archbishop welby

Research published by Prof. Linda Woodhead while she was at Lancaster University, examines the attitudes of Anglicans to faith. Much of the research seems to offer insights for other churches too.

The sizeable poll sample included both churchgoers and many others who simply call themselves Anglicans.

  • Most Anglicans' beliefs are very different from those of their leaders, e.g. re legalisation of same sex marriages and the ordination of women. Churchgoers are just as liberal as the population at large regarding personal morality, whereas their leadership are largely socially conservative.
  • More than 50% of people who are in their 50s or older would call themselves Anglican, whereas fewer than 10% of those in their 20s would do so. And that 10% figure implies that fewer than 1% of people in their 20s would attend an Anglican church.
  • A substantial number of people under 40 view the church not merely with indifference but as 'toxic' (actively 'immoral' by today's standards), given the attitudes it projects regarding sexism and homophobia.
  • There is a kind of socialism (with a small 's') amongst the church leadership, whereas the majority of Anglicans are slightly more right-wing than the population at large.

Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, notes that though in places the numbers attending church are rising, the congregations are also 'greying'. The median age of the Anglican Church is now 62, which implies that in 20 years’ time about 50% of the people currently attending church will be dead.

bishop wilson

The church is being pulled towards being the 'repository of the morals' of people of the 1950s generation, with a consequent failure to connect with younger people, i.e. there is a major 'values gap'. Pleasing those who attend church today may repel those who don't.

Liz Oldfield of the ecumenical think tank, Theos, which reviews the position of religion in society, feels that any kind of values gap between church and society at large is not the key problem causing the number of worshippers to decline. She points out that in Sweden and the USA, churches have been much quicker to follow the changing attitudes of society but their church numbers have declined at least as much as elsewhere. Evangelical churches can decline too.

Bishop Wilson states that most people have a curiosity about faith. Churches need to address that feeling, not by being dogmatic, but rather by being inclusive.

carols at holy trinity brompton

Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, London, is held up as an example of a thriving, growing church. Yet, it has been accused of being both conservative and touchy-feely. According to Oldfield, success is not about doctrinal position, it's about 'tone' and approach.

The church must be open. It can even be evangelical-conservative, but it must still downplay what it asserts on sensitive subjects -- it would be well advised not even to try to pronounce on them.

Diarmaid MacCullough, Professor of the History of the Church, at Oxford University , finds that it is the churches which quietly accommodate society's evolving moods and beliefs that succeed: that pragmatism is what matters.

Many or most people today still believe in 'God', but outside of church buildings and doctrine, which implies that a church must demonstrate that it is more than its buildings and more than its leaders' pronouncements.

Derived from the BBC Radio 4 programme, 'Analysis', broadcast on 27/01/14

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