by Anthony Wollard
from Signs of the Times No. 66 - Jul 2017
First published in Trinity Times, the parish magazine of Stratford-upon-Avon, April 2017

As we approach Easter, perhaps this is a good time to ask whether this is any longer a Christian country, and, if so, in what sense.

We know that church attendance has been falling for many years. A generation ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury forecast that the Church of England would be extinct by 2015. Well, it isn’t. But numbers are certainly down. And that does matter, because membership of a worshipping community is at the heart of full Christian discipleship.

We know also that the numbers who claim to belong to other religions, or no religion, or to be ‘spiritual but not religious’, have all been on the increase. And yet, all serious research suggests that Christianity, and not least the Church of England, is still there in many people’s DNA. Maybe the large attendances at Christmas (and to a much lesser extent Easter) services come from pure sentimentalism - or maybe not. And in a national or local crisis, it is still the churches to which many people turn. The great personal turning points of life - births, marriages and deaths - still bring many into church also, even if not so many as in the past. Does any of this signify anything at all, or is it just the ghost of a faith that is passing away?

One of the leading researchers in this field, Professor Linda Woodhead, follows earlier sociologists of religion in distinguishing between ‘societal’ and ‘sectarian’ churches. The societal church is there for the whole community, and it does not make hard and fast rules about membership, let alone about ultimate salvation. The sectarian church is a gathered community of believers, seeking converts with a clear commitment - because that means everything, including the prospect of ultimate salvation - but otherwise often seeing the wider community as a place where faith and God’s Spirit are simply absent.

Historically the Church of England has been a societal church ‘by law established’. But changes both in theology and in society have placed more emphasis on the ‘little flocks’ and on the need for committed membership and for autonomy from the State.

It is not really an either/or matter, however. Bishops may sit in the House of Lords still, and the Church may still play a considerable role in education; but out and out State control (let alone financing) disappeared ages ago, and our Church is spiritually healthier as a result. Many churches that are far from sectarian have a more intense common spiritual life than was the case in the past. And even the more ‘sectarian’ churches are increasingly out there in the community, running foodbanks, debt counselling services and such like, irrespective of the faith of those who benefit.

The clue to this paradox of two such apparently different ideas of Church (‘ecclesiologies’ as they are technically called) lies in some basic Biblical concepts such as servanthood and representation. The Church is the servant of the wider community, and it represents that community, believers and non-believers alike, before God. Those bishops in the Lords, and those church schools, are there to serve, not to force people into faith or to force society to embrace particular values - though they do have a faith, and values, to which they witness. And when we join in the Parish Eucharist, it is the whole parish, not just the actual worshippers, which is representatively offered to God for transformation.

All this is a humbler role than the Church has sometimes played in history. But perhaps, for that very reason, a role closer to that of the Church’s Master. And I believe that a vast number of people, who are rarely if ever seen at our services, still acknowledge this and respond to it.