Numbers can sometimes be deceptive, but it is difficult to put a positive spin on the latest official Church of England (‘C of E’) attendance figures: the proportion of the population warming the Anglican pews on a typical Sunday morning now stands at a sobering 1.4%. Even the Church’s preferred set of attendance statistics – those counting attendance at any point during the week (not unlike a video-on-demand service) – has slipped below the one million mark in a country of over 53 million people.
More alarmingly, the trend for anyone who cares about the future of this branch of Christianity is clear: the decline of attendances in the five short years between 2009 and 2014 was no less than 7%. Make no mistake: unless something changes, the Church of England as it is currently constituted is heading for extinction.
So what can be done to arrest the complete annihilation of an organisation which – in sectors as diverse and vital as education and poverty relief – still plays such a key role in the life of the nation? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana can think of three strategies which are ripe for implementation:
- Rock-Star Leadership. For many decades now, the Church of England has suffered a chronic leadership deficit. This has not been remedied in more recent times. Rowan Williams (2002-2012) was and remains a gifted theologian and commentator, but his limitations as a communicator – particularly to anyone under the age of fifty – were painfully obvious. The Most Reverend Justin Carey – his indubitably talented replacement as Archbishop of Canterbury – is anonymous beyond the call of duty. The C of E desperately needs a CEO who is not merely personable and charming, but who can convey Christianity’s core spiritual message in an authentic way that can inspire people enough to actively want to connect with their local church instead of their nearest shopping centre.
- Women. In a society which risks being characterised by the decisive ascent of de-spiritualised zombies, women remain a constituency who are not completely satisfied with the status quo: they disproportionately populate the self-help sections in bookshops, practice meditation and value the integrity of the (permanently disintegrated?) family unit. The Church of England must undertake a serious initiative to engage with women and their concerns; they might be surprised by what they find.
- Multiple Religious Identities. In our increasingly globalised world, Umberto Eco has pointed to a new reality he terms the ‘colouring’ of religion; essentially, the cross-pollination of religious practices. This is particularly evident in cities across Western Europe and Asia: agnostics following the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama and (post-)Christians seeking out halal meat are two such examples of this possibly irreversible trend. The Church of England could become a lead actor in this process by recognising multiple religious identities as a matter of policy: declaring that a person can be simultaneously C of E and, say, Taoist would not just pose a whole new set of interesting theological issues for the established order to grapple with, but it could multiply the potential subscriber base manyfold – and instantly.
Like many countries in Northern Europe, the United Kingdom of the 2010s is notable for the near-complete absence of religion and spirituality in public discourse: the country has undergone a process of profound secularisation in the last twenty-five years, with many basic social values unrecognisable from their 1980s counterparts. It was therefore with some interest that our CSO read an article authored by Cristina Odone – one of a tiny number of British journalists who is even capable of writing about religious topics in anything other than media clichés – claiming that the UK is ‘on the brink of a Christian Spring’ (Despite our secularist enemies, we are on the brink of a Christian Spring, 19th November 2013).
Odone posits three reasons for a resurgence of Christianity in Britain: (i) Pope Francis; (ii) Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury; and (iii) a popular ‘backlash’ against the more gross examples of shallow materialism. After some contemplation, we at Mediolana do not find any of these to be compelling. While billions of people around the world of all faiths and none seem to find Pope Francis an unusually brilliant spiritual beacon – and his papacy has already seen a stunning turnaround in mass attendances, at least in Italy and the United Kingdom – the structural problems of the Roman Catholic Church, not least systematic child abuse and eye-watering levels of financial corruption, are in all likelihood far too deep for one pope to solve. As to Justin Welby, we would bet good money that a plurality of a representative sample of the British public are more familiar with the teachings of Justin Timberlake; ‘twerking’ might be viewed as somewhat quaint in ten years’ time.
However, Odone might be onto something, at least indirectly: she could be correct in pointing to a largely-unexpected change in spiritual orientation in the UK, but for entirely different reasons – principally economic ones.
The economy of the United Kingdom is starting to show alarming signs of social distress. Mired in corruption and with no realistic prospect of experiencing any kind of meaningful growth, the British economy is essentially dysfunctional for an ever-increasing percentage of the population. This can be seen in the surreal blossoming in what is meant to be a G7 country of the food bank, an institution that was unknown even a few years ago but the utilisation of which has been burgeoning beyond the exponential: while just 26,000 food parcels were handed out in 2008-9, the figure for April-September of 2013 was over 350,000. And things are likely to get much, much worse, with inevitable interest rate rises almost certain to clobber millions of ‘middle class’ households in the years to come.
Of course, these developments are not guaranteed to produce any given spiritual outcome. But it is almost unthinkable that religious institutions, and religion and spirituality more generally, are going to take the flak for the mess – partly because they have become so marginal in the lives of most people, and partly because they tend to stand in stark opposition to the rampant materialism and wild social distancing that has helped to engender this situation. Instead, it is a set of elites which are largely defined by their alienation from religion which will be seen to have failed. It is in precisely this kind of social flux that new movements step in to fill vacua. What these will be is anyone’s guess – but to exclude some form of religious or spiritual dynamic from them, even in a macro-context of increasing secularisation – may be premature, or even incorrect.