When there’s a story about Christianity in decline, or in crisis, you always get a few loudmouth lifestyle columnists gloating – sorry, imparting their secular wisdom. Barbara Ellen was not very surprised that a new report says that Christians (at 44 per cent) are now outnumbered by ‘Nones’ (at 48.5 per cent). After all, the main thing religion claims to offer is ‘community’, and in practice that probably means ‘sitting in a draughty hall with a Bible group and a digestive biscuit’. This is a good snapshot of secularist arrogance. If Ms Ellen attended a local group in which a genuine social mix assembled (unlike at her book group) in order to practice literary analysis and share life-stories, imagine how excited she’d be. I attended a ‘Bible group’ earlier this year, largely composed of women of West Indian origin, and was impressed by the high level of textual discussion, and honest self-reflection that emerged. Lacking such authenticity, secular culture sneers.
But I do agree with her on one thing. Statistics about Christian allegiance are complicated by ‘a thriving subculture of parents mysteriously “finding religion” to get their children into superior church schools…the only thing they truly “believe” in is getting their children through their GCSEs.’ This issue seriously tarnishes the image of the Church of England. In general, its worship is the site of exceptional cultural authenticity. Where else do people of diverse backgrounds get together and create culture, make music, discuss ancient texts, strive to address local needs? And this is tainted by the fact that some are attending in order to get little Jack or Jasmine into a slightly posher, whiter school.
At present there’s a cowardly consensus in the Church that whatever fills pews is good. We need a brave bishop, or group of priests, to come forward and say: no, no, no. This must change, for this harms us. We must stop using church attendance as a criterion for admission to church schools. Even if attendance plunges steeply, we must put authenticity first. Only from a basis of authenticity, from foundations of rock, can we rebuild.