IT is not surprising to see the news headlines that church attendance has fallen yet again. The number of Britons who describe themselves as part of the church has more than halved since 2002, from 31 per cent to 14 per cent. The number who actually attend services is far lower.
Just over 800,000 people attend the Church of England on a regular basis. It is sad that there are celebrities with more followers and influence. David Beckham has over 50 million followers in the UK alone. No wonder then that people take little notice of Archbishops when they pontificate on public life.
There still appears to be a middle class, Oxbridge attitude that pervades the church, with many candidates being ex-professional people changing career. I trained as a priest with two men who openly admitted they’d had enough of senior business management and wanted a quieter life in the church.
A cosy parish in a Yorkshire village with a big, fat pension pot might be a great way to see yourself sorted until retirement, but does it do anything to put people back in the pews?
For many people, church is totally irrelevant to their lives. It has no use to them and offers no comfort. The idea of getting up on a Sunday morning is totally alien to many people who have worked hard all week and want a rest.
To the uninitiated, church is a strange place of coded language read from a book, hymns from the dark ages and concepts about God that can be hard to swallow. Even in ‘modern’ churches with rock music, clapping, speaking in tongues and hands-in-the-air worship, the outsider may wonder what is going on.
Many people feel there is no relevance between church and life. This is not helped with the many stories of naughty vicars that are the relish of Sunday papers.
Young people are increasingly seeing themselves as not being part of the Church of England. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, affiliation to the CoE has fallen to just two per cent among adults aged 18 to 24, while the majority of every age group now has no religion. Fifty-two per cent of people in this country now say they belong to no religion.
With the decline in the church, there is also an increasing demand for secular funerals and weddings.
Yet, I do not think that those who run the church have really got a grip and understand the danger they are now in as an institution. The response to the damning news of falling attendance was to laud the fact that more people were downloading and using religious apps.
The Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said: “The digital figures show how people are using apps, smart speakers and social media to explore and engage in the Christian faith wherever they might be.”
However church is about community, people sharing faith and moving together in collective worship. It is about offering the world an alternative to the helter skelter of life. All that app-worship does is give you an even greater opportunity to avoid going to church.
For me, being a priest in the Church of England was a thankless task. The training didn’t really help you know what to do when you get into a parish. There was no training in evangelism or how to make faith relevant to hard working women and men with busy lives.
I never found there was any real support from other clergy and Deanery meetings seemed to turn into monthly gossip shops. Bishops did not provide support and at times I felt like I was working in middle management for Marks & Spencer.
In my last parish, I set out to visit as many people as possible to encourage them to come to church. I changed the services to meet their needs and did everything I could to bring a deeper spirituality to the lives of those in the villages I served.
It worked – well sort of. Attendance did go up, but I am not sure if my ministry amongst them had any long-lasting success. For me it was a complete failure. I became a workaholic. I hardly took a day off and had one holiday in four years. I became ill. My work was over, an incurable heart condition and severe depression brought an end to my life as a vicar.
Perhaps, if the church cared for its own and went after the lost sheep, then the fall in attendance might not be so steep.
GP Taylor is an author and broadcaster. He lives in Whitby.