Church of England: Will the Quest for Youth Save Us?

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

The Church of England has a serious age problem. Or so, at least, we are reliably informed.

Dioceses are scrabbling around to improve their ‘provision’ to younger people, and at the same time we are told that we should be aiming to be a younger and more diverse church.

In the first instance, and as someone I think is probably still defined as ‘young’ in church terms, I should admit to finding the language a little bit uncomfortable. I understand, of course, what the point being made is – and any church that wants a future needs to encourage people through its door, including young people. Looking around many of our congregations, it’s certainly true that there are many grey hairs and rather fewer teenagers. That, however, is no excuse for ageism. For far too long, the Church of England has been complacent about its membership, and for years the faithful have continued to pay the parish share, staff the churches, keep the show on the road. Many of these people are now elderly and continue their faithful witness. It seems ungrateful, at best, to bemoan their preponderance in the church.

In much discussion about the state of today’s church, the elderly seem to be the focus of attack. ‘Once all the old people die out’, a middle-aged person told me during a lecture at theological college, ‘then we can get rid of the BCP, and start focusing on services which are relevant’. Meanwhile, the elderly are casually described as being the most conservative in our churches, despite there being little to no evidence of this being the case. Churches that focus on outreach to the elderly never seem to feature in the shiny Church of England webpages – despite the loneliness epidemic that blights so many of our communities, made even more acute by the current pandemic.

This obsession with the young, and primarily the able bodied, straight, married young, seems to have taken over so much of the marketing of a church that claims to follow a ‘despised and rejected’ man of the margins. The answer to all the church’s problems often appears to be a superficial commitment to loud music, beautifully presented videos and incessantly, ludicrously, smiling people, who appear to be the models for 1980s action figures. Everything in life is not roses, as even a brief foray into the human situations in which so much of the world finds itself would suggest. Yet many in the church seem to genuinely think that obsessive optimism and ‘relevance’ is what young people are looking for. If only we could be more ‘relevant’, they tell us, then there would be more people coming through our doors. Yet even when young people are encouraged through the door, we barely touch the surface of the wider population, and they don’t tend to stick around.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat through excruciating church talks about how to be more ‘relevant’. The irony of a middle-aged person telling me (someone in their 30s) how my age group might become ‘churched’ seems to be lost most of the time. The solutions are always couched in terms of presentation and polish – never in terms of substance. Not once has someone giving one of these well-meaning but highly condescending talks appeared to have asked – what might we learn from the people who aren’t coming through our doors? What could we, the church, be getting wrong – rather than what might all the ‘youth’ gain from our great store of knowledge?

What the Church of England seems to have missed is that we are no longer simply an irrelevance to the great majority of young people – and not only the young. We run the risk of being seen by many in wider society today as an agent of immorality, not morality.

Opening the Living in Love and Faith book a month or so ago, I will admit to being less depressed than I thought I might be. Some of the content is really good, and some of it manages to move beyond the tired arguments we have gotten used to in recent years. However, one question remained for me – to whom exactly is this book supposed to be addressed? Or, more pertinently – what does a book like this tell the rest of the world about who we are, as a church?

The reality is that we are aeons behind the rest of the world on so many moral questions – and chief amongst these is the rights, lives and loves of LGBT people. Many friends and secular colleagues of mine are disgusted when they hear that we don’t ‘do’ same-sex marriages, or that our clergy get sacked for having them. It’s incomprehensible to most young people – and, indeed, amongst a huge number of the not-so-young. When we wonder why our mission is failing, we never seem to ask the difficult questions. It’s not presentation that people have a problem with – it’s our message. We used to defend slavery. We continue to oppress LGBT people.

Time and time again, we hear senior clergy opposing ‘all kinds of discrimination’ – just not, it seems, discrimination against LGBT people. We hear platitudes, but rarely a serious commitment to listen. And when it’s pointed out that the church is on the wrong side of history, we are fed nonsense about the fact that we are now in an age where we the Church are being ‘persecuted for righteousness sake’. Jesus told us we would never be popular, we are told – so who cares what the world thinks? We are told there is virtue in being persecuted, and being ‘against the world’. Yet persecution for its own sake is not what the Gospel is about.

Do we really claim that secular society can teach us nothing? Do we really believe there is nothing to learn about human flourishing from other disciplines?

I’ve grown very tired of hearing the mantra that the Church of England moves slowly, and that we shouldn’t be impatient about change. A slow and steady boat with holes in it will sink before it reaches the shore. Time is running out on this question, most particularly if the church wants to maintain any sense of moral authority. Covering our ears and pleading self-righteousness doesn’t cut it. It’s time we left the echo chamber and recognised what is already happening around us.

People in same-sex relationships are already living holy lives. They are already getting married to each other. They are already loving God.

We just haven’t recognised it yet. And it’s a mission imperative that we do.

This entry was posted in Charlie Bell, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Transgender. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Church of England: Will the Quest for Youth Save Us?

  1. Rev Di Hervey says:

    thank-you very much – as a liberal priest (one of the first generation of women priests) I am ashamed of the church-as-organisation.Before retirement I consistently bent the rules in order to support and celebrate everyone who lived round did various clergy colleagues.Keep up the good work you are doing. with love and prayers Di


  2. mynatees says:

    I agree with the general message, but white LGBTQ+ people and allies using AAVE (‘woke’ is a word created by Black people to describe becoming activists against white supremacy and racial injustice) so casually and without commenting on racism is deeply wrong and unhelpful. Homophobia and transphobia in the Church is an issue of colonialism and white supremacy as much as it is of sexuality and gender, and white progressive Anglicans need to talk about this. I’ve seen so many racist comments about African Anglican churches by people who in the same breath wonder why Black people aren’t coming to our churches.


  3. Kyle Johansen says:

    Christianity has never defended slavery against non-Christians, since non-Christians have never been against slavery. (Even today those who are first to decry the few (shameful) centuries of British slavery are the first to cry ‘racism’ or ‘islamophobia’ when slave-factories in Birmingham are raided, or the first to get the latest gadget or an over-abundance of fast-fashion outfits made in a Chinese slave factory, or to celebrate those countries with millennia of slavery that would still be slave-states to this day if Bible-believing Christians weren’t will to put in the effort (and it was the effort of a lifetime) and the unpopularity to say ‘no’.

    Dickens thought Jesus was brilliant. He really liked the New Testament. He also read the newspapers. The best arguments of the progressives of the day, and was happy with slavery. Some slave-owners were wicked, but the institution was wholesome and edifying for the slaves. Wilberforce though Jesus was brilliant. He loved the Bible. He read the Bible. He followed the Bible’s teachings. And willing to stand up to the educated and the powerful at the risk of unpopularity and ridicule he enacted those Biblical principals as part of a life given to Jesus. Should he have ‘learnt from society’?

    (You may say ‘What about the Southern Baptist Conference in the United States; a conference founded in the United States because the Baptist Conference was anti-slavery.? The only thing to say to that is that your plan relies on the complete acceptance of all Christians to your affirming view, then your plan won’t work. If a different tradition in a different country would destroy the power of your affirming witness, then you need to get a better plan. People bearing the name Christians will always be on both side of the aisle. We need to be willing to celebrate the flawed vessels empowered by the Holy Spirit to do history-altering things, and worship the God doing the empowering.)

    Sex attacks on children by ‘women’ have gone up a huge amount recently, its almost doubled. I put women in quotes because the rise does seem to coincide with self-identification and the acceptance of trans identities. Gay groups, of course, strongly oppose having the figures of what rate of women child-sex-attackers are transsexuals, but it does appear that trans-women are around 100-times more likely than are cis(an utterly horrid term)-women. Now, we protect children against men, because we rightly say that the safety of children is more important than the unobstructed liberties of men. Jesus loves the little children. The queer lobby thinks the unobstructed liberties of transsexuals are more important than the safety of children. I think it is Jesus who we should be learning from.

    Jesus loved the Samaritans. But He would not say that they were worshiping at the right mountain, because they were not. We do an evil when we refuse to acknowledge the differences, we do an evil when we say that trans-women ought to be just like women and thus they are (and similar things with homosexuals). There is no great moral witness in chasing the secular fads (as Julie Blindell has pointed out, girls who in her generation would have been lesbians are now men; either the L then or the T now must be surely be non-biological but societal), or even trying to co-opt them – nobody celebrates Wilberforce for his efforts to improve the moral character of the East Indian Company charter – but only in standing up against the secular world (Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was one of the most hated men in America (perhaps he should have taken his moral cues from society?).)

    Some churches may have been able to grow by being affirming when society was not. But churches will not find doors opening by submitting to society. And I don’t see doors closing by our not submitting (people don’t seem to care, and from your short bio I’d think that you’re in the weirder situation than my commuter-belt city), it seems like the desire for the affirming lot to stick the Church with the label ‘homophobe’ rather than something that actually is what comes to mind to non-Christians when they encounter us. What is good for moral mission is when the Church shows love to and defends justice and truth for those on ‘The Wrong Side of Society’. As the Church did do when it came to decriminalization, and what it should do today for children and safety and for jokes and for the unheard. It is a far better witness to the great defender of someone, than to be the hundredth group to jump on the bandwagon of the popular.


  4. Philip Bourne says:

    Your article is spot on, Charlie, and provides a helpful stimulus to the ongoing debate. Let’s hope good common sense, mixed in with a generous faith (like our God), will prevail!


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