Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: Will the Church of England survive?

According to the census less than half the population is now Christian. But in my parish, I still see parents passing their faith down to their children
January 25, 2023

“Remember, God doesn’t like a census.” I was filling in the register after a service, and the canon was reassuring me that absolute accuracy was not required. The allusion was to the moment in 1 Chronicles 21, when King David conducts a census to find out if he has enough men of fighting age to go to war. In a nutshell, he trusts in himself instead of God, and there are consequences. 

The Church of England doesn’t like a census either, but it can’t help itself. The declining number of people attending church has been a fact of life for decades. At this time of year, the emails start arriving from the poor woman at Statistics for Mission asking for the parishes’ counts of people at church on an average Sunday morning in October, and on the church’s major feast days. These numbers are to be broken down by age group: the old, the not-so-old and the children. Recently, we’ve also been asked about attendance during the week. Every year, and especially since 2020, working out the numbers and sending them in is both tedious and dispiriting. If we have 15 children and their parents at our after-school “Wednesday Church”, we’re pleased. But the numbers look pathetic on the forms. 

Late last year, the 2021 census results on religion were published by the Office for National Statistics. For the first time, less than half the population of the UK ticked the box beside “Christian”. Some people were shocked, or said they were. Some people were glad, either because this decline presages the dawn of a gloriously emancipated society or because it indicates the dropping-away of nominal Christians and the shining forth of a church purer and stronger in faith. At least, the thought goes, fewer people feel obliged these days to pay vice’s tribute to virtue and say they’re Christian just to look respectable. The Muslims are doing well (though hardly likely to overtake the Christians in number any time before Gabriel blows his horn) and there are a variety of smaller religions, including some 271,000 Jews, around 10,000 Humanists, and 22m people who profess “No religion”. 

So, it’s not just the poor old Church of England, then, as my Methodist and United Reformed friends often remind me, while they negotiate gracefully the spiritual and practical matters that go with dying out. Meanwhile, my Jewish family members give me a look and go on being Jewish in their various ways, living in the diaspora, in societies in which they will always be part of a tiny minority, and raising children who will almost all do likewise. (I converted  to Christianity in 1989.)

This is the thing. If those of us who have a religion want it to persist in the world, we’ll pass it on to the next generation. Parents will sit by their toddlers’ beds and teach them how to pray before they go to sleep. They’ll celebrate the religious holidays and they’ll also tell the stories that go with those holidays. They’ll tell their children what they believe and how it shapes how they live, and they won’t simplify their doubts. 

Here in these villages, one church has a growing number of children attending. Some sing in the choir. Some go to Sunday school. The smallest ones hang out with their parents on a sofa by the vestry, play with the toys, and just take everything in: organ, choir, smells (mostly coffee and flowers, because we don’t have incense) and the way people look when they’re praying. The older ones receive communion and most of the younger ones are brought for a blessing. I remember from my own childhood how powerful it feels to receive a blessing.  Some of the teenagers are preparing to learn how to administer communion, standing next to me as I offer the consecrated bread with the words “the Body of Christ”, and presenting the chalice to members of the congregation. Their place is at the centre of our life.

There are also a vast number of children who don’t go to church. I’ve baptised some of them. I don’t know whether their parents read them the Bible stories we give them, or say prayers with them at night, but I’m firmly convinced that their parents pray for them. “Oh God” counts as a prayer here. There are middle-aged men in the nearby villages still saying the prayers they learned at school, where every prayer begins, “Hands together, eyes closed.”

Will the Church die? I don’t believe so, though the desperate and unintentionally comic efforts from Church Central to make it grow are likely to fail. The sins of the institution—abuse of every kind, racism, sexism, homophobia—have driven many good people away over the years. It’s hard to convince them to stay, not least when the Church always seems to care more about how it looks than about how it actually is.

But what if it does die? Aren’t we the people with the crazy belief in resurrection?