Faith & Reason: Confessions of a 47/52ths church-goer

Church attendance is down again. Paul Handley has a sneaking suspicion that the problem is not dull sermons, trendy vicars or women priests. It is him.

Ask me how often I go to church, and I will say, smugly, every week. Ask me where I was on the last Sunday in August, and I will say driving down the M6 on the way back from Ayr. Ask me where I was on the first Sunday in June, and I will say cleaning up the holiday cottage before the lunchtime deadline. Ask me where I was those first weekends in October, and I'll say coping with the children at home because their mother was sick. And so on. Then ask me again how often I go to church, and I'll say, probably with the same smugness, every week.

To a church statistician, that trip down the M6 and those swipes with the J-cloth mean that I cease to be a person. I become, instead, say, 47/52ths of a person; whatever I think about my presence in church, there is 10 per cent less of me. I am guilty, then, for the decline in church attendance which has featured in so many stories over the years. I am responsible for the depressed air worn by so many clergymen and the too- bright smiles worn by so many of the Church's spin-doctors. That estimated 21-per-cent drop in church attendance between 1980 and 2000, from 4.8 million to 3.8 million, has been taken to signify a vast exodus of disaffected churchgoers, fed up with the women priests or dull conservatism or trendy- lefty leadership or the wrong hymns, according to which newspaper you read. It's not. It's me.

All right, it is also church-goers dying and not being replaced; and people who look up in the middle of a sermon one day and say to themselves, "I don't believe any of this"; and people who now have to work on Sundays. But these are compensated for, to a degree, by children being born and brought to church; and people who discover that church communities are kind and unexploiting places to be.

The trend to attend church less frequently is a large and hitherto unmeasured factor in the overall statistical picture. Now there is support for this theory: newly uncovered figures (a respectable 3,287-strong sample in the British Social Attitudes survey) show that only 20 per cent of those who say they belong to a religion claim to worship every week. (Interestingly, only 3 per cent say they worship fortnightly. This is probably because, like me, few actually intend to worship fortnightly: it just works out that way.) Another 30 per cent attend somewhere between once a month and once a year. The straightforward head-count is too blunt a method to register that the people it counts one week are not the same as they were the previous week. One church in Huddersfield has counted the different local people who have attended at some time during the past three months. The official attendance figure for that church is 63; yet over the three months the churchwardens' tally came to 159. If the Church really wants to count its constituency, it shouldn't use a Polaroid: it needs a movie camera.

One implication of this is that the Church should relax a bit more about its identity and its market penetration. Mission need not mean knocking on the doors of hostile strangers; it ought, rather, to be about finding ways to serve this large community which flows in and out of the churches, sometimes leaving its mark, often not; not asking much of the church hierarchy, because not expecting much.

Another implication, though, ought to cause the Churches more anxiety. If people feel guilty and uncomfortable about staying away from church, all is well: the assumption that God resides in some way in the institutional Church, and perhaps in the church buildings, remains intact. But if people are choosing whether or not to go to church, and don't mind, then either their consciences are dulled (a possibility) or God is with them and doesn't mind either.

In some ways it is easier for the Churches to believe that they look out of their heavy wooden doors at a world of spiritual ignorance and suspicion. If, on the other hand, the non-attenders are all-too-familiar with what the Church is like, and are making an informed and intelligent choice not to go too often, this is far more of a challenge. After all, if you had a choice, would you join an institution where, just in the past week, one group has threatened to break away because of the prospect of women bishops; another group has threatened the same thing over homosexuals; and the officials coordinating the resumption of talks between Methodists and Anglicans have admitted that there's no point in thinking about unity for the foreseeable future? The surprising thing about these new figures is not that so many people go to church; it's that they should want to.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely

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