Faith & Reason : The Beanie Baby plan to save the whale

The churches are diving deep into the waters of believing and belonging. But they may need a very different strategy to stay alive in the century ahead
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The Independent Online
IN THE last month the Church of England has announced that it must become more like the Free Churches and charge a defined core 5 per cent of their income for their membership. Meanwhile the Methodists have been toying with a movement in the other direction, which would enable them to count as members people who merely attend for social reasons. The two contrasting decisions are rather like the waving tails of two great whales as they dive: in one sense they are heading in diametrically opposite directions, but both in their differing and incompatible ways are heading powerfully downwards.

Lots of Christians don't worry about this. I was talking to some Methodists last month and one of them - about to take up a job as a minister - was truly scandalised that I had practical advice to give about raising church membership figures, or at least flattening out the dive. She thought that attendance in church had nothing to do with the gospel.

She may have been right. But church attendance has everything to do with the survival of Methodism, or of other forms of Christianity. It also provides the muscle behind attempts to influence Christian politics. So in one sense, I think it was excellent of the Methodists to have at least toyed with the idea that they were not to make windows into the souls of their congregations. There is also the attraction of knowing that such windows always turn out to be mirrors in any but the narrowest cults: any serious research into what religious believers actually believe shows that even sects that put a high premium on orthodoxy are full of people to whom philosophical or theological assertions are literally shibboleths: things that you must say to prove your membership of the chosen people. Belonging is tremendously important. But their private, factual beliefs can be quite unaffected by their public orthodoxies.

And if you were to separate religious belief from the social functions of church it would be possible to see that church membership offers tremendous advantages. This is what seems to have happened in America, where each individual church is full of fairly sincere believers, and when beliefs shift, or come to inconvenience other goals, they just shift to a different church. But we are not an American society. Given that people see no particular need to belong to any church, disbelief in doctrine is probably enough to keep them out of it. So it seems that the Methodists are on to a good thing here. "Meet nice Methodists" may not be a slogan to fill the churches with young people, but there is no reason to believe that churches cannot survive, like Radio 4, on a grown-up audience providing this is continually topped up by the newly middle-aged.

The trouble is that there seems to be no advantage to lowering one's doctrinal hurdles. The Church of England has for years been lampooned as a place where it is not necessary to believe anything, even, perhaps especially, if you are a bishop. It does not seem to have attracted a better class of bishop by this, or even more numerous believers. Of course, one might argue that this lampooning is completely unfair. Throughout the early part of the decade I was explaining to anyone who would stand still for five seconds that the problem of the Church of England is not that it has no beliefs, but that it has too many, and most are incompatible with each other. This is slowly changing, as the Anglo-Catholics dwindle to the margins and the liberals are pushed there. But it remains true that the members of each party or grouping are terrible at understanding what their fellow Christians actually believe.

At the same time, the traditional doctrinal flexibility and lack of cohesion: the idea that the Church of England "is the only body which exists primarily for the benefit of non-members" is coming under great financial pressure. A full-time married clergy is expensive. England may be the only European country that tries to maintain one without the benefit of taxation; and as more and more of the cost is borne by living churchgoers rather than the funds left by dead benefactors membership becomes more and more sharply defined. You are a member of the Church of England if you pay for it. If you pay for it, this is presumably because you care for the truth of its doctrines.

So what will work? Even if there is not much hunger for spirituality around today, but there is certainly a hunger for meaningless ritual in a world where an illustrated guide to collectible Beanie Babies can sell three million copies. I think the answer is terribly simple. Churches should concentrate not on doctrine, nor on supplying community: the ones that survive will be the ones that give people a reason for going to church; and the only reason that seems to work is gaining access to a superior schooling for their children.

Of the two great post-war reforms, the National Health Service nearly killed off the Church of England by lumbering it with a huge pension bill; it's a nice irony the education system has kept it going on the basis that parents want everything a church school can give their children except religious belief. Perhaps the whale will surface again.

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