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07 March 2004

The death of Christendom

Last Sunday, I went to church, or perhaps to "Meeting". In the coffee chat afterwards, a man, I will call him Jim, whom I have met and talked to before a few times, came up to me and asked me if I had seen this show on the telly about what people believe in different countries, and how the church is doing in the UK. I hadn't seen the show, but I had read about it. I don't remember the statistics, but I have heard such things before: Britain is almost an atheist country now. The Church of England, especially, is losing members to old age and death and not replacing them. As are the Unitarians (this being the church I attended) and the Methodists and presumably the Quakers and all the other denominations, both Protestant and Catholic. Jim asked me - what can we do to bring people into the church? Should we use the internet? To paraphrase my answer (for some reason, this blog, I guess, Jim thought I might be an expert): sure, you can use the internet, but for what?
It is very clear to me why the church is withering away in Britain. I have been to a few church services and one funeral (no weddings yet, and we got married in the registry office.) The C of E does not offer anything. British people do not know how to sing hymns with vigour and heart. Few churches are anything more than a social club, and as soon as they fail even a little at that, people, especially young people, are out the door, because there are better alternatives. And this is what I told Jim. I told him about what I was used to in the US, where Christianity, for better or worse (see a yet-to-be-posted post about why I am not going to see the Passion of the Christ) is growing and well. Mission, That is what church leaders tallk about in their charge conferences and ad board meetings. What is the mission? What are we offering people? Especially, what are we offering that they can't get anywhere else?
Jim said I should blog about it. So I am.
The same thing was clear to William Blake over 200 years ago. It's not that the people aren't spiritual. The more secular Britain becomes, the more the descendants of its Christian ancestors turn hither and yon looking for something to believe in. (The one exception to the dearth of young people in churches is the Alpha course. But more about that later.) But spiritual hunger that can be satisfied by strict rules and a theology of fear is a warped psyche, not a true spiritual questing. And the spiritual hunger that can be satisfied with warbled 300 year old hymns and a draughty building and a pious but unintelligible sermon does not exist. That sort of thing doesn't satisfy anyone; it's just part of the cussedness of the British that they like to keep on doing things in an inefficient and pointless way "for tradition". That's why all these restless, unsatisfied atheists still get their children baptised, and they marry and bury with a C of E vicar and they go to the church fete if they live in the country or a small town. But these are just the thrashings of a dying engine. In another generation they won't even do that.

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