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I was 11 years old when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and, for wholly understandable reasons, my family started going to our local parish church. An interesting historical anomaly meant that my local parish church was one of England’s 42 magnificent cathedrals. We joined at an interesting point in its history; the outgoing Dean was mired in controversy, every roof leaked, few sockets seemed to work and every so often historic properties would have to be sold off to ensure the cathedral remained solvent.
Most of this passed my 11 year old self by. I was frequently bored, with only one other boy my age in the congregation; there was far too much choral music; and my confirmation, which consisted of only two hour-long classes, was wholly insufficient to explain the complicated liturgy. My mother, never one to sit back when a problem presented itself, established a children’s church and later, when we had grown up, a successful youth club where for just £2 young people could eat pizza, chat, do activities, and enjoy subsidised trips out. We had up to 30 teenagers attending a ‘Cathedral’ youth club which had started with just the two of us. By the age of 18, I had fallen in love with the cathedral and much of what it offered. Inspired by this fascinating place, I went on to study history and archeology; I was given my first camera by a congregant and it turned out that the then dean (a successor to the troublesome dean of my youth) had been a press photographer, so naturally I developed a love of photography.
Upon leaving university, I returned to the same cathedral for a part time role in communications, balanced with a number of part time jobs to subsidise my income and build my experience. By this time, the cathedral’s finances had been patched up, new jobs were being created everywhere, and a leaking roof was an anomaly rather than the rule. However, the youth club had folded and I don’t think there were any teenagers in the congregation at all. The choir, the other great mechanism for ensuring a healthy, youthful presence at the heart of cathedral life, had little or no mechanism for keeping teenagers interested in the church so by the age of 13 most were staying at home rather than coming to church.
It was only then that I began to understand how hard my mother must have worked to attract young people to the church; despite a number of initiatives, it was proving very difficult to maintain any long term growth in younger audiences, most of whom faced the same obstacles I had years before. Like my mother before me, I began trying to solve the problem by taking a more proactive role in programming to create a more youth-friendly offer. Despite the recruitment of a member of clergy with specific pastoral duties, and the creation of a new families officer, the only person to engage teenagers was in singing outreach, who created a new youth choir. They had cool hoodies but you had to be able to read music and sing which, on the whole, meant you were an ex-chorister. Creating an offer for teenagers in an Anglo-Catholic context seemed to be beyond the ken of our team so nobody talked about it much.
To my friends my fascination with the cathedral was explained by my love of its history, but as I grew older I began to reflect on the importance of the community that had done so much to support me through my mother’s cancer, my studies, and helped to give me a career. Today, for all its troubles, I remain an advocate for the place of the church within an increasingly secular culture. My spirituality has also grown, thanks in part to discovering Modern Church and the excellent forum for discussion about faith it provides, which went someway to filling the hole left by my inadequate confirmation lessons and my inattention at school. But my sense of isolation has also grown. Now in my thirties, there are very few of us around to help the church into a digital future, particularly within the Anglo-Catholic sphere of our nation’s cathedrals and major churches. I am now being contacted by other cathedrals to ask if I have friends who’d be interested in communications roles; they’ve tried to recruit, offering above average wages, to no avail. I’m sorry to disappoint you but there aren’t any.
The pandemic lockdown and subsequent move to online worship laid bare the absence of young people in the church. Pre-pandemic, I would struggle to get clergy to take my work seriously. It didn’t matter that our online following was growing, learning more about the cathedral’s history, and the Christian faith. They weren’t sitting on a pew. They didn’t matter. I would report on a reach of tens of thousands, about the strength of engagement in our content, about the growing number of followers on our social media channels, and be met by the response, “so what?”
Then, the Government announced the unthinkable – we were to lockdown to avoid a tidal wave of Covid-19. My phone blew up. My role pole-vaulted from the peripheral to the integral. Suddenly, the only church we could be was an online church. Basically overnight, my life transformed into a maelstrom of online worship, pre-recorded services, prayer portals, online fundraising campaigns, and WhatsApp groups galore. I’m not sure I’ve recovered from the stress and trauma of this time, shouldered by myself and one other digitally minded colleague in a staff of 30 employees. I’ve had to become a digital Jack of all trades. I’m not particularly brilliant at any one thing. My main tutor has been YouTube. I google the answers to most of the problems I encounter. But I speak the lingo, I know the patterns of worship, I understand church history, the beauties of the English Choral Tradition, I taught myself how to use WordPress, and boy do I know my way around a camera. I’m at the centre of a very weird but vanishingly small Venn diagram.
As a student of history, I was aware that the history of Christianity in the United Kingdom wasn’t a simple upwards trajectory towards the mid 20th century, followed by a steep decline to the present day. I was aware that an Archbishop’s visitation centuries before had declared the cathedral fit for only the pigeons as it had descended into such a ruinous state of decline that a small worshiping community had abandoned the building for a nearby chapel of ease. But, I think we have to admit this decline looks and feels very different. I have outlined the lack of digitally minded youngsters in the church and how that is now being felt, but this is the tip of the iceberg. Laity, the foundation of the voluntary workers making up the PCC, flower arrangers, singers, bell ringers, churchyard conservationists, Readers and so forth are growing old, retiring, dying and not being replaced.
Part of my awakening to this problem lay in William Dalrymple’s excellent From the Holy Mountain. In the book, Dalrymple follows in the footsteps of John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist, sixth century monks who travelled across the Byzantine Empire, staying in various houses of worship. Today, many of the same glorious churches, monasteries and cathedrals of unparalleled history and beauty the monks visited are moldering, often with tiny Christian cells inhabiting huge edifices well beyond their abilities to maintain. Sometimes, a solitary family would be caretakers of 1,000 year old wonders, sometimes just a single person. Dalrymple’s book is melancholic and reflective. The realisation that this could be foreshadowing the future of many churches in our own country dawned on me slowly, but as I look around my fellow congregants, noting the average age, I did start to wonder if I was going to be one of those solitary custodians of ancient rites in an ancient church, putting out buckets to catch the rain.
Of course, there are multifaceted geopolitical explanations for why the churches of the Eastern Roman Empire, particularly in present day Syria, Turkey, Egypt, would be in such dire straits. The challenges faced are not so often increased secularisation, but the opposite: we all looked on in horror as the Islamic State destroyed ancient religious sites, including 10th century churches, ancient churchyards as well as mosques and monasteries. But anyone visiting the glorious churches of North Norfolk, a place I spent every Easter and Summer holiday with my grandparents, would be able to draw a few similarities. My grandmother was one of those caretakers, dusting the medieval poppyheads of St Peter’s, Walsingham, and arranging flowers for a congregation that shrunk every time I returned for the holidays. The caretakers are getting fewer and fewer. It isn’t just about providing priests, it’s about providing a community, and one does not necessarily follow the other.
During one of my sojourns from cathedral life I spent some valuable years working for the National Trust, an organisation I much admire, but it always felt like something was missing. There are extra dimensions to cathedrals and churches: the prayer-soaked stones, the soaring music, the light catching in the incense, and the sense of shared purpose and community, imperfect but striving. Key to this feeling was the rootedness of medieval churches, where I could touch a stone brought to a shine by 1,350 years of pilgrims’ cloaks passing through narrow passageways. Churches are still serving the purpose for which they were intended: worshiping God and serving their communities. The National Trust’s buildings lay still and silent, awaiting families and tourists to bring them to life; their stories are largely told whilst a church is continually evolving.
I am saddened whenever I see a closed church. Even when visiting new churches, I look for when a noticeboard was last updated or if all of the Covid-19 notices still declare the church closed for worship, the church never having reopened post-pandemic. I also can’t help but spit out my tea when I read another advert seeking a self-supporting minister for a parish of only 15 churches, two church schools and a huge financial deficit. I fully understand the perspectives of Save the Parish, or other movements looking to save their local church from closure, but there is often a tipping point where a church cannot find church wardens, fix leaks or keep the boiler running. I’ve seen those churches first hand, and they are sad states to behold. For many, this tipping point has already been reached.
Conversely, I have seen churches turn things around. I worked as a Heritage Learning Officer for two years in a parish which had received half a million in Heritage Lottery Fund money. The church itself was fairly unremarkable but its true heritage lay in its churchyard, which contained over an acre of rare meadow, a fragment untouched by modern pesticides. So naturally I focused on that as my main hook for a public far more interested in saving the bees than saving the church. The new vicar, who would never have described herself as an environmentalist on her arrival, is now a member of the Green Party. Soon we were an eco church and any diocesan environmental initiative was accompanied by one of my photos of the church in its glorious surroundings, laden with Common Spotted Orchid and Yellow Rattle, to name but two of the 100+ species found in just over an acre. But even as this church prospered with funding, a new-found identity, purpose and visibility, the other smaller chapel in the benefice lost its churchwardens and gradually the two communities folded into one.
A friend of mine works for the Diocese of Lincoln, and is currently working on the euphemistically titled “A Time to Change Together” programme, described as “a framework for belonging together in Christ, and for flourishing together as a family in new, sustainable ways.” We share many interests; history (particularly church history), architecture, music, archaeology and much besides. This isn’t someone joyously putting up ‘For Sale’ signs on church properties and sauntering off for a round of golf. I can tell the process upsets him deeply and he would, if he saw another way, try and maintain the churches we care so passionately about. But with a deficit of £3 million, the lowest level of giving of any diocese and many gloriously expensive medieval churches, there is a recognition that selling off the family silver isn’t going to cut it. In many ways, the diocese of Lincoln is at the coal face of a process that many of its siblings are going to need to work on in coming years. I’m sure many are looking on with more than casual interest.
But as the upside-down pyramid of our unhealthy looking age demographics suggest, in order for churches to keep telling their stories, they need to better pool resources, create cohesive communities, enjoy sufficient volunteer support, and communicate effectively their mission. I am heartened to see this problem being confronted, difficult as it is, rather than pretending that it’ll all be alright. After all, many of those advocating for the retrenchment of the parish system are much older than I. They won’t be around when the burden of these difficult decisions falls on the shoulders of the sparse generation of young people somehow clinging to a church that is doing so little to face up to the challenges of today, let alone tomorrow.
Joe is Modern Church’s Communications Officer. He is 30 years old and has worked in the Church of England for over 12 years.