The declining number of people in Britain who regard themselves as belonging to a particular religion has been widely reported. This has been unwelcome news for churches.
In England, for example, even people who seldom attend church have often identified as Christian, most often Anglican. Yet many now feel little or no connection to the Church of England.
While there are many reasons for this change, the Church of England’s own failings have perhaps played a part. Many local congregations are indeed inspired and inspiring (although of course not perfect) – loving and prayerful, caring for those in need in their communities and challenging injustice. Yet the public image projected by the Church of England more widely is often less than engaging.
This is sometimes a matter less of poor public relations than of flinching from the implications of what the church professes. For instance, the national decision-making body, the General Synod, met in November 2010 shortly after the feast of Christ the King, in whom all earthly kingdoms with their privilege and power-seeking stand judged, and who is at work transforming the world. Yet what hit the headlines highlighted church leaders’ preoccupation with the prestige of a different monarchy.
The Bishop of London suspended assistant bishop Pete Broadbent for being rude on Facebook about the forthcoming royal wedding. Indeed some of Broadbent’s language was insensitive and he was right to apologise, but it was far from unknown for bishops to be insulting to supposedly less important persons without getting even a mild reproach.
Then came a debate by Synod members about the ‘Big Society’ which seemed largely to take at face value the government’s rhetoric, though there were occasional references to the importance of this policy not being a smokescreen for cuts.
Surely, however, this was a crucial aspect – otherwise it would have been little more than a re-branding of the previous government’s policies on the voluntary sector and civic involvement, with perhaps less emphasis on equality.
Nevertheless, the Mission and Public Affairs Division won broad support when it urged that “the church should be promoting synergy between its own social vision and aspects of The Big Society thinking by the government”.
The discussion seemed almost completely detached from the widely-felt anxiety and indignation at that time among poorer students and parents, disabled people and carers, people facing unemployment or homelessness, and organisations campaigning for justice.
This is not to say that Synod members did not care – they simply paid far more attention to the voices of those in power and their allies such as theologian and think-tank director Phillip Blond, who has influenced Conservative Party policy, than to those on the margins of society.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty”
declared Mary in the Magnificat, a song of praise to One who empowers the lowly and transforms a social order based on inequality and oppression. Originally in Luke’s gospel, this is widely used in worship by the C of E and other churches. But the spirituality of the Magnificat seemed far removed from church leaders’ deferential approach to the rich and powerful.
Around Christmas, Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester, who had led the Synod debate on the Big Society, did warn that faith groups could not fill the gap left by cuts in public spending, and that it would be "completely irresponsible" to leave the care of the vulnerable in the hands of "amateurs".
The Archbishop of Canterbury also pointed to the widespread belief that the rich had not yet shouldered their fair share of the burden at a time of economic crisis. Yet, overall, Church of England leaders – in contrast to those of some other churches – have been only mildly critical of a government introducing some of the harshest economic and social policies in recent decades.
There is no guarantee that a more consistent approach to proclaiming and embodying the core teachings of Christianity would instantly increase the number of people who identify as members of the Church of England.
But this church could at least be more inspired and inspiring at a national as well as local level, and show an ethical sensitivity through which connections with people seeking a better world can be deepened.
“God of all mercy,
your Son proclaimed good news to the poor,
release to the captives,
and freedom to the oppressed:
anoint us with your Holy Spirit
and set all your people free
to praise you in Christ our Lord”
reads one of the prayers for use during the season of Epiphany, following Christmas. Through God’s grace, perhaps this prayer will be answered not only in parishes but also at national level.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.