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No longer the default, Church of England goes to battle in religious marketplace

Posts on the Church of England Instagram feed. Screengrab via Instagram

LONDON (RNS) — It’s not particularly news in Britain that young English people no longer automatically consider themselves Anglican. A government survey released this month was only the latest to confirm that “CoE” — Church of England — was no longer the default response when Englanders were asked their religion or checked a box on a form.

What’s new, however, is that the Church of England is not sitting back and accepting decline. The nearly 500-year-old denomination is answering back, via Instagram.

The U.K.’s annual British Social Attitudes Survey reported that only 2 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds identify with the Church of England, the established religion of the realm since the Reformation.

Overall, in fact, fewer than 1 in 7 of the English say they belong to the Church of England. Between 2002 and 2017, the share of the populace identifying with the church dropped from 31 percent to 14 percent. That was a faster decline than any other Christian denomination in England.

This puts a new spin on the common story of an increasingly secular Britain. The Church of England isn’t only losing members who have lost their faith; it is also losing them to other denominations.

“It has been clear for some time that we have moved from an era of people automatically classifying themselves as Church of England or Anglican to one in which identifying faith is an active choice,” said David Male, the Church of England’s director of evangelism and discipleship. “But people of all ages have not stopped searching for meaning and answers in their life.”

Indeed, further research shows that rather than belonging to one denomination all their lives, they move about according to spiritual and liturgical taste.

The research organization ComRes found in a June 2017 survey that 21 percent of teenagers in Britain identified as active followers of Jesus. At least 1 in 6 wanted to know more about Jesus or were interested in spiritual experience.

“We keep finding not so much a reluctance to admit to religious faith, but they have a lack of confidence about it,” said Nick Shepherd, who works for the Church of England project Setting God’s People Free. “People are very private in their beliefs.”

Rather than adhering to a denomination, the current generation is concerned with finding a community that fits. “They might move from an Anglican to a Baptist church,” said Katie Harrison, head of the Faith Research Center at ComRes, “and for the most part they find the services and community life fairly similar.”

When young Brits do stick with a denomination, it is often because of their ethnic or national heritage. “Roman Catholic cultural identity is very strong, especially in migrant communities. Such a cultural identity is not as strong for Anglicans,” said Shepherd.

What gives England’s state church hope is that many young Brits are turning to the internet to pray. Some 1.2 million Brits pray online each month, according to Church of England data, and they are using Church of England guides to do so.

For the past two years the Church of England has committed itself to developing a strong presence online, with a particular target of attracting people who do not regularly go to church. It uses Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and its website to reach young people.

The church’s content includes images, film, information about local churches and help in learning to pray — including using Amazon Alexa to hear grace before meals and other devotions read aloud for them.

At Christmas last year there were 6.8 million users of its material. In June 2017 after a terrorist attack on London Bridge that coincided with Pentecost, 1.5 million went on Facebook to find comfort in verses from the Gospel of John – “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” with film of a lit candle.

Adrian Harris. Photo courtesy of Church of England

Adrian Harris, the Church of England’s head of digital, said the aim is to draw people to Christian worship long term. “The key part of our role is to use social media and the website to enable people to develop a relationship with God and our churches.” The church website’s “find a church near you” is getting 10 million page views a year. Half of the church’s traffic to Instagram is under the age of 34.

“We’re seeing encouraging signs but it will take time to translate into more people going to church,” said Harris, a former head of digital for a major supermarket retailer.

In a generation in which seekers are looking for community, the Church of England is able to offer the ultimate in togetherness: Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has been helping to foster a revival of interest in people joining religious communities.

While commitments to traditional monastic orders have declined, there has been an increase of interest in what are called “acknowledged communities,” in which people between 20 and 35 live and work outside a monastery or convent. There is no vow of celibacy required.

In 2015, Welby launched the Community of St. Anselm, based at his London home, Lambeth Palace, which people join for a year.

Writing in the Church Times on Sept. 7, Welby said, “Commitment-phobia in our culture was felt to be deterring many from just about the biggest commitment you can make: staking everything on God and joining a religious community for life.”

Now, he said: “We are witnessing a revival of interest in community life in its different forms.”

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Catherine Pepinster

19 Comments

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  • For generations the Church of England has rested on its laurels. Just as Queen Elizabeth II was caught off guard and felt the ground shift beneath her feet following the death of Diana and realized that she needed to “modernize,” so too the C of E has awoken in the 21st century realizing the ground has shifted beneath its feet while the daily cycle of prayer has continued seamlessly on a daily basis in the great Anglican Cathedrals and collegiate chapels throughout England.

    As a musical aficionado I have been incredibly moved attending musically perfect renditions of choral evensong at Kings College Chapel in Cambridge and Westminster Abbey in London, but I’m a bit odd in that regard. Young people in the U.K. are less interested in this sort of thing than I am and are in fact no different than young people everywhere else in the developed world – they’re more in tune with what their friends are up to on Facebook or Instagram than they are with what’s going on in any church. Reaching millennials and Gen. X,Y & Z-ers will be a challenge not only for the C of E but for all other religions in the developed world. Only in third-world countries where the literacy rate is low and poverty high is religion increasing.

  • So God’s worldly representatives need to do MBA style marketing pitches? And apparently God is an Englishman….he wants the Church of England to win in the marketplace !!

    Why can’t the big guy upstairs just do it himself and appeal directly to people like Dave Thomas at Wendys or Lee Iococca at Chrysler?

  • Dead is not a problem when you have resurrection powers !!

    BTW — I think Lee Iococca is still kicking…driving a Chrysler I assume. Miss Dave though…Wendy’s burgers have gone downhill.

  • So the Church of England wants to “go to battle in the religious marketplace”?
    Hey, sounds exciting. We all love a good fight.

    But if they were to go to battle in the SECULAR marketplace first, they might automatically crank up some good action in the religious marketplace as well.

    Either way, they will have to dust off those Bibles that they’ve generally abandoned. Ya can’t do a battle unarmed !!

  • True. When you can resurrect, death is merely an inconvenience. As Leonard Bernstein said in “mass”…

    You chose. you rose.

  • And your awareness of the Biblical knowledge of the CofE’s members is gained how?

    You might find that many Anglicans know their Bibles better than you – a situation which might explain why their irrational beliefs often appear a little more Christ-like than your irrational beliefs?

  • Jesus prayed…..thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

    Paul helps describe that Kingdom —
    The Kingdom of God is not in word (Bibles, sermons) but power (the Spirit of God at work)…………1 Cor 4:20

    …it’s not food and drink but righteousness (exhibiting loving attitudes, works and deeds) and living with peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…….Rom 14:17

    If you serve God with this attitude, you will please Him, and others will approve of you, too………..Rom 14:18

  • The Church of England has women bishops, feminist bishops, and gay bishops, and flies rainbow flags and hosts gay pride events in its cathedrals. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been earning the applause of British trade unions by denouncing businesses. How can you say that the Church of England is resting on its laurels and not getting with the times?

    I will grant you that the Episcopal Church in the USA has “modernized” even faster, having ordained the first bishop in all of Christendom to have divorced both a wife and a husband, albeit the second divorce was after his retirement. What that modernization hasn’t done is increased church membership and attendance, which continues its downwards spiral with its increasingly aging congregations.

    Islam in Britain, in contrast, is growing. Do you believe British Muslims are illiterate? Almost half of British Muslim population is UK born. The British Muslim age profile is skewed towards the young, with a higher than national average youth population.

    Speaking of illiteracy and loss of youth, there is an astonishing general ignorance about and indifference to the Christian faith in Britain. 53 per cent of children polled in 2013 did not know what Easter was. (See http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/issues/june-3rd-2016/how-catholics-can-reclaim-britain/)

    I am also fond of English cathedral music and wish the Anglicans well in their campaign.

  • In a “religious marketplace” secularism has no place. Secularism separates Church from State and in doing so removes God from man…which then leads to the decline of the Church.

  • “removes God from man…which then leads to the decline of the Church.”

    Which is precisely why secularism is so vital – it means that public policy can be determined by reason and evidence-based knowledge rather than superstition, tradition and ignorance.

  • The implied goal is that by removing the opinion of the church people can think independent of it and by that logic come to a free and unbiased opinion. But in retrospect it does not work that way. Without any guidance all human behavior is equal. There is no “moral gauge” to know if keeping the vows of marriage or divorce has any moral consequences, not in the sense of “sin” but the damage divorce does to a couple or family. It is morally irrelevant. Then all what the (Christian) Church deemed as “sins” are no longer sins. Why not P*rnograpy? logically it is simply naked people doing natural things on film.
    Why not Prostitution? logically a woman has a right to her own body and if she wants to sell it whats is wrong? nothing, no one is physically hurt but moral damage is extensive.
    Theft can be done in a multitude of ways outside of the traditional understanding of it. The moral issues of Abortion, extra marital relations or even pre marital relations all become inconsequential in a Secular world.
    In a Buddhist society since the concept of “sin” is missing there are even stronger elements. Buddhism replaces “sin” with codes. Code of conduct, code of ethics, code of duty, and codes of morality. They apply to man and society. Secularism removes ethical and moral behavior.

  • Umm, RNS, remember? Not to mention various secular media & polling groups. That’s how.

    The CoE folks ain’t trying to hide their beliefs, whatever beliefs this side or that side may hold. Anyone can get a clear picture.

    But my point is simple: if the CoE wants to “fight” to retain a diminishing market share among the competing church groups , then let the CoE sharply and happily hone its biblical “fighting skills” in the most appropriate and most competitive battle arenas — such as the dominant, God-rejecting British secular culture, and the dominant, God-rejecting skeptics like (ahem) yourself !!

  • The CofE is a broad church – it has to be. It encompasses every shade of Christianity from pseudo-Roman Catholicism with confessions and bells-and-smells through Baptist/Congregational/Methodist to the nutters in the happy-clappy, every word in the KJV is exactly as God intended gang with their communal shout-outs and weekly miracles that have simple rational, non-superstitious explanations – it even includes a bit of speaking-in-tongues sometimes.

    We are, AFAIK, without snake-handlers.

    The CofE can’t speak with a single voice without alienating a large proportion of its few adherents.

    Cantuar not only has the impossible task of trying to lead a united international Anglican community – he also has to try to keep the local numpties of both extremes on board without losing all those who prefer a gentle, sing-a-long, cup of coffee after an occasional service whilst thinking that carol-singing is an outreach event.

    All on the back of far too many buildings – mainly old – too many managers – mainly old – and too few paying members – also mainly old.

    Mind you, castigating Amazon for legally avoiding taxes whilst leading an organisation which ruthlessly uses charitable (tax-free) status whenever possible and made a profit of over £300m in the last reported year from interest on its investments doesn’t improve the public perception of the church’s claimed moral authority.

    I doubt that a CofE that became only a militant, loud, aggressive (anti-SSM, anti-abortion under any circumstances, anti-Muslim/Atheist/Sikh etc.) cabal would survive (other than a few isolated communities riven by internecine schisms and desperately seeking to out-nasty each other) for twenty years.

    As to “the dominant, God-rejecting British secular culture, and the dominant, God-rejecting skeptics like (ahem) yourself !!”

    In truth most of the British public don’t reject God, they simply seldom think about the concept. They are well enough educated to realise that there is neither evidence nor need for “God” and whilst they may have a warm fuzzy feeling that there might be some sort of “higher power” they don’t let it affect their lives.

    And no, we aren’t dominant – the country is infused with Christianity. There are only two countries in the world where clerics have an automatic, unelected right to sit in the legislature because of their seniority within the religious ranks.
    One is Iran, the other is the UK.
    Not that the Bishops always vote en bloc – though I understand they always do so when the subject affects the church’s finances (as in Bills regarding charitable matters, subsidies for crumbling buildings etc.).

  • Secularism simply means “The principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.” Why would a secular world make moral issues inconsequential?

    Morality has nothing to do with religion other than than the attempt by religious groups to hijack that which evolved naturally as humanity began to urbanise, and though they may have had supernatural beliefs they weren’t monotheists and had widely differing gods, beliefs and rituals. Yet the same basic morality, (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie etc.) arose independently in many places and became widely accepted as the ideal – however well practised – because it served society.

    Relying on religious leaders to supply morality has not produced a moral world ; heck – it hasn’t even produced exclusively moral churches and/or church leaders – let alone those who claim adherence.

    If we define morality as doing what is right regardless of reward or suffering the whole silliness of Heaven/Hell leaves believers incapable of true morality – they will always be disqualified through their awareness of the imaginary consequences. If you fall for the sophistry of “Divine Command Morality” you are redefining morality in such a way as to render rational discussion impossible.

    You talk vaguely about moral damage (by which you mean what?) – frankly there might be a lot less emotional damage if people were not made to feel guilty if they don’t follow the faux morality that many religions seek to impose. Abortion is seldom inconsequential to the pregnant woman – suggesting that it would be so in the absence of religion is arrogant. Do you have any facts to support your outrageous slur on women? Similarly the pain of betrayal has no linkage to religion.

    “But in retrospect it does not work that way. Without any guidance all human behavior is equal.”

    Rubbish. Removing religion is not the same as removing guidance – yet it is the bedrock of your comment.

    Therefore your argument is false – it may be the only way you can reconcile the controlling diktats of religion with your superstition – but it is wrong.

  • I would suggest we limit Secularism to the Western Christian world. Broad generalizations is often used to water down a point. Too broad and general and your point becomes meaningless except in some philosophical gymnastics
    .
    Simply put those who grow up under Secularism do not know the Christian concepts of right and wrong. Free thought without any concept of right and wrong is the reason people choose the wrong way. Example would be the social changes of the 60’s. from the Sexual Revolution to the Drug culture, P*rn industry to Abortions.
    .
    These movements should have increased mental and physical health and brought wealth and happiness or an overall sense of well being. They did not. If you measure these movements by the rise in depression, anxiety, neurosis, unhappiness, etc to how many in this generation seek counseling to Psychiatric help these movements are failures. All the basics to keep a society even functional fell apart.
    .
    Abortion should not exist in a society where contraception is freely available. There is something inherently wrong when women abort on a whim and when they could have avoided it. STD’s should have dropped in an educated pop. use of highly addictive drugs that physically destroy the internal organs should not even exist. It has exponentially increased. a marriage based on love should thrive with happy or at least content children. We have the opposite.
    .
    That is the problem of an immoral society. The ancient Greeks and Eastern faiths like Buddhism pointed that there is a right and wrong way of living. You can call it “sin” or a self destructive life that also destroys society more effectively than invading armies.

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