Church of England facing a crisis of faith

Divisive internal arguments and an increasingly secular society bring Church to all-time low point.

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LONDON // Reverend Donald Davis urged the congregation to come closer.

"There's not a lot of us today," he said with his trademark staccato laugh. "Let's huddle together for warmth."

Unlike Christmas, the Sunday after at St Luke's, the parish church in West Norwood, South London, is typically a "low Sunday", he said, both in terms of energy and attendance.

That mood framed his New Year service, which explored the possibility of true happiness through faith and ended with prayers for the poor, the sick and for peace in Syria.

But a low point is also where the Church of England - of which St Luke's is one of 16,000 churches - finds itself. Embroiled in divisive internal arguments over same-sex marriage rights and whether women should be allowed to serve as bishops, perhaps the most serious battle facing England's state church is against an evermore secular society in which its role is far from clear.

In December, data from the 2011 England and Wales census was released and, once again, it made for depressing reading for England's clergy. The number of people who define themselves as Christian in England and Wales has dropped by more than 4 million people compared to the last census in 2001. A drop from 72 per cent of the population to 59.

Church attendances have been declining for decades, in spite of efforts by the Church of England to appeal to Christians of different denominations. According to church statistics, average attendances in 2010, the latest figures available, showed an average drop in Sunday attendances by two per cent in that year. Only 1.1 million people are regular churchgoers.

Perhaps more tellingly, along with the drop in attendance has come a sharp rise in the average age of churchgoers. In 1980 that age was 37. In 2010, according to figures from Christian Research, which tracks religious trends in the United Kingdom, it was 51. It is only projected to rise as attendances continue to fall.

With organisations such as the National Secular Society arguing that there is no role for a state religion in a secular society, the church is, if not fighting a rearguard action quite yet, concerned enough to bring in experts for advice.

One of these, David Voas, a professor of population studies at the University of Essex, has been commissioned to study church growth and decline. The results of his efforts are due to be published this year, but he argued that the church faces two kinds of problems.

One, internal arguments like the still unresolved debate over whether to allow women bishops hurt the church's authority the longer they go on, he said.

"If an institution that holds itself up as a moral authority is unable to say, even on something to do with its own affairs, what's right or wrong, then how can it speak with any confidence on what's right or wrong on other matters".

Also, he said, the "historical momentum" is toward secularism and "the forces of social change" are making it more difficult for religious institutions to appeal to the public.

Indeed, during the past 150 years, Mr Voas said, there has been a gradual disestablishment of the church and its privileges; for example, official office is no longer reserved for Anglicans, to the exclusion of Jews, Catholics and others.

But some privileges remain. Secularists are gaining ground with their argument that a largely secular country should no longer accept, among other things, that 26 bishops are reserved seats in the House of Lords, Britain's upper house of parliament. The time is coming, in the words of Observer columnist Nick Cohen, to face up to "the truth about religious decline … will allow Britain to become an honest and grown-up country."

In response, some complain of "militant secularisation", as Baroness Warsi minister of state for faith and communities, did in February when she was chair of the ruling Conservative Party. And for the time being, the Church is holding its own, at least politically. There are no serious effort to remove more of the Church's privileges.

Nevertheless, the challenge for the church is to address the very deep problem it faces, said Mr Voas.

"In terms of heritage, yes, Britain is Christian. In terms of real religious involvement, no. That's no longer the case."

Rev Davis is not surprised at the numbers to emerge from the latest census. He remained wary though. First, he said, people may now simply be more honest about their religious identities in a way that social strictures might have precluded before.

And, he said, in his experience people are still seeking spiritual solace, a function, he argued, the church still fills best. But to do so, "it has to be involved".

St Luke's tries. For the past 18 months, the West Norwood church has organised a food bank where twice a week, and in coordination with local authority social services, food is distributed to those in need. Rev Davis and volunteers regularly visit members of the community, the elderly and the ill. And, perhaps recognising that the church should also be there for festive occasions, on the first Sunday of every month the church participates in the Norwood Feast, local restaurants set up booths on church grounds, and the church offers refreshments and hosts children for story time.

"People have a problem with dogmatics," said Rev Davis, who before he joined the clergy in 1992 was a submariner for 15 years with the British navy. "Our job is to communicate what real Christianity is about, to make the connection between people's every day lives and the church."