In the review of the papers on Saturday morning on the TV, the reviewers highlighted an article in the Times stating that a survey had blamed liberal and weak clergy for a decline in Church attendance. The article is accompanied by a suitably shocking graph to illustrate the decline. The interesting thing is that the article doesn’t mention the source of the survey – nor highlight some of the more important details of the sample group. It is also pretty selective with it’s quotes.
Key criticisms online have been that the results reported in the Times reflect the opinions of those backing the report, who include the Prayer Book Society, and that since one of the main newspaper reports during the survey was in the Daily Mail (which according to the report itself produced over 7% of the total response) this can explain some of the ‘moral decline’ responses.
Having read some of the discussion, I took the opportunity to read the full report for myself, and I’d recommend those involved with Churches do the same. The full results of the survey are available for free download from www.churchsurvey.co.uk, and is also available directly from here.
The first point that struck me is that the responses are skewed towards older people – 70% of the people who replied were over 40. The report itself highlights one of the main reasons for this, which is that young people feel that the Church is irrelevant, so obviously if they feel it is irrelevant they aren’t going to take the time to respond to a survey!
The Times article highlighted general dissatisfaction with ‘Family’ or ‘All-Age’ services, highlighting the use of gimmicks. A reading of the survey itself provides a more focused message, the full report says that what people are complaining about is not ‘Family’ or ‘All-Age’ services, but the fact that there is not a clear message behind the gimmicks. The worship section also in some ways makes me rather glad to be part of St James. There are a number of comments from people sad to have lost the traditional liturgy, however the report describes the situation at St James well:
Churches which provided both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ liturgies were appreciated by old and young alike, because every need was catered for and every age group felt valued. Where contemporary worship took place however, it still needed to be conducted in a dignified and reverent manner.
The Times article blamed ‘liberal and weak clergy’ in their headline for the decline, although from a read of the report I would say that the issue is more a general lack of depth in sermons, people preaching on minor points, or avoiding big issues. Again going back to the use of gimmicks without a real message. One interesting point is that many people are now finding their teaching through house groups instead.
This leads on to an entire chapter devoted to ‘Visionary and Prophetic Churches’, and wrapped with the culture of fear in society as a whole brought about by events such as 9/11. Coming from my background some of the attributing of recent events to biblical prophecy does remind me of the way people sometimes work with predictions given to them by psychics. Having said that there is certainly food for thought in parts of the chapter, particularly the response of many people to a pastor having had a vision of the World Trade Centre burning in July 2001. His prediction can be found in his August 2001 newsletter, and his response to 9/11. Reading both will give you some idea of where he is coming from, and even if you don’t subscribe to his beliefs the predicition is particularly accurate and timely.
Back to the report. The final chapter is about pastoral visiting, and has recieved a large element of criticism in discussion of the report in that many feel that the question leads the responses:
The traditional custom of ‘clergy visiting’ has steadily declined in spite of the maxim ‘a house going minister makes a chuch going people’. Do you think the demis of the customary visiting role is significant?
To some extent I agree that the question pretty clearly leads the responses, however the chapter does offer some worthwhile suggestions, particularly the idea of the priest being freed up from the day to day running of the Church in order to concentrate on pastoral aspects, some even suggesting that the incumbent should not attend every PCC.
Finally, I’ll just highlight some particular points in the report that I found particularly interesting. Firstly one couple who responded were so let down by churches – both Methodist and Anglican, that they now do not attend, however they hold their own communion service at home, blessing bread and wine and then sharing it. The stories of unwelcome responses from Churches are quite amazing as well, including one person who was told to go to another Church because he lived on the wrong side of the river through the town! There is also some interesting comments about traditionalists being sidelined by liberals and liberals sidelined by traditionalists, the message being that it is important for the church that neither group feels sidelined by the other. The report also highlights a number of comments from Anglican churchgoers over money, particularly the quota. Apparently some wrote that they were unsure how much longer they’d be able to afford to attend church.
All in all, despite my misgivings over the spin put on the report by the Times, having read the report myself, there is much to read and digest for the Church as a whole. Certainly, whilst I think it is important that the demographics of the responses should be highlighted, they are not a reason for ignoring the report, it is just that we need to take into account the people who were to disinterested to respond at all.