Group of people drinking

Here’s confirmation of one of the points Professor Linda Woodhead made in the talk she gave at St Brides Liverpool on Monday: What’s wrong with the Church of England, and can anything be done?’

Linda said other agencies are taking over some of the Church’s traditional roles, like funerals and weddings. In some cases the people concerned positively want a non-religious occasion. In others the reason is simply that specialist agencies provide a different kind of ceremony, better adapted to individual requirements. Church of England clergy perform weddings and funerals but they do lots of other things as well, so they cannot develop the expertise of specialists.

The confirmation came from a very different event, a meeting of the local ‘Life and Death’ group. Death cafés have been cropping up in lots of places because so many people actually want to talk about it. Unlike Linda’s examples of commercially run wedding and funeral providers, this meeting in the upstairs room of a pub was entirely voluntary. All you paid for was your own drink.

The overall organiser is a good friend, a materialist atheist who definitely doesn’t believe in the afterlife. The evening’s session was introduced by someone more sympathetic to it. He introduced the arguments for life after death in Plato’s Phaedo. By the end of our discussions it was clear that a wide spread of opinions were represented, from those who refused to accept the possibility of anything immaterial to those who agreed with Plato’s arguments.

We then discussed what topic to have at the next meeting, and the biblical book of Job was proposed. However that had to be changed. To talk about a book in the Bible sounded too religious for them.

This is interesting, I thought. When I was a vicar of rural parishes, a topic like death would have been exactly the sort of thing that would get people turning to the church – either to talk to the vicar or to attend a suitable service or to put flowers on your relatives’ graves in the churchyard. Apart from the quality of the beer, pretty well everything about that meeting in the pub could have been organised at least as well, if not a lot better, by a vicar in a church. But a church venue would have put people off. They wouldn’t have come.

So why were these people happy to get together to talk about death, life after death and suffering, but only if it had nothing to do with religion? This is not just materialist atheism. There are plenty of subcultures where religion and churches are toxic. For many young people, the last place you’d want your friends to see you in is a church.

The event was democratic. One person organised it, another provided an introduction to the topic, and then we split into groups to discuss things. Distinct roles were limited to the essentials. People had not come to listen to a speaker or be told the right answers. They had come to talk through their thoughts and questions with others.

Churches are more hierarchical. Catholic priests dress differently to represent Christ, pastors of independent churches tell everyone what to believe. Churches expect to stand for something, not to be an open forum where any opinion is as good as any other.

I can see two sides to it. On the one hand Linda was right. The Church is not much good at meeting the spiritual needs people feel they have. It could attract more people if it paid more attention to what people are looking for.

On the other hand some of the comments on the talk remind us that churches are not aimless organisations simply trying to provide people with whatever they want. Christianity does have a message and specific spiritual resources to offer.

Still, why can’t we do both at once? Everywhere outside the realm of ‘religion’, freedom of opinion and specialist knowledge live alongside each other in constructive interaction. We value our doctors, weather forecasters and economists, and draw on their expertise, while retaining the right to disagree with them because they often get things wrong. Why can’t we do the same with death? Or indeed with anything else that is of interest to local people?

Because of the stereotypes. ‘Religion’ has become toxic because churches have made a name for themselves for being over-directive. Hence all those countless jokes about Jesus being the answer, regardless of the question. We know what spiritual needs we think people ought to have, so we do not listen to the ones they think they have. Your problem must be a nail because I have a hammer.

If, as from tomorrow, all church leaders become saints and the stereotypes stop having any truth in them, it will take a few decades before public perceptions change. Sadly, the pressures are in the other direction. For ministers of churches who are anxious about decline, it is all too tempting to get the hammer out more and more often, make sure that their version of the Christian message gets heard and read more often, arrange meetings so that their opinion prevails.

I don’t see why a local church shouldn’t offer exactly what happened in the upstairs room of that pub. It’s a role most local churches could probably play with very little effort. Fewer sermons, more open discussions. Explain the topic, provide a little background information, reassure people that they will not be told off for saying what they really think, and resist the temptation to have the last word.

Finally some good news. Together with Andrew Brown, Linda Woodhead has written a book describing the changes to the Church of England since the 1980s, ‘That was the Church, That was: How the Church of England lost the English people’. It is due out in late autumn, published by Bloomsbury.