Has the Church failed the People or have the People failed the Church?
The 2021 census for England and Wales shows Britain is no longer a Christian country. Please note the statistics which follow refer to the England and Wales census although the Scottish census is expected to show a similar trend. The Scottish government is only starting to publish the results of the 2021 census in 2023. No reason has been given for the delay.
In the 2011 census for England and Wales 50.3% identified as Christians. However, in the 2021 census only 46.2% identified as Christians. This shows Britain is no longer a Christian country. The Scottish census for 2011 showed Christians 52% which was down from 65% in the 2001 census. Islam is the second biggest religion, followed by Hinduism and Buddhism. Immigration accounts to some extent for the rise in these religions, particularly Islam and Hinduism but also these religions have higher birth rates than Christianity. Perhaps the factor contributing the most to the rise in these religions is due to the fact that these religions are much more likely to pass the religion to their children whilst Christianity is no longer being passed on to subsequent generations.
In order to examine the role of the churches and the views of the people it is necessary to consider the differences in the generations and the place religion has in society. What follows is a brief look at the different generations and their attitudes and behaviour. The years applied to each generation must not be taken as exact but are helpful as a guideline and they vary slightly from source to source. It is important to note the characteristics are general and do not apply to all within the generation.
1. The Greatest Generation born pre 1928
They were shaped by World War 1 and the Great Depression
2. The Silent Generation born1929 – 1945
They were affected by World War and also experienced the Great Depression. Life was difficult and
Rationing was necessary. They were hard working traditionalists and were not risk takers. They were named the silent generation as their children were to be seen and not heard.
3. The Baby Boomers (often called the Boomers) born 1946 – 1964
These children were given this name due to a high birth rate. During World War 2 people delayed having children and when men returned from the war there was a large increase in births. They were the children of the greatest generation and the silent generation. This generation became the parents of some of Generation X born 1965 – 1981, but mostly they were they parents of the Millennials born 1982-1996, although some of their children belong to the subsequent Generation Y.
The characteristics and behaviour of the Baby Boomers will be dealt with separately as they had such a life changing influence on society and religion.
The Baby Boomers and their influence on both Society and Christianity
The Boomers were the last generation to be routinely baptized by their church-going parents. Parental influence dropped due to the many opportunities available to the Boomers which had not been available to previous generations. The NHS was born in 1948, bringing health benefits not previously available. Rationing ended and life became more enjoyable as affluence increased, enabling people to be in a position to afford televisions, washing machines, cars etc.
The Boomers never experienced the difficulties and hardships their parents had endured. Many of the parents had had to leave school at age 14 due to the poor financial position of their parents. The Boomers were given the opportunity of a university education which had been unaffordable for their parents. Grants became available and many Boomers left home to go to university thus becoming more independent. Families became less close and parental influence diminished. Boomers enjoyed a social life with few restrictions. Although encouraged by parents to keep attending church, this was not a priority for the Boomers. Some retained a connection with the church, marrying in church but this waned, and as they lost their religion their children had little or no church connection. Religion was no longer being passed on to subsequent generations due to the change in attitudes and behaviour of the Boomers.
I am a Boomer and was a teenager throughout most of the 1960’s so I can attest to the fact that the 1960’s was not called “the swinging sixties” for nothing. During this decade record players became a ‘must have’ with music becoming more important than ever before. As I moved on to university I saw how different life was compared to what my parents experienced at the same age. I met my future husband and we each lived at home under parental supervision. However, I could see how much life had changed from when I was a child in primary school.
Many changes seemed to happen so quickly. The contraceptive pill became widely available leading to permissive sexual behaviour. Young women were now regularly in pubs, something their mothers would never have dreamt of doing. The 60’s are also remembered for Rock’n’Roll, drugs and a focus on women’s rights. Slogans such as ‘flower power’ and ‘make love not war’ said much about the Boomers.
Life was lived to the full, materialism had taken over and the Boomers gradually dropped their religion.
The Position of the Churches
Whilst the Boomers changed society, and lost their church connection, they cannot be totally blamed for church attendance declining. Most churches in Britain are subject to decline. This includes the Church of England, Catholic Church, Church of Scotland and smaller churches such as Methodist Church, United Reformed Church, and Baptist Church. However, Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches appear to be expanding.
The future of Christianity looks grim, especially when the last three censuses are considered. In the 2001 census 72% said they were Christian, in the 2011 census 53.3% were Christian and in the 2021 census the figure dropped still further to 46.2%. Many believe the church will not survive past the second half of this century as the church will continue to decline whilst the other religions will continue to grow for reasons already stated. Since the last census we have to acknowledge Britain is no longer a Christian country.
Census figures can only give an indication as to the true situation as it is believed many tick the ‘no religion’ box on the census form as they feel this is the right box to tick as they no longer have a church connection. They may still side with Christianity but do not accept the attitudes and beliefs of the church and consequently their children are not encouraged to follow religious practices. Others will tick the Christianity box simply because they were baptized or went to a church school. Thus the Boomers have played a large part in the decline of Christianity with the young having no religion and Christianity now being in the hands of the older generation. With the death rate higher in the elderly age groups who have been the main church goers the future for the churches does not look promising.
It is important to consider the rise in those stating they had ‘no religion’. This was the second largest response in the 2021 census. This group had increased to 37.2% having increased by 12% since the 2011 census. This group is often referred to as the ‘nones’. The nones include many different beliefs such as atheist, agnostic, shamanism, humanism and what is termed ‘spiritual but not religious’. Different studies suggest varying statistics but the Church Times dated 25th November 2020 reported from an in-depth study that the spiritual nones represented 32% of the population. Perhaps the church has to consider why this group rejects the church and its dogmas and creeds, preferring their own spiritual practices.
Many in this group believe in God or a power higher than themselves. They wish to be independent although many belong to like minded groups. Their practices differ widely but many include meditation, prayer, use of crystals, chakra balancing and different forms of energy healing such as Reiki. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has published an article by Dr Maya Spencer entitled ‘What is spirituality? A personal exploration’. This is very informative and can be found on the internet.
The nones also include Boomers who rejected the church but later realised something was missing in their lives but that void could not be filled by religion. In the Church Times dated 2nd November 2006 Rachel Harden found ‘New Research stressing young people’s love of spirituality but not church’. The article also quotes a report from Sarum College that states ‘Young people are very spiritual but find formal religion, particularly church, boring and irrelevant’.
Factors affecting church attendance
It is not just the census statistics that tell of the fall in Christianity. We see churches closing and others being converted for other use such as housing, community centres and even shops. There are many contributing factors so it is best to list some of these to get the overall picture.
1. With the Boomers losing their religion and thus not passing it on, churches are being less used for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Many couples are now choosing to live together hence less marriages. More marriages are now in registry offices, hotels and other authorized venues. Even one pub in London which has recently closed was licensed for marriage ceremonies. There is a large cost saving when the marriage and reception can take place at the same venue as there is no need to transport guests to the reception.
Fewer funerals now have a religious service in church but instead a celebrant conducts a service at the crematorium or graveside in whatever way meets the wishes of the deceased.
2. Couples are now less likely to stay married which means children often spend time with each parent in separate locations. This can disturb routine and they are less likely to attend church regularly especially if each parent has a different view on religion.
3. In 1994 the Sunday Trading Act became law and this had an effect on church attendance. This, along with the numerous sporting activities took priority over religion.
4. The Covid Virus pandemic of 2020 and subsequent lockdowns resulted in church closures and services going out on line. Many never returned to church in person.
5. Numerous new churches have sprung up, mainly Evangelical and Pentecostal and are gaining in number thus contributing to less attending traditional churches. These new churches are attracting young families and are well attended.
Traditional worshipers dislike the intense passion and the live bands which can be loud thus irritating those older people. Those preferring traditional worship cannot identify with what has come to be called ‘happy clappy’.
Those newer churches are often found within quiet residential areas and are not seen as part of the community as they do not operate through a parish system like traditional churches.
6. Parish churches were part of the community, but their role has diminished. I remember as a child so much activity centered around the church. Everyone knew everyone else and supported each other. Churches had notice boards outside with details of services and how to contact the clergy. This included a personal phone number so anyone in distress, whether a church member or not, had access to spiritual help. Now church notice boards usually give only an office phone number and perhaps an email address which is not much help for out of hours contact or indeed for confidentiality.
7. Churches are not always good at welcoming strangers and visitors can be left wondering if they have sat down on someone else’s seat which can be embarrassing. Those who are attending a church for the first time can find the liturgy confusing, hard to follow, and can be confused as to when to stand and when to sit down.
8. So much information is available on the internet that it is easy to question church beliefs. Older people as well as the young are competent with the internet and are now able to question beliefs that were formally accepted without questioning. It is thus important to consider the beliefs of the church as this gives an insight as to why so many no longer attend.
In the past people accepted what the church told them. There were few books available to consider other points of view and no internet. It was only during the rise of the Boomers that the internet gradually became important to everyday life. Laptops and mobile phones became affordable and church dogma could no longer be accepted as truth.
As a young teenager my mother told me that if I didn’t go to church God would know I hadn’t been. I didn’t believe this but didn’t dare argue. Many now believe in a power higher than ourselves and that we are all part of this one life. Belief in a personal God is no longer accepted by many. There are many beliefs which are no longer accepted by those outside the church so we will consider just a few.
Paula Hollingsworth, chaplain of St Paul’s Cathedral, has written an article entitled ‘Beliefs: What does the Anglican Church believe about Salvation’. She clearly states that what the church believes about salvation is no different from other major Christian churches. She explains that salvation comes from believing in Jesus. Through Jesus’ death on the cross our sins are forgiven and this saves us from God’s judgement. Thus we can look forward to eternal life and be in God’s presence. Her view is that of the churches so it appears there is no hope for non believers or for those who do not fully believe. The article informs us that the Bible states we are saved by faith and not by our own work.
I have personal experience of the church belief regarding Jesus. Some years ago my husband and I went to a church offering to volunteer in their work with those in need. We were asked if we believed Jesus was God. We said we did not accept this but believed we were all part of God and Jesus was much more highly evolved than the rest of us. We were immediately shown the door. Since then we have been warmly accepted by two Catholic Churches, one in Scotland and one in London as volunteers to make sandwiches for the homeless. We explained our background was not Catholic but Protestant and the two Churches were delighted to have us.
It is no wonder so many people say they are spiritual but not religious.
2. Karma and Reincarnation (1)
There are many statements in the Bible which appear to refer to karma and reincarnation. However, it is believed that in 553 AD during the Second Council of Constantinople the ideas of karma and reincarnation were removed from the Bible as it undermined the teaching that salvation could only come through belief in Jesus. This gave the church power and control. References to this topic can be found on the internet. Jesus’ teachings were about putting spiritual qualities such as love, forgiveness and compassion into practice in daily life. This is what we have to strive to do and not simply believe we’ll be saved.
The power of the church is waning as so much information is available on the internet making it easy to question church beliefs. Those who are spiritual but not religious are increasing in number as they realise there are other beliefs to consider and thus make up their own minds rather than blindly accept church teachings. It is easy to find out the beliefs of other religions and it is worth noting that belief in karma and reincarnation is found in religions much older than Christianity such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
3. Karma and Reincarnation (2)
Karma means action and for every action there is a reaction. It is not a punishment but an opportunity to evolve spiritually as we learn lessons and balance our karma. It is the spiritual law of cause and effect and is the means by which we will eventually return to oneness with God. Reincarnation is when our soul is born again in new body to give us opportunities to compensate for what we have done wrong in a previous life. It takes many lifetimes to learn all the lessons from wrongs in previous lifetimes. How we live our life and how we treat others is important to avoid creating negative karma.
Karma and reincarnation provide a means of making sense as to why good people suffer whilst bad people seem to prosper in spite of their negative, harmful actions. By dismissing karma and reincarnation from teaching, the church is unable to explain why good people suffer whilst bad people get away with treating others badly. The church can only explain this by saying it’s God’s will and we don’t know how God’s mind works. This response is not very helpful for those in distress.
Other religions are able to give assistance by explaining there is a reason for everything even although we have no memory of our past lives. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in Buddhism explain the cause of suffering and how to end suffering which ultimately leads to enlightenment.
Perhaps the church needs to focus more on teaching the instructions given by Jesus on living our daily lives. This would be more helpful in balancing our karma than the focus on dogma and creeds.
Theosophical teaching is widely available and states, ‘There is no religion higher than truth’. Many people are now seeking answers to questions such as Who am I? and Why am I here? Truth is found within ourselves and not by relying on what others tell us. Much information on karma and reincarnation can be found in theosophical literature and also on how we need to take responsibility for how we live our life.
The church has to realise how prepared people are to research information and find their own answers.
4. Understanding the Bible
The church can no longer expect people to take the Bible literally. Literalists believe the Bible is the Word of God and thus it must be accepted word for word. Thanks to the internet and more literature becoming widely available, a great number of people are no longer willing to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible. Belief in the story of creation, and the virgin birth are examples of this.
It is now widely accepted that much of the Bible is an allegory and that such stories have a deeper, spiritual meaning. An example of this is found in the parables Jesus told. However, to gain an even deeper understanding of the Bible it has to be read esoterically. There is an enlightening article on the internet published by the Theosophical Society of America, entitled “The Future of Esoteric Christianity” by Richard Smoley. He explains that the word esoteric comes from Greek roots meaning ‘further in’. This refers to going further into ourselves through meditation to discover sacred truths which assist our spiritual evolution.
The church is happy for us to take the Bible literally and believe salvation comes only through church teachings. With this belief there is no incentive to take personal responsibility for how we live our lives.
A New Theology
It isn’t just those outside the church that question the teachings. The Reverend David Keighley, a retired parish priest at the Church of England believes people are now questioning church teachings and a new theology is required as ‘Bible stories of miracles, virgin births, talking snakes and the like – when interpreted as literally true as is still the preference within church teachings – clash with today’s scientifically-literate laity’.
5. The Church and Politics
The Church of England is considered too powerful due to being the established church with 26 bishops having the right to sit in the House of Lords. The influence of the church on law making causes concern to many especially as we are no longer a Christian country.
From experience I believe sermons are too often about politics and not about Bible teachings. One example is from personal experience when I sat through a sermon encouraging the congregation to vote against Brexit. Another sermon was all about promoting the Pride March with no other content.
The Church of England has infuriated many by announcing that the church would bless gay marriages although the church would not marry gay couples. The church will also bless marriages where one or both are divorced but not marry them and has done so for some time. It doesn’t seem right that the then Prince Charles who is now Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England had to marry Camilla in a registry office and then had a church blessing because they were both divorcees. Later, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were accorded a Church wedding even although the bride was a divorcee. No wonder people are confused about church teachings.
Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have had to deal with numerous claims regarding abuse of vulnerable adults and children. Other churches are not exempt from abuse issues. Many people have left church due to these scandals and are unlikely to return. Sadly, some have totally forsaken their faith. These concerns regarding abuse have resulted in parents removing their children from church activities thus affecting the future of the church if these children grow up with no church affiliation.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has published an article by Jayne Ozanne entitled ‘Spiritual Abuse – the next great scandal for the Church’. Most denominations have been slow to acknowledge this problem and it was first recognised in the 2006 Archbishops’ report ‘Promoting a Safe Church’. This form of abuse can take many forms, such as pressure to accept certain beliefs, and misuse of scripture which can cause feelings of guilt and possible subsequent mental health problems.
However, it is recognised that spirituality and religion can have positive effects on wellbeing and mental health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists has set up a Specialty and Psychiatry Special Interest Group which aims to assist psychiatrists in exploring clients’ religious and spiritual beliefs and how to respond to their various concerns. This can give clients peace of mind, and coping strategies when difficulties arise. As already stated religion can have negative effects and certain beliefs can foster fear of Hell for having disobeyed God. It is sad that religion can worsen mental health problems when healing was so much part of Jesus’ work.
A Nuffield Trust press release in 2016 reported the proportion of children and young adults saying they have mental health conditions has grown six fold in England in two decades. If children do not receive the right assistance their problems will continue into adulthood. It is estimated that religion and spirituality can benefit one in two people.
It is not surprising that with the decline in Christianity due to low church attendance and lack of religious education in schools that mental illness is rising. However, religion has to be about unconditional love, compassion and acceptance and tolerance of each others’ beliefs.
There are so many advantages of being part of a church. Belonging to a church family can provide mutual support and spiritual comfort in times of need and being with like minded people assists spiritual growth. However, the church has to create a trusting, supportive environment to ensure this otherwise the church cannot survive. Perhaps this is why Evangelical Churches are popular. One close to where I live organises a family breakfast before the Sunday Service.
What Changes would assist the church from declining further
Whilst a number of churches do engage with the local community by various means such as providing food banks, lunch clubs for the elderly and overnight accommodation for the homeless in cold weather. However, a much more visible presence is required and activities offered which do not make people feel they have to accept church teachings. Bring and buy stalls could be arranged to raise money for a local charity.
Churches often have a book of names of those requesting prayers for healing or for difficult issues in peoples’ lives. The Church of England has a lovely Healing and Wholeness Service but I know of only one church, a cathedral, which holds this service once a month. It is a beautiful, simple service with no creeds to be recited. It is very personal and healing is conducted individually by the laying on of hands. There is also the opportunity to be anointed with oil.
If more churches offered this service it would encourage local people who never attend church to enter a church and benefit from not just the healing but from the positive energy that can be felt in a religious building. This would show the church is there for the benefit of all and not just a select few. I find it strange that Jesus’ mission included healing the sick but healing the sick seems to take low priority in most churches.
It would help if more churches made use of technology and decided to live stream services. This is also an opportunity to give notice of church activities and events, and express a warm welcome to visitors. It is also a means to inviting people to come forward and put their talent to good use by volunteering in community projects organised by the church. More use needs to be made of Facebook and social media. People have to know that the church is there for everyone and not for the select few on Sundays. Churches must be more welcoming and friendly and take time to engage with visitors before and after the service. Members often meet in small groups for Bible study and to pray for the sick, so if time is taken to inform visitors about such activities this would be an incentive to become more involved and thus feel part of the church family.
This article set out to consider who had failed whom ie The Church or the People. The church was starting to decline in the 1950’s but decline accelerated with the lifestyle and beliefs of the Baby Boomers, causing concern that the church will not survive the second half of this century. This belief concerns all Christian denominations. The Brierley Consultancy published statistics for church attendance (as opposed to membership) for the period 1980 – 2015. Key findings for church attendance declined from11.8 % to 5.0% of the population. The church would do well to consider why the spiritual but not religious form a considerable percentage of the population.
There is no doubt that Christianity is failing the people for many different reasons already stated. However, it seems unlikely that sufficient change will be made to remedy the decline. How can the church suddenly change its dogmas and creeds? Can the church possibly turn round and say it got it all wrong in 553 AD regarding karma and reincarnation? Can the church alter its belief that salvation comes only through Jesus and instead guide us in taking responsibility for our own spiritual progression?
Trusting in a personal God watching over us is no longer acceptable to most people. When karma and reincarnation are understood, we each learn that we have to take personal responsibility for how we live our lives and the Bible guides us how to live by showing unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness and abstaining from judging others. The church has failed by seeking control instead of encouraging its members to consider their own spiritual pathway whilst knowing the church is there for guidance and spiritual support. This is something not always available to the spiritual but not religious.
The people began deserting the church in large numbers as the Boomers enjoyed a lifestyle unimaginable to previous generations. Instead of being grateful for a better quality of life people have rapidly become more and more materialistic. Emphasis is now on enjoying life in pubs and nightclubs until after midnight, and on acquiring the latest technology. With religion not being passed down the situation looks set to worsen. The people have certainly failed the church but it is difficult to say which must take more of the blame.
As long as the church believes it is the only path to God nothing will change. It has been said by many that nobody has a monopoly of the truth so we all need to accept each other and learn from each other. We are all evolving back to oneness with the creator and it is up to each of us to assist others on their pathway. If we would each take a moment to look for the divine in others we would acknowledge we are all spiritual beings and not just physical. May we never lose sight of our true identity. I love the oriental greeting of Namaste which means ‘the spirit in me greets the spirit in you’.
Both the church and the people need to consider their positions and have determination to make positive changes. I would like to end this article with a quote from Tearfund which is a Christian charity which partners with churches in more than 50 of the worlds poorest countries to tackle poverty.
‘A Christian nation is not just defined by how many Christians live in it. A Christian nation would be one where the hungry are fed, the oppressed lifted up and the marginalized embraced’. Perhaps our focus needs to be more on practical Christianity than on dogma and creeds and on how many fill the pews on a Sunday.
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