Why have so many people stopped going to church? Why are so many disengaging from church activity and life? This is the fundamental question confronting church leaders of all mainstream Christian denominations. Mass Exodus by Stephen Bullivant, of St. Mary’s University, addresses this question directly. His is the Catholic perspective and his focus is the Catholic Church, but much of what he writes about applies to other Christian denominations, and notably the Church of England.
Although his title suggests his starting point is Vatican II he points out that decline started before this great gathering. The challenges facing the Church have deep roots. The improvement in mass education, an increasing questioning of authority, clunky and often insensitive responses to changing times by church leaders, the denial of child abuse, the treatment of women in general and their vocations in particular, the painful treatment of gay people, lumpy liturgy, and poor priestly conduct have all contributed over a long period of time to pushing people away from both the catholic and Anglican churches. In an age where people are increasingly free to turn away from experiences they find it unsatisfactory that the Church has often relied too heavily on loyalty and authority.
To put it another way, perhaps a better question might be: why has the Church itself been so shy and diffident about coming out of its buildings to take the Gospel out onto the doorsteps and onto the streets? When was the last time your parish priest knocked on your front and said: “Hello this is who I am may I tell you about Jesus and the church here?” When did you last see a priest, let alone an Archbishop or Bishop, stand in your local high street preaching the Gospel or simply handing out leaflets telling you where your local church is?
The institutional church in England, Catholic and Anglican, lacks confidence and has retreated into its own community. It has accustomed itself to its own marginalisation in the public square and it takes refuge in consoling itself that a more secular age means a less visible role for itself in the nation’s life.
We are now seeing successive generations who have not walked away from the Church but who have never had any meaningful contact with it. In place of a serious engagement comes a great deal of displacement activity, in effect social work and commentary. Where Church leaders feel unable to talk about Christianity they substitute a general well-meaningness for action. For the Church of England this has become increasingly a non-specific mantra of Christianness; for the Catholic Church, more ordered and structured as it is, this means ever increasing periods of complete silence on national events and in the public square. Christianity is reduced to being spoken of as a culture. Church of England Cathedrals as entrance-charging heritage sights. Of the two great central London cathedrals, St. Paul’s and Westminster, only one is totally free to enter and pray in.
Stephen Bullivant addresses the Catholic Church in this excellent, challenging and readable book, but his analysis is just as transferable to the Church of England. If Christianity in its orthodox practice and sense is to survive in any meaningful sense on our island then we are going to have to produce capable leadership, exciting theological, effective mission, a rebuilding of trust, and above all a willingness to push on out of its buildings and into the communities that surround them.