Liberal leadership and terminal decline

Digby Anderson reviews fifty years of church policy

There are three simple facts about the Church of England today. It is in serious decline not only in membership but financially and its influence on schools, marriage and morals. Second, it is a hierarchical institution and thus those who lead it should have to take responsibility for the decline. It is an episcopal church. Regardless of synodical government, the bishops cannot escape substantial responsibility for the state of the Church. Third, they have not accepted, let alone discharged, this responsibility. They have initiated the several innovations which were supposed to have saved the Church by making it more modern and relevant. The innovations have failed. Yet when did a bishop resign or even apologize following the failure of the modern church? In business, even in politics, such apologies and resignations are considered normal. One might have expected the Church to have embraced higher standards than business especially given its frequent denunciation of it.

Nobody’s fault?

The three most blatant failures, in attendance-membership, the family and finance are linked. The Church Commissioners used to provide, out of the central funds, for the cost of the bishops, the cathedrals, clergy pensions and two thirds of clergy stipends and housing costs. Now central contributions to parishes have been reduced by two thirds (from £66m in 1991 to £22m in 2000) That fall is three-quarters in real terms. And clergy pensions cease to be centrally funded beyond employment in 1998. A huge financial burden is thus transferred to the parishes. Moreover the number of retired clergy and their widows has increased by 25% over a 20 year period and the cost will increase with longer life expectancy. This burden hits the parishes at a time when their attendance, that is their sources of funds, has fallen by 41 per cent (between 1979 and 1998). In the fifty years between 1930 and 1980, the CofE lost half of its members (figures from electoral rolls). The 70s, the start of liberal experiments, saw 40 per cent of that decline. It slowed a little in the 80s, to ‘only’ 23,000 souls, rallied feebly in the early 90s (by one person per parish per year), then plunged again in the late 90s to 54,000 a year. This was during the great leap forward of the Decade of Evangelism. Over the last decade attendance figures fell by a quarter of a million and tumbled below the million mark for the first time.

The end of marriage?

Children are the future worshippers; or, rather in the case of the CofE, they are not. In 1991 223,000 children went to a CofE church. The expected figure for 2002 was 80,000. Infant baptisms halved between 1970 and 1990, and dropped by a further third in the 90s. Confirmations now stand at one male and one and a half females a year for each congregation. There is one figure which has gone up. There are now double the number of bishops and dignitaries than there were when the Church was more than twice its current size.

As late as the 1960s the dominant ideal of marriage in Britain was a Christian one. Divorce was rare and stigmatized, children born out of wedlock ‘illegitimate’, extra-marital pregnancy rare and scandalous, abortion illegal. Now, Britain leads Europe in divorce. Abortion has soared. Half of marriages end in divorce. All manner of what were considered perversions and infidelities are now recommended by counsellors as self-affirming. This revolution has never been systematically and collectively attacked by the CofE. bishops. The result is not just a disaster for morality but for the Church itself. The Church has always lost members by death but they have until now been replaced not by evangelization but simply by the children of Christian families carrying on their parents’ religion. Break the traditional family to bits and you break the trans-generational source of church membership.

Twenty-seven varieties

The criteria for judging the failure of a church are many. They include the following twenty-seven: lower baptism figures; lower confirmation figures; lower communicant figures; lower electoral roll figures; fewer church weddings; fewer church funerals; lower income from donations; worsened state of central funds; worsened central provision for pensions and clergy stipends; dilapidation of ‘plant’; reduced influence on the young at school through church schools; reduced orthodox religious instruction; failure to get such instruction a priority place on national state curricula; reduced influence in universities; reduced influence in medicine and medical ethics; reduced influence in the practice of law; reduced influence in the formation of law; failure to maintain a distinctively Christian understanding in nursing, welfare, charity, youth work and in hospices; failure to maintain Christian influence in the armed forces; failure to contain and even discomfort rival religions and even more anti-religions such as Marxism; failure to maintain doctrines assented to and taught over the past two millennia; failure to maintain the texts in which these are enshrined; failure to discipline members, especially clergy who do not subscribe to basic credal documents; failure to maintain high standards of dignified worship; failure to ensure that only the best of artistic culture is used in church liturgies; failure to maintain the clergy in general as a full-time profession; failure to make Christian marriage and family life the norm in the society

Whose fault?

Whose fault is this comprehensive failure? No other church can rival its comprehensiveness. Indeed some churches have grown, the Pentecostalists with a decidedly old-fashioned morality and the Eastern Orthodox with an even more old-fashioned liturgy. Within churches which have lost members such as the Roman Catholic Church, local parish churches which are liberal have lost more than traditionalist ones; a lesson appreciated in Rome which is fast-tracking a Missal translation which will restore dignified theologically orthodox language in the Mass. The destruction of the Church’s membership, liturgy, parishes and societal influence has been done in the name of anti-elitism, relativism, syncretist accommodation of secular fashions and an arrogant assumption that this modern age knows best, in short, liberalism. Half a century of liberal leadership is long enough to see the results. It has maimed and mangled Christ’s Body, the Church. The new Archbishop should urgently commission a thorough independent audit of the Church and those responsible for its failure, urgently, before audit becomes autopsy.

Digby Anderson is Assistant Priest at St Saviour’s, Luton, and Director of The Social Affairs Unit, a London think-tank. This article summarizes a book published by the Unit, Called to Account, edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen, available from SAU, 314-322 Regent Street, London W1B 5SA, £5.95 plus 75p, p&p

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