either, of an old boys club living in a long forgotten world where women know their place and the presence of homosexuality is not acknowledged.

Now, like most people, I am no religious expert. I am in no doubt there are many who would defend the Church’s view with quotes and passages from the Bible and the study of theology. I respond by borrowing the phrase of the Occupy London movement – what would Jesus do?

If he were around today, would Jesus prevent the full inclusion and participation of women in his church? Would Jesus close the door to gay people who wanted his blessing in their unions? Of course not – Jesus, and God, loves everyone. It is the Church of England who apparently does not.

We are deep into the 21st century, and as we go further on, and as society continues to change, however much many may not like it, the Church of England is crying out for the modern and forward thinking leadership that is necessary to make it relevant once again to people’s lives and the modern world. Will we see that leadership come to the forefront soon? Will the Church find the backbone within to save itself from extinction? Will anyone save the Church from itself? We can only watch, hope and, yes, continue to pray.

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