Forward to church - not back

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
22 Oct 2008

While the atheists are sending buses around to tell people to get on with life without God, the Church of England recently had an advertising campaign to help commuters calm down during the post-summer holiday return to work by saying a prayer.

Somewhere in the midst of this burgeoning 'helpful advice' culture comes Back to Church Sunday, now an annual venture. The 2008 one was in September, just in case you missed it. Appropriately, perhaps, it takes place during the political party conference season.

For the fact is, both churches and political parties face falling memberships, divisions and declining interest in what they do. A big jamboree will boost morale, win a few more adherents and provide reassurance that things aren’t as bad as some might suggest. And if £1 million donation from J K Rowling isn’t on the cards, at least the collection plates will be fuller than usual - so the logic goes.

But whilst a jolly tends to lift the spirits for a short while, it can also distract from underlying problems. Putting on the best show possible usually requires playing down ones failures whilst talking up the good stuff. And that’s a strategy that the churches have been encouraged to pursue.

The BTCS website contains the ‘Top 10 Tips’ for dealing with the media, right through to putting out a press notice after the event championing how many returned to the fold. It is the same rationale which lies behind the annual releases from the Church of England about strong attendance at Easter and Christmas services.

Shouting loudly about how many are filling the pews - in the same way that politicians gleefully talk up their poll ratings – seeks to show that the Church still has relevance, and a constituency.

But when the Conservative Party imploded in the 1990s, it was this kind of approach that was its undoing. The party acknowledged that it had difficulties - but put it down to its failure to communicate. If it just managed to reach the core vote it had lost, it argued, everything would work out just fine.

But it didn’t, because such a strategy failed to address the underlying reasons why people deserted in the first place. In fact it ran counter to it. We saw this too at the recent Labour conference. Following splits, criticism and dissent before the conference began the party was forced into a position of unity in front of the media’s cameras. And those who had constructive criticism about how the party might change for the better were forced into silence for fear of upsetting the public show of solidarity.

One redeeming quality of the annual New Labour show was Gordon Brown’s open discomfort from the platform about the 10p tax debacle. But as with the old Conservatives, if mistakes are not recognised, a rapid downward spiral can soon develop - as we have seen subsequently, with events lurching it into open crisis.

For many, it is precisely the inability to openly acknowledge failure which turns people off and causes them to leave. But an honesty about ones shortcomings, a willingness to hear criticism, and a desire to embrace change, is not something to be feared. A revival in Conservative fortunes came after it stopped talking and started listening.

The ‘cornflake’ approach, where it is hoped that people suddenly remember how good things once tasted, isn’t an answer. However well intentioned, Back to Church Sunday will not suddenly reverse the church’s fortunes. But nor of course, is there a uniform, obvious set of reasons for every church as to why the pews remain empty.

The way forward though must be for the churches to stop just issuing press releases, and start understanding the real reasons for their departure. As the Rev Dr Leslie Francis, Canon Theologian of Bangor Cathedral, who has suggested no less than 15 ‘triggers’ has said, the church to which church-leavers return must be different from the one they left.

In other words, the solution is moving forward, not going back. Only then, in the words of Labour’s anthem, will things get better.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia and author of Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2006). This article is adapted from a recent column in the Church Times newspaper, with acknowledgments.

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