Dr Robin Gill, Professor of Modern Theology at Kent, who is also a speechwriter for Dr Carey, argues in his most recent book that there are too few Christians in Britain partly because there are far too many churches.
Using statistics for both urban and rural areas, Professor Gill argues that there never was a golden Victorian age when churches were full. Both the Church of England and the free churches responded to population growth by building far more churches than there was demand for.
The result was that churches grew emptier even as religious observance increased. The under- filled churches themselves then tended to diminish church-going for reasons unconnected with a loss of religious belief. Professor Gill argues that the ideological forces of secularisation and commercialism which are conventionally supposed to explain the decline of religious observance in England, are much greater in North America, where religion continues to play an important role in national life.
Professor Gill identifies five ways in which overcapacity tends to weaken churches and demoralise believers.
The first is that some of the redundant churches must be closed, which has a profound symbolic effect. The second is that underused churches cause financial problems. In the free churches, these bear more directly upon the congregations than in the Church of England, but even that is chronically short of money nowadays.
Partly as a result of the shortage of money, emptying churches end up sharing priests, who can devote less time to the needs of each small congregation.
These small and often ageing congregations become off-putting to outsiders. 'To attend a full church or chapel on an occasional basis may not be too difficult but to attend a large urban church or chapel containing a small, predominantly female and probably elderly congregation might be much more daunting.'
The final effect Professor Gill identifies of these almost empty churches is that they seem to offer conclusive evidence of the decline of religious belief. It seems obvious, if 50 people are worshipping in a church that could hold 500, that their ancestors must have believed much more than they do.
The only denomination he exempts from these strictures is Roman Catholicism, which has consistently taken care to ensure that it has an undercapacity of churches. One effect of this has been to make all Catholic churches seem thriving and full, even when there were far fewer Catholics than Protestants in this country.
Professor Gill's remedies involve a professionalisation of the Church of England's response. He wants money to be spent on 'mission, not maintenance', for the performance of clergy to be regularly assessed by their superiors, and for every stipendiary clergyman in principle to have charge of a parish, even if he has another job in a cathedral or a university.
The Myth of the Empty Church, Robin Gill, SPCK, pounds 20Reuse content