There is a predominance of women now attending the Sunday services of the Church of England (CofE) in the UK. The female influence within the Anglican Church is growing. What effect is this having on the male adherents? This was a question asked in a recent BBC “The Big Questions” programme.
It was further stated that one in every six persons regularly attending Sunday worship in a CofE within the UK does not believe in God. This equates to between 16-17% of Anglican worshippers not having a personal faith in God. Whether either of these factors – a decrease in male worshippers or a general lack of belief in God – are the causes of what one commentator has described as the “gentle downward gradient of a 1% loss in membership (of the CofE) a year” as the Anglican Church “slips quietly into non-existence”, is arguable.
(Interestingly, as reported in The Independent newspaper, a recent U-Gov poll of Anglican clergy found that as many as 16% are unclear about God and for 2% it is no more than a human construct. Older, more experienced priests are less God-believing: whereas nearly 90 per cent of those ordained since 2011 believe in God, only 72 per cent who became priests in the 1960s so believe, the research discovered.
An organisation called Sea of Faith rejects the Church’s traditional belief in one personal God and claims to represent dozens of vicars. One member of this movement, a retired Church of England priest, said there was no conflict in preaching while being unable to believe in God. “Within my congregation I would take the line that how you feel about God is not in the least dependent on whether you think God exists or not. I preach using God’s terminology, but never with the suggestion that God actually exists.” Rather a paradoxical admission.)
The BBC’s “The Big Questions” programme also raised the issue of what impact there might be on the CofE in consequence of it being the “established” church of the nation. In particular, this issue touches on the relevance in a 21st century democracy of continuing to have an Established Church, one that is intrinsically linked to:
* Monarchy (the reigning British monarch is the head of the CofE and has a ludicrous role in the appointment of CofE bishops);
* Government (the British government, elected by the people, serves in the name of the British monarch and admits publicly unelected CofE bishops to a politically unelected House of Lords; the Prime Minister has an integral role in the selection of CofE bishops);
* Military (the British monarch is the commander-in-chief of the British military).
The issue of the dis-establishment of the CofE is, of course, a more general question than simply seeking to explain the decline in male participation in the church. I will return to this topic later in the article. Meanwhile, it is instructive and worthwhile to survey the contemporary CofE scene a little more closely.
Around a million people go to a Anglican church service each week in the UK. Not quite the glory days of the church. However, for comparative purposes: the membership of the Conservative Party is just 134,000; membership of the Labour party is about 190,000; and the Lib Dems have just 44,000. Add them all together, even throw-in UKIP for good measure, and there is still less than 50% of the number of people who each week attend some form of worship in an Anglican church. In terms of its own existence, the CofE is not yet ready to utter “Here endeth the lesson”!
In a country where football and religion are regarded by many as co-terminous, more people attend Anglican churches on a Sunday than go to Premiership League stadiums on any given weekend. The Established Church of England may argue over doctrine, can be pompous and narrow-minded, but for many in this church sitting in the same pew, sharing the liturgy and contemplating the meaning of things is an important aspect of their Sunday existence.
Nevertheless, the Anglican Church in the UK is in decline and various other reasons have been advanced for the decrease in the number of Anglican devotees. These reasons would include:
* the internecine strife between those who identify more with Catholic Rome and the Evangelical wing of the CofE (the so-called “high” and “low” adherents);
* the increasingly secular society within which the church has to compete for the hearts and minds of the people (the Bishop of Blackburn once said that the Anglican Church is set to go the same way as Lancashire’s cotton mills);
* those within the CofE, though perhaps a minority, who feel that their church requires to be dis-established from the secular institutions of the country (see above).
On the other hand there are groups, like Reform and English Churchman, within the Anglican Church who believe that the CofE will be reinvigorated only with a return to the Anglicanism of the 16th century – as expressed in the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. It is worth recalling that that the CofE came into being with the Act of Supremacy in 1534. This ensured that the monarch was and remained, by virtue of sovereignty, head of the English church (in England or any other country to which empire or missionary zeal took it).
It is speculative whether this reversion to the late medieval variant of the CofE includes a desire to return to the despotism and spiritual anarchy that the architect of this scheme, Henry VIII, brought to both kingdom and church – certainly not the “unity in diversity” that aspires to be the CofE’s contemporary signature tune. One thing these revisionist groups do not seem to be in favour of is the dis-establishment of the CofE.
One Anglican who seems very much in favour of this move is the Rev Dr Giles Fraser. Formerly the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Giles Fraser is now the parish priest of St Mary’s, Newington. A regular newspaper columnist, Dr Fraser considers that “the establishment weakens the church and turns clerics into fawning Jeeves-like courtiers who prefer dressing up to speaking out.”
In support of his viewpoint, Dr Fraser offers the example of “the offensive nonsense of Westminster (10 Downing Street, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey) lowering their flags to half-mast for a king who presided over a regime with one of the worst human rights records in the world, which beheads people with swords on a similar scale to Islamic State, and where conversion to Christianity remains a capital offence.” He speaks, of course, of the royal regime in Saudi Arabia.
Why fly the flags at half-mast? The Abbey explained: “It is at half-mast because the government has decided to fly their flags at half-mast today. This is in line with government protocol. For us not to fly at half-mast would be to make a noticeably aggressive comment on the death of the king in a country to which the UK is allied in the fight against Islamic terrorism”. Ironically, at the Saudi embassy, their flag was flying at full mast. Saudi Arabia does not observe official mournings – not even for their national monarchs. Fraser comments: “That is precisely the problem with the whole mentality of establishment.”
This link between the Christian Church and the establishment has been a persistent issue from the moment Christianity became popular with the ruling classes. Giles Fraser traces the link back to the Roman Emperor Constantine and his belief that Christianity helped him win battles. So, in an act of political expedience, “he converted the Roman Empire to the sign of the cross.”
Ever since then, the proponents of Christian orthodoxy have been “helpfully rowing back on all that stuff Jesus said about not fighting and giving all your money away – neither of which were particularly attractive propositions for a man who lived in a palace and who headed up one of the largest war machines the world had ever seen. He also insisted on appointing his own bishops”. One outcome of this was that a just war tradition was created in the church to offset pacifism and allow the Roman army to continue fighting. So too, “the theologians who came up with it were no doubt well-intentioned, but they were little more than the ‘useful idiots’ of the military complex.”
Giles Fraser’s critique of this situation is as damning as it is final: “This is the great heresy of an established church – it ends up forgetting who the boss is. And this forgetfulness has stalked the church throughout centuries of what came to be called Christendom – that pernicious self-supporting symbiosis of church and state.” Dr Fraser’s hope is that as Christendom continues to disintegrate, so the church may recapture some of the “vitality and radicalism” of its early centuries, when the memory of the apocalyptic preacher called Jesus was still relatively fresh.
Accordingly, Giles Fraser does not wish the Christian Church to retain the worldly stature, wealth and strength that it has acquired over the centuries. He does not desire a church that is “big or strong, at least not in worldly terms”, for as he, along with many radical Christians, reminds us: “that was never part of the promise of the Gospel.”
Of course, it must be remembered that the Christian Church is more than the established churches whose ecclesiastical centres are based in Rome and Canterbury. As a former minister in the Non-Conformist tradition, I observe that the virile epicentre of contemporary Christianity has been the churches of the Protestant tradition. These have been churches that have stood on their own two feet without a “state-sanctioned life-support system”. Churches that require the latter in order to survive deserve, as Giles Fraser professes, “to pass away into obscurity.”
Is the CofE in decline? If so, is this decline due to the feminine influence within it or a lack of faith in God by its adherents and priesthood? Can this decline be arrested by dis-establishing the CofE? Or, does the Anglican Church contain the ingredients of its own decay and demise? Whatever are the answers to these existential questions, it would seem that what is required of the CofE is a leap into the unknown – what used to be known as a “leap of faith”!