Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The decline of the traditional churches

My apologies how this goes, it may ramble.

This week the Anglican Diocese of released the Diocesan Transformation Team report. The big news coming out of it is the call to close many churches with low memberships. But for myself it is the whole report that is interesting to read because of how it examines the church itself.

The Anglican church is not a populist church governed by the members, it is a top down hierarchy that accepts some input from the members. I think they are coming to terms with the fact that the world is changing and they need to adapt. The report strikes me as good ground work for making the change, but it will only work if there are people behind it willing to make it work.

The Anglican church in Canada is rapidly declining. In 1961 they had 1.36 million people on their membership rolls, in 2001 this had declined to 642,000 in 2001, another estimated 100,000 to 120,000 fewer people are on the rolls now. These numbers are the people on the rolls with the church as members, not the census numbers. In 2001 two million people identified as Anglicans, though this is a 7% decline from 1991. To say they have to do something is a wild understatement.

The report sets out 150 people at the minimum:

Where possible, a congregation averaging 150 worshippers per Sunday is
the ideal minimum size that promotes mission and fosters growth
This begs the question, if all these congregations had more than 150 worshipers in the past, why did they decline?

I worry about us Quakers that we are so few and not increasing quickly, but compared to the Anglicans, United Church, Lutherans, and Presbyterians we are doing OK. The main stream protestant churches are dramatically falling in numbers. The census also shows they are older than average.

People with no religion has grown quickly and it is a young group. In 2001 no religion was the second largest group in Canada at 16.2%, only the Catholics were ahead with 43.2% of Canadians. In BC 35.1% of people had no religion in 2001, by far the largest group in the province. People with no religion has been growing very quickly.

John Spong makes a good case for what the church needs to do in his book "Christianity must change of die". We are well educated intelligent people and generally do not accept the mythology from the Bible as being true. Why do people continue to go to church?

One set of people go to church because they are trying to escape modernity. People who want to be in denial about the world and seek simple black and white answers to everything. I see this in the rise in evangelical Christians and Mormons.

In the past the church was an important place for community for people. It has been a long time since any church has really been the focal point of a geographic community of people. It still happens in some small towns, but in those towns the Post Office is a focal point for community as well.

There are few places for thoughtful and open minded people to go to for spirituality. Most of the mainline churches continue with idea that the myths of the Christian faith are true and that the literal stories are important. They continue to offer a fossilized faith for a time long gone.

The mainline churches are in a real problem spot as they have existing congregations that are not going to be keen to change to new Christianity that is part of our current era. The people that would be interested in that are no longer in any Church and likely will not come back quickly. I have seen one church make this transition, St James Piccadilly in London.

When Donald Reeves took over as rector in 1980 the church was on the verge of closure. He came in and took it from a stuffy dieing Church of England congregation to a vibrant and alive community of people.

“Jesus wasn’t exactly into garden parties, He was regarded as a nuisance,” Reeves says. “The churches shouldn’t be creating little managers of sectarian communities but should be places of dissent.” His own dissenting challenge to Thatcherism was overt. He sparked lively debate by preaching against the invasion of the Falklands, and he helped the miners’ wives during their husbands’ bitter strike. But debate across boundaries was encouraged — invited speakers included Norman Tebbit as well as Tony Benn, non-believers as well as believers. And, in anticipation of later work in the Balkans, he began to explore the idea of peace-building, inviting Chinese and Russian visitors. Bishop Trevor Huddleston, a veteran campaigner against apartheid, who lived in the St James’s vicarage for many years, was another significant influence.

I went to this church from 1990 to 1992 and it was a lively community of intelligent young people. I even ended up on the PCC for a year. There were about seven or eight Church of England clergy that went to St James as their parish church. People like Norry McCurry, Trevor Huddleston and Ulla Monberg. St James showed me that faith and the modern world were not in conflict.

As much as I liked the church for the community that it was, I ultimately had problems with the form of worship. I found no space among the words to contemplate the concept of God - you can see I really needed to be a Quaker.

The mainstream churches need to connect again with the communities and they must build communities. It can be done, but I do not expect it will happen soon enough. I wish more people honestly seeking a spiritual path try out the Quaker form of worship.

1 comment:

bayesianbeliever said...

Great commentary, very interesting to hear how the anglicans are doing in BC given all the controversy here. As I recall, they are really on the front line of the Anglican worldwide schism with some parishes openly marrying gay couples. It would be depressing if that actually hurt their attendance since it probably increased their soft support overall.