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.