Tag Archives: Tradition

Annual Church Attendance Story

The annual survey of Church attendance figures has just been published, and as usual it is an opportunity for the media to publish a load of stories highlighting the figures. The Times in particular really went for it including this article – Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour – which in particular plays the Muslims will outnumber Christians card, and is being disputed by the organisation who conducted the research. As the Church of England response to the survey points out it does this using a figure taken from census data and compares it with the actual Church attendance – if a similar ploy was used to calculate numbers of Christians from census data the figures would show something like twenty million active Christians in the UK.

Ruth Gledhill also backs up the main piece with a comment article which includes a number of juicy quotes:

As the Religious Trends Survey shows, an ageing generation of churchgoers is about to die out and there could be, within a generation, a God-shaped hole at the heart of our society.

and

The decline forecast for the Church of England is so severe that its position as the established church of the nation with the Queen as Supreme Governor can surely no longer be tenable.

however this point does get to the heart of the problem:

Yet, as the report notes, the decline in attendance coincides with a surge of interest in religion, reflected in the growing numbers of children opting for religious studies at GCSE and A level. There are also increasing numbers of students at theological and Bible colleges.

Somehow, the churches, despite innumerable studies, reports, synod and assembly debates, are failing to get these people into church.

The thing is that whilst as a bit of rabble rousing all the press coverage is good, it doesn’t really reflect the true picture – needless to say that is a lot more complicated. David Keen, a vicar in Yeovil, looks in more detail and points out that a significant number of diocese have already reversed the decline. Bishop Alan gets straight to the point too, highlighting a cutting from the Times in 1971 that said the same thing, and on the basis of which the church will cease to exist in a couple of years. (Amusingly to show the ‘power’ of statistics he goes on to prove that the Diocese of Oxford Reporter will have a larger circulation than The Daily Telegraph by 2050…)

The main Times article again puts forward that only the evangelical churches are growing – which from my point of view is wrong. Seriously, Ruth Gledhill should come along to Finchampstead sometime as St James is anything but evangelical. We’re a mainstream middle of the road Anglican church, and yet for the past two years our electoral roll figures have gone up by more than 10% a year, and as I mentioned back at Easter we were struggling to find seats for everybody then. Whilst it is certainly correct to say that our growth area is in the young families, as our Rural Dean pointed out at his recent inspection we manage to produce a respectable fifty to sixty or so people at our prayer book services too.

As far as I am concerned the parts of the Church are growing aren’t anything to do with their Churchmanship – churches of all denominations and types are growing – it’s about getting the basics right, and looking at what people want. In the case of the prayer book services what people are looking for is familiarity and authenticity, so those are done absolutely straight with traditional hymns, and the King James bible. On the other hand the young families, who often come in via our play-group, are looking for accessibility, which is what they get through our 9:30am Family Services. The main 11am services are a bit more of a blend of the two, so we’re relatively traditional, with organ, choir and sermon, but with more accessible elements. The biggest thing though is to be a welcoming community. It is always frustrating to hear of other churches that are spending more time turning themselves into a private club and excluding people – as far as I am concerned whilst things have changed at St James to bring about our rise in numbers, they haven’t been particularly radical, and to be honest if they were radical we’d only end up marginalising a different group. The whole basis of what we do is to be inclusive of the broad range of people in the village rather than exclusively focusing on one group. Whenever the “how do you do it?â€? question comes up though, most people at St James’ really can’t explain, as from our point of view we aren’t doing anything particularly special or out of the ordinary, and equally the area around the church from which our attendance is drawn isn’t that much different from much of the surrounding area either.

Theological Hoop Jumping

A few weeks ago I commented on the brewing row over the meaning of Easter caused by an upcoming talk by the controversial Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John. Subsequently John has responded to the criticism through the Church Times, and Bishop Tom Wright has produced an extensive article expressing why his original criticisms were valid.

Included in the prominent critics were Bishops Wallace Benn and Pete Broadbent who followed along from Bishop Tom Wright and released a statement from Spring Harvest condemning the talk – without having read it. However this takes on a more interesting twist with the news that the UCCF are withdrawing from Spring Harvest because of the involvement of Steve Chalke as a result of his beliefs first mentioned in his book The Lost Message of Jesus and which Chalke himself summarises online. Whilst the UCCF believe that Chalke has diverged from orthodox Christian teaching – the same accusation that has been levelled at Jeffrey John – Bishops Benn and Broadbent are happy to work with Chalke, but are releasing press statements criticising John.

Needless to say, this can lead pretty easily to the conclusion that John is being attacked because of who he is, rather than what he is saying – so Tom Wright talks about Chalke in the article too. However, having read the relevant passage:

Now, to be frank, I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God’s love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

where option (a) is the acceptable interpretation of the Chalke statements, whereas (b) is the interpretation that UCCF and most other people have taken. Tom Wright and I assume Bishops Benn and Broadbent take the view that Chalke meant (a).

From my point of view, looking at what Chalke himself says he says the following:

In my view however, the real problem with penal substitution (a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice) is its incompatibility, at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God or genuinely Christocentric worldview…

which strikes me that Chalke is saying that he has the same issue with the traditional understanding of penal substitution as John, but that Tom Wright is doing some fairly subtle theological hoop jumping to argue why what Chalke says is acceptable and John isn’t.

Tom Wright doesn’t help with drawing conclusions that this is personal either. During the course of the nearly half the article where he picks the John talk apart, he at one point uses an example that focuses on Jeffrey John’s sexuality, and alludes to the title of his well known booklet on the subject. Jeffrey John’s letter to the Church Times mentions that much of the hate mail related to the talk focused on his sexuality – when Tom Wright mentions John’s letter he brushes it aside with a ‘we all get hate mail’ type comment, totally ignoring the sexuality aspect, before going on to make comments that could be considered in the same vein. When he starts talking about Chalke he notes that he knows him personally, indeed he got a pre-release copy of the book. He also highlights that the book may be unclear over what Chalke believes, but then says that he has had a chat with Chalke and is happy that he does believe in penal substitution but under another name. He finishes the section on Chalke with this statement:

And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. What has happened since the initial flurry of debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.

Unfortunately, as with anything with such subtle differences for those of us without doctorates of Theology it really isn’t that clear what the difference is, between what Chalke believes and what John has said. In the book, Chalke states this:

If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love.

He then uses Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point.

Jeffrey John says this in his talk:

Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.

As with Chalke, he then goes on to use Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point. Both Chalke and John are disagreeing with penal substitution and saying that it is about love, not vengeance, yes there are differences in what they are saying, and how they say it, but they are largely coming at it from the same direction. The difference between the two is that Chalke has a quote from a certain Tom Wright on the cover of his book commending the scholarship, whilst Jeffery John gets Tom Wright criticising him in the Sunday Telegraph, he then gets Wright producing an epic critique of the talk on Fulcrum.

Ultimately it stinks of being theological sleight of hand buried in pages and pages of exposition to try and avoid accusations of hypocrisy that can be levelled at those involved, Tom Wright especially. Finally, what about the UCCF and their Spring Harvest walkout? Much as I don’t agree with the beliefs of the UCCF, and probably would object to what they are teaching, at least they’re actually being consistent between what they believe and their behaviour, which is more than can be said for certain bishops.

(Thanks to Dave Walker for keeping track of the debate.)

Traditional Christmas

One of the great things about Christmas at St James is all the traditions. I’m not talking here about the ‘traditional’ Christmas, it’s the fact that every year we do much the same thing.

One of the traditions, is the annual struggle to get the Youth Group through their contribution to the Christmas Concert, that is held in the village hall a few days before Christmas. As usual there is an initial lack of enthusiasm from the teenagers, balanced against the fact that usually everybody else in the Church actually quite enjoys their contribution when it is all done.

Having said that, it is usually a pretty high stress exercise from the point of view of us Youth Leaders, plus the fact that in quite a few cases we – from the young peoples point of view are asking them to do what they regard as slightly bizarre things. It’s only on the night when it gets a laugh from the audience that the realise why.

We’ve had it all over the years, including cast members learning their lines in the wings, a scene with Mary and Joseph crossing the border into Egypt – having forgotten to pick up the baby Jesus prop, wardrobe malfunctions everything.

This year we have rapping angels, who are having great difficulty dropping out of their well spoken Berkshire accents. We also have a possible line modification that we came up with tonight – that the youth group young people won’t get, but we think will probably get a good laugh. The scene is three shepherds grumbling about life, and one of them says: “You know, I never wanted to be a shepherd…” – now we really think that what would get a good laugh will be adding “I wanted to be a lumberjack” after that, before carrying on…

Anyway, only two more rehearsals to go – and do they know their lines? Of course not – they’ll be learning them on the day as usual! Just another Finchampstead Christmas tradition.