Finding faith in the religious marketplace
The UK’s annual British Social Attitudes survey reports that only 2% of 18 to 24-year-olds identify with the Church of England (C of E), the established religion since the Reformation.
Overall, fewer than one in seven English people say they belong to the C of E. Between 2002 and 2017, the share of the populace identifying with the Church dropped from 31% to 14%. That was a faster decline than any other Christian denomination in England.
The C of E is not 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 C of E or Anglican to one in which identifying faith is an active choice,” said David Male, C of E director of evangelism and discipleship. “But people of all ages have not stopped searching for meaning and answers in their life.”
WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
‘Nothing has such power to cause a complete mental turnaround as that of a question.’ (Jeff Boss)
We are used to stories about the decline of religious faith on these islands. So much so that we may easily jump on to the next story. After all, it is hard to keep a balance between looking honestly at reality and not talking ourselves into the despondency of ‘We’re all doomed – doomed I tell you’. But balancing both is a necessity.
That is a balance the Church of England (C of E) will have to find as it mulls over the latest report on church allegiance in England (front page). Their research suggests that “only 2% of 18 to 24-year-olds identify with the C of E, the established religion since the Reformation.” Also, that “between 2002 and 2017, the share of the populace identifying with the church dropped from 31% to 14%. That was a faster decline than any other Christian denomination in England.”
Is the reason for decline simply down to the fact that young people are just not interested in faith anymore? Their report suggests not! “The research organisation ComRes found in a June 2017 survey that 21% of teenagers in Britain identified as active followers of Jesus. At least one in six wanted to know more about Jesus or were interested in spiritual experience.” It all gets more interesting when we read: “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 C of E project Setting God’s People Free. “People are very private in their beliefs.”
A “lack of confidence” and being “private in their beliefs” is something we can identify with as members
of the Church of Ireland.” It is not the absence of faith, perhaps more a confidence issue in being able to put it into words. Perhaps a mixture of being private, modest and the effect of history means we are in uncharted territory when we consider being in any way public with our expressions of faith.
At least the report goes some way to asking that vital question – what should be done, or what is the answer? As reported, “For the past two years, the C of E 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.” This is based on the observation “that many young people are turning to the internet to pray. Some 1.2 million British people pray online each month, according to C of E data, and they are using C of E guides to do so.”
We may or may not be convinced that developing a strong online presence is a significant answer to the challenge of falling numbers. Truth to tell, we are too far from the situation to really know. Yet, there is something we can learn from their response. It is the importance of the Church looking at trends and asking two questions – Why is this happening? and What will we do about it?
Has the Church of Ireland the structures or investment in place to ask these questions in a coherent way?
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Letter to the editor
The ministry of reconciliation
HAVE always been impressed by St Paul’s definition of evangelism in 2 Corinthians 5:18 when he said that God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation. This ministry of reconciliation is something that we are all involved in and this happens in different ways.
In a recent letter to the Gazette I made comment on an interview which took place with Trevor Johnston, by the Australian Church Record.
In an approach suggested in a column by Ron Elsdon, I attempted to use humour in discussing the debate about GAFCON and the rest of the Church of Ireland. When I discovered that this had caused offense, I immediately apologised to Trevor for any unintended hurt caused to him and his family. To his credit he accepted this in a gracious manner. I intended no offence and I am sure many others realised this as well.
We are all involved in the ministry of reconciliation, in seeking to share the Good News of Jesus with others. This is not an easy task in Northern Ireland, never mind the Republic of Ireland!
It was refreshing to read Bishop Pat Storey’s interview in the Gazette, dated 21st September, as she spoke about her conversion to Christ at Trinity College Dublin. She has witnessed the efforts of the clergy in her diocese to reach out and, as she says, they achieve more than they realise. Bishop Pat is probably better placed to assess what is going on in the Republic of Ireland.
We are all working for the same Lord and we are seeking to support one another in this worthy cause. May God bless Trevor in his good work at All Saints, Belfast, now and in the future.
Nigel Baylor (Canon) Jordanstown
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