State of the Church: sociology or theology?

QT_lw_resizedThe Church Times has been running a series of interesting article on the state of the Church, with some significant insights from Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at the University of Lancaster.

Previous articles have explored issues of church growth, leadership, and some of the reasons behind the decline in church attendance. One of last week’s articles analysed the social impact of the Church of England, and made some provocative suggestions.

Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.

But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue…

Yes, you read that! ‘Its most influential activities could continue’! My first response was to think this was an incredibly ‘clericalised’ view of the Church: its most important and influential activities are the ones done by its clergy and officials. It reminded me of my bishop in a previous diocese, who once commented:

Imagine what would happen if each parish hired 50 actors, dressed them in clerical collars, and paid them to wander around the parish. What an impact this would have on the profile of the Church!

What a hideous idea!

Linda Woodhead’s article does contain some encouraging news, but do look carefully at what is being measured:

How do [people] connect with the Church? In descending order, the five most common points of contact are: funerals, visits to a cathedral or historic church, weddings, Christmas services, and christenings. Regular worship came in sixth place.

But surely the main way that people have contact with ‘the church’ is by meeting, living next to and working with members of the church—Christians! This reminds me of the story John Wimber used to tell. A member of his church complained that a homeless man attended a service, and the man hoped ‘the church’ would do something for him. ‘In the end, because the Church did not help him, I had to take care of him!’ Wimber replied: ‘Looks like the church did do something!’

Fortunately, the Church of England ‘About Us’ web page has a more enlightened view:

  • A quarter of regular churchgoers (among both Anglicans and other Christians separately) are involved in voluntary community service outside the church. Churchgoers overall contribute 23.2 million hours voluntary service each month in their local communities outside the church.
  • Church of England congregations give more than £51.7 million each year to other charities – that’s even more than the BBC’s annual Children in Need appeal.

So at least some of the ‘influential activities’ of the church are things done by ordinary Christians. Still better is the LICC’s ‘Imagine’ project, encouraging all Christians to realise that their first place of ministry is the place where they spend their time Monday to Saturday.

Perhaps the root of the issue is something that Linda Woodhead mentions at the very beginning of her article.

LAST week, a young person asked me a question in response to recent articles in the Church Times which brought me up short: “What should change, Church or society?”

The reason I was dumbfounded was that I had never thought of the Church like that – as separate from society. The more I reflected on it, the less sense it made to think of a Church of England without England; it actually made more sense to think of a Church without congregations.

‘The Church as separate from society.’ This touches on a key theological perspective on what it means to be ‘church’. When Paul says ‘Come out from among them; touch no unclean thing’ (2 Cor 6.17, quoting Is 52.11), he is saying something both nuanced and yet vital. The New Testament characterises the people of God in two paradoxical ways. The first is as the ekklesia which is the word used in the OT for the ‘congregation’ (AV) of Israel, but also used by Greeks as the gathering of citizens for decision-making in relation to their city. This is an established, respectable and reasonable understanding of ‘church.’ But the other, equally important insight is the idea of being paroikia and parepidemoi (1 Peter 2.11)—resident aliens, refugee pilgrims. We are citizens, but citizens of a different kind. We are to ‘seek the welfare’ (Jer 29.7)  of the city we are in, but also to remember that we are citizens of a different city (Hebrews 12.22). (I heard a brilliant exposition of this by Rowan Williams when he was ABC in a meeting of CEEC. He was a much better expositor than the two leading evangelicals who were speaking with him!) We are to be embedded in society, and yet distinct from it.

This is the reason why I always refused to allow ordinands to use the word ‘church’. It is all too easy to confuse our contemporary idea of ‘institution’ with the New Testament vision of an eschatological, Spirit-filled, counter-cultural pilgrim people of God—all too easy to lose the ability to think of church as distinct from society, or imagine that, without the people, the congregation, the ‘most influential activities’ might continue. There is no more influential activity than being faithful disciples of Christ, making him known, in all the places God calls us.

Banks Paul's Idea of Community

This is how the ‘church’ grows—by gossiping the gospel, and ‘preaching the word wherever they [we] have been scattered’ (Acts 8.4). Interestingly, this habit of the early church (which we sometimes call ‘evangelism’) was notably by its absence in the earlier Church Times articles reporting factors in church growth. How do we imagine we are studying church growth when we don’t mention the main means of people coming to faith?!

Robert Banks’ masterly exposition of Paul’s Idea of Community spells out what this means for the people of God in practice. Banks highlights Paul’s understanding of the difference that the Spirit makes in this new community, in relation to both pagan and Jewish ideas of a religious movement.

Paul’s dissolution of traditional distinctions: between priest and laity

Within the church, distinctions between priest and layman, mediatorial and common service, cultic ritual and secular activity, do not and cannot exist…

Between officials and ordinary members

Paul rejects the idea of certain members of the community possessing formal rights and powers…

Between holy men and common people

Paul has no place in his view of community for the traditional distinctions between its members along cultic, official or religious lines… (chapter 13)

This is not suggesting that Paul’s thinking about church organisation was undeveloped, and needed filling out in the post-apostolic era—quite the contrary. These things were the hallmark of the work of the Spirit, recreating a new humanity after the pattern of Jesus’s life and ministry. This is why we cannot consider the work of the clergy as the ‘most influential activities’ of the ‘church’, important though leadership is.

Woodhead’s conclusion is that the church, if it is going to survive, needs to throw off its past ‘paternalistic’ approach.

It is the difference between asking parents to have their child baptised in a Sunday service, among people they do not know, and making the family the centre of the event. It is the contrast between designing a funeral with the active participation of the bereaved, and telling them that they cannot even have the music they want.

It is the shift from school chaplains who were there to give Christian “instruction” to the employment of chaplains – even in non-faith academies – to support the moral and general well-being of the whole institution. It is the difference between being a Church that works with other agents in society – and is open to being changed by them – to one that claims to be the sole repository of truth.

In other words, we need to forget about baptism being the initiation into faith, funerals involving the possibility of Christian hope, and the presence of ordained leaders in schools being about making faith known—that is, we need to abandon the very things that have been the hallmarks of growing churches down the ages!

What has gone wrong here is that theology has been subordinated to sociology, instead of sociology—with its crucial insights as it holds up a mirror of reality to the institution of the church—being shaped by and serving a theological vision. The worst thing the church could be, from a sociological point of view, is a ‘sect’, and that is Woodhead’s parting shot. But Christian distinctiveness is the lifeblood of the people of God; without it, we wither and die.

Additional note

Steve Walton has pointed out some similar things said by Richard Bauckham in his letter in the Church Times this week:

This view of the Church is in part sociological (it is very important to Professor Woodhead that the Church be what sociologists define as a “Church” rather than a “sect”), and in part an attempt to hold on to some remnants of a traditional Anglican vision of the Church – those that still linger in society as a whole when most people no longer attend worship or even care much about the Church at all. But a Church whose core business is baptisms, weddings, and funerals is actually very different from the traditional Anglican vision of a Church whose core business was the worship of God and the proclamation of the gospel.

Professor Woodhead’s approach is one way of responding to the demise of Christendom. Another is to recognise that the Church is the people of God whose identity lies in their commitment to Jesus Christ (which is what their baptism entails). It is the community of those who worship him together and dedicate themselves to living for him both in their life together as a community and in their life of witness and service in the world. Of course, the Church needs leadership, and it must, by its very nature, be orientated outwards to the rest of society. But what it is is the people of God.

These are theological issues that really matter if we are to know how to make use of all the excellent material that the Church Times is currently providing in its Church Health Check.

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21 thoughts on “State of the Church: sociology or theology?”

  1. Amen! Thanks Ian- your response to the item about ‘Vicars being southern softies’ depressed me- this is a great antidote! I shall read Robert Banks book with interest

  2. “This is the reason why I always refused to allow ordinands to use the word ‘church’.” How did that work out? Any dissenters? Were they met with punishment, or debate?

    I speak with tongue (partially) in cheek, but it does illustrate a point: the institutional church is viewed by many as needlessly authoritarian, oppressive as a result. The very idea of “right” belief, of telling people what words to use, is anathema to a pluralistic society. Many look for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment without that constraint.

  3. It’s not about constraint, James, it is about knowing what a word means—semantic ranges and all that. The NT never uses the word ‘church’ to mean what most people mean, as I think the article demonstrates

    The alternative is to take the Tweedledum approach.

  4. This again highlights the split between authoritarian and pluralistic worldviews: words are descriptive, not proscriptive, signifiers that morph and shift according to usage. Insisting on one usage is a declaration of power. I can imagine a professor at a liberal arts college doing the same, but they’d be undermining their core values in the process.

    Restricting the use of “church” according to NT usage carries with it a raft of theological assumptions, most notably the evangelical concept of an “invisible church” separable from the institution over the catholic idea of the community being inseparable from the structure. Would you have allowed a catholically minded ordinand to use language in the way that fit their own tradition?

  5. ‘Insisting on one usage is a declaration of power.’ No it isn’t: it is a declaration that it is possible for words to have semantic content.

    I’m afraid I don’t go along with your disguised bid at power by critiquing supposed bids for power.

    I restrict the use of the word ‘church’ to NT usage because I teach New Testament. Even catholically minded ordinands need to know their theology, and be aware of what the C of E believes. The word ‘altar’ is not used in C of E liturgy.

    But I think this is off topic, so do pick it up when I next blog about it.

  6. Thank you, Ian. It needed to be said. I was “dumbfounded” by the article because “it had never occurred to me” that someone’s reflection on church could so completely leave God out of the equation. This vision of the Church is truly depressing to me as a priest; all it does is make me functionary to perform the ritual bits for folk religion (and I know Linda Woodhead and I could have a conversation about that, too). Linda’s view of this relationship allows society to make God in its own image with little or no challenge from the followers of Christ and his gospel. Very convenient.

  7. Thanks Ian for this fabulous riposte to Linda’s vision, just not so sure that your salvos about power and catholicity work, when followed up by the exercise of power to rule any more thoughts offside – but its your blog!
    It interested me that the ecclesial era of Banks’ publication coincided with the flourishing of community church models in our time, and I wondered if its NT values were mirroring some of our post-modern preferences, rather than seeing beyond the glass? It strikes me that our culture and our Lord might suggest several Anglican via media to be valid, as meeting places for the Saul and Ananias, Corinth’s and Jerusalem’s of today.

  8. I mean, it’s almost as if there had been no post-Niebuhr Christ and Culture debate, almost as if the post-Christendom conversation had never happened, almost as if we had never had any conversations about the nature of the Church, almost as if all those WCC papers on ecclesiology had never been written and assented to, almost as if the Bible had been pushed to one side. Behold the Church of the Opinion Poll.

  9. This is exactly what we need – people to act as sentries to the church, to put unexamined assumptions through a theological x-ray machine. Otherwise we end up boarding with a whole lot of sub-Christian baggage. Pointing out that sociological thinking about the church is a good servant but a bad master is one such example … though I know there are brethren who would not agree!

  10. Andy, fascinated that people have picked up on that (well James has anyway). Some things to bear in mind:

    1. Ordinands at college never ‘do what they are told’. My expression of it was a quip. (I do find it fascinating how a commitment to post-modern resistance to power plays appears to reduce one’s ability to detect irony!)

    2. What people do need is to be confronted with reality. When I tell people that the word ‘altar’ occurs nowhere in C of E liturgy they blink.

    3. identifying the institution with the word ‘church’ is immensely damaging, as this article shows.

    4. Identifying ‘church’ with what God does is even more damaging, as I explore in my post on Disappointment.

    5. neither of these is necessary as part of a sacramental theology.

    • Well the word “altar” does occur in the 1st Prayer Book of 1549 … which is part of our Anglican Patrimony. The fact that it does not feature in Common Worship is surprising, and surely indicates the extent to which those in control of these matters refuse to permit Anglo-Catholics liturgy or texts that reflect what they actually believe. For example, the perfectly acceptable and ecumenically agreed ARCIC term “become” for the elements being transformed by the Holy Spirit is avoided and we have more Anglican fudge. No wonder so many Catholic-minded priests prefer to use the Roman rite!

      • Hmmm…and it was left out of the 1662 Prayer Book for a particular theological reason. Altars need sacerdotes, and the C of E doesn’t have this understanding of ministry in its formularies.

        It is no surprise at all that it does not occur in Common Worship, since CW (whatever its faults) is true in this regard to its Anglican heritage. Fortunately, ARCIC does not set Anglican doctrine, and to use the Missal is to break one’s ordination vows.

  11. In re. Paul’s dissolution of the priest/laity distinction – the Church of England is currently considering amending the application for membership of the Electoral Roll to indicate not only that one is of age and baptised, but also “lay”. The point is that there isn’t anything on the form to stop an ordained person applying, but the effect is to re-introduce, at a very formal level, the notion that “lay” only = “not ordained”, rather than “one of the laos”. Comments, please, to your diocesan registrars, who will be consulted.

  12. Ian, there are four short observations I would like to make about the state of the church threads, and I do so having spent all but six of most of the last 40 years in the USA.

    The first is that British churches are not particularly good at building community and developing patterns of life that encourage community. While American congregations tend to be much too introspective when it comes to community-building, there is something Brits can learn from this. It requires a lot of work, but it is well worth it.

    The second is this prevailing sense in England that tends to see the church as an extension of the institutional life of the broader culture. This may have a flavor of folk memory about it, but even while they decry it Christians tend to buy into it. There is a lot to be said for a religious free market.

    The third is that churches grow not just by individualistically, by the gossiping the gospel, a phrase that Michael Green popularized, but as communities being there, worshiping together there, and reaching out and being cities set on the hill, as it were. There is much to be learned from the Orthodox notion of presence and a sacramental life as being part of the Body’s holistic witness.

    Fourthly, I would add that the church needs to be creating far more threshold opportunities than just worship. Indeed, I wonder whether Christian worship is even meant to be a primary threshold activity of the community. I have said for a long time that in Western society there are all sorts of issues we can address such as enabling marriage relationships and financial management, concerns that are interconnected in so many people’s lives. This is where Christian bodies can be extraordinarily helpful — and providing outreach. Our Men’s Breakfast, for example, is working toward the establishment of a credit union locally.

    One final point that I would add is that we have yet to really go to school of the nature of the catechetical patterns of the post-apostolic church. There is a huge amount that we can gain from seeking to contextualize their experience in this culture in the 21st Century.


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