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.